Elite Baseball and Softball Training partners Mike Paul and Brian Baar didn’t expect to be honored as Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year winners this past spring — and weren’t — but the nomination of the 8-year-old company perhaps served to legitimize a rapidly emerging business segment in the sports-rabid West Michigan market.
Going into its busy winter season, Elite will train upwards of 700 young athletes a week, not including those who participate in its indoor leagues. The company has eight fulltime instructors during its busy months, and has already surpassed its financial goals for the year.
Since moving into its new 22,000-square-foot facility at 1100 Hynes Ave. in Union Station last year, Baar said traffic has tripled, driven by parents and grandparents interested in the intramural play and training sessions of their children and grandchildren.
With hopes to expand the softball program, Elite has brought on former Central Michigan University All-American Michelle Brander.
There is a wall on which the names of Elite athletes who have made it to the college and professional levels are immortalized, and that list is long. In its first seven years of existence, only one athlete has gone through the full training and not moved onto college ball.
“The No. 1 goal we have is for them to come out a player, but also a better human being,” Paul said. “How many kids are going to play college? So few. We want them to learn to focus, be disciplined, how to grow outside of the game as well as inside.”
“Every parent just wants to see their kids get better, to get more skilled at whatever they’re focusing on and enjoy the experience,” Baar said.
But despite all of the partners’ good-faith efforts, there are high expectations from parents. Within sight of alumnus, instructor and Minnesota Twins prospect Jim Abbott, Paul offers a ray of hope.
“I can’t tell you that every youngster comes in here and (then) plays college ball,” he said. “But I can say that if you come here and work hard and we go to bat for you, there is somewhere out there for you.”
For the athlete, that’s a huge accomplishment, Paul explained; for the parent, if that athlete gets a scholarship, it’s a financial windfall.
“Mom and Dad dropped maybe two grand in here, but that first year of college would have cost them $15,000,” he said.
Elite is the most successful of a sector of businesses devoted solely to training baseball and softball players. John Anderson, a 40-year veteran of hitting instruction, offers a similar service at The Hitting Club in Hudsonville. Curtis Morgan has operated Morgan’s Hitting Club in downtown Grand Rapids since 1991.
Bill Peterson, owner and baseball director of Diamonds Sports Training Academy, was in Chicago last week watching the major league play of alum and instructor Nate McLouth. The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie had three home runs in a three-game sweep of the Cubs.
Peterson — who actually founded Elite with Baar, then launched Diamonds two years ago — follows a different training philosophy. He prefers 1-on-1 training, and carries a staff of 15 part-time instructors to facilitate that.
He takes pride in his staff. Most of them are well known locally, like former West Michigan Whitecaps manager Phil Regan and former Grand Rapids Community College head coach Doug Wabeke, and he believes that inspires instant confidence from parents and athletes in his start-up venture.
“Most parents are realistic,” he said. “They know major league baseball probably isn’t in the future. They just want to see their child succeed, gain confidence, and have fun playing with some success.”
This winter, Diamonds will teach 500 lessons weekly to 400 athletes, from 6-year-olds to middle-aged. Like Elite, the majority of students are high school age or slightly younger.
“The first session is more of a consultation,” Peterson explained. “We explain how our program works and what is going to evolve out of it. If they only want to go to a couple sessions, we’ll tell them what we can teach in that time. If it’s three months, we’d expect a significant improvement.”
Rick Rykse opened Muskegon’s Inside Out Volleyball a decade ago as a facility to host adult recreational leagues. The 1,600-square-foot facility was equipped with two hard courts and two sand courts, with little intention of serving school-aged athletes.
This fall, the facility is hosting preseason training classes five nights a week, all geared toward preparing the varsity athlete for the winter season. More than 250 girls will train there over the course of the year. During the spring, Inside Out hosts developmental leagues. Of the girls that make its 18-year-old travel team, nearly all move on to the college level.
There are no longer any sand courts; those were replaced with an extra hard court and spectator area for coaches, scouts and parents.
“Our emphasis is still on giving people a chance to play, whether kids or adults,” Rykse said. “Beach tournaments used to be huge, but now we have to put more into the juniors program (high-school age) just to keep things going.”
For almost every sport, there is a training facility to serve the high school athlete. In addition, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams offer another option. The athlete can easily hone his or her skills throughout all four seasons, if desired.
There is no reliable data pertaining to how many student athletes in the region or state participate in sports training programs. The demand for baseball, though, is strong enough to support four facilities.
“We’ve always thought that while it’s good to hone your athletic skills, a year-round commitment to a particular sport — specialization — is something educators frown upon,” said John Johnson, communications director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
Of particular concern is the sentiment behind the MHSAA’s gender-equity lawsuit that was recently bounced back from the U.S. Supreme Court with no decision. Denying female athletes access to national AAU play was one of the major complaints in the case.
“Limiting yourself in a single sport is not the most healthy thing to do but it’s a trend we see,” Johnson said. “Sports, like the school experience, is kind of like a buffet, where you can benefit from having all these different choices.”
As an athlete playing under legendary basketball coach Bob Knight at Indiana University, Johnson was told to play tennis during the off-season because it would develop his speed, coordination and agility.
“On the negative side of this, we’ve become one-dimensional athletes,” said East Grand Rapids Athletic Director Jerry Fouch. “You don’t see many two- or three-sport athletes anymore, and I’m not saying it’s (these facilities’) fault, but certainly they play a part in it.”
“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Peterson disagreed. “I don’t think it’s drawing kids away from other sports at all.”
Peterson said that in his experience, athletes will fit a session in on a Saturday during basketball season or during the fall off-season. He seldom sees football players in the fall. However, Diamonds’ sessions are a far cry from the developmental leagues during the winter for baseball, spring for volleyball or summer for basketball.
Fouch believes these businesses “offer a wonderful service,” but does have concerns over how they are changing high school athletics.
“I think a lot of it has to do with college scholarships and the dream of getting one for one sport or another,” he said. “If a kid is a good athlete, he can play on most teams without these kinds of things.”
“They do have leagues and recreational opportunities for everyone,” Johnson said. “But they get the handle, and appropriately so, that they are factories for whatever sport it is.”