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.”