Kids take the swing shift

Private coaches turn little leaguers into homerun hitters

Does your kid want to be the next Barry Bonds? It might be time to hire a private coach.

Kids as young as seven are being guided through the wilds of Little League by professional baseball coaches who surpass even the most well-meaning dads in their patience and knowledge.

And while basic training might help a kid hit a curveball, a well-connected private coach can wrangle invitations to prestigious showcases that serve as college recruiting grounds.

Mark Tennenbaum, a retired investment manager who lives in Pacific Palisades, hired Mitch Miller’s Westside Baseball School to help his oldest son overcome a fear of the ball. Within two years, the teen became a Little League All-Star shortstop. He’s now on track to make varsity as a sophomore.

“If you have a target goal, the gulf between private coaching and what’s available at the Little League level is tremendous,” Tennenbaum says.

Another coach, Ernie Barron, offers private lessons at his Westside Championship Baseball, a converted auto body shop outfitted with indoor batting cages and pitching machines. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, he pitches ball after ball to Matthew Lamb, 15, a catcher trying to make the Loyola High School team.

“Short swing,” shouts Barron. “Keep your hands in!”

The thwack of aluminum bat meeting ball resounds with a satisfying ping. Barron grunts in satisfaction as Matthew’s father watches approvingly, standing behind a barrier of protective netting.

Not everyone, however, is a believer.

Last August, in a column that appeared in the Little League Baseball World Series program, Little League Intl. president-CEO Stephen Keener described private coaches as part of “a cross-section of society that seems aimed at profit and self-satisfaction [that] has the potential to cripple the future of youth.”

Keener’s critique also targeted “travel ball,” an aggressive form of youth baseball geared toward elite players. Many parents perceive it as a pre-requisite for high school play and spend up to $10,000 a year to finance the teams.

However, Baseball Central coach Benny Craig says Keener doesn’t tell the whole story. He argues that Little League, which bans stealing bases and runners taking leads, doesn’t prepare players for the rigors of high school baseball. 

“Yes, (travel ball) is super-competitive,” Craig says. “I’ve seen dads get into near-fistfights. I’ve also seen them get into the same fights at Little League games. If there was a president of travel ball, he might say that Little League sets too many limitations on the kids who play at a higher level.”

As with anything, it may be a matter of balance.

“A lot of parents get caught up in the whole ‘My kids have to be better than I was’ thing,” says Cheviot Hills attorney Andy Simon, who takes his 10-year-old son for the occasional lesson at Baseball Central. “You want your kid to do well, but you want them to walk away with good memories.”

Swing, batter batter, swing!

A few local experts who can help your kid slide, pitch and bunt

Westside Championship Baseball
(310) 477-3388
Claim to fame: Ernie Barron played for the farm teams of the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins. His career was cut short by an arm injury in 1974.
Cost: $50 for a half-hour with Barron; $40 for other instructors. Package rates negotiated.
Words of Advice: Pitchers: Don’t throw curve balls before you’re ready. “Kids between the ages of 7 and 14, their growth plates aren’t set.” Hitters: Basics come first. “Some of these kids hit balls for thousands of hours, but if they don’t have good mechanics, they just keep adding more bad habits.”

Baseball Central
(310) 559-9782
Claim to fame: After playing baseball at UCLA and Loyola U., Benny Craig was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1997 in the fifth round.
Cost: $50 for a half-hour. A package of four lessons is $140, eight are $240 and 16 are $448.
Words of advice: Pitchers: Learn how to line up your elbows. Hitters: Learn how to hit with a wooden bat. For everyone: Balance. “I get kids who want to work on their hitting and that’s it. I have to explain to their parents that it won’t work.”

West Coast Baseball School
(310) 322-3955 and (818) 865-9227
Claim to fame: Co-owner Kyle Yamada played and coached college baseball.
Cost: $40 for a half hour. A package of four lessons is $140; 10 lessons are $315.
Words of advice: Pitchers: “Don’t start throwing curve balls until you start shaving.” Hitters: Keep the backside of your body away from the pitcher and “squish the bug” – pivot your back foot.

Mitch Miller’s Westside Baseball School
(310) 472-4279
Claim to fame: Miller is a scout for Kansas City Royals. A leg injury sidelined his own pro ambitions.
Cost: $35 for a half-hour, $60 for an hour. For two students, it’s $80 for the hour. Package rates negotiated.
Words of advice: “Learn the game, have fun and try your best,” Miller says. “That’s all anyone can ask. I’d rather see someone play aggressively and learn from their mistakes.”

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