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HE DOESN’T HAVE time for this. On a patch of dirt 50 miles north of Houston, Ron Wolforth’s baseball students are taking turns hurling a blue medicine ball at a green wall as hard as they can, which isn’t hard enough, and Wolforth doesn’t have time to keep pushing them, to “ride you like a pony until you get better,” he tells them.
The ball weighs 4 pounds. He has calculated that if these guys can throw it 40 mph, holding it with both hands and releasing it over their heads like a soccer throw-in, they can throw a baseball 90 mph from the mound. And if they can’t throw a baseball 90 mph, they are never going to be great at pitching. And if they are never going to be great at pitching, well, that’s fine — most people are not great; most by definition are mediocre — but then why did they come here?
Wolforth stands under a tree with a radar gun and calls out the velocity of each throw as the blue thing smacks off the wall. “Forty-one point seven! … Thirty-nine point eight. … Huh, thirty-five three.” The players are in their late teens and early 20s, and half are shirtless in the damp Texas heat. There’s no baseball diamond, just acres of watered grass, some chain-link fences, a smattering of nets and tarps and incongruous green walls, a John Deere tractor, a burn pile of old wood and, plunked down in the middle of it all, a steel barn with an arched ceiling, open to the air on both ends. A white sign near the road says baseball ranch in large letters, and underneath, where you can dream as big as your work ethic will allow. Wolforth boasts of having taught more than 200 pitchers at all levels of the game to throw 90 mph, and major leaguers such as Trevor Bauer and C.J. Wilson have praised him for helping boost their velocity to lucrative heights. So when visitors first arrive here, at the Texas Baseball Ranch, they’re usually expecting something grander. Drones? No, this is it.
Wolforth lowers the radar gun and steps out from the tree. “Some of you guys didn’t impress me on the wall,” he says, wearing khaki shorts, camouflage sneakers and a yellow polo that bulges at the waist. He is 56 years old and not too tall. He raises the gun and nods for the drill to resume. The next kid tries so hard that he forgets to stop running and nearly smacks into the wall after his ball does. “Thirty-one six,” Wolforth mutters. “Too close to the wall.” His voice grows loud. “Don’t waste your time with 31-six! If you’re not 35, you’re nothing. We got a bunch of 31s we gotta make 35s or else you have no shot at playing at the next level, gentlemen.”
“Thirty-two,” Wolforth says. “Moving on, Geno. Good luck with the rest of your life.”
“Thirty-nine two,” he says to Gardner Nutter, a sophomore at Eckerd College, a Division II school in Florida. “Take that governor off your wiener.” Nutter grins. “You’re like a 39-four guy.”
Wolforth parts his lips in bafflement and gazes at a skinny, black-haired kid who’s jogging back into line after an off-kilter throw. “You are a … unique situation,” Wolforth says. “You threw that like a watercolor in the rain.”
FOR A LONG time, few in major league baseball paid any attention to Ron Wolforth. Ten years ago, he says, the disdain was “very overt. It was, ‘He’s crazy, it’s a marketing ploy, he’s making money and he’s trying to be provocative.’ ”
After all, anyone can hang a shingle and call himself a pitching coach. God bless America. Wolforth isn’t a former pro. He doesn’t come from a prominent sports family. Yes, he had some luck with Trevor Bauer, his poster-boy student, drafted No. 3 by the Diamondbacks in 2011. But Bauer is a strange bird, the son of a chemical engineer who invents wacky new pitches (“reverse slider,” “the bird”) and films himself on an ultra-high-speed video camera so he can step through his motion and his ball spin a thousandth of a second at a time. You can’t extrapolate any pattern from a guy like that.
