In the numerous decades where baseball instructors have tried to do two things – unlock the skills of potential players and promote the right mental approach for success – a zillion different recipes have been put into motion.
Ultimately, the game always seems to reward those who devote time to master the basics, and those who seize opportunities when they arrive. That’s the essence of a growing baseball club in the Dallas Metroplex, the Dallas Raiders.
Helmed by the husband-and-wife team of Aaron and Amanda Anzua, the Raiders are making a strong case to families based on core instruction (which is fortifying that skill set) and a unique arrangement with a local parks and recreation department that is the definition of a special opportunity.
Aaron was a successful catcher in his time, earning a spot on the always-talented roster at Seminole College (OK), until a broken hand derailed his hopes for a taste of the professional game. The eye for the details, the appreciation of the little picture that a good catcher finds fascinating – he had this and more, and it was only a matter of time until he left his job in the medical supply industry to hit coaching full-time, full force.
“It wasn’t so much about what affected me as a player growing up – one reason we (established) the Raiders was the lack of coaching in the sense of teaching fundamentals. I understood the intricate parts of the game, the small things in order to be successful … not only that, the need to be consistent,” said Anzua, who also coaches at Faith Christian High School in Grapevine, a vibrantly growing city on the western half of the Metroplex. “There’s a lack of consistency in the teaching of youth sports because everybody wants the biggest, strongest kid who you just don’t have to teach. A lot of that has to do with a lack of knowledge within the coaching circle – it’s not everywhere, but it’s out there. Philosophically for our coaches, it was about really jumping on the fundamentals.
“Individual work, footwork, lateral movement, ground balls at a slower pace – these kids have so much that bogs them down this day and age, their brains are going 100 mph. Slowing the game down and helping them understand … we wanted to make sure and establish those values.”
By 2011, the Raiders had a few teams – today, there are 20 teams in the fold from 8u-18u, and the program also offers the NTX Coliseum indoor facility to augment instruction. From 8u to 14u, the design is to guide players to a place where they can play well at the high school level.
There’s a balancing act in those years, as parents who are investing in the athletic development of the kids tend to like winning, while coaches tend to like signs of progress, regardless of if it comes in a blowout win or a nail-biting loss.
“We set goals as a coaching staff, and in general with the kids. At our organizational workout where there are 250-plus kids, out there for 4-5 hours, a huge workout for all ages broken up … that’s when I can interact with parents and kids, and talk about the importance of the small things,” Aaron said. “Everybody wants to win — I’m as competitive as it comes. I know what it means to have and not to have, to win and to lose – but from Day I repeat, you’ve got to invest in the small things and the rewards will be there. If you just want to win and not work for it, there’s a good chance you’re not getting better as a player. We strive to get new families to buy into the philosophy. Quite honestly, I try to brainwash them. You need to do things a lot of kids aren’t willing to do, paying the price, get extra cuts, set something up with our paid coaches, get to the extra practices we have.”
As Aaron evolved his vision for Select baseball in the Metroplex, Amanda found herself fostering growth by getting a command of the administrative issues that dog so many best intentions in this world. While keeping parents in the right loops, and the coaches free to do what they love, the Raiders grew in popularity.
Then came the bolt out of the blue – Grapevine asked the Raiders if they’d like to be the primary Select organization of the city. That meant the Raiders would have primary access to fields, including the Oak Grove Complex, one of the most attractive and useful field sites in Texas.
“You need that open communication with the parents, and to be a liason who can organize schedules and payments, things coaches aren’t interested in doing. We worry about everything else, the logistics,” Amanda said. “Those two forces combined have made us as successful as we are. The city likes the fact we are organized.
“We get some jealousy; fields are hard to come by. This is a place where you get three practices a week; we have indoor (opportunities), organizational workouts there from 5-9 p.m. The comments and (bitter) emails come with the territory, because the more you grow, the more you’ll hear different things. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback – players are happy, parents are happy, kids can move from Rec level to Select level and not move from the city of Grapevine. The positives outweigh the smaller voices.”
Indeed, the Raiders’ willingness to work in the rec-player space is a huge reason Grapevine is such a supporter. A serious approach to player development, and not just chasing after the uniquely talented athletes in town, has been key to the relationship.
On top of that, the Raiders do what they can to show their appreciation for Grapevine’s support. That includes volunteer work days on the fields, and outreach clinics/camps for players just getting into the sport.
