When the temperature and tension rises in competition, one of the best traits a team or athlete can display is predictability. Coaches can cook up fresh strategies and improvise responses when their roster is stable, reliable and not prone to panic.
However, we all love a good surprise in sports – an upset finish, an unexpected rally or the emergence of a mystery newcomer helps us appreciate the importance of not giving up.
While the Mid-Atlantic region recently has gone through difficult and at times traumatic stress in homes and at work, the ability of committed people to rebound, respond and return with optimism can emerge, front and center. And in a place where you might not expect – West Virginia – it’s proving possible to take an unlikely idea and build something with unusual staying power.
The West Virginia Gamers baseball organization, brought to life by hitting coach Craig Brumfield and fortified by the early inclusion of pitching coach Chad Baumgardner, has become a center of influence in region’s youth baseball scene. In four short years, the outfit has blossomed to eight teams, from 9u into the high-school ranks, as Gamers teams start to populate the list of tournament winners and show regular muscle in events both near and far from home.
“We made it about the baseball and not about the money; we’ve been able to recruit the talent I wanted, and it just gets better every year,” said Brumfield, a lifelong resident of the area who played at Marshall University, about 15 minutes from the current base for the Gamers. “We have kids driving three hours just to play with us, past Cincinnati and Lexington, to play in little ol’ Huntington, West Virginia.
“We’re not in a very big area. To have real travel teams and make it work was an exercise, but I knew that we would be able to get the talent because of my connections, the people and kids I knew – we were able to secure a really good 9, 12 and 14-year-old team that first year. The programs around us didn’t start travel baseball until 13 years old, so we started getting kids before others could. And if they are in our program, they’re not interested in going somewhere else.”
Before the Gamers heated up, it all started on slow-boil as parents reached out to Brumfield and asked for hitting lessons for their kids. In that era, Brumfield coached a mix of youth teams and carefully considered if it made sense to leave his 20-year career in the general work force to try and make a living at the baseball academy business.
When he decided to make the plunge, Brumfield secured a modest 35’x70’ space that held one mound and one batting cage and brought in Baumgardner, who played collegiately and had 12 years of pitching-coach time in with Little League ball. Something about the tone and temperament of those two Huntington natives just resonated with parents and athletes who loved the game but struggled to find the right training ground.
“It’s a lot of hard work. If I’ve got a team playing and I’m not (coaching) another one, I’m at that game. I’m present; parents see me, and things are run the way I want even if I can’t coach every team,” Brumfield said. “As a travel organization, we want great players and great kids, and we will teach baseball and also life lessons. I want to get to the fundamentals of life, not just fundamentals of baseball. You can get the best players and talent in the area, but if he’s not willing to buy into being a good teammate and role model, then we don’t need you. That’s how we’ve created a great atmosphere around our kids; when we travel, we’re not the team you have to worry about throwing coaches or parents out.”
“You’ve got the Huntington Hounds on the other end of town – there was a lot of need and interest on our end of town,” Baumgardner said. “We’re sitting two miles from Kentucky and three miles from Ohio, so we are attracting kids from all over the Tri-State area. Our whole goal was to try and get travel ball like when (Brumfield) and I used to play, where you didn’t have to pay $2,000 every time you suited up.”
That’s not just idle reminiscing about the good old days – the 16u team that the Gamers founders played on had 12 on the roster, nine of whom played in college with six moving on to play professionally. There’s a clear picture of what player development should look like, and how to assemble a program that wins games without falling into the trap of hypercompetitive, reckless behaviors.
“We have really blossomed the last few years, and that’s directly reflective of our people. When we start traveling in these major division tournaments, unlike teams around here looking to get a trophy, we’re starting to compete with teams like Beaver Valley Red and beating teams like Cincinnati Flames, Cincinnati Midlands, Ohio Elite – all of the sudden we’re not that team from West Virginia that just shows up,” Brumfield said. “We’re somebody that everybody knows is pretty darn good. Two years ago, that started to take shape, where my 14, 15 and 10-year-old team last year competed and won some extremely big tournaments. It’s carried over, and when people see you winning the right way, they want to come play for you.”
