New baseball school fields big league dreams

Published June 8, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - There's a dream factory nestled in the farthest corner of an abyss of frail warehouses on 43rd Avenue and 31st Street N.

The lackluster white building trimmed in blue doesn't reveal the slightest sneak peak into what goes on inside at All-Star Baseball and Softball School.

The school, a 12,000-square-foot training facility, opened on Saturday. And people are already coming out to support owner Chris Wilson's vision.

"We had 275 people show up to open house and it was pouring rain outside," said Wilson, who has been running baseball camps for 15 years.

Individual memberships are $425 and a one-hour private lesson for a nonmember is $65.

For Wilson, 39, this venture is less about the love of greenbacks and more about the love of the game and kids. With only one other investor, Wilson said he and his family put up the majority of the money to get out his dream.

"When I was a kid, I grew up up north. I wanted to play baseball all the time, but in the winter I couldn't," said the Lorraine, Ohio, native. "I always said I wish I had a building since I was like 12 or 13. Now, I'm sitting in one."

Jake Foerster, 13, plays baseball nine months out of the year. Monday, as he swung away at balls in the batting cage his mom Michelle balanced her checkbook. She sat patiently in the makeshift waiting area and observed her son practice his passion.

"He just loves the game," Michelle said. "And he responds to Chris."

She said her son has had other coaches, in other states. The Foersters lived in Indiana for a while.

"I know him so well, he's like my second dad," said Jake, who has been working with Wilson since he was 5 years old. "He knows my strengths and weaknesses and he keeps me in pretty good shape."

Two of the four turfed batting cages are designed for high school, college and professional players. The other two are for Little League and softball players. Wilson said they are considerably larger than traditional batting cages.

"Here, you can do the whole game of baseball in one cage," said an excited Wilson. "You can play catch, field ground balls, work on the pitching machine or practice bunting."

In the cage named after the Cleveland Indians' stadium Jacobs Field, Jake is working on improving his weaknesses, maintaining space between his arms and back leg while swinging.

Wilson critiqued each swing while throwing off-speed pitches down the pipe to the right-handed future slugger, who attends St. Raphael Catholic Parish on Snell Isle Boulevard.

"It's about progression," Wilson said. "Every lesson's unique."

It's that extra attentive player-specific training the school offers that Wilson said can separate a player from the rest of the pack.

"They (the kids) are getting a lot more reps with the individual stuff," Wilson said. "Because coaches might not put that extra time in."

The school also includes what Wilson refers to as the "limited room." It's an exercise room where players coming off an injury can rehabilitate using weight training. Wilson said this allows them to train even while under a doctor's orders.

Jake is recovering from an elbow injury that he suffered eight or nine months ago. Known as Little League elbow, it is caused by repetitive throwing by young pitchers before puberty.

Wilson also plans to use the school as a recruiting mechanism to garner Pinellas County prep schools more recognition from college scouts. By October or November he said the roof of the school will be equipped with cameras attached to magnetic cables, similar to the technology used by ABC's Monday Night Football.

"I'll tell a (college) coach come see me," said Wilson, who had a few open tryouts with major league teams. "I'll show you what he can do and you can save $500 on a plane ticket."

Wilson also educates his students about the pitfalls of drug use, including tobacco because "the high school kids will try you," he said. He said he shows his students a videotape that shows the adverse effects of steroid use.

"When I was playing, they'd throw you the stuff, said Wilson, looking back. "But they never told you what it does to you after you stop using it."

But Wilson isn't strictly in the business of grooming future professionals.

"I'm sick," he said of his passion for teaching the game. "I like 'em all."