A Homer in Red Hook
TO BORROW A PHRASE FROM A CINEMA CLASSIC, JOHN TORRES, IN ENVISIONING HIS BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL TRAINING CENTRIC GYM, THOUGHT THAT IF HE BUILT IT, THEY WOULD COME. THEY DID
BY BRIAN DUNLEAVY
John “J.B.” Torres wasn’t certain what to expect when he opened a new site for Brooklyn Sluggers in 2017, which offers training for players of America’s pastime as well as softball, but national numbers indicated it was the right thing at the right time. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, casual participation in baseball (playing between one and 13 times per year) was up 18.1 percent in 2016, while core participation (playing more than 13 times) was also up, but by a lesser percentage. In local proof of these figures, from the start, Torres had baseball and softball enthusiasts of all ages flocking to his Red Hook location to hone hitting, fielding and pitching skills (the facility offers fitness classes as well).
“We used to work out of the Third Avenue Batting Cages, but the owner of that facility closed down suddenly a couple of years ago,” Torres recalled. “It took a long time for us to find this new location, but it’s worked out great.”
A Brooklyn native, Torres grew up playing baseball, and was an accomplished player at both Grady High School and the College of Staten Island. Following the end of his collegiate career, he suited up for several semi pro teams in the northeast before hanging up his spikes two years ago, after 22 seasons. The result is a wealth of expertise and experience to draw upon when working with young players.
“I’ve met a lot of people playing baseball,” he noted. “When I started this business, I reached out and got a lot of support. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without help.”
In addition to working as a guidance counselor at Bay Ridge’s Xaverian High School and as an NCAA college baseball umpire at games across the tri state area, Torres has offered hitting instruction during his spare time for years, working out of various batting cage complexes in the city. Two years ago, he decided to open his own shop, taking a raw garage space in Red Hook and creating an academy like atmosphere with space for instruction in the fundamentals of the game.
His duties as counselor, umpire, and entrepreneur make for long days, but Torres isn’t complaining. He gets to work with kids and stay connected with the game he loves.
Staff includes Torres’s former youth coach, Tito Navarro, as well as former high school baseball and softball standouts from across Brooklyn. All of them teach using the same philosophy and approach.
Torres and Navarro built the Brooklyn Sluggers facility themselves, but with the help of friends. Now, they offer instruction to both individual players as well as teams. The facility has clients as young as 5 and as old as 70; indeed, several are adults following dreams of playing at the big league level through “fantasy camps.” Torres’s connections in college baseball and video training sessions means he can also connect clients with coaches although he doesn’t make any promises.
“We have a lot of kids going on to play college baseball and softball, which is awesome,” he said. “But really, our goal is for the kids to have fun learning about the game and build their confidence. If they go on to play in high school and beyond, that’s great. We just want people to come in and play. We try to make it a fun and relaxed atmosphere.”