Many young baseball players aspire to play in Major League Baseball’s Big Show, under the lights, hitting home runs for the television cameras, signing autographs. Making zillions.
Steve Sclafani had the same dream, but he settled for being a baseball scout. Now he owns his own business, which appears to be pretty successful.
He is the chief executive and founder of the Baseball Factory, an $11 million Columbia-based company whose main mission — and core business — is helping kids to develop their talent and make it to the college level.
The guy loves baseball and has been at it for 33 of his 42 years.
“I was the baseball rat who hung around the field, taking ground balls,” the Bethesda resident said.
The Baseball Factory has about 60 full-time employees and approximately 1,000 contract workers across the country. Its online evaluation system allows college coaches to search player criteria, from SAT scores to arm strength, when looking for prospects.
Sclafani and Baseball Factory President Rob Naddelman, both former infielders for the University of Pennsylvania, are equal partners. They have an additional 30 investors in the business, many of whom are the parents of players they have schooled.
Sclafani’s success is based on pluck and persistence. From the sound of it, he is a slightly above-average, 5-foot-8-inch athlete who — through sheer tenacity — willed himself onto a college baseball team and leveraged that into a career.
“Persistence is in my blood,” he said.
He didn’t simply play the game. He has been a longtime student of it, studying scouting, devouring baseball bibles like “Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting” and talking, sleeping, eating and playing the game.
“One of the reasons I learned scouting is I really wanted to be drafted,” he said in a phone call last week. “The more I can learn about scouting, the more I can learn what the teams are looking for, like arm strength, foot speed. I was always on the lookout to learn about what they were looking for.”
He talked his way onto the Villanova University baseball team, and now he wants to teach others how to do it, too.
He smothered Villanova’s baseball coach with letters asking for attention while he starred at Atholton High School in Howard County. (Another alum, Steve Lombardozzi Jr., plays for the Nationals.) A pro scout Sclafani met sent reference letters on his behalf, which Sclafani realized was a key catalyst for getting a college coach’s attention. He got a neighbor to help him make highlight tapes, which he also mailed to Villanova.
“I had to beg the coach to come out and see me play,” Sclafani said.
Sclafani was recruited as a walk-on second baseman for Villanova, which means he played but received no financial aid for his efforts. He stayed one year before transferring to Penn, where he attended the Annenberg School for Communication and started as the team’s second baseman.
The payoff, according to Sclafani, is that he knows how to play the game — that is, the game of grabbing college coaches’ attention. And he has parlayed that into a baseball business for him and Naddelman.
“The fact that it was so hard for me to get recruited was the impetus for the business,” Sclafani said.
After graduating in 1993 from Penn, where he was strong on defense but an average hitter, he sold advertising for a publishing company and spent his personal time giving coaching lessons and scouting players for Mike Toomey, who was then with the Texas Rangers.
Sclafani was living in an apartment in Elkridge, not making much money but doing something he loved.
“I was 23, and I was broke. You keep your head down and love what you’re doing. You got to love the grind and the grit.“
Then a light bulb turned on.
“I was at high school and college baseball games talking to parents and coaches,” he said. “I realized there is a real need for a business that could write unbiased evaluations on high school players for college coaches.”
He ran into Naddelman, and they kicked around the idea of starting a baseball business built on giving young athletes an honest assessment of their talents — and then helping them improve.
They went to a local library and researched how to form a company. They founded theirs and named it Baseball Factory Inc. They wrote a business plan. They borrowed $130,000 — in two successive loans — from the entrepreneurial fund sponsored by the Rouse Co., where Sclafani’s mother worked.
They set up shop in a 9-by-10-foot office with two tiny desks in a Columbia office park. They struggled to pay the $300-a-month rent.
Sclafani and Naddelman used their contacts in Maryland and New Jersey, visiting various coaches and baseball programs to find players to mentor. The Ivy Leaguers pored over business books, educating themselves on finances. They put together brochures containing success stories.
They struck gold in 1997 with two home runs.
First, they persuaded American Legion Baseball, a national youth baseball league with thousands of participants, to recommend the Baseball Factory to its players.
The second home run was renting out high-profile major league ballparks in San Diego, Minneapolis and Miami, hosting tryouts for hundreds of aspiring Bryce Harpers. They took out expensive full-page ads in baseball publications to grab attention.
Their business exploded. The number of clients grew more than tenfold, from 100 to 1,100. Revenue popped to $375,000.
“We were scrambling to figure out how to service everybody, doing videotaping, evaluation, talking to colleges,” Sclafani said.
It isn’t cheap. The company charges $99 for an initial five-hour assessment at a field the Baseball Factory rents. For $499, employees will shoot a video to post on a Web page with an evaluation so college coaches can check you out and, hopefully, recruit you.
Many players in college baseball today have benefited from the service.
One of the big draws is the player-development camps, in which a Baseball Factory client goes to Arizona, Omaha, Cape Cod or the Pittsburgh Pirates’ facility in Florida, known as Pirate City, for a week of instruction. Prices range from $1,500 to $3,000; meals, lodging and instruction are included.
The best players are selected to play on the Baseball Factory’s Under Armour national teams, on which they are observed by scouts from Major League Baseball and dozens of colleges.
Revenue has doubled since 2007, and the Baseball Factory has morphed into Factory Athletics, which consists of the Baseball Factory, the Softball Factory and the Football Factory, holding more than 600 events in more than 150 cities and 47 states.
Sclafani hasn’t hit a financial home run yet, but he certainly is making contact with the fastball.