“Our intentions are to give back to the people who have paid the way for these opportunities. The partnership with city of Grapevine and being in Oak Grove – when we were growing up, we didn’t have the things most of these kids have,” Aaron said. “In order to get (opportunities), you have to work hard. We are involved with rec levels; we give them an opportunity and a chance to work hard.
“These (Raiders) kids are fortunate and privileged for an opportunity a lot of local organizations don’t have. As coaches and leaders, we can impact a new generation. We’re here not to just build baseball players but to build leaders, for any profession that needs leaders. People in platforms like we have in youth sports, we can touch a lot of lives. That’s what we are striving to do.”
James McDowell, 15, who just completed his freshman year at Faith Christian, has been with the Raiders for a couple of years, after trying his hand in other clubs. He’s appreciated the progress he’s been able to make, and is looking forward to more of what the Raiders can offer.
“The biggest attraction for me is the coaches. They are all really good, very experienced and know what they are talking about. They can tell you the reasons why you are doing something, and they can say, ‘fix this’ and actually explain it.
“I’ve gotten to know all my teammates, and we can talk about things outside of baseball. Once you got on the field, you feel you know them as a teammate and a person. It’s really nice compared to other organizations. We always get fields and a good place to go if it rains; you never feel like you are second-hand. You are at the top of the list and a big priority.”
With the fundamentals in place for a long run as a meaningful youth baseball setting, the Raiders are excited about the future and like the idea of spreading their brand.
“I see us growing and become one of the larger organizations in the Metroplex, branching out to other cities, broadening horizons,” Amanda said. “Tapping into Fort Worth and other cities within 30-40 miles. We have three high school teams for summer, and the goal is to start moving younger ones through the program. We have some great high school coaches who are in private schools or former coaches, so they already have that background.
“We want to keep our kids as they get older; the boys that connect with each other and families, it’s tough for them to leave. They want to stay and keep playing together. Our rosters stay together, and I’d say we have 90 percent return year-to-year – you don’t see that with other Select baseball organizations.”
“These are the moral victories we have,” Aaron added. “Where people tell me, ‘my kid is more attentive at school, he’s more driven and passionate, he sees the passion of the coaching staff that you share every Thursday when there’s a workout with 20 teams … he sees that.’
“You can’t put a dollar figure on that. We’ve got trophies to show, but that stuff collects dust. It’s about the relationships and the things you built on the field that will take you further on.”
Playing the game of baseball and truly understanding what it takes to be prepared for what happens on each pitch is really an educational calling, where study, review and repetition are just the first steps to getting a handle on a giant topic.
And while there’s no patent on the right mindset, more than a few athletes have noticed, and then explored, the natural connection between the discipline of baseball, and the rigor associated with living a life guided by their religious faith. To this subset of the baseball population, pouring your heart into the game and honoring it with respect in even the most challenging situations is an echo of how one should aspire to carry himself in day-to-day interactions.
So even as Texas native Brian Capps fulfilled his athletic promise in the sport, excelling at the JUCO and D-I levels before moving on to play professionally, it never sat comfortably when those moments surfaced where substandard behavior affected the way the game looked and felt. And it really was a non-starter when Capps decided to get into coaching youth baseball — he knew what worked for him, and how he wanted kids to see the game.
So, in the fall of 2009, he started the C3 Futures Academy in Roanoke, Texas, a suburb in the northwest area of Dallas. Founded on the themes of character, commitment and community, C3 Futures began with one 14u squad determined to carve a niche in the swirling, snarling world of competitive club baseball.
“We are going to be known for developing players at the highest level, while making sure leadership from our coaching staff is at the very top. “We look to set an example, to represent a brand bigger than ourselves,” said Capps, who coached that first 14u team. We consider what it’s like to have an appropriate perspective inside the game, and how they handle situations outside. It’s a blast to be able to do what we do, and do it differently.”
Capps was born into a baseball family that had always kept a Christian message close to heart, what with grandfather Bill Capps earning a spot in the MLB Scouts Hall of Fame after a 50-year career as player, manager and scout for the Chicago Cubs. Brian’s father, Buddy, was a huge influence in his baseball and another steady-as-a-rock believer in how to live for Jesus and give it your best in whatever you do. At Western Oklahoma State College, he was immersed in the work ethic and developmental savvy of Kurt Russell, and then learned the baseball-and-faith interplay from longtime Texas Tech coach Larry Hays, one of the winningest coaches in college history.
