When Matt Crudale had his final run-through with professional baseball scouts in 2003, one of the questions in his head got a definitive answer – his playing days had come to a close.
A separate question remained – what happens next?
After enjoying the lifestyle and comparatively chill schedule of bartending in northern California, Crudale found himself serving up something else people wanted. Friends, neighbors and others in that circle began to ask Crudale to give their kids some baseball training, and soon enough he found his daylight hours busy enough to reconsider his restaurant gig.
Crudale obviously knew the right mix of tone and temperament when it came to baseball, as he now runs a 17-team organization, the Danville Baseball Academy, known widely as the DBA Crushers. Located about 22 miles east of the Bay Bridge, the DBA Crushers have evolved from a backyard-and-birthday-party production to a dynamic travel-ball program that prides itself on proper development and passionate competition.
“I was at a loss, trying to figure out my life. I was bartending and making pretty good money,” said Crudale, whose program includes multiple camps, clinics, workouts and a tight roster of players, as tryouts are handled by appointment only these days. “I was finding more work with neighbor kids, then private lessons, working at camps … after we started that initial (10u) team, it all came together and I realized this was what I wanted to do.
“When we first started, travel ball was picking up in popularity, and there were a lot of startups. A lot of those have come and gone. We did have to find a niche and separate ourselves from other clubs and Little League. We loved every minute of playing and wanted to share what we learned. Our goal is to teach the game and make it fun – a huge part is the life lessons, dealing with failure and respecting the entirety of the game. One of my biggest goals was to change lives outside of baseball; we want to get them to make smart choices on and off the field, and hopefully what we’ve taught, they can teach as well.”
Success in baseball requires discipline and attention to detail, but the DBA Crushers are willing to let kids have fun as they put in their time in practice as well as games. The organization has the same end-goal as everyone else in the academy space, but there’s just not a frantic desire to get there too quickly. From 9u through 12u, playing time is very balanced as the athletes rotate through multiple positions and simply build confidence and experience. At 13u and 14u, players will still get a healthy portion of available at-bats, but there’s more honing in on the best defensive fits for each kid.
With a solid indoor facility at their disposal – The Dome – the DBA Crushers have that much greater an ability to train and provide consistent touches on the ball, gloves and bats.
“Our big thing is, and we say it up front, is we don’t care about winning. We do win; at initial tryouts and evaluations, people are shocked, and others love that,” Crudale said. “We focus on the fundamentals and game play. Work in practice on mechanics and your swing, your throwing, defensive technique, and come game time, you put it to work. It all starts with playing time, learning and understanding the game, and it’s not all about winning.
“We also want kids to have to make decisions … we’ve seen a lot of coaches who are so hands-on, the kids just wait for directions. But when you get older, you can’t wait – you have to be instinctual. We implement and encourage kids to make mistakes. Learn the limits of your baserunning, your approach at the plate … you need to learn what you can or can’t do.”
With that tone and philosophy in place, the DBA Crushers back it up with a dedicated coaching staff. For several years, Tony Arnerich has been contributing his insight on the disciplines of hitting and catching – he’s a catching coordinator and assistant hitting coordinator for the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system. Arnerich and Crudale played against each other a few times; their extended families ended up having kids in the same swim class, and one thing led to another once people started talking baseball.
The common ground includes the belief in competing against the game, at first – digging in and learning how to play – and then digging in against your opposition as you get older.
“Matt can be loud and be very to the point, but he cares about the kids, and I could see that from Day 1. He genuinely cares,” Arnerich said. “I have a good buddy in Santa Rosa, who made a good point about year-round baseball. I wasn’t a fan, but he said you have to look at it differently. Most kids are going to play year-round, whether you coach or not. You might as well help them do it the right way. Take care of their arms, and care how they are treated. You owe it to the kids to do it correctly so they can have a good experience with baseball.
“Matt had same vision, not have a kid throw 200 pitches in a weekend. That’s how I was, and I’ve seen too many people who are out there to just make a buck. It was an easy fit for me. We always preach that we play to win, but you must recognize it when a team improves, especially in the lower levels … being in the right places, throwing to the right places, tagging up on the right play, pitchers covering first … the moments in the game where you won the play. You can say, ‘Hey, we ran it perfectly, we did it right, and that other team just got us today.’ People get it wrong with a loss, and they think, oh you must stink, you did nothing right, the coaches are wrong. No – we did things right, and that’s a win going forward.”
Connor Bruce, a Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” honoree and a sophomore catcher who just transferred from NC State to Ohio State, met Crudale a long time ago, at Bruce’s baseball-themed birthday party that Crudale worked. He recalls the DBA Crushers creating a positive environment for his skills to take firmer root, as well as helping get his name out three in the world of college recruiting.
“When we had practice, it was all about, ‘We’re not screwing around, let’s get our work in and get better.’ He had good plans,” Bruce said. “Going into games, you always wanted to win, but with the younger teams, he didn’t care about wins and losses, which I really loved. We won 20 of the maybe 60 games when I was 10, and he came out saying how proud he was, and that you could see how much better everyone was and had improved over the year. That’s why we stuck with him, the improvement each year. When we were 12 and went to Cooperstown, we were 18th of 104 teams that were legit – it was all about the development. In the older ages, he expects development to come along with winning.”
With five years of history running 15u-18u baseball, Crudale and the organization have learned plenty. Some of that has to do with simply how teams are operated – policy handbooks for all age levels help calm moods and give excitable parents an early understanding of what to expect. On top of that, instructors like Arnerich are anchoring athletes with the proper fundamentals, an approach to the game that will hold up over time.
“With mechanics, certain ones are high-risk, and you have to look for that. I want to look out for any glaring mechanical issues, although you have to remember we are all different in how we might throw,” Arnerich said. “Parents might think high school is the most important time, but I think in pro ball, that’s where the job (aspect) really starts. You have to get there, but you have to be able to maintain a career or position. The numbers suggest it’s hard to do, so you need to have priorities in line, have a good experience, and be healthy when it’s done.”
“The vast majority of parents think their kid is going D-I, Pac-12 or SEC. It’s a shock to have to consider D-II or NAIA,” Crudale added. “We have to tell them up front the reality of things, and that will help their transition into being more realistic. Not everybody is going to Stanford or Oklahoma. People get eye-washed; there are so many showcases going on, and people think they have to do every one. If you pick and choose the right two showcases, you’ll be better off than going to six or seven around the nation.”
Crudale, who has three daughters, was asked if he thought an entry in to fastpitch made sense – he said that might have to get confronted around the house in the future, but it wasn’t a big topic at the moment.
“That’s been discussed … we need more bandwidth,” he said, laughing.