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An academy for ballplayers

Mike Foote had a vision.

He wanted to give New Mexico baseball players a chance to showcase and improve their skills while garnering national attention from college programs.

Ryan Brewer had connections.

He pitched at Texas Tech and spent four years in the Kansas City Royals’ organization before coaching at Texas Tech and the University of New Mexico.

Together, Foote and Brewer combined to launch the Albuquerque Baseball Academy and have helped it blossom into one of the elite baseball organizations in America.

As you walk into the building in Northeast Albuquerque, the sound of the crack of the bat coming from the cages fills the air and the sight of the framed, autographed Team USA jerseys of Alex Bregman and Blake Swihart hanging on the wall show you that Foote’s vision has been fulfilled.

Foote, who graduated from Del Norte High School, walked on at UNM and started at UNM before being a 30th round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 1980.

A year later, he came to a realization that players in his home state were hardly getting the attention they deserved.

“I was at Double-A in Waterbury, Connecticut and I was looking at the guys on the field and I thought some of these guys aren’t very good,” Foote said. “I started thinking about the guys back in Albuquerque who never got a chance to play. I asked myself how I could be the starting shortstop at UNM but I was unrecruited. So I started thinking how could I figure out a process to help New Mexico kids.”

In 1996, Foote took the first steps at assisting those players by becoming owner of Albuquerque Sportsplex, a combination volleyball/softball/baseball complex. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Foote officially opened the Albuquerque Baseball Academy.

Foote spent his time talking to college coaches about where they go to recruit and which events and tournaments are the most important.

Then in 2004, Brewer joined the ABA, leaving his job as an assistant coach at UNM.

“I was beginning to learn the process and then (Brewer) came along,” Foote said. “A lot of times it’s that same old thing: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And with his background in college coaching and being out on that recruiting circuit and knowing who the guys are, it was about convincing him to come over and do this and get out of the college side of things.

“A lot of guys know baseball, a lot of guys are good teachers of baseball but at the end of the day if you can’t get them in that pipeline and get them on that right stage then they’re going to go unrecruited or be under-recruited.”

Convincing Brewer to come to the ABA and be that guy wasn’t very difficult.

“Back then the pay at UNM for an assistant coach was not good,” Brewer said. “When I wasn’t on the road recruiting, I probably had 40 kids doing lessons just to pay rent and feed the family. There was lot of days on the road recruiting so for me it was a family decision. In this situation I can pick and choose when I travel, so it was a pretty easy decision.”

That choice paid off quickly for the ABA as Brewer used his established relationships with coaches to get the word out about a freshman at Albuquerque Academy named Max Walla.

“We had no credibility with college coaches,” Foote said. “Brew was calling guys that he knows and basically the message was, I want you to come see Max Walla play and I think he’s good enough for program. But if you don’t think so, then the state of New Mexico will never have a player good enough for an Arizona State or an Oklahoma State or the University of Texas. Since then, every year all those guys call Brewer and ask who is the next Max Walla.”

Walla ended up committing to play at Oklahoma State but after the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him in the second round of the 2009 MLB Draft, Walla signed for a $499,000 bonus.

“Typically what happens in New Mexico is because they’re so few kids that college coaches won’t come here,” Foote said. “But after Max Walla it became, OK, New Mexico is going to have a guy but I’m still not coming to New Mexico. So the way they recruit New Mexico now is all the coaches call (Brewer) and say, ‘Who’s the guy we need to see?'”

Brewer and Foote get those guys seen by taking part in what they call a “traveling circus.”

The ABA sends teams to select summer tournaments and showcase events in Texas and Arizona. In 2011, the ABA was voted into the Premier Baseball Organization, which is comprised of 31 baseball organizations across North America.

“We’ve been doing this long enough now where we’re a proven commodity and we’re in that association of teams that get invited to all those events,” Foote said.

Premier’s tournaments offer a collection of talent that is well-attended by college coaches and professional scouts.

“Schools can’t just jump and spend $800 on a ticket to come to Albuquerque to see one kid play,” Brewer said. “They can go to Dallas and be sitting at the Mustang Classic and see 40 Division I guys at one time.

“And we’re getting invited because they know if we show up, the college coaches are going to show up. That might be the one or two times they get to see the Albuquerque kids.”

With the ABA creating more opportunities for local kids, it has created an interesting relationship with UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham.

The ABA alumni list boasts names like Bregman, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s MLB draft, and Swihart, the Red Sox catcher who is rated as one of the top prospects in the game. Both of those players left New Mexico, with Bregman going to LSU and Swihart turning down a commitment to the University of Texas to sign with Boston.

But the Lobos have also been able to stack their roster with ABA products over the years, including MLB draft picks Sam Haggerty, Mitch Garver, Austin House and Jordan Pacheco.

“Obviously it’s a catch 22, one thing we do is get kids going against better competition, so the kids are getting better,” Brewer said. “On the other end of it, college coaches are getting to see them play in the process. The way I feel about is my job, my primary job here at the Academy is to give the kid options. It’s Ray Birmingham’s and (UNM assistant coach/recruiting coordinator) Ken Jacome’s job to recruit the kid. They have an inside track but I’m sure there’s days where Ray Birmingham may not like me. But they still get a high percentage of the kids and now it’s even to point where UNM is telling some guys to come play for the ABA. It’s a good working relationship.”

Birmingham has a testimonial on the ABA web site, praising the program for its contacts and instruction.

In addition to working with some of the biggest names in New Mexico baseball, the ABA has helped some pretty big brains as well.

Brent Jones, an Albuquerque Academy product, pitched at Cornell before being drafted in the 4th round by Arizona in 2014.

This upcoming baseball season, ABA products Mikey Gangwish will head to Colorado School of Mines and Zeke Long will play at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“One part of the program that I’m probably the most proud of is our growing contacts with high academic schools,” Brewer said. “Albuquerque is one of the hot beds for academic schools. If they’re considered an academic kid, they have twice as many options. So we’ve really expanded. Those academic kids that work their ass off to take care of their business, we’re just as proud of those guys.”

Foote said they are planning on breaking ground on a new, 60,000 square foot facility, which is roughly five times larger than where they currently operate and much larger than the 1,500 square feet they started with in 2004.

In addition to private instruction, The ABA offers several options and teams for a wide variety of ages, but it will cost you. Foote says to play on a team usually runs about $2,000 a year. But they are always willing to give help when it’s needed.

“We’re set up with the Albuquerque Baseball Academy Touch Em All Foundation, which is a 501c3, as a business we have a retail operation and things like that which is a for profit,” Foote said. “But all of our team stuff is run under the non-profit. In the 12 years we’ve been operating, it’s been the mission statement of the foundation that no player be denied the opportunity to play baseball because of the family’s lack of ability to pay. It’s been an honor system. If they need help my response is tell me what you can afford to pay and we’ll cover the rest.”

Foote and Brewer found the most successful way to do what they wanted to accomplish was to find a good athlete, give him proper training and coaching, and if he was good enough, to get him playing in the right summer tournaments and fall showcases.

And so far, so good.

“The Albuquerque Baseball Academy changed baseball in Albuquerque,” Bregman said after he was drafted earlier this month. “They are the reason this was possible today.”

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