After opening D-BAT in Cheshire last October, owner Mark Szuchman saw his facility building momentum.
The baseball and softball academy and instructional facility had attracted numerous members and had become a place for both learning and socialization. Things were progressing better than even he could have imagined...and then March arrived.
“We knew something was coming down (because of the pandemic), so we started to make some adjustments proactively,” explained Szuchman. “We started (implementing) social distancing, keeping teams separate as much as possible, and sanitizing. Then, all of a sudden, the Governor closed everyone down.”
Though the state’s shutdown due to the pandemic was expected, it still came as a shock. Szuchman and his staff were suddenly forced to try and figure out what to do in order to stay afloat and maintain some of the success they’d experienced since first opening last fall.
“There was no plan by anyone because no one knew what was happening,” he said. “These are unprecedented times, so we didn’t know if we were going to be closed for a few weeks, a few months … a year.”
“But we didn’t give ourselves a lot of time to sulk,” he continued. “Kids need to play, and we knew they were going to be hungry for it.”
The D-BAT Academy is an impressive 25,000-square-foot facility located at 613 West Johnson Ave. In the main lobby is an equipment and apparel store, where customers can pick out everything from workout clothes to bats, gloves, and more baseball/softball equipment. In the back, however, is where the facility comes to life.
Batting cages and larger areas that allow for team practices and drills, all with state-of-the-art technology, can be found. Those using the batting cages, for instance, can determine exactly what kind of pitches they’d like to see — curve ball, fastball — and at what speed.
One cage is equipped with a hit track simulator, which allows batters to pick any professional baseball stadium in the country and track where their hits would fall on the field. The tracker also provides a professional diagnostic of the batter’s performance, offering the same kind of statistics used by pros.
“We knew, when (opening) in Cheshire, we had to have cutting-edge technology,” said Szuchman. “It was really the only way to do it.”
But when the state was shut down in mid-March to stop the spread of the virus, all of the cages and indoor fields fell silent. Szuchman and his crew had to come up with another way of doing business.
“We sell memberships, so early on we were tasked with trying to figure out what to do there,” said Szuchman. “We decided the right thing to do would be to (suspend) those for everyone, as we knew that people were going to be experiencing difficult (financial) times.”
“Then, we rather quickly began to transition to virtual instruction,” he continued.
D-Bat General Manager Steve Bray explained that a database was established to categorize the type of instruction members may be seeking, and upwards of 70 videos were recorded. The instruction was often designed to help young athletes perform drills in their homes, using what they may have available.
“Some used maybe a simple cone and a bucket (for the workout),” said Bray. “Not every kid has a batting cage in their backyard.”
“Through that, some memberships were reactivated and some live instructions were offered,” he continued.
Bray explained that, while many members were interested in keeping their skills sharp, others were just thrilled to be doing something different.
“We contacted little leagues that, at the time, thought they might still have a season in order to conduct some clinics, and many of the kids, they just seemed to miss that — to need that interaction. They needed a different face or different voice,” he said.
While utilizing technology helped to keep D-BAT going during the shutdown, both Szuchman and Bray admit that it couldn’t make up for the in-person instruction that is the life blood of the business.
Having people in the facility does more than provide an opportunity to mentor young people … it provides for a chance to build relationships, Bray said.
“I missed being able to say hi to people as they came in, and then ask how the kids were hitting the ball as they left,” said Bray. “I missed seeing the smiles on their faces. I’ve been in sports my whole life and you gain respect by the trust and relationships you build with people.”
“There’s a culture component that is very important to this business,” added Szuchman. “If (members) like the instructors and managers, they are going to want to come in.”
D-BAT was not included in the first phase of the state’s reopening process, but was allowed to open its doors during phase-two, which began on June 17. It was an exciting moment for Szuchman and his staff, but also one filled with a bit of anxiety.
“We honestly didn’t know what to expect,” he said, regarding reopening. “This is a seasonal business, and summer is always (slower), so you had to expect that, after a pandemic, it would be even more so. But the response and support from the community has been overwhelming. I can’t say that the support is a surprise, but it’s been amazing.”
Szuchman stated that the facility has seen a good amount of traffic since reopening. Cages, which must now be reserved ahead of time, have been utilized quite a bit, and since local little leagues have canceled their seasons, D-BAT is running summer camps.
“It’s not exactly a season for the kids, but it is something, and the feedback from the parents has been awesome. They are 100-percent happy that we are open,” said Szuchman.
That, Bray believes, is a testament to the trust members and others in the community have shown in the facility. Detailed protocols on social distancing and cleanliness were shared online prior to reopening and the D-BAT staff have remained committed to ensuring that the facility is safe at all times.
And the size of the facility, Szuchman insists, allows for space to be kept between all who work at or use the cages or fields.
“I just want to thank the community,” said Szuchman. “The support has been overwhelming.”
“And for those who aren’t familiar (with D-BAT), I’d really encourage you to come and have a look around,” he continued. “If they take a look, I think they’ll see what a great and safe facility we have here.”
To learn more about D-BAT, visit www.dbatcheshire.com.