After his career as a player drew to a close, Capps knew his future was in coaching and development, and he liked the idea of making the right waves in Southlake, which he called home. And he had plenty of evidence from his playing days, and right in front of him while watching youth baseball, to guide his approach.
“I was set to do the entire select thing and baseball thing a different way. To put God first, and treat the game and people the right way,” he said. “I had a lot of great influences. There’s also the negative side to sports, which is pride and arrogance and a million other things. You’ve got to learn to handle those things, and we think part of our job is to be a strong influence in the lives of all these young men.”
Of course, keeping the doors open at the C3 facility and making sure tryouts are well attended is at least partially tied to the successes of the teams. Some of that is on the field — Futures teams hoist trophies at the end of tournaments on a regular basis; the organization is not afraid to hit the road and take on competition from all corners of the country, and the older age groups get a healthy and aggressive dose of showcase and college exposure action to increase the odds of landing a spot on a college roster.
And that’s fully in the scope of C3’s mission — like Proverbs 22:1 says, a good name is more desirable than great riches. Blend that with some regular, resilient conversation about how to train and develop ball players on and off the field, and the model begins to gather steam. Tryouts this November are expected to allow the Futures to field teams from 8u through 18u, in keeping with the vision of both Brian and Derek Worley, who is the head of Baseball Operations and one who has been here from the beginning.
“Parents want to be a part of something bigger than baseball. We’re in it for the long haul, and we love to make a difference in all the important ways,” said Todd Van Poppel, who had a 15-year pitching career in Major League Baseball and was naturally inclined to coach youth baseball in the same atmosphere the Futures embraced. “If it becomes about all the money you can make, I tend to run away from that. I like to teach about life and provide opportunities. The game at almost every level is more about the politics and the business, and I’d had enough of that in the big leagues. Here, I can make a difference in people’s lives and not just go around playing select ball and pulling the best 12 kids I can find from other teams.”
Van Poppel’s 10u team back in 2012 certainly had reason to turn its back on the mission during the Triple Crown Sports SlumpBuster in Omaha, when a very debatable call from the home-plate umpire allowed the other team to plate the winning run. Van Poppel held his tongue, encouraged his players and parents to hold tight to what they stood for, and walked away with something everyone could be proud to remember.
“We get a lot of compliments on how our players and parents act. I see things, and I just can’t figure out why there has to be an argument,” he said. “Everyone is capable of making a mistake, and maybe my shortstop missed a ball in the inning before. You’re still playing and competing, but you’re doing it in a respectful way.
Sure, the predatory nature of club baseball means players are recruited in the shadows, to jump ship to one of the other programs in the Metroplex, but C3 exudes a calm confidence about their ability to ride out those challenges.
“You can pay and play anywhere — but what will set you apart when everyone is seemingly doing the same thing is getting players better. We get players switching from other programs mostly because of a personal reference about who we are and how we develop,” Capps said. “They can see the difference themselves in the way we train players and get results. It’s also about the relationships we build with families — you have to be willing to be honest with parents about their kids and where they stand in the game, where they excel, where they lack, and then put a plan in action. If we’re going to get good players, and keep the mission, we have to place our value on every aspect of the player from the field to the classroom and always build into their life.”
“It was great. The environment they put you in just had no negative influence,” said Kevin Lentzner, who plays second base for a terrific Seminole State College team in Oklahoma and played on Capps’ original 14u team in 2009. “I became a better player, and a better person. All of them are followers of Christ, and that means nothing is going to slide, and nothing is going to happen that’s inappropriate.
“They got us a lot of exposure to colleges by the tournaments we entered. Fall ball, we’d travel to colleges and do pro-style showcase events along with round robins for preparation. Brian has a lot of connections, and with Todd Van Poppel, Derek Worley and Coach Russell alongside, it wasn’t hard getting noticed.”
Lentzner said his current baseball home is not quite the same environment as what he was use to with the Futures, but it is just another part of the process. The next level is a cutthroat and earn-your-keep environment, but that’s the reality of playing for a top-notch program.
That he can roll with the circumstances, and stand up (even on his own) in a way consistent with his faith, is just another sign that C3 and its operation have made a lasting impact.
“There’s a ton of teaching moments. We get all walks of people coming through the door, and our mission is to affect them,” Capps added. “We are huge on the process and not the end result. Learning to work hard and enjoy the process from both the player and the family will allow the end result to take care of itself.”