Jeremy Jones was born in the middle of the country in Champaign, Ill., about equidistant from the heartland cities of Chicago and Indianapolis.
As it turned out, however, Jones found his biggest inspirations in the wide-open spaces of the Arizona desert.
In a land without margins, where your imagination could run free without bumping into much of anything, Jones played college baseball in Mesa, AZ., at the JUCO level and then at the D-I space, competing for Arizona State when the Sun Devils took second place in the 1998 College World Series. He was drafted three times by Major League Baseball and eventually played five seasons of minor league ball, primarily as a catcher.
The Midwest eventually lured Jones back, but not without some of the ideas about the game that he embraced from his days before professional baseball. He started up his own baseball academy, Building Champions, and has expanded the club to nearly 50 teams in less than 15 years, basing his efforts in the sprawling Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, KS., home to more than 190,000 people and where he grew up.
“I was enlightened by the style of baseball what I saw playing in Arizona; taking second in the country in Omaha was a big inspiration, and I learned even more in those years with the Rangers,” said Jones, who started player instruction in 2004 and founded his first older-age showcase team in 2007. “In the back of my head, I realized even if I didn’t play in the majors, I could come back to Kansas City and teach them what I didn’t know at the time. There were no academies when I was in high school or middle school, in the late 80s and early 90s. I wanted to bring that information back to Kansas City and start an academy from ground zero.”
Those early years may not have been as detail-drenched as life in today’s Building Champions world for Jones, but all those individual hitting lessons and thoughtful networking began to put him in touch with others who could naturally help him build the brand. There really was no blueprint for growing the BC brand, but the fundamentals were certainly watched closely.
“Everything grew slowly; every year I’d find another quality instructor who came to me through God’s grace and plan,” Jones said. “I think we started the youth program around 2012, and that was probably the younger brother of someone in the high school program wanting to become a Building Champions team, and we realized if we educated players at an earlier age it would be easier for us to take them on in the high school/showcase level.
“It was just one year after another, asking what can we do? Should we add another team? Should I hire this instructor? It wasn’t an A-HA! moment, just hard work six or seven days a week to offer a service, and people gravitated to us. It was basically a one-man show for a long time, and then people wanted to be a part of what my vision was for baseball in Kansas City. I’ve always had the philosophy that if you surround yourself with great people, the rest takes care of itself with hard work. It was based around that and having the ethics and belief system where you take care of the kid first, where it’s a loving environment where we care about kids on and off the field. Grades, their peer groups off the field … look to get the right player, not necessarily the best player.”
The average parent looking in the area for a solid, trustworthy baseball academy gets plenty of comfort when looking at the Building Champions’ resume. Jones has worked with the children of two Kansas City Royals front-office figures in J.J. Piccollo and Lonnie Goldberg, both of whom have a major role in the MLB team’s scouting apparatus. Jones has soaked in his fair share of insight from talking to them, adopting procedures that echo the family-friendly path of the Royals.
There’s also the impact of having several players picked in the MLB draft, including Jason Adam (fifth round in 2010), Bubba Starling (No. 5 overall in 2011) and Trevor Rosenthal (21st round of 2009, had back-to-back 40-save season for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014-15).
“Our original teams were very talented. With kids who are that talented going through your system, your Rolodex grows every year. Everyone wants a piece of a Building Champions player,” Jones said. “As far as the academy goes, those opportunities kids have today are because of what came before. We focus on development on and off the field; we try to find the best competition, and we look for the best exposure in the country.”
“I came in when we had maybe 10 teams, one in each age level. We decided to see about a (larger tryout), as we had more kids looking for teams … and we ended up having 650 kids show up. It was kind of a shock, and now about 750 kids roll through tryouts every July,” said BC fielding coach, hitting instructor and 15u head coach Gerry Cole. “It’s hard to say no. You get in this business to help kids play baseball and give them an outlet, so it’s hard to say no. You keep trying to find a way to give them a chance, and to develop, under the umbrella that we believe in – our style. Maybe those kids can flourish. But it doesn’t hurt when kids like Trevor Rosenthal, Bubba Starling and Jason Adam have come through our academy. When you have success, it can heighten excitement.”
Of course, the academy’s success also creates expectations. These are useful at times, as everyone should be driven to refine and improve, but when parents and athletes start to get ahead of themselves in the chase for a college scholarship, it’s a red flag for Building Champions.
It’s a basic disconnect when a family is more interested in the finish line that they are about the process that makes the race winnable in the first place.
“Sometimes honesty is hard (about the best college destination) because they don’t want to hear that right now … 'you’re not a D-I player.’ You may be a successful college player, but it’s going to have to be at the right level,” Cole said. “You have to guide parents and players through it – for some it’s a shock, but parents start to realize that (Building Champions) really does care for my son, and care about them succeeding. Most of the kids end up where they need to be and will enjoy their college experience.”
“There are obstacles, especially with the early-signing trends going on. The major league players that came through … in those days, it was development first and then we’d showcase in between their junior and senior season. Now, the showcasing seems to come early,” Jones said. “It’s a little tougher to wrangle people in and get them to keep focusing on getting better, and letting the results take care of themselves. I’m a process-orientated person, and there are more distractions today. You get kids thinking about the draft as (high school) juniors, and that’s a long way from the draft. It’s tough to keep them focused, and the only reason anyone will have any success is because they truly love the game.
“Parents know we educate kids on and off the field; baseball is not the only thing we stress. We have speakers come in and talk about being great citizens on and off the field, being student-athletes … keeping baseball is a Plan B situation, because it will work out if it works out. Exposure takes care of itself.”
So as the Building Champions roster of teams tackles the summer schedule, the plan is to as always keep the long view in mind. Cole said he’s continually amazed at how well young athletes can perform, and how quickly they can evolve, when the pressure is minimized. To be anxious is to invite traffic that muddies the mind and interferes with instincts developed and mechanics learned at the academy.
Jones is always happy to see a BC team be the last squad standing when the brackets are finished, but he will be busy keeping track of other, more critical details.
“We understand there’s the potential of us losing games because we are protecting arms, and we play teams sometimes that don’t care about that too much. I talk all the time about taking care of arms,” Jones added. “You need balance with number of players you need to get through a long tournament. Parents have to understand that 12th or 13th player is needed.
“How much baseball are we playing in a short amount of time, with a small roster? That’s where you see the damage. Kids may have quick arm, but lack strength in the lower half, and that becomes very tough on the growth plate. The game is growing, from what I can tell. You just have to be careful with the kids – they don’t understand what fatigue is, and parents want to win. The big thing in baseball is development, and that should trump winning. You have to have rules in place, because parents, coaches and players … their competitive spirit overrides common sense.”