Fields of Dreams

Think your kid could be the next Shea Hillenbrand or Curt Schilling? Hook him up with the major leaguers in metro Phoenix youth baseball.

Garciaparra's body is the jewel of Athletes' Performance and its founder, Mark Verstegen. As a college ballplayer at Georgia Tech, Garciaparra was brilliantly athletic but miserably undersized and underpowered. At 155 pounds, he was an agile fielder and competent slap hitter, but possessed none of the power of major league superstars.

Verstegen began working with Garciaparra while a strength and conditioning trainer at Tech. The stars of the two men have risen together. While Garciaparra gained 35 pounds of lean, explosive mass and became one of the game's great hitters and fielders, Verstegen built a big-name clientele and, finally, in 2000, his dream facility, widely considered the best of its kind in the world.

Now, besides drawing top male and female athletes from most every sport, Athletes' Performance has lured whole major league baseball squads to the Valley for training.

Both Rob Kirk (left) and Lawrence Vega (right) coach 
more than one Little League team in Chandler National.
Both Rob Kirk (left) and Lawrence Vega (right) coach more than one Little League team in Chandler National.
Kids test training equipment at a recent Little League  
event in Chandler.
Kids test training equipment at a recent Little League event in Chandler.


Photographs by Jackie Mercandetti

This has had a profound trickle-down effect in the Valley.

Top prospects for the Kansas City Royals began training with Verstegen a few years ago. Last year, the Royals moved their spring training to nearby Surprise, which now allows prospects easier access to their workouts with Verstegen.

All of a sudden, even with a bottom-tier budget, the Royals were considered contenders in their division. And that has other clubs wondering how to match the Royals' success.

Matt Kata, Robby Hammock, Shea Hillenbrand and Alomar of the Diamondbacks train at Athletes' Performance. Note Hammock: a skinny, 170-pounder with the physicality to be a major league catcher, a position typically occupied by pit bulls.

Curt Schilling, who played at Shadow Mountain High School, and Garciaparra are workout partners.

Indeed, with the names of members on their lockers, Athletes' Performance's locker room takes on the rarefied air of the back rooms of Augusta National.

Which, when sitting in this room lacing up his workout shoes, just motivated Andy Lane even more to be the best athlete he could be.

Like Garciaparra, Lane was undersized by pro standards. Unlike Garciaparra, though, no major league scouts were looking at Lane as a prospect.

Out of high school, only Division II Grand Canyon University took a chance on the 130-pound Ahwatukee shortstop.

Once he headed off to college, Lane's grandmother offered to buy the kid a decent car.

Instead of the ride, Lane asked if he could use the money to buy a few months of training at Athletes' Performance.

For the last two off-seasons, Lane has spent $500 a month to be able to work out with Verstegen and his staff. That's the reduced rate for local high school and college athletes. Pros like Alomar pay $50,000 a year.

Lane is now 180 pounds of lean, agile muscle. He is now batting above .300 with power and with the ability as a fielder to reach balls he never before could reach.

Of course, Andy passes on what he's learned to his 11-year-old brother, who passes on what he's learned to his club ball teammates, who pass on what they've learned to the Little Leaguers they know, who pass it on to their coaches, who pass it on to other coaches. So on and so on.

Indeed, you can now find coaches and ballplayers of all ages in the Valley espousing the virtues of "functional strength training" and building the "pillar muscles."

Last month, while watching one of Andy Lane's games, his dad, Jeff, noticed a familiar face in the stands.

Jeff Lane realized how he knew the young man: The guy had come out and helped the pitchers on his 11-year-old son's club ball team, the Ahwatukee Dodgers.

The young man, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had come and helped the youth club team because his boss, Tom Thomas, the Western Region Scouting Coordinator for the Dodgers, was the team's co-head coach.

"It turned out he was out at the Grand Canyon game looking at Andy," Jeff Lane says. "It's weird how small the world of baseball around here can be."

Lane is now also being scouted by the Baltimore Orioles and perhaps a few other teams. He found that out from his longtime hitting coach, Lou Klimchock, who also is the head of the Major League Alumni Association in Arizona, who also coaches a club team of 11-year-olds.

"Andy is ready, and people are seeing that," Klimchock says. "He has worked so hard to improve his skills and his body. If anybody deserves it, it's him."

Several other top Arizona baseball prospects, including first-round pick Brandon Wood, train at Athletes' Performance.

"It's just an amazing environment," Andy Lane says. "You're there working with these absolute studs and all the time learning all kinds of stuff from them."

For him, the high-tech training facility has been just one part of an amazing support system.

"Look at the coaching I've been able to have living and playing here," he says. "It's just amazing the level of baseball knowledge you can tap here. And with so much great help, you're even more motivated. You want to be like the guys who have given so much to help you along."

Arecent posting on the Chandler National Little League Internet guestbook:

"My dad and brother were playing baseball at Bogle baseball fields and walking by comes Trent Hardenburg (one of the 12-year-old CNLL players) with his friend, Chris. My brother who is eight, knows Trent and Chris and my brother said 'hey' and they said 'hey' back. Oh my God!!!" -- Britney

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