Snow soon will be falling, but cold and wet weather won’t stop Rick Roberts from playing ball – baseball that is.
A former professional baseball pitcher who advanced as high as Class AAA in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Roberts has been a mainstay at ERA Sports Inc., a program which has enabled athletes from throughout the region to receive instruction and play baseball nearly year-round.
With indoor facilities in Richland Township and Altoona, Roberts and co-owner Mike Connolly have helped strengthen the area baseball scene as players who began participating six years ago are now making an impact at the high school and college levels.
“We had five kids sign Division I letters of intent who were on our Flood City Team for this year,” Roberts said, referring to a summer elite travel program that includes teams at multiple age levels. “We’ve had more than 60 kids move to all levels of college baseball and three major league draft picks. Our indoor facilities are busy from December 1 through the middle of April. Then, travel ball is from April until October.”
ERA is set to begin another 12-week winter program for baseball and softball on Nov. 28. Players receive private pitching and hitting lessons from instructors with college and pro experience. Roberts points to a 3-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio as a key to the program’s success.
Among his instructors in recent years have been former pro players such as Doug McNulty, Dave Wagner, Joe Vitko and Ben Watkins. College players from Pitt-Johnstown have instructed as well as some of the area’s top young baseball minds.
“Each player has the ability to get the most out of their lesson whether it’s pitching, hitting, fielding or catching lessons,” Roberts said.
The ERA facility and its programs have grown since the days when Roberts and former Major League pitcher Mike Holtz made the concept a reality as co-founders at the Richland building located behind Ollie’s on Scalp Avenue nearly a decade ago.
Roberts is a Forest Hills graduate who was a dominant left-handed pitcher and a high draft pick of the Detroit Tigers. He had a Division I offer to West Virginia University, but opted to turn pro. Roberts was advancing steadily through the Dodgers organization after a trade, but an arm injury cut short his promising career.
Holtz went to Central Cambria before his career at Clemson University. He appeared in more than 300 major league games, mostly as a left-handed relief specialist with the Anaheim Angels.
The duo worked hard to make ERA a success. This year, Holtz said he has left the ownership ranks to embark on a career in Blair County radio sales, adding that he will continue to be an instructor at the Altoona ERA.
Connolly, who already had been part of the ownership group in Altoona, stepped into a larger role, Roberts said.
ERA has grown to include softball, which also begins a winter program, as well as strength and conditioning classes.
“We don’t try to clone kids,” Roberts said. “We take what they’ve got and try to make them better.”
The fruits of such tutoring have been on display throughout college fields and in the AAABA League for several years.
One example is Roberts’ younger brother George, who stars at Division I Kent State, where he led his team to the College World Series and was named Mid-American Conference (MAC) Player of the Year as a junior this spring.
“When we started this six years ago with me and Mike Holtz, George was one of our first ones,” Rick Roberts said. “Now, he’s played in the College World Series.
“We want to get kids to college and the next level, but there’s a bigger goal,” he added. “We want to get kids playing the right way. If kids have more confidence and the right training, they will have a better chance at having success. We have a great environment. All of our (instructors) from top to bottom are in it for the kids.”
Roberts said ERA’s winter baseball and softball programs typically include 200 students, while the spring program draws 150 to 200 students. The travel program usually has 140 players.