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Columbia's Factory Athletics celebrates 20 years of building better athletes

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As an all-county baseball player at Columbia’s Atholton High School and a two-year starter at the University of Pennsylvania, Steve Sclafani had hopes of being drafted by a Major League team after college.

That didn’t happen, so he returned to Howard County and took a marketing job with the Patuxent Publishing Co. But Sclafani wasn’t quite ready to quit the game he’d loved since elementary school. So in 1994, a year after graduating from Penn with a communications degree, he started the Baseball Factory, a business aimed at helping high school baseball players — like himself a few years earlier — make it as college players.

Twenty years later, it’s safe to call his idea a winner. Now known as Factory Athletics, the company has helped develop some 50,000 young baseball players, including more than 300 who have made it all the way to the Major Leagues. Among those major leaguers are such all-stars as Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia, Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira.

Along the way, the business that was launched on a shoestring in Sclafani’s apartment has blossomed into a $14 million-a-year company, with a 23,000-square-foot office on Berger Road in Columbia and a national reputation for providing a service that is rare in the baseball world.

“They’re highly respected,” says Ron Davini, executive director of the Tempe, Ariz.-based National High School Baseball Coaches Association. “They go into great detail [with their evaluations] ... and they produce a good product.”

Building the business has been hard work, Sclafani says. But it’s been a labor of love.

“I’ve always loved the game,” says Sclafani, 43. “From when I was 10 or 11. And not just playing it. I loved the coaching aspects, the scouting and instructing. … It’s a lovely game, and I wanted to just stay in it.

“I didn’t realize it at the time,” he adds,  “but I really enjoy growing a business as well.”

Sclafani’s first office was a room in his Elkridge apartment, and he was his only employee. In the beginning, he had to scramble for clients, attending numerous games to talk to high school coaches, offering free clinics.

In 1995, a former teammate at Penn, Rob Naddelman, signed on to help. The business graduated to a tiny rented space, just big enough for two desks and phones.

But the word was getting out, and parents and high school coaches began calling them for help. After a few years of focusing on evaluating players, the Baseball Factory added a player development component. Instructors were hired, camps and clinics offered. They moved to larger quarters, then moved again to even larger quarters.

They formed partnerships with American Legion Baseball, Little League International and Under Armour. They acquired Team One Baseball, which ran showcases for top players across the country. They added volleyball and softball components, and rechristened their company Factory Athletics.

Today, Sclafani, now the chief executive officer, and Naddelman, the president, oversee a business with 70 full-time and more than 1,000 part-time employees. This year, the company will conduct some 1,000 events across the country, from one-day evaluations (which cost $99) to multi-day player development programs and tournaments (which can cost thousands), and reach about 25,000 youngsters.

It’s a dream come true for Sclafani.

“There was never a Plan B,” he says, recalling the first few years of the business. “Even in the early days when we were scrapping, our mindset has always been to just keep plowing through. We always both felt that if we did things the right way, success would follow. In the back of our minds, we just kept pushing forward.

“I hoped it would become what it is today. But I don’t think 20 years ago we thought it was going to be all these sports and all these other things.”

Factory Athletics offers a wide variety of services, from evaluations breaking down a player’s strengths and weaknesses to multi-day camps held at Major League facilities, where academics and “life skills” are also taught.

But the company’s core mission is unchanged: Training young boys — and girls, in the case of volleyball and softball players — to get the most they can out of their sport.

And they don’t just train elite athletes. “We have players who are going to be Major League all-stars, and we have kids trying to make their Little League team,” says Naddelman. “We have different programs for different levels. If a kid wants to work hard, we’re not going to write anybody off.”

Alex Swenson is a typical Baseball Factory product. Swenson, 27, signed on with the Baseball Factory when he was a high school freshman in Alexandria, Va. Throughout high school, he participated in the company’s showcases, individual lessons, hitting instruction, camps — a wide variety of the company’s services.

“I was undersized,” at 5 foot 7, he says. “I knew I had to work hard to get where I wanted to be. I knew I needed help.”

After high school, Swenson got a scholarship to Jacksonville University, a private Division I college in Jacksonville, Fla. He was captain of the team for three years and played pro ball briefly in the Canadian-American League before deciding to give up on being a pro.

But Swenson has a new baseball dream: Now an assistant coach at his college alma mater, he hopes one day to be head coach of a Division I college team.

“If I didn’t have the Baseball Factory, I don’t think I would’ve made it in baseball like this,” Swenson says. “In fact, I know I wouldn’t have. … They helped me with the baseball skills. They helped me with the academic side. They helped me find Jacksonville. … I give 100 percent credit to them.”

Another Baseball Factory product is more familiar to the Baltimore area: Orioles starting pitcher Bud Norris.

Like Swenson, Norris, now 29, began participating in Baseball Factory events in high school. For two years, he participated in a variety of events and showcases, from his native California to Paris.

“Baseball Factory helped me in a couple of ways,” says Norris, who attended California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. “They really helped me with my recruiting process and getting into a Division I school. … And from the baseball standpoint, they really helped me on the field. The coaches they had, the instructors they had, really helped me out with my development skills, and it obviously carried me a really long way.”

Twenty years later, the business is humming, and Sclafani has less time to scout and train young players on his own, his chief love. How long will he stay in the business?

“As long as I can,” he says. “As long as there’s the passion. I think I can easily do another 20 years or more.” 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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