“We have Gamers teams that will travel to the East Coast, and I don’t mean to be cocky, but we win the majority of the tournaments. We won in Myrtle Beach, won in Tennessee, we’ve been getting noticed over the years,” said Cody Davis, who is entering his junior year of high school and has played for the Gamers since the start, and who has an DI scholarship on the table from Miami of Ohio. “It’s exciting; I never expected to be getting offers as I’m going into my junior year. They’ve helped the whole way, and they treat me like their son, so it’s more than just baseball. People just seem to overlook West Virginia; we have some really good baseball players and coaches, and a great organization. We just shock people at tournaments; they’re like, is that team really from West Virginia? It’s amazing, and I love playing for the Gamers.”
It’s an interesting time for the organization as it confronts several important questions – how much, and how fast, should the Gamers grow, exactly? Demand by potential customers is going up, but what pressure does that put on staff, especially when funding the Gamers properly is really more of an art than a science?
The management agrees that it doesn’t do any good to overreach and underprepare for growth that brings more kids to baseball, if the whole thing becomes subject to collapse, and then nobody gets any benefit at all.
“Four years ago, I never would have imagined it being as big as we are now. Who knows? We’re moving in the right direction, a lot of positive feedback, and that’s always good to hear,” Baumgardner said. “Craig’s put great people in place within the organization with good baseball background and experience, and he has a lot of help. It’s very fun here on Wednesday nights, and pretty packed – four cages, three pitching lanes. It’s great; you hear that ball cracking, and it’s awesome.”
“With travel baseball, our goal is to make it about the baseball. Everywhere you turn there are organizations charging astronomical rates; we never understood that, although now that we are in it, you see the unforeseen costs associated with what we do,” said 11u coach and Gamers treasurer Curtis Collins. “We keep it affordable and don’t make a dime. Some of it is, we’re not in it to make money, it’s run as a non-profit, and there are a lot of sacrifices made by our leadership. That’s important to know about what makes it work. The families trust us with what we are taking in; with my team, it’s $850 and they know that money will go to their kid.
“There is room to grow, and there are a lot more kids and families out there we can pull in to maintain what we have and would be good fits for the culture, and we wouldn’t be compromised. You go from the underdog to the team to be reckoned with, and we can do more (branding) there. Craig carries the vision for what the organization can become, and I see myself as they guy to take charge, execute the vision and protect it.”
Brumfield doesn’t have to strain to remember how delicate the balance can be.
“After that first year of travel ball, which I hadn’t done that before, in terms of the financial responsibility … I did not a great job (of charging) people correctly,” he recalled. “I was trying to do it as cheap as possible, just totally have it be about kids and baseball and help kids out, and in doing that the first year I cost myself a fortune. I was trying to do everything I planned and didn’t charge enough. I definitely had to ratchet it down; it was a little overwhelming to see how much was spent.”
Optimistic but measured; competitive yet respectful; confident but humble – living right and understanding those boundaries is what makes the Gamers special. As a prize-winning poker player in the early- to mid-2000s, Brumfield understands how playing the odds, seeing the math, and injecting a little personality into the mix, can lead to success.
He doesn’t really have time for cards these days, but today’s tasks do feature those crossover challenges that require a calm review of options, and some living by one’s wits.
“Getting these kids to college, the scholarship offers we have for some of our kids on the table, kids that are there … to have kids heading to a campus right now is very rewarding,” he said. “Helping kids and their families attain a goal that’s been there for their entire life … we’re not in the wealthiest area, so to being able to help them financially and get an education is extremely rewarding.
“I was a hard worker, but to be perfectly honest I was a gifted guy. I’m 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, ran a 6.8 60, a guy who had some tools. I let them go by the wayside, so to speak … I can’t say I’m the guy who took full advantage of what I had to offer, and that motivates me today. Our kids know that I was successful, and they trust the process. When they see what they are working on is making them better, that makes them want to work harder.”