But then there was Scott Kazmir, a former All-Star released by the Angels in June 2011 after a groin injury and a long, steady deterioration of velocity. He considered retiring but instead called Wolforth, who came to his house in Cypress, Texas, with a bag of equipment. They worked for most of a year before Wolforth brought out the radar gun. That day, Kazmir threw as hard as he could. He looked at Wolforth. How fast? Wolforth looked at him. Eighty. “Motherf—er,” Kazmir said, throwing his glove to the ground. “Well, that was 85,” Wolforth said.
“I worked for eight months straight,” Kazmir recalls, laughing. “And I go out there, like all right, I’m going to light this gun up, and it’s like 80. But we went through the process.”
Within two months, Kazmir was back above 90. In 2013, the Indians snapped him up, then lost him to the A’s in free agency. In July of this year, he was traded to the Astros, where he pitched seven scoreless innings in his first start on July 24. Four days later, before an evening home game, 15 or so reporters clustered around Kazmir’s locker and shined lights on him, eager to know how he had pulled off his comeback. He spoke with fondness about Wolforth and the Ranch: “To be able to go somewhere and work on the mechanics and do certain things, certain drills, to really get kind of in tune with your body and just relearn the mechanics of pitching a baseball — that’s what he provides out there, and it really helped.”
MLB, like large institutions everywhere, has an insular culture that resists change. It is also a $36 billion business. At some point, for a GM, the pain of not taking advantage of an innovation that works and saves money becomes greater than the pain of change. “Now the criticism is more whispering than overt,” Wolforth says, “because now it’s like the results are too many and too wide and too deep, and they’ll just go, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work for everybody.’ That tells me they don’t truly understand what we’re doing.”
Wolforth says 85 pro draft picks have trained here, including 2015 draftees Drew Smith, Cory Taylor and Beau Burrows, the Tigers’ first-round pick. Veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez first went to Wolforth for hitting advice (“I figured if he knew so much about pitching, he must know something about hitting too”) and was so impressed he invited Wolforth to give a clinic to his 13-year-old son’s Little League team. “He gets results for 10-year-olds, and he gets results for major leaguers,” Ibanez says. “And when you can do that, I think everyone has to take notice.”
The Astros, Indians, Rockies, Mets, Cubs and Cardinals have invited Wolforth to speak to members of their staffs at spring training. In addition to dozens of college coaches, big names from pro clubs have visited the Ranch too: Terry Francona, manager of the Indians; Jerry Dipoto, ex-GM of the Angels; A.J. Hinch, first-year manager of the Astros. Hinch watched his former teammate Barry Zito work out at the Ranch last winter; Zito had been released by the Giants at age 35, and most figured he was finished, but after four months with Wolforth, he got a minor league deal with the A’s. “It’s a great facility for training,” Hinch says. “It has everything you could ask for as a baseball player.”
What’s more, devoted “Ranch guys” have landed coaching and front office jobs. Brent Strom, who has taught more than 150 boot camps, is the pitching coach for the Astros, a young squad in transition that as of Aug. 24 was leading the AL West with a staff ranked No. 1 in the American League in ERA, WHIP and OBP allowed. Another Ranch guy, Eric Binder, who trained there and played at Northwestern, works in player development for the Indians. And the peak performance coordinator of the Rockies, Andy McKay, speaks at Ranch clinics on the mental side of the game.
Each player and coach who makes it to the next level takes some Ranch ideas with him, and “they talk to each other,” Wolforth says. “It’s almost — it’s not a good word, but it’s almost cultish. It’s a culture.” And like other small but growing cults, or cultures, it can make sparks when it scrapes up against the majority that does not believe.
A BIT BEFORE 2 p.m. on a Friday in late July, cars begin to pull into the Ranch’s parking lot, expelling boys with coolers and parents with lawn chairs. They’re arriving for an “elite boot camp,” a three-day, $1,299 burst of instruction and practice to initiate players into the Ranch method. The campers and their parents walk across 50 yards of lawn to the barn and take seats in folding chairs, cooking in their clothes. The silver walls focus the heat like aluminum foil around a baked potato.
