By Marty Farmer
Unless you're a member of the Oak Park and River Forest High School baseball or softball teams, your best bet to learn about these sports the "Oak Park way," might be to head out to 3100 S. 25th Avenue in Broadview. That's the home of STRIKES! Baseball & Softball Academy, owned by former OPRF baseball star Scott Nelson, who employs a hand-picked group of coaches with Oak Park ties as either former players or coaches. Longtime coach Steve Hayward, former OPRF all-state infielder Jim Donovan, former LSU player Pat Whealy (his son, Blake, played at OPRF) and former OPRF baseball player/current Oak Park Windmills coach Bruce Morgan are instructors at the facility. Scott Legan, who played in the Bronco World Series for Oak Park and the junior Pan-American Games in Argentina for TEAM USA, along with softball expert John Hanrahan, one of the founding fathers of the Windmills, round out the stellar STRIKES! staff.
"I guess it's by design that our coaches have connections with Oak Park," Nelson said. "I know each of them well and their knowledge of the game. They have the right work ethic and personality to teach players. It's comfortable and a good fit for everybody."
Nelson, a 1985 OPRF graduate, was the first baseball player in the program's illustrious history to be a four-year starter. After leading the Huskies to multiple final four runs in the IHSA state playoffs along with personal garlands of success like all-conference and all-state recognition, Nelson was drafted in the ninth round of the Major League Baseball draft. After signing with the Chicago White Sox and brief stints in the Milwaukee Brewers' and San Francisco Giants' farm systems, Nelson experienced an epiphany of sorts about life after pro baseball (perhaps predictably) while on a baseball trip.
"It started with a tryout I had with the Brewers," Nelson said. "We went to Grand Slam USA in Milwaukee and I threw for [the Brewers]. I looked around and saw indoor baseball. I thought, 'holy cow, this is awesome.' I had never heard of anything like it so that's how I got the idea of opening an indoor baseball academy."
In 1993, Nelson and Hayward developed a two-tunnel facility in Lyons with the former handling pitchers and the latter serving as a hitting coach. In 1996, they relocated from Lyons to Broadview and opened STRIKES!. Hayward, a former scout for the Philadelphia Phillies who has over 25 years coaching experience at the youth, high school and college levels, believes their baseball business speaks for itself.
"Most of our business comes from word of mouth, we don't do a lot of advertising," Hayward said. "Our tagline is professional instruction for the serious player. What we mean by serious player is anyone who truly loves the game. It's not at all about a player's ability, but rather their desire to learn about baseball or softball and improve as a player.
"We're not here as babysitters or to watch students go through the motions. We're throwbacks, teaching old school in a new school era."
Added Donovan, who played in three straight IHSA state semifinals at OPRF before playing college baseball at Illinois: "Fun in baseball is not hooting, hollering and messing around. It's about getting better and winning. That's fun."
There's a self-assuredness that permeates around the STRIKES! coaching staff regarding their collective knowledge and passion for the game. There are no neon signs out in front of the facility (in fact, STRIKES! Is located on decidedly nondescript stretch of road not too far from a strip of industrial buildings), and there aren't any special packages or gimmicky promotions either. In short, you get what you pay for: expert, attentive instruction in baseball or softball.
"Fundamentally, we're about teaching baseball and softball skills," Nelson said. "Each coach has a lot of experience and each guy has a little different flavor to what he does. The common goal is to make kids better players. Sometimes, we make a really good player into a stud. Other times it's simply about helping a kid make it through Little League."
Upon entering STRIKES!, comfort is a good word to describe the laid-back environment. There's a sprawling black leather couch and a TV in the front room. Walk through a door and you'll find seven tunnels (two in the initial area; five more in an adjacent room) that are available for individual instruction in pitching or hitting. The walls are littered with baseball articles, posters, photos and memorabilia, a creative homage to the history of baseball on several levels including the Major Leagues, college baseball and local high school baseball.
"Kids come here year-round and we're a true baseball/softball school," Hayward said. "When I worked for a couple of other places, the programming was sign up for six weeks and half-hour sessions and we'll never see you again. At STRIKES! we build relationships with our students as they work on developing their game."
About the only athletes the STRIKES! staff gets more enthusiastic about then their students is their own kids.
Nelson's wife, the former Ellen Mullarkey, graduated in 1984 from OPRF after a standout volleyball career during an era when the Huskies were at their peak. She went on to become a two-time All-Big Ten player at Iowa. Two of the Nelson's daughters, Kiley and Allie, powered the OPRF volleyball team to a 30-10 record and state quarterfinals appearance last season. Another daughter, Maeve, an incoming freshman at OPRF, is already drawing recruiting interest in softball from several Division I college programs. Second-grader Grace and John, in kindergarten, round out the athletic Nelson clan.
Donovan has three sons, Jack, Charlie and Joe. Jack is the oldest sibling and a musician/songwriter, while Charlie is a senior at Westmont High School and one of the top baseball players in Illinois. He's committed to Michigan and is a projected early-round MLB Draft pick next year. Joe, the youngest brother, is a burgeoning star at Westmont with potentially better upside than Charlie.
Morgan's daughter is a former Fenwick softball star, while Morgan and Hayward's fathers, James and Cy, coached a couple of Oak Park youth baseball teams to World Series appearances in 1968 and 1969.
"The way youth baseball is played in Oak Park traces back to Bruce and Steve's dads who got it rolling in the 1960's," Donovan said. "Scott and I were fortunate enough to be immersed in that culture. We're just carrying on that tradition. Coming from Oak Park, we appreciate the game in a different way and we teach it with a little more passion and care to our students."
For more information about STRIKES!, visit www.strikesbaseball.com or call (708) 345-3200.