by Editor Rick Cabral

Walbeck Baseball Academy—A Positive Alternative 

If you are the parent of a high school or perhaps middle school-aged ballplayer, and you’re looking to provide your son with the prototypical travel ball experience, there are several good options locally. 

If, however, along with baseball fundamentals you want your son to learn such lessons as “It’s okay to fail—failure is a part of the game,” and “control the controllables,” then maybe the Walbeck Baseball Academy (WBA) is your best option. 

After meeting with the WBA’s two founders Matt Walbeck, former major league player and minor league manager, and partner Glen Gross, patent attorney and organizational guru, one wonders if they didn’t spend a summer at the Esalen Institute or some other bastion of esoterica.


Matt Walbeck and Glen Gross, partners in Walbeck Baseball Academy
(Photo Courtesy of Walbeck Baseball Academy)

That’s because their approach to teaching the fundamentals of baseball offers an integrated, positive—almost “holistic”—alternative to the standard fare. 

Walbeck, who played parts of 11 seasons in the majors with five different clubs (see Sidebar), says he and his staff of six instructors evaluate each young man who comes to them like a sculptor imagines the final product when staring at a block of marble. “We actually see the player performing (to) his best before he’s even gotten there.” Their mission is to unlock that player’s potential over time.  

Although they share many of the same techniques others teach, it’s this over-arching philosophy that sets the Walbeck Baseball Academy apart from others. “We’re building a college-prep academy, getting kids into college, and it’s education based,” Walbeck stresses. His partner Gross adds that they’ve set out a “worthy goal” of “removing the veil of ignorance with regard to how (preparing the young man for college recruitment) all works.” 

At WBA, students learn the fundamentals of hitting, fielding and throwing, while also learning about building confidence, developing sound study habits and ultimately “achieving their goals within baseball.” 

Erin Griffin, mother of 12-year-old Ryan, has been sending her son to Matt personally and the Academy for several years.  She calls Walbeck “an extraordinary mentor, instructor, teacher” and adds that her son “comes out of his lesson, always, with more confidence, more perseverance, more as just a person.”   

The Walbeck Baseball Academy offers various levels of instruction and team play. It all starts with the College Prep Program, where they divide players into three 18-and-under teams, depending on age and skill level. The first level is designed to transition from travel ball into college prep, while the upper levels are about “exposing the player to (college) recruiters.” Those teams play a summer schedule after the high school season has ended. 

As part of its services, the WBA collaborates with in showcasing the player’s baseball abilities online. College recruiters, Walbeck notes, rely heavily now on the web to evaluate hundreds and thousands of college prospects across the nation. 

“We've packaged things to make it really easy for families, so they're not running around panicking about what to do. We're slowing the game down for them,” Walbeck says, using a phrase normally associated with on-field performance. 

In addition Walbeck Baseball Academy also fields teams for middle schoolers aged 13-14, which feeds into the upper division program. That schedule runs from January to summer.

“We allow them to develop,” says Gross. “Once the roster is set, they're on that team and they're not looking over their shoulder,” in fear of someone coming in and taking their spot. More importantly, “They're allowed to make mistakes and develop as a team. And whether the team does poorly or well, they need to work together and figure that out.” 


Earlier this month, the college prep teams headed south for a travel team tournament, and went to Anaheim Stadium to watch an Angels ballgame. Last year, Gross took the middle-school teams to Cooperstown to play and tour the National Baseball Hall of Fame museum. 


Gross notes that although WBA fields teams that play against other travel squads in competitive tournaments, students are not obligated to play competitively. If a student simply wishes to hone one or more of his skills, that’s available as well. It’s as simple as going to the Walbeck Baseball Academy web site, registering and selecting classes from their calendar.  

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The Gross-Walbeck partnership is an interesting one.

Gross graduated from Penn State University with an engineering degree. He came west to study law and graduated from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento in 1996. He decided to stay in the community and eventually opened a law practice focusing on patents and trademarks.

Around 2000 Gross began coaching youth ball, and when Walbeck’s oldest son Luke (now a 15-year-old sophomore at Jesuit) joined the team, Glen and Matt became acquainted. In time, Glen took his sons Carson and Drew to Walbeck, who was keeping up his coaching chops in the offseason. 

Glen was pleasantly surprised by Walbeck’s philosophy, which showed the student “It’s okay to make a mistake. It’s okay to swing and miss. It’s alright to fail.” Ultimately, Walbeck focused on “building confidence, solid relationships and getting better grades.”  

In Gross, Walbeck found someone inquisitive and smart who found a way to extract qualities from the former pro in a positive way. When Matt was asked to produce his second instructional video for Championship Productions on “How to Train in Close Quarters,” he turned to Gross for assistance in building his set. And the collaboration gave birth to lifelong partnership. 

