A small group of parents sat on the metal bleachers watching their Little Leaguers go through hitting drills in the middle of a hot June afternoon in Tucson.
In an adjacent area, one of the Oro Valley Little League organizers sorted through necessary paperwork brought by the parents, allowing their sons to partake in the action.
The young players took turns swinging bats, patiently waiting their turn while watching their coach offer instruction, and a pitcher practiced his throws nearby.
A man, likely in his late 20’s, showed up to take some swings on his own as well, not getting in the way of the youngsters.
Not one person was drenched in sweat.
“Sure beats outside doesn’t it?” longtime Oro Valley resident Brian Mitchell said, gleaming, in his climate-controlled D-BAT Baseball and Softball Academy facility that opened two weeks ago near Oracle and Wetmore.
Mitchell stood near the bleacher section of parents, many of whom welcomed him in an appreciative tone. His mind raced a mile a minute at what he needed to do next at the indoor batting facility, one he has planned to own and help operate for more more than two years.
“It’s been a long process,” Mitchell said. “Why did I do this? You know, we just don’t have enough things for kids to do. We have all these families all these kids … do you want them sitting at home playing video games? No, you want them playing ball.
“Sports also teaches them a lot of things, real life stuff.”
D-BAT Tucson is Mitchell’s passion after serving mostly as a real estate agent in the Oro Valley area since moving to Tucson from New Jersey 30 years ago.
Mitchell has partnered with some of the most knowledgeable Tucson-area baseball aficionados to maintain a quality operation at D-BAT Tucson, which is part of a nationwide chain headquartered in Dallas. The Tucson location, massive at 21,600 square feet, is the 52nd facility that has opened in the chain.
Former Arizona player and local high school coach and instructor J.J. Northam is the general manager and former Wildcat and CDO pitcher Bob O’Donnell is the assistant manager.
Only a few months ago, Northam was planning on a manager career with Home Depot. Now, since Mitchell came calling recently, Northam’s life has thankfully turned back to baseball. He coached at Catalina Foothills for seven years and also coached club teams in baseball and softball that included his kids.
Also on the instructional staff at D-BAT Tucson are former Arizona players Ernie Durazo, Jason Hisey, David Landrith and David Lopez (son of former Wildcat coach Andy Lopez).
The staff also includes Tucsonans Dustin Kupper, Vic Acuna, Dylan Barry and Tim Kennedy. Kupper is the pitching coach at Pima Community College who starred while playing at Catalina Foothills and Pima. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Miami Marlins in 2001 and spent four seasons in the minors.
“We’re trying to find a really good softball pitching coach,” Northam added. “Most have ended up leaving Tucson because there was not a market for them. We’re hoping the next one that comes through will want to stay and do lessons with us.”
Judging from Northam’s perseverance and work ethic, opening and maintaining D-BAT Tucson to this point, Northam will do what’s necessary to land a quality softball pitching coach and accomplish what he wants out of the facility — mostly helping all participants of all ages to prosper on the field and off it.
“Our underlining goal is one more year … we want every person who comes into this facility to play for one more year, every time they come in here,” said Northam, who played for the late Jerry Kindall at Arizona from 1988-91 and was a member of the Wildcats’ 1989 conference championship team.
“Everybody’s career ends at some point. We realize that but baseball taught me so much about life and how to live life to the fullest from scheduling to discipline to sacrifice to being a good team member, being a good leader.
“We feel like we can provide that kind of mentorship through our coaching and clinics.”
No age restriction exists.
“The age limit is 0 to 99, or if you can swing a bat,” Northam said. “We’ve had all types in here. We’ve had couples come in and hit soft toss or slow pitch together. We’ve had as low as 4 years old in here trying to hit off of a tee or off a machine.
“I think the oldest is probably our owner Brian Mitchell, who is pushing 60 but is not 60 yet. I’ve also had interest from slow-pitch leagues up in Saddlebrooke and down in Green Valley. Our machines throw real balls. They throw slow pitch. So they can come down here and get batting practice.”
Among the amenities D-BAT Tucson has to offer aside from the training, camps and clinics and private lessons from professional instructors:
— State-of-the-art pitching machines that hurl real leather baseballs (at 70 miles per hour) and softballs in five net cages.
— Fully stocked pro shop (approximately 1,400 square feet).