Wolforth stands in front of a projection screen with a microphone clipped to his T-shirt and welcomes the pilgrims. The next three days will be a transformational experience, he says. He shows them slides of the Ranch’s success stories: Bauer, Kazmir, 203 players breaking the 90 mph barrier. “That actually needs to be updated,” he says. “We have 207 now.” He tells them that youth baseball is a fallen world, a world of mediocrity and failure, and he tells them why: It’s a one-size-fits-all system designed to create decent results for a broad bulk of halfway serious players, not exceptional results for the few who are willing to work. The Ranch, on the other hand, considers the player as an individual. “Welcome to the sanctuary,” he says. And not to worry: They never have to leave, even when they go home, because Wolforth has developed Durathro System, a website with videos, worksheets and audits to keep campers on the straight and narrow after camp. Access starts at $79 a month. Talk to Jill about Durathro.
From there, Wolforth splits the campers into groups that circulate around the property. From the beginning, throwing instruction is integrated with questions about movement and pain; a physical therapist goes through a 15-page “functional movement screen,” measuring ranges of movement and prescribing corrective exercises, and Wolforth analyzes a video of each camper’s throwing motion. He’s convinced that the epidemic of pitching injuries can be blamed, in part, on the artificial separation of pitching coaches and physical trainers; a coach shapes the motion, a trainer treats the pain, but it’s really all the same thing. “The pitching people just think that [the physical therapists] are a bunch of lab coats,” he says, “and the physical therapists think the baseball guys are just tobacco-chewing, ass-scratching guys. So we’re the bridge.”
A few of the Ranch drills require unusual tools, like a pitching sock, which is a weighted glove that replicates the feel of a pitch when you make a throwing motion, and a shoulder tube, which is a flexible staff that kids wave back and forth like Gandalf doing aerobics. But the general vibe here is that you’ve been dropped back into 1950, albeit a 1950 in which everyone is obsessed with data. The campers fill out worksheets — a “mindset audit,” a “velocity audit,” a “warm-up audit” — and record their performance on drills. “The core concept of what Ron is doing is measuring,” the Rockies’ McKay says. In general, “people don’t like doing that. It takes time. It takes energy. And it also creates reality, and it creates accountability.”
To log this data and begin to learn from it requires a self-selecting level of drive. The players who make their way here are an intense bunch. A 12-year-old from Abilene, Texas, says his goal is to throw 100 mph and get into the Hall of Fame. Nutter, the college pitcher in Florida, says he wants to get his velo up, but what really hooked him and his father was the science. “We fell in love with the information” is the way he puts it. “I think the process in and of itself is going to make me a better person.” Many campers describe feeling out of place on their teams back home, either because they want to work harder than their teammates or because their coaches have said they’ll never make it. “My high school coach told me I’d never throw over 82 mph,” says Rob Maislin, 21, a senior at Whitman College, a Division III school in Washington state. Another coach? “He told me I was fat.” Maislin is not fat, just short, at 5-foot-7. He says the coaches at the Ranch are the first ones who’ve taken his desire to be a pro pitcher seriously. At the Ranch, “it seems like greatness isn’t unattainable, it’s just a hell of a lot of work.” He throws above 90 now.
As for the guy who’s showing all these kids how to break 90? He was never able to do it himself. The son of a Union Pacific Railroad agent from a small town in Nebraska, Wolforth played college ball at five schools, throwing in the high 80s, not fast enough for love from scouts. “You know how people talk about the ‘player to be named later’?” he says. “I was the player never to be named.” He graduated with a kinesiology degree from Sam Houston State in Texas and took a job coaching softball at Nebraska, where he met his wife, Jill — she was a star player on his team. He eventually got sick of “the shackles,” the athletic director and others looking over his shoulder. So in 1993, he and Jill started their first private baseball school, the CAN-AM Sports Academy in Canada.