But not before Walbeck endured a personal setback. 

As detailed in our 2011 Spotlight profile, after managing seven minor leagues seasons—and winning Manager of the Year four times in that span—Walbeck was fired mid-season from the Single-A Rome Braves. 

“Kind of shook me up, a little bit,” he admits now. “But it was a blessing, to be able to spend more time with my wife and three kids. There was no bitterness at all on my behalf. I still love major league, minor league, everything.”  

In time, Walbeck returned to offering one-on-one instruction. One of those he helped was Andrew Susac, a top catching prospect at Jesuit High. Susac, a second-round draft pick by the Giants in 2011, says of his former mentor “He’s an energetic guy, very hands on, which I like. He’s one of those guys that shows you (how it’s done), plus he’s in great shape,” says the catcher for the Giants’ Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies. I really like the way he teaches the game.” 

Andrew’s dad agrees. “(Walbeck is a) Phenomenal guy. Helped Andrew a lot,” says Nick Susac, who along with his brother John closely oversaw Andrew’s baseball development.  

After his lessons began to take off, Walbeck reached out to former minor leaguer Ken Clawson (Johnson High), who was seeking a similar baseball gig. They taught together for a while. In time, Walbeck noticed that pupils who went on to play on travel teams and came back for more lessons were saying their travel coaches offered differing instruction, causing conflict in the student athlete. “Instead of fighting the process,” says Matt, “I decided it was time to start a team.” At the suggestion of mutual friend Tom Lininger, Managing Partner of the Marysville Gold Sox summer ball team, Walbeck reached out to Glen Gross. In time, they formed Walbeck Baseball Academy (Lininger, himself an attorney who has represented numerous high school, collegiate and professional ballplayers, is now the WBA’s Director of the College Prep Program). 

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One of the mantras heard around the Folsom Sports Complex where the Academy is based is “control the controllables.” It’s a phrase Walbeck and his staff use to describe things that their students are personally responsible for, can control and do something about. In some cases, a young athlete is trying to “do too much,” often times to please an authority figure: his father, a coach or even teammates. Gross says the Academy tries to instill in each of their students the idea that “ I can only do the best that I can do that's within my control.” 


As their student athletes incorporate this philosophy athletically, it carries over into the classroom as well.  


Gross relates a story about a 12-year-old enrolled in the Academy who was having difficulty with his teacher. The mother’s immediate response was to go in and talk to the teacher. “’Mom, we don't have to go talk to the teacher,’” the boy explained. “’All I can do is my best and hopefully over time that will slowly change her perception of me,’” Gross recalls the parent telling him. “And the mom was almost in tears, right. Isn't that cool?” 


In fall 2003, Clay Sigg, a UC Davis Hall of Famer from the 1970s, took his son Anthony to Walbeck for hitting instruction right after his playing career had ended. Sigg had befriended Walbeck back when the 19-year-old was recovering from his knee injury and they stayed in contact over the years. Sigg’s son Anthony—then a Granite Bay High junior—was Walbeck’s first “for hire” student, the real estate executive claims. “Matt was an exceptional hitting instructor from the start. He taught with credibility and passion as a lifelong student of the game,” Sigg wrote in an email. “I believe he brought out the best in Anthony by both physical and psychological means. He used practical drills to develop his focus, mindset, hitting plan and confidence.  



Matt Walbeck shows Sebastin Babin how to throw a "circle change"
during one-on-one instruction at the Walbeck Baseball Academy.

“Matt is a true baseball man who is completely committed to the game and really enjoys the process of bringing his students to a new level,” concluded Sigg, who established an extensive network of baseball people in the greater Sacramento area. 


In less than two years, the Walbeck Baseball Academy has burgeoned, providing services to more than 100 student athletes and their parents. 


In addition to baseball training, they are affiliated with Results Physical Therapy in Rancho Cordova, which provides strength and agility performance training, along with evaluating elbow, shoulder and knee ailments, should a WBA athlete need medical advice. 


They’re even branching off into the area of providing advance preparation for the SAT test. A service parents are grateful to have available to them. “W e have a lot of sessions where we counsel parents,” offers Gross, who can appreciate such things, as he and his wife are raising five children, including Carson and Drew who both participate in the Walbeck Baseball Academy. 


“We’re helping them move along from taking their eye off the result, and focusing on what their son can control. And understanding that as the (boy’s) biggest supporter and fan…(they shouldn’t be) worried about whether he gets two or three hits or a multi-hit game. That helps the relationship now and it makes it easier so the player can flourish.” 


Take your eye off the results? Sounds counter-intuitive in baseball. But then you remember you’re at the Walbeck Baseball Academy, where it’s not about the results, but more about the process.  