— A parent lounge with lounge chairs, a couch and bar stools. The room will include a charging station for phones as well as outlets for parents to use their laptops or tablets while waiting for their kids to finish. Free WiFi is available. A couple of TVs are in the room as well so parents won’t miss Arizona (or their favorite pro team) playing a game.
— Workout area with kettle bells, medicine balls, stretching bars and stretching bands.
— Birthday party room. Guests can bring their own food for the party or order pizza through D-BAT Tucson.
— Conference room where Little League team officials can operate business such as gathering birth certificates for participants to be eligible for their team.
“We can allow them to come in here,” Northam said. “The Oro Valley Little League team is renting three cages from us right now so we’re not charging them for the conference room because they are already our customers. It’s just for their convenience. We envision them saying, ‘I want to go there again because they allowed us to do all these things.'”
— A warm-up area that will include a stationery bike, elliptical and treadmill. The room also has stretch bands.
“When you’re 12, you show up to a lesson and are like, ‘All right, I’m ready to hit.’ You can do that. When you’re 14, 15 you need to stretch,” Northam said. “Those kids with a 4:30 lesson can get here at 4, warm up for seven to minutes and do some stretches.
“A hitter can put in 15 to 20 minutes and break a sweat. They can then take their swipe card and hit 45 balls out of the machine cages. Now they’re ready for the lesson. Parents can also come in here and work out if they are a platinum member. They can also go out for an hour and 15 minutes and get personal things done. We really have the parents in mind. Being a parent myself, I know you don’t want to have the feeling of being stuck somewhere for an hour. We offer options for the parents.”
A nutritionist and opthamologist are also available to members who seek help in those areas. Northam mentioned that a machine exists in which a member’s retina is photographed and supplements are taken. The member can return in a month or two to see if the retina has gotten stronger.
“We want to be a little bit of everything to everybody who wants to come here,” Northam said.
A hot dog cart and a food truck, with Mexican food cooked up by Sir Veza’s, will also be at the location.
Hitting and pitching are not only available within the nets. One cage offers flexibility to include players taking ground balls. The nets can open to a 35 by 75 foot area.
That area will also provide enough room for members to listen to a guest speaker.
Former Sabino standout and major-leaguer J.J. Hardy visited the facility last week and may return to be a speaker. Arizona softball pitcher great Jennie Finch has visited other D-BAT facilities to sign autographs and speak to participants.
“I am going to reach out to Arizona guys and get some well-known people in here,” said Northam, whose Wildcat teammates included Hall of Fame inductee Trevor Hoffman, J.T. Snow, Alan Zinter, Kevin Long, Scott Erickson, Lance Dickson and Damon Mashore.
David Lopez could also get his father Andy to come in and talk to members. Northam is also interested in having David help D-BAT Tucson become prominent in the community.
David is the director of one of Tucson’s Boys and Girls Clubs.
“I told him, ‘Tell me when and put a whole bunch of kids in a van and drive them up here for free. Let the boys and girls hit,'” Northam said. “We want to give them experiences and want them to be part of the community. I had a marketing guy in here yesterday. He has a non-profit for coaches.
“I didn’t have to hear anything more. We’re going to be part of the community. We’re going to be giving back. We want that outreach.”
Northam took a deep breath and panned the facility, which at that time had a flurry of activity with Oro Valley Little League members practicing and other members working on their swings.
“Less than a month ago, there was nothing in here. I mean, nothing,” Northam said. “Once the lights went in, the next day, the nets went in and then three days later, they came and started laying the turf.
“Then they started putting the machines in. Then they dropped us $55,000 worth of merchandise in the pro shop. We had to build the pro shop. … Within three weeks, we went from nothing to this.
“I was putting in 15-hour days. May almost killed me.”
Now, Northam and D-BAT Tucson are full of life.
“This is not work to me,” said Northam, who still puts in about 10 hours a day. “I’m retired. I work here full-time. I work here 70 hours a week, 80 hours a week, but I’m retired.
“I get to interact with coaches and players. I get to show people our beautiful facility. I am so proud of it because I know how far we’ve come since we’ve started and I’m excited about it.”
The hours of operation at D-BAT Tucson (4439 N. Oracle Road): Monday-Friday: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. For more information about the facility, the membership costs and camps and clinics, please call 520-775-DBAT or 520-775-3228.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.