Like a lot of people toward the end of the 2000’s, Scott Ackerman looked to the internet and thought he had decoded a way to make a living. Of course, that world proved to be a mystery to many people, and Ackerman wasn’t even terribly surprised when the logic of selling baseball and softball bats online ran as dry as the profits.
But Ackerman had no interest in lingering over what happened; he’s always been more about what could happen next.
A sixth-round draft choice by the Montreal Expos in 1997, Ackerman enjoyed a brief minor-league career before returning to his home state of Oregon and diving into the next chapter. He married, worked in construction, and then as a high school baseball coach for a tiny school in the forest – a school so tiny and tied to the logging industry that players didn’t practice on Fridays so they could get a jump on the weekend’s work.
Along with a friend, Ackerman fired up The Bat Company, an online company that would ideally provide a wage as well as generate money to support a baseball-outreach program that benefited the poor in the Dominican Republic. The business failed, but Ackerman kept The Bat Company name and created his own baseball training and development academy that is one of the real success stories in the Northwest.
“So, you should probably be a Web guy if you’re going to start an on-line store. I’m not – I’m a jock who never went to college,” said Ackerman, who has a 13u and 14u baseball team and 12u, 14u and 18u softball teams playing through The Bat Company. “But I did get an extensive education in the streets. So, in the meantime, I knew I could work with kids, and the training went through the roof while the store went through the floor.”
Indeed, the story’s happy ending just keeps on evolving. The club has gone through four indoor facilities in five years while trying to satisfy growth and demand of skill training; the pool of customers is an interesting one, because suburban Portland has about one talented athlete for every six you’ll find in Seattle. Parents and athletes know they need to take it up a notch in West Linn, Ore., but they’re not quite sure how.
“I try to put together the most competitive team, and I go to tournaments. We’ve got kids from a smaller demographic who think they are Little League All-Stars, because we don’t ever play anybody,” Ackerman said. “We get better at the bigger events. Kids need to see what baseball looks like.”
About three years ago two partners purchased a stake in The Bat Company, including Derek Heyden, a 1986 draftee of the Cincinnati Reds and a longtime coach in multiple sports. Heyden’s daughter loved her softball workouts with Ackerman, and Heyden has found his run with The Bat Company to be intriguing as he organizes the team side of things (uniforms, schedules and more).
“With our (most recent) facility, you know you’re taking on a lot of overhead. It’s a day-to-day thing, and it’s very seasonal, which can be a problem,” he said. “Luckily, the weather is cooperative around here by not being very nice. The winter months are good, but there is a ton of competition and a lot of great organizations. We have to put a product out there that’s above everyone else.”
And the health of the product is very much tied to Ackerman’s philosophy of positive tone coupled with thoughtful work. He credits the mentors he had early in his athletic life for providing the framework, and he’s filled in with his own touches. One training technique Ackerman favors is having an 8-year-old learn with a 10-year-old from time to time; 10’s work with 12’s, 12’s with 14’s and 14’s with high-schoolers. Younger players like to try and meet the standard of their elders.
“My No. 1 philosophy is, coaches have to have more energy than the kids. I bring a ton of energy to the table, but we also hold the kids to a very high standard,” he said. “We’re always teaching in a positive environment, and I’m not a negative guy. We discipline that you are responsible for your actions. It can be pretty brutal, but I stay positive through that process.
“There’s energy to the workouts, the training and the game, and we dig deep into the relationships with every kid that walks in the door. Kids go through a lot socially. We talk about leadership, communication, anticipation.”
Baseball in the area will need every ally and advocate it can get, thanks to the creeping influence of other sports and the general cultural shift that suggests kids need a more rigorous attention span to handle the demands of softball and baseball.
“I know we are definitely losing kids, specifically to lacrosse. I know a lot of players I coached made the switch, and I get it,” Heyden said. “Lacrosse is fun and exciting, and baseball is what you make of it. If you understand it and appreciate it, it’s the best game out there. But if kids don’t get that immediate satisfaction, they know there are other options. Baseball is hard; the guys that stick it out will see a payoff. There’s not a better game to prepare you for life.”
There are flickers of progress. The number of D-I baseball players to come out of Oregon is on a steady rise, and there’s some seasonal excitement in the college game as well. The baseball world got a nice boost when Oregon State won NCAA D-I titles in 2006 and 2007.
“We are losing a ton of kids to lacrosse in Oregon. And this is something across the board nationally, where we are fighting the entitlement generation that doesn’t want to work,” Ackerman said. “What I love about baseball is that it will call you out if you don’t have the skills to perform. Kids and parents don’t like to fail very much.
“I’m going to burn some bridges here with lacrosse – in lacrosse, you can definitely hide behind your mask and gear, and it’s easier for kids to deal with. I think we are still going in the right direction overall, there are more organizations starting up, and one thing I do know is, I love competition.”
The Bat Company can certainly take comfort in knowing the message is getting through.
“I like the attitude there. They preach playing hard and playing as a team, and how important it is to get better and be ready for the next level,” said Brett Thomas, a junior at Tigard High School and a product of the Bat Company program. “And while baseball is too uphill for some people, it leaves the ones who truly enjoy the game. When everyone there really enjoys playing and what they are doing, it builds a stronger team overall.”