He was bad. He admits that now. He taught pitching the same way it had been taught for a hundred years. You make this position on the windup, this position on the move to the plate, this position on the follow-through. You make your body look like this. The problem, he’d figure out later, is that if you look at 10 Hall of Fame pitchers, they all look different. It wasn’t until 2003 that Wolforth realized the error of his ways, after meeting a guy named Paul Nyman, an engineer and former track athlete. To Nyman, the key thing wasn’t the position of the body but its movement, the interlocking and connected motions that create explosiveness. And to build it, you had to measure obsessively — to set a baseline of performance and then test and retest and re-retest to make sure you were making progress.
“It was a Reformation,” Wolforth says. “Truly a Reformation for me, and I truly think a Reformation for baseball itself. Does your theory hold water, or is it just a bunch of s—?” Even after he began preaching the new gospel, Wolforth struggled to find a flock. But he had a couple of secret advantages. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Wolforth was a magpie, willing to collect advice or wisdom from anywhere (a history book, a Zig Ziglar speech, Aristotle, The Matrix) and build a nest with it. “One skill I do have is my skill of application,” he says. He’s also a gifted marketer, and so is Jill. (The daughter of a Nebraska rancher, she came up with the “Ranch” theme.) As one Ranch dad puts it, “You listen to Wolforth and he could be a preacher or a used-car salesman.” The dad says this admiringly: Fifty percent of success in pitching “is just thinking you can do it.”
By the middle of the last decade, the Wolforths had made important friends, coaches who’d come to see them teach and left thinking they’d seen something special. In 2006, Ron and Jill bought the current Ranch site, 20 acres in the old pine forest north of Houston. They spent their life savings on the down payment and mortgaged the rest. They almost missed their first payroll. “There’s nobody to save ya,” Wolforth says. “The cavalry ain’t comin’. So you better figure it out.”
Luckily for Wolforth, even as he struggled to move closer to the professional game, baseball was moving toward him. Sabermetrics, Moneyball — a new reliance on data was becoming part of the air, and by now, kids who’d grown up breathing it were arriving at the Ranch. Bauer was one. “I remember him as an eighth-grader,” Wolforth says. “He looked like a librarian. There was no athleticism to him. He tells me — I still remember this — he says, ‘Coach, I’m going to be your first 100-mile thrower.’ He weighs a buck thirty-five. Big ears.” But the engineer’s kid with the big ears turned out to be electric. Bauer still holds the velocity record at the Ranch: 105 mph. In 2011, after the Diamondbacks drafted him, Sports Illustrated ran a long piece about Bauer and his origin story in Texas. When it appeared online, Wolforth’s cell started blowing up. “That was the moment when I knew there was no looking back.”
But for all the credibility he’s gained since, Wolforth remains an outsider, a guy who still defines himself by his opposition to MLB’s institutional wisdom and culture, and even the clubs that like him don’t want to talk about him. The Indians wouldn’t allow interviews with their Ranch-friendly staff — “Our relationship with Ron’s Baseball Ranch is something we value greatly and also something we really care not to advertise,” their PR guy emailed — and the Astros declined an interview request with pitching coach Strom. MLB advises young pitchers to avoid radar guns, which are central to Wolforth’s approach, and weighted balls and long-toss training are also controversial. There’s no robust scientific literature showing that they help or hurt the arm. “I can guarantee you that there are 30 clubs out there that are basically willing to spend a lot of money to try to be the top dog,” says Cubs minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson. “Is there a fear factor in some of it? Yes. Because you’re dealing with millions and millions of dollars.” Wolforth puts it plainly: “If somebody goes down on [a coach’s] watch on a weighted ball and they OK’d it, that could be a career ender.”
On the second day of July’s boot camp, he tells the campers a story that explains how he sees his place in baseball. Eight years ago, he says, a Milwaukee Brewers scout visited the Ranch. “He said, ‘Hey Ron, that’s really neat what you’re doing. But not all your guys are going to make it.'” It was the law of averages. Wolforth was selling the kids false hope. “You’re in the selection business. I get it,” Wolforth replied. “My business is teaching. I’m not here choosing the winners and the losers of life’s lottery or baseball’s lottery.” He turns to the campers with peak passion: “Don’t let someone throw that junk on you.”