Walbeck says the end result is to build confidence so that when the student athlete drives home with their mom or dad “they feel good. And I believe that if you feel good first, good things happen. And baseball provides that environment more than any other sport. 


“And if that helps their life, then that's awesome.”


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Note: The Walbeck Academy is holding tryouts for their College Prep Summer Team on May 10th and May 18th.  For more info:  WBA College Prep Summer Team Tryouts 


Sidebar: Matt Walbeck--Playing with Heart

At a very early age, Matt Walbeck declared that he would become a major league player. Diminutive in size, in Pony League All-Stars he played second base alongside shortstop Fernando Vina, who went on to play 12 years with five clubs in the major leagues (most notably the Cardinals, which went to the playoffs from 2000-2002).


Along the way, he was constantly being told he was “too small” and the majors were an unrealistic goal. Early on, he developed a fiercely independent attitude. “I just think that a lot of people give up on their goals and dreams way too early, because they listen to other people.”


At Sacramento High, he began as a middle infielder, but he was always bugging head coach Don Graf to let him catch. One day in Walbeck’s sophomore year “the other guy didn’t show up, so it happened right there,” Graf remembers. “It was great.”


Walbeck, Graf recalls, “…wasn’t a big kid, (for) a catcher (5’10, 175).” In terms of ideal size, he was not what scouts were looking for. “But he was a great defensive catcher, and a great hitter also,” Graf says.

Don’s twin brother Jim Graf is married to the former Paula Bowa, Larry’s younger sister. Walbeck remembers the Graf brothers imparting new techniques that Jim picked up from Larry Bowa, who was concluding a fine 16-year major league career with the Chicago Cubs after winning the 1980 World Series with the Phillies. 


Jeni Ruzich (left) and Matt Walbeck were selected 1987 Players of the Year in their respective sports by the Sacramento Bee.
Photographer Bryan Patrick
(Courtesy of Matt Walbeck Collection)

In his junior season Walbeck made All-Metro and in his senior campaign in 1987 was selected Player of the Year by the Sacramento Bee. “  I was just fortunate to be around the right people at the right time,” he says modestly.


That summer, the Cubs selected the 17-year-old Walbeck in the 8th Round of the Amateur Draft. He played 51 games in Rookie Ball and hit .318. The following year in Single-A, however, his batting average dropped nearly 100 points.


The next season, after raising his average back up, disaster struck.


On a close play at the plate, a runner collided with Walbeck who was attempting to block the plate. The catcher admits he employed an incorrect technique, which resulted in two torn ligaments in his knee.


During his rehabilitation, people told Walbeck he would never catch again and probably would not make it back to the majors. Adopting the same attitude that guided him during youth league, he decided to do something positive with his down time: learn how to switch hit. With a cast still on his knee, he developed a lefthanded swing during soft toss exercises. Eventually (after the cast was removed), he honed his lefthanded swing on a tee and finally live pitching.


When Walbeck returned to the diamond with a renewed purpose and a new batting stance, Graf was not surprised. “No one’s going to work any harder than he does. He’s done that all his life.”


Four years later, the Cubs called up Walbeck to the majors.* He had reached his goal.


That winter, the Cubs traded Walbeck to Minnesota, where he played three years. After a one-year stop in Detroit, he was traded to Anaheim, where he played another three-year stretch in the majors. In 1998, he completed his best year in the big leagues batting .257 with 46 runs batted in for the Angels.


He finished his 11-year career in 2003 with Detroit with a lifetime .233 batting average, a .991 fielding percentage and 31-percent caught-stealing rate.


The following year, Detroit President/General Manager Dave Dombrowski suggested Walbeck return to the dugout, this time as a skipper. He managed seven years in the minor leagues with Detroit, Pittsburgh and Atlanta from 2004 and 2001, winning Manager of the Year four times, plus one season on the Texas Rangers staff under head coach Ron Washington. His teams won three league championships.


Not bad for a guy that wasn’t supposed to see the manicured lawn of a major league field except from the seats.


* Walbeck is one of 16 players from Sacramento High School to play major league baseball, third most in the nation for placing prepsters in the big leagues, according to MaxPreps.

The 16 players include (in alphabetical order): Cuno Barragan, Bruce Edwards, Joe Gedeon, Tommy Glaviano, Stan Hack, Drungo Hazewood, Myril Hoag, Mike Howard, Gordon Jones, Alex Kampouris, William McLaughlin, Earl McNeely, Jimmy O'Connell, Jerry Royster, Neill Sheridan and Matt Walbeck.  

 Uploaded 4/27/14
All contents © Rick Cabral 2014
(Except where others hold the copyright)