About four years ago, a travel team was started for boys who had talent above what was available in rec baseball leagues.
“They needed more competition,” said Robert Crabtree, who started a team named the WarHawks that was a member of Bay Area Baseball — a 501c3 non-profit corporation dedicated to preparing the youth of the Sandusky Bay area for high school-level baseball..
Following the 2018 season, the team partnered with another 11U team and collectively became known as the Firelands WarHawks, forming its own 501c3 called Firelands Area Baseball Program (FABP).
This year, FABP will field five teams for children ages 9 to 14. The organization conducts practices, training and tryouts in an indoor training facility recently created inside the old factory.
Last year, the player fee was $120 to $150 for the entire season of 40-some games. The successful fundraising efforts help keep the fees low, Crabtree said.
The season runs from March through July. Home games are played in Huron, Castalia and Monroeville and 90 percent of the games are held in facilities within a 45-minute drive from Huron Ohio. There are one to two games per week, and anywhere from one to three tournaments from March-July.
The FABP includes instruction from collegiate and former professional baseball players.
Among them is Willard native Dale Slater, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 55th round of the 1994 June amateur draft after playing at Muscatine Community College in Iowa.
“Great program. Great people,” Slater commented on the program’s Facebook page.
The most recent addition is 1999 graduate of Mohawk High School, Sycamore Ohio. Kyle brings a level of hitting knowledge to the table that is hard to find locally.
Kyle set the All-Time Ohio High School State Record for homeruns in 1 season by hitting 22 home runs. His record still stands today. Combined with his 1998 American Legion season, Kyle totaled 43 homers in 45 games.
During this period Kyle was receiving instructions from Baseball Worlds former American League “Rookie of The Year” Joe Charboneau, and also from Cleveland Indians Major League Hitting Coach Charlie Manuel at Charlies’ hitting camp in Winter Haven, Florida.
This would lead to Kyle being drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the 18th round of the 1999 Major League Draft.
After realizing the need for a bigger space to practice indoors, Crabtree and his associates secured the use of part of the second floor in the former factory at the corner of Newton and League streets. The large brick building once housed Norwalk Furniture before the company moved to its present location on Ohio 18.
Although Crabtree is from Sandusky, he has ties to Norwalk. He previously worked in an office by Nobil’s Sports & Trophies at 8 E. Seminary St., and his aunt previously owned Bluto’s Bar & Grill at 33 E. Seminary St., he said.
“I grew up pretty much running around this whole area. Norwalk has been struggling for quite sometime. We hope that this new facility not only gives kids a place to work and have some fun, but to also help take one more step forward in revitalizing Norwalk,” Crabtree said, adding there are players from Norwalk on his teams.
The building once was home to an umbrella factory as well.
“We got lucky on finding the space. Dale came across an ad online
and at the time nobody wanted or needed the space,” Crabtree said. Crabtree and Slater secured the use of part of the second floor in the former factory at the corner of Newton and League streets. The large brick building once housed Norwalk Furniture before the company moved to its present location on Ohio 18.
People volunteered to convert the wide-open space into the baseball-friendly confines known as Blackout Sports. Batting cages and turf were added, with some second-hand materials being purchased to keep the costs low.
Now Crabtree and baseball instructors are able to work with children privately and in groups, to improve their skills at Blackout Sports.
“It’s not just me and a few dads. We’re bringing in legitimate stars to help work with these kids,” Crabtree said.
After the teams began using the Blackout Sports facility, some people expressed interest in renting the space. Crabtree helped bring this idea to life.
“We rent it out at next to nothing, just to help cover the cost, so kids in the baseball program don’t have to pay for it,” Crabtree said.
He added: “There’s really nothing like that around,” so Blackout Sports has been popular.
Blackout Sports is separate from the non-profit FABP because Slater does receive an income.“Everyone that’s involved is a volunteer with the exception of Dale (Slater) and our private instructors, who charge for private lessons,” Crabtree said.
There is also an annual gun raffle. This year’s event will take place March 28 at German’s Villa in Vermilion. Tickets cost $20 apiece. The food, which includes pulled pork and macaroni salad, is all-you-can-eat and draft beer is available.
Last year, more than 40 guns were raffled, in addition to a car, massages and other miscellaneous items. The fundraiser brought in $15,000 in one evening, Crabtree said.
“Every penny went back into these children’s pockets to play baseball. This year, we are hoping to raise 20 to 30 thousand. There are more teams, so the money wouldn’t go as far,” said Crabtree, adding he hopes they will have enough funds to take the children to a large out-of-state tournament.
“These tournaments would be either in New York or South Carolina, but to travel that far and stay for a week, many parents can’t afford that,” he said.
For another fundraiser, FABP will host a baseball tournament this year. Crabtree said he and the volunteers pride themselves on how successful the non-profit has become.
Last year, a team’s total cost was $9,500. The one major fundraiser nearly covered the costs for both baseball teams. Each player was able to pay less than $120. This included about 46 games, travel fees, uniforms and everything else requiring extra money.
“We try to make the cost to play travel baseball as affordable as possible, if not free,” Crabtree said.
Depending on how well the fundraising goes, Crabtree said, they will add an auto-pitching machine and eventually a real dirt pitching mound.
Right now, the use of the Blackout Sports facility is by reservation only. Crabtree said they hope to get to the point where they can be open to the public throughout the day.
In addition to the baseball program and operations for Blackout Sports, Crabtree has a family of six, with each of his children involved in activities. He owns Crabtree Marketing, a web-design company.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate and many people tell me I’m crazy to do what I do. It’s just for these kids. To bring these boys in and to see them succeed is probably the greatest reward that I could ever imagine,” Crabtree said, adding it’s not just about hitting and throwing a baseball; it’s about helping children become successful adults.
Crabtree said he hopes by the end of each child’s experience in the program, he or she is able to be a starter on varsity as a freshman.
Crabtree emphasized the importance of the motives behind all of this work.
“At the end of the day, it really is just about these children,” he said. “People find it hard to believe we would do something like this without anything in return. We do an awful lot. We spend hours and hours working on stuff for these kids because we love the heck out of these guys.
“There’s no other reason than for these kids,” Crabtree added.
Crabtree’s wife Rachelle spends a lot of time helping behind the scenes as well.
To lighten the workload, a FABP board was formed in December.
Crabtree serves as president, Ryan Hoffert is vice president, Pam Hoffert is the treasurer, Robin Bryant is the secretary and John Wasilly is a board member.
“I’m very fortunate to have people on board that I have, coaching, staff and my wife. Without them, this thing doesn’t work,” Crabtree said.
In addition to the board, Crabtree gave credit to facility managers Chuck McKenzie and Josh Bryant.
“They are literal dads. I’ve done a good job surrounding myself with people who have their hearts in the right place. These guys put in hundreds of unpaid hours,” Crabtree said. “Without these two guys, this place wouldn’t even be open.”
The last scheduled tryout of the season has passed but the program does have a few remaining spots open at all age levels from 9-14u.
“We won’t just take anyone. They have to have the skillset to be able to play travel baseball for the most part, but we are trying to get to a point where we have multiple teams at each age group,” Crabtree said. “I don’t think any child should be turned away from a game of baseball due to their level. The problem is finding enough children. All they have to do is show up for a tryout.”
Those associated with the team, both players and parents, have behavioral-based contracts. Players and parents receive strikes for bad behavior, whether it’s screaming on the sideline or throwing a helmet. Continuous bad behavior is not tolerated, he said, so the organization has a three-strike policy.
This year, the first female made the team, which is exciting, Crabtree said.