Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall in an industrial part of town is a factory that produces baseball players.
Andrew Halpenny founded Rookies Baseball Experience in 1997, and over the last decade and a half the Empress Avenue training and teaching centre has sent 97 players to college or university programs. Seven players have been drafted by Major League organizations after honing their craft at Rookies.
"I was fortunate enough to experience college baseball and what life is like as a student-athlete," said Halpenny, a St. Vital resident who spent three seasons backstopping the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the mid-1990s. "Helping someone else obtain the goals they’ve had since they were 10 is pretty unique."
Players come to Rookies when a summer of games — without a whole lot of time to practise — isn’t enough to satisfy their love of the game.
"We’ll see kids that really like baseball and want to get better," Halpenny said.
They take part in a fall instructional league, a series of games at Provencher Park with an emphasis on defensive and base running situations. They come for one-on-one lessons once a week in the winter. And if the coaches think they have the potential, they join the college development program, an intense winter schedule of skill development and strength training.
Noah Block started working with Halpenny and the other instructors when he was nine years old. Now the third baseman is starting his first season with the Hibbing (Minn.) Community College Cardinals.
"I definitely wouldn’t be here without Andrew’s help," said Block, a Riverview resident and former Winnipeg South Chief, in a phone interview from his new home. "He’s a great guy who knows so many people. I really wanted to have the college experience of going somewhere else for school and to play baseball."
Block, 18, said he didn’t consider himself a candidate for post-secondary baseball until the last year or so.
"I knew I needed to improve a lot," he said. "I needed to work on my hitting. I had a good off-season and a good season and now I’m here."
Taking cuts into a net at Rookies last Tuesday was Jeremy Wiebe, an 18-year-old from The Maples who was about to hop in a car with his parents to drive down to Goshen College in Indiana.
Wiebe, an outfielder and pitcher for the North Winnipeg Pirates, had been seriously working toward that moment for four years.
"(Rookies) is the main reason I am where I am," he said. "I improved a lot, got stronger, especially my arm."
For Halpenny, the only thing that can top sending a player to college is learning that he’s earned his degree.
"I’ve seen a player who didn’t make a AAA team when he was 13 or a provincial team," Halpenny said. "To see him go to college and graduate is a better story for us than a kid getting drafted."