Published Sunday, October 28, 2012

A 'Field' for dreams: Walton teams up to open baseball training facility in hometown


(Editor’s Note: The following continues a series of stories profiling former and current professional and minor league players from Coweta County)

Jerome Walton remembers the days where local baseball consisted of Little League, high school and not much else in between.

“Once you left the ‘Y,’ it was high school ball,” said the 47-year-old Newnan native.

Nevertheless, 23 years ago Walton managed to make it all the way to the major leagues by way of just a few stops after being drafted out of a small junior college in Alabama.

Not bad for a future National League Rookie of the Year.

The landscape for youth baseball, however, has changed drastically since the 47-year-old made his pro debut with the Chicago Cubs during its run to the National League Championship Series in 1989. Independent programs and travel-ball teams have sprouted all over the country trying to provide their players with an upperhand at reaching the big leagues through individualized instruction.

Walton and his partners at the recently opened Centerfield Baseball Academy hope to have the same effect on the current crop of youth baseball players within a rich talent pool here in Coweta. The facility, which began as an idea between Walt Sholar, a former high school player in Fayette, and Walton at least five years ago, finally came to a reality this summer with the opening of the Centerfield complex off the Hwy. 34 Bypass.

“You always want to give back to your community. Growing up here in Newnan, I didn’t have that many opportunities. There weren’t many people around that could help teach me the right way to play,” said Walton at the complex on Hillwood Circle. “It’s been a work in progress for about five years. Our main thing is trying to get kids to the next level. We’ve got some good ballplayers here and we want to keep them on this side of town.”

Walton’s been no stranger to coaching, having helped lead Westlake High’s baseball program to the state playoffs in a region that’s included both Newnan and East Coweta the last three seasons.

The location maybe somewhat odd for a baseball facility, hidden outside of a few small signs directing the way with its new orange “C” logo with a Braves-like tomahawk. The academy is nestled amidst an industrial warehouse district mostly made up of home improvement companies and contractors. After 5 p.m., it’s quiet outside of the echoing of pings coming from aluminum bats.

But it may serve the same purpose toward trying to upgrade the opportunities of future high school and college-level baseball players from here in the near future. With a staff of more than 10 current instructors, their current offerings include everything from lessons and speed and strength training to fielding travel teams.

“Everybody here has the same goal. We want to see them do well. We want to see them go to college,” said Sholar, one of four who have invested in the facility with younger brother Jonathan, Walton and Brian McCartney. “As we grow, we will have a career counseling program and a college program. We’ll have someone come in once every two month and sit down with them on how to access additional funds for school. In Division I, they have 11 scholarships to split up twenty five ways.”

Last weekend, 2013 team tryouts for five age-group teams attracted close to 150 athletes from 9-18. A high-school level team that’s compiled a 5-3 record this fall.

“The big thing we see is that some of them want a change,” said Sholar, who has been involved as a youth coach at several facilities around the Atlanta area. “They want something different. We only have one high school team right now, but five of our coaches are with them at every single game.”

Walton met Sholar while also working with his younger, Jonathan, prior to his junior college career out of Whitewater and the two eventually began talking about working on a baseball facility together.

“Really they became like family to me,” Walton said.

Fate, however, may have brougt them to Newnan as far as a location. Five years earlier, Sholar — working his real estate job out of Atlanta — contacted Walton — and the two nearly opened a complex in Smyrna.

But inbetween the birth of Sholar’s two boys and health problems to Walton — who nearly lost his leg following a horrific fall from a ladder at home — the plans hit a snag in timing.

Flying back from the Major League Winter Meetings last year while trying to continue his research, Walton, however, got back in touch.

“A couple of minutes later, Jonathan called and said he was thinking about making an investment in it,” Sholar said. “By the time I got off the plane I told my wife, we’re opening a baseball facility.”

Walton and Sholar have brought together a staff of coaches that includes former East Coweta and Newnan high school standouts Kieron Pope and Jesse Wierzbiecki, each with unique playing experiences. Wierzbiecki recently returned from an MVP season with the Houston Astros’ Class A affiliate, the Tri-City ValleyCats.

“I’m very happy with the staff we’ve got,” Walton said. “We all have different experiences. Some like myself have played in the pro level and others have played at college ball at a high level.”

Pope, a speedy 6-1, 195-pound outfielder drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, was unable to fully recover from a broken femur following a freak injury during a minor-league spring training game in 2009 after running out an infield single.

“I never knew Kieron, before he came here. But he’s a phenominal guy,” said Sholar.

Described by former Orioles manager Dave Trembley as a prospect with “a great arm, could run like the wind, had light-tower power,” the former East Coweta star had been trying to figure out the next stage of his career when he ran into Walton’s daughter, who was working at his local dentist’s office.

“He’s going to be a big asset for us,” Walton said. “He’s been through some stuff and he’s able to give them some perspective. We want to start with them as early as possible. The young kids are actually easier to work with. They really listen to you.”

Currently Pope is working with Centerfield’s older age-group team and has enjoyed his coaching experience so far.

“I figured whenever the time might come that I couldn’t play anymore and had to move forward, I always wanted to be a coach,” Pope said. “I’ve always tried to tell the kids, I can’t promise you anything. But if you put the work in you can have some of the things I didn’t get. Most of what I did came just from natural ability.”

Pope’s minor league experiences — which saw him hit .341 as a 19-year-old after being drafted in the fourth-round of the 2005 MLB Draft — may give a better perspective to current high school players.

“When I got to pro ball, I finally got to understand what coaches had been telling me all along,” he said. “It’s all about timing. You hear that a lot as a player. But I never believed it until at the end.”

The hope for the Centerfield staff is that the blank orange walls that frame the facilities batting cages and equipment will be lined with the photos of former students who have gone on to college or beyond, joining a recent crop of minor leaguers including Wierzbicki, who was named MVP of the Tri-City Valleycats after leading the Houston Astros Class A Short-Season affiliate with 76 hits, 46 runs and 40 RBIs while also posting a .995 fielding percentage.

“Before it’s all over, we want to have that wall filled up over there with people’s names of kids who have came through here and gone on to the next level,” Walton said. “We want to fill this wall up. That’s our goal. If we do that, then we’re doing a pretty good job.”

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