The Pro Talent Instructs Maniacs of South County are ready to match their skills against some of the best youth baseball teams in the world.
The National Wood Bat Travel World Championship is set for Aug. 4-8 in the Bahamas, where 45 teams from across the Caribbean as well as Japan and Australia will also compete. And the Maniacs will be there.
The South County team already has one world title under its belt and is coached by former Major League baseball players. With more than 60 players, PTI, or Pro Talent Instructs, teams regularly travel across the country for competitions where they scoop honors more times than not.
“Each team only uses wood bats,” said Eddie Gonzalez, president and founder of Ruskin-based PTI. “We don’t have any of those $500 aluminum bats that give the advantage to the hitter.”
A former Cincinnati Reds player, Gonzalez coaches the youngsters with his brother, Jerry, a former Los Angeles Angels player. Both brothers earned collegiate baseball scholarships and were All-America and All-Conference players.
Three Maniacs teams, (10 and under, 11 and under and 14 and under), will board a plane for the Caribbean next month. With many accompanied by their parents, more than 80 people are expected to make the trip.
“We take pride in mentoring kids and molding their minds through baseball as well as playing in live competitions, all while having fun,” Eddie Gonzalez said. “We play baseball, but really it’s about life lessons and teaching the kids to be righteous.”
Riverview’s Stephanie Villanti has no doubt her son Nicholas has learned valuable lessons on and off the field during his eight months with the Maniacs.
“It goes far beyond baseball, and that’s why we are with PTI,” said Villanti, the team mom for her son’s 11 and under team. “It’s about attitude, effort and life lessons. Eddie teaches the boys how to become men.”
The children and their parents cannot wait to board the plane for the Bahamas, Villanti said.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for these boys to be exposed to a different culture.”
Irked by the politics of junior baseball leagues, Gonzalez founded PTI in 2006, aiming to ground aspiring young baseball players in the fundamentals of the game and teach the value of teamwork and honesty.
“You can see it in today’s society, where you sometimes have crazy dads coaching youth baseball teams, and then there’s all the politics behind it,” Gonzalez said. “I was tired of it.” But instead of throwing in the towel, Gonzalez started PTI in 2006.
By 2009, the demand for his services saw Gonzalez bring his brother on board full time. “There are only so many ways I can divide up my own time, so now we both run PTI helping kids learn,” said Eddie.
PTI has produced more than a few gems for the diamond. Nathan Chevalier of Bloomingdale High School competed in the Class 8A state championship game last month, while Nick Smith and Duncan Hunter, two other PTI grads, led Jesuit High to a Class 5A state championship this year.
Nationally recognized by baseball magazines several times, the Maniacs won the 2010 Nations Baseball East Coast World Series, beating out 100 teams for the title at the North Carolina tournament.
Dave Fago of Apollo Beach rarely misses a game when his grandsons, Levi Uzbee, 11, and Wyatt Uzbee, 14, play.
“It’s astounding. The teams win at least 50 percent of the tournaments they enter,” Fago said with pride.
Most recently, The Maniacs under 14 squad took first place in the International Baseball Championship Winter Nationals Tournament in Dover, while the under-11 boys won the U.S. Specialty Sports Association Mid-Florida Championship this year. The under-10 teams also took first at the 2014 Global Sports Alliance March Madness tournament.
“Our kids are the ones no one wanted on their team or the ones that no one wanted to coach or the parents just got tired of the politics of other leagues and they came to us,” Gonzalez said.
Intensive training and coaching — and soon the youngsters were competing against teams that had turned them down.
“All of a sudden we were up against the teams that didn’t want these kids, and we were beating them,” said Eddie Gonzalez with a chuckle.
“Eddie is an amazing guy,” Fago said. “He is able to communicate with the kids and get them to play at their best or better. There’s no screaming or yelling. He has a very calm demeanor, and just spends a lot of time with them practicing.”
Gonzalez is not really worried about wins and losses, Villanti said. “Eddie is not out there just to win today,” she said. “If we win, great, but if not, it’s an opportunity to learn for the boys — and that’s what Eddie is all about, teaching the boys. He is in it for the long haul. He’s not chasing trophies; he’s preparing them for high school and college. He has long-term goals for these boys.”
PTI is always on the lookout for new sponsors. “It helps us include those kids whose parents might not be able to afford to join,” said Eddie Gonzalez. “We want to make sure everyone gets a chance to play.”
For more information about PTI, 306 15th Ave. NW, Ruskin, call Eddie or Jerry Gonzalez at 813-966-0734 or 813-220-6506.