Kenny Smalley keeps telling his girlfriend he’ll bring her to Chicago one of these days.
The weather differences between home and his current southern California surroundings aren’t the half of it.
A Batavia and St. Charles North product who became the first native “Kane County” Cougar as an emerging right-hander in 2009, Smalley happily focused his baseball radar on overseeing developing talent when his own playing career stalled.
“There’s 6-foot-5 lefties who throw 95 [mph] on every block out here,” said Smalley, who transferred to St. Charles North after beginning his high school career at Batavia. “But there’s no organization, no structure.”
That’s where Smalley intends to come in. Since spring training 2011 – his final days in professional ball after the parent Oakland A’s released him – Smalley has plotted and worked to build his reputation as a youth and high school coach.
He started by putting his name and credentials on Craigslist, took on the few clients who called, gained former Cougars teammate Matt Fitts as a partner and guided a successful youth travel team.
Word-of-mouth eventually spread, bringing former Major League first baseman Tony Clark and his father, Art, as backers for what now is a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization. The venture is aligned with Bulldogs Elite baseball club – the nickname for the 12U to 15U program merely a coincidence to Smalley’s Batavia days – and X-Factor Baseball/Softball Academy, a 16,000 square-foot facility in Corona, Calif., about 100 miles north of San Diego.
For his part, Smalley patterns his end of the operation from what he learned while playing with McCook-based Top Tier Baseball in high school. For all the talent lurking in The Golden State, Smalley finds there aren’t as many traditional avenues to unearth it.
“We’re more organized. We’re more structured. We challenge the kids daily and expect a lot out of them,” Smalley said. “It’s no longer the Little League mindset. They seem to respond well from it all the time. You treat them like an adult, they’ll act like an adult. You treat them like a kid, they’ll act like a kid.”
Smalley, 26, won nine games in 2009 and compiled a 2.73 ERA to lead the A’s system and earn accolades as organizational pitcher of the year.
“Smalls, he had a [heck] of a year that year,” said then-Cougars manager Steve Scarsone, who is entering his second season with Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento.
The momentum quickly derailed. When Smalley returned to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in July 2010, it wasn’t with much revelry. Struggles with Advanced-A Stockton (Calif.) prompted an unplanned homecoming, and Smalley was out of the game less than a year later.
Admitting he’s felt the itch to give pitching another chance, Smalley eventually restrains himself, knowing he’s likely got a better window into the game now.
“Just kind of tried to start a brand down here, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s gone well. It’s all reputation-based. Getting the youth into the game.”
• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.