Wolforth says the scout became irritated and insisted that “the Brewers way” of teaching pitching was best. That was interesting, Wolforth said: “When’s the last time you guys were relevant? The Truman administration?” Laughter in the barn. “We haven’t talked since,” Wolforth says. “I don’t know why.”
DURING THE LAST hour of boot camp, at 1:10 p.m., the coaches bring out the radar gun, lead the campers into the barn and line them up in front of two nets covered with green tarps. Unlike some of the other tarps, there are no markings on these two, no particular place to aim. By this point, the campers have completed three days’ worth of lectures and videotape sessions and alien drills. At long last, it is time to pick up a good old leather baseball and throw it as hard as they can.
They form two rough lines, chattering and bouncing. Their parents notice the shift in noise and energy and rise from their lawn chairs outdoors, crowding inside to watch. One by one, the campers throw. They sprint toward the tarps for a few yards, getting a good running start, then release. “Eighty-nine!” cries out a coach. “Eighty-seven point nine! Seventy-eight! Sixty-eight! Eighty-four zero, thattaboy! Ninety-three zero!” The campers clap and yell for anyone breaking 90, and flocks of high-fives greet those kids when they return to the line. One guy looks dazed: 17-year-old Seth Fraley, from Sedalia, Missouri. Fraley just got clocked at 86.9. Before this camp, “I barely threw 78 to 80, maybe,” he says, and glances back at the tarp. “That was crazy.” His father, Rusty Rice, holds out a twitching hand. “I’m shaking!” he says. “Eighty-six nine! Best baseball experience we’ve ever had.”
It goes on like this for 15 minutes before the campers switch to the turn and burn drill: Stand with your back to the tarp and backpedal for 10 yards, then turn 180 degrees and release the ball. More high-fives, more personal records broken. Some kids don’t do as well as they’d hoped and slouch back into line with blank looks. Wolforth stands in the middle of the barn, saying little.
Near 2 p.m., he calls an end to the drills and asks the campers to grab folding chairs and sit in the barn for a few minutes before they head back to their cars with their parents. He turns down the lights and clicks his clicker. A sentence appears on the screen: “What if the world does not believe in me?”
Wolforth paces for a few moments, letting that sink in. What if the world does not believe in me?
Silence except for the box fan.
“The world has already decided,” he says. “And you are not it.”
He clicks again, and a video begins playing. More than 139 million YouTube views. An overweight guy with bad teeth sells mobile phones in England but tells the camera he dreams of being an opera star. He walks onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent to skeptical looks from the judges. Then he starts to sing. In the video, the judges smile, and here in Texas, the barn fills with the contestant’s precise and lovely voice, the Italian lyrics of “Nessun Dorma” pinging off the walls. Watching the faces of all these people from Louisiana and Georgia and Pennsylvania and California as they listen to a British opera singer in Texas, Wolforth seems like a grim sort of prophet. For all the froth and uplift of the Ranch’s marketing pitch, he is communicating an existential vision of the universe, a vision informed by his own struggles trying to get the universe to pay attention to Ron Wolforth. Instead of selling his students false hope, he’s telling them something no adult has ever told them quite this candidly: The world they want to live in, the world of professional baseball, is a brutal place, and no one is going to save them. Not even if they make it to the majors, where they’ll only be a highly paid gasket in some GM’s beautiful engine, easily swapped out if the worst happens.
“The cavalry is not coming,” he says. They have to be their own cavalry.
Throwing 90 or 95 with no pain will help.
Also, signing up for Durathro can’t hurt. “OK,” Wolforth says in the barn, releasing the campers and their parents back into the abyss. “Can I get the lights, please?”