By MARC LUTZ
Business Journal Editor
MODESTO — “Whatever it takes to win” is not a phrase that will be heard at a new training facility geared toward baseball players.
Stitches Baseball works with children 8 to 18 years old to improve their performance in the game of baseball, while training to avoid injuries and play smart.
Husband and wife Eric and Chris Cole, along with their partners husband and wife Justin and Leslie Dowdy, opened the business in May of this year after deciding it was a natural fit. Justin Dowdy trained the Coles’ son in his pitching, impressing them with his approach.
“He was always protecting my son’s arm,” Chris Cole said of Dowdy’s technique. “I backed off because I knew Justin had the knowledge to protect my kid.”
It was the training approach that appealed to Eric Cole, an ultrasound technician and former power lifter.
“The training aspect is important,” Eric Cole said. “It’s not all about trophies and winning. What Justin is trying to do is to build a facility and focus on proper training.”
The lack of proper training, Eric Cole said, is leading to unnecessary injuries in young athletes. “Kids are getting injured before they even get into high school,” he said.
Indeed, with more than 17 years of experience, Dowdy has the experience to back up his training plans for each person he trains. He’s been playing baseball since he was 4 years old, and he’s been at the top of his game, playing for the Fresno Grizzlies and Sacramento River Cats — Triple A teams for the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, respectively.
Dowdy’s love of the game is what brought him to open Stitches Baseball with his wife and the Coles.
“I love baseball. I love teaching baseball. I love playing baseball. I love the game of baseball,” Dowdy said. “I’ve been playing baseball since I was four, and I haven’t taken a day off since.”
Because people worked with him to help him advance in the sport, it’s developed that same since of pay-it-forward in Dowdy.
“I pass down the knowledge of baseball, just like they did for me when I was growing up,” Dowdy said. “I wouldn’t have gotten to where I was without people taking the time to teach me how to play.
After 13 years, Dowdy wanted to settle down, start a family and come home every night. With his knowledge of the game, the Coles saw him as being the baseball brains behind the business.
Whereas Dowdy is the pitching coach, major league veteran Joe Thurston is their hitting coach. His availability is limited during the season, but in the off months, he’s able to lend his expertise more to the outfit.
If there is an area that Dowdy doesn’t feel he has enough knowledge in, he’ll tap his contacts to get the information necessary to help the kids.
“Anytime I can, I’ll provide a credible resource that is very knowledgeable in what they do,” Dowdy said. “At the end of the day, you can play or know all the baseball you want, but do you have the ability to translate that information to each kid? Because if I help one kid and I can’t translate to the next, I have no value to that kid.”
The connection that Dowdy makes with the kids he trains is one of a shared passion for the game.
“It’s just pure joy. Kids thoroughly enjoy baseball. I remember what that feeling was like,” Dowdy said. “I want to be another tool in the shed that can help them.”
Wendy Blair’s son Joe has been working with Dowdy since he was a sophomore in high school and had a injury. Blair said Dowdy saw the potential in her son and continued to encourage him.
“Justin has a unique approach. He was the first person to really grab Joe and say, ‘Hey, I think you have real potential,’” Blair said. “Justin continued working with him through his junior and senior year, even though (Joe) couldn’t throw at all as a junior and only somewhat as a senior.”
Now, Joe Blair is a sophomore at California State East Bay and pitching quite well. His mother said he ended up fifth in earned run average in the league he was playing in. Wendy Blair said she believes Joe would pursue a career in the game given the chance.
“I believe he would ride it as far as he could, just like a lot of ball players,” Wendy Blair said. “Justin is very good about talking Joe through expectations, what could be and how to manage it.”
But, as Eric Cole pointed out, it’s not about winning or trophies, it’s about making sure their clients are playing it safe. Dowdy would rather reschedule a training session after a client has played a vigorous game, than have the pitcher risk injury from over-use.
“Understanding how the body moves, and understanding improper mechanics and stress on the body, we can promote certain movements that give kids a chance to playing longer and staying healthy,” Dowdy said.
A common injury that Dowdy sees too much of is “little league elbow,” or an acute fracture of the medial epicondyle. It’s most common in pitchers, but can also occur in catchers, infielders and others that throw a great deal in baseball.
“When I hear ‘little league elbow’ I hear a kid that plays too many games and doesn’t practice enough,” Dowdy said. “The biggest problem I face is too many games, not enough practice.”
That being the case, Dowdy will work with clients to avoid such injuries. He’ll also make sure his clients are setting their priorities. One child’s performance was suffering because of events happening in his personal life. Chris Cole said Dowdy took the time to help the child work through his priorities, which didn’t necessarily place baseball at the top.
The business doesn’t sponsor any one team, as they want to remain available to all players and teams, which have come from all over the region — from Patterson to Knight’s Ferry and Lodi to Oakdale and beyond — to receive training.
Although Stitches Baseball isn’t open seven days a week, Dowdy makes himself accessible through his phone to all his clients and their parents 24 hours a day, seven days a week.