Sunday, August 24, 2003

Ex-player turns baseball into Web business

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Diamonds are Chris Hook's best friends. Hook's passion for baseball led him first into a professional playing career and then into the business of helping others love the game, too.

While still a professional pitcher with the San Francisco Giants in the mid-1990s, Hook envisioned a Web site that would allow fans to follow their favorite minor-league player or team. In 1998, he and his wife, Toni, designed and launched At The Yard. A year later, Hook retired from playing baseball, and the couple returned to Florence, where he had grown up.

"I was entering the second phase of my life, and I knew it had to be in baseball," he said.

He honed the content of the site, which included team and player statistics, journal entries from top prospects detailing their journeys toward careers in the minor leagues, and baseball news.

• Since At The Yard teamed up with Star Struck, the Web site fields requests from minor-league fans for about 160 items of team apparel and memorabilia. Chris Hook continues to stock the site with stats, news and reports from the field.
• The site registers about 100,000 visits a month.
• Information about what's available at the Florence training facility can be found by browsing Individual lessons, which run 30 minutes, are priced at $30 but can be bought in packages for cost savings.
• At The Yard is at 330 Weaver Road, Suite 200. Information: (859) 647-7400.
In January 2000, Connecticut-based online sports retailer Star Struck bought the Web site, agreeing to pay Hook a monthly salary for maintaining At The Yard. The company took over management of the site's retail component, which sells minor league team hats, jerseys and other memorabilia.

Freed from ownership responsibilities, Hook looked around for other game-related pursuits. He became a pitching coach for Northern Kentucky University's team and found he liked it.

"I enjoyed coaching pitchers," he said. "I felt I did a good job, and believed there was opportunity here in Northern Kentucky."

He was inspired to offer his expertise more widely. After several months of planning and preparation, in April 2002, Hook opened his bricks-and-mortar version of At The Yard in a Florence industrial park.

"I started with myself and one hitting instructor," Hook recalled. "We started out with 40 to 50 clients. Now it's around 500, and I employ about 10 instructors. We plan to add more this winter."

At The Yard's busy season begins when league and school team seasons taper off. The facility helps its students with all phases of baseball: pitching, hitting, catching and infield strategies. Hook manages the operations and provides pitching instruction. At The Yard also offers strength training, baseball instruction classes, coaching seminars, hitting leagues and team facility rentals.

Said Hook: "Our core customers come in for private lessons in things like the mechanics of swinging and throwing. We incorporate how to play the game with that lesson."

Sandy Ritter of Villa Hills, whose sons plan to return to At The Yard this fall, said: "Both of my boys have really enjoyed going and learning from past players and/or players that are in the college level that are good. It's a different perspective from what your team coach teaches, so when you add it to what your coach is trying to tell you, something clicks and makes it better for them."

With younger children, lessons focus on how to hit and throw. Strategy is introduced later, as is age-appropriate weight training.

"We want to build their confidence," Hook said. "We're trying to tell these kids how they can get better. We recommend physical activity and physical training for kids who are overweight or out of shape."

"I was skeptical when I heard the term 'weight training,' " Ritter conceded. "But he teaches them how they can strengthen themselves with simple things they can do at home. I saw a lot of improvement in my son. They even talk about things like drinking pop, and how pop is not a good thing."

But more than the "what" of At The Yard's lessons, parents comment on how their children are taught.

"Chris's people skills are what drew us to him," said Marge Cook of Independence, whose son Matt, 15, began learning from Hook even before At The Yard opened. "He is so positive with the kids. We've met a lot of very positive people. No screamers. The instructors are very discreet when they correct a kid's performance."

A major challenge for the new business was how to handle reservations and scheduling without devoting precious labor resources to the process, and spending time chasing down instructors to OK a particular lesson time.

"Our biggest coup was finding an online scheduling program," Hook said. "Our clients can now go online and schedule their own lesson. All my instructors are online. Once people have an understanding of how it works, they use it."

That leaves staff members free to provide the individual attention on which ATY prides itself. Since he no longer has to manage the intricacies of scheduling, front office manager Tad Gilmore, Hook's father-in-law, can devote himself to building relationships with clients.

"He keeps people engaged while they're waiting to get in for their training session," Cook said.

"He's so sweet; he remembers all the kids by name," Ritter added.

The other challenge for At The Yard was to convince parents that their children needed this kind of extra instruction to improve their skills at America's pastime.

"We've all grown up with this game and we feel we know a little bit about it," Hook explained. "We have needed to break through with the idea that even though parents may know how to play, maybe they don't know as much as we do."

Rather than take a confrontational approach, the business has included parents in helping their children apply new skills between lessons.

"At the end of each session, the instructors go over a form with the kids, and with the parents of younger kids, explaining what kind of practice they need to do at home in order to get better," Ritter said.

"We want mom and dad and everybody on board," Hook said. "Our relationships with parents have been outstanding."

Relationships - with youngsters, with their parents, among the staff - are what make Hook appreciate the benefits of staying small.

"I'd love to get bigger and be able to do all the things we do now, but the bigger you get, the more people you have to run through your facility to make a profit," he said. "Sometimes being small gives you more power."


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