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For TJ Runnells, in the middle of his pro career with the Detroit Tigers in the early 2000s, Baseball Central LA was a way to stay in touch with the game in the off season, a venue which rounded out his love of the sport and ultimately handed him a post-season career training future stars in the sport.

As an instructor for two years at the former La Cienega Blvd. location, Runnells built up a large following and clientele list. The fact that Runnells' own father Tom was a former Montreal Expos coach and switch hitter for the Cincinnati Reds didn’t hurt matters. Pedigree counts.

By 2005, when he retired from pro ball, Runnells had made the move from instructor to owner at BC, and immediately began to expand the staff to meet needs. Cage rentals and private instruction sessions were joined by kids summer camps, baseball-themed parties and eventually a traveling league squad.

“The owner back then had always joked that one day I might own the place,” Runnells says. “I just kind of fell into it and never looked back.”

In its new Venice Blvd. location since 2010, Baseball Central now draws a wide range of players and even sports. Baseball and softball enthusiasts from six to 76, and even cricketers in full whites use the facility to hone their batting and throwing skills. And the reach extends even further, to Europe and parts of Asia, where tourists make monthly pilgrimages to get a taste of "America's" sport.

For Runnells the main draw of the facility is its old-school, hands-on feel of authenticity. It’s the timeless equipment, the atmosphere and the people.

“With the manually adjustable machines and perfect training spaces it definitely reminds you of being in the basement of a stadium,” he says.

On the player side – due to both Runnells and his instructors’ playing pedigree -- Baseball Central has managed to make several Major League connections – the latest with the Colorado Rockies -- giving summer camp kids the opportunity to meet some of their heroes in person.

LA Dodgers’ outfielder Matt Kemp, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Roberts and Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos González have all dropped by the facility in recent times.

And of course BC houses its own star instructor, Shawn Chacon, who has 14 years pro experience, including eight years in the major leagues with the Rockies, Yankees, Pirates and Astros. He was named to the 2003 All-Star team as a starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies.

Chacon and Runnells grew up as best friends in Greeley, CO, and played baseball together from an early age.

"We actually hit a homerun off each other in little league baseball, played travel ball together, and then went to rival high schools, where we had heated battles in every sport ... we constantly pushed each other and tried to outdo one other," Runnells said.

"Because he was such a dominant force on the mound, of course he brought in a lot of scouts ... that helped myself, amongst other players, get noticed. It's been a blessing to have him at BC and see how great he is with the kids."

Runnell’s own pro career allowed him play Single- and Double-A with Detroit Tigers training squads in Florida (Lakeland Flying Tigers), New York (Jamestown Jammers) and Michigan (West Michigan Whitecaps) as well as several Triple-A spring training games against the likes of Darryl Strawberry, Kenny Lofton and 18-time golden glove winner and Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who “robbed him” of a dream base hit.

The latter experience even has Runnells contemplating a children’s book, tentatively titled “The Day I Faced Greg Maddux.”

“The game is so hard to break into … for most kids my goal is for them to get better, build confidence, and in general leave BC feeling good about a positive experience,” Runnells says. “But occasionally you get gems, so talented, that need another outlet.”

For those players, Baseball Central has taken a page out of the Travel League club team book, creating two BC Attack! squads – a 14-and-under team in the Beach Cities League and a 10-and-under team in the West LA Fall League – to provide a more competitive environment for regulars.

“Both teams finished high in fall leagues here, even though we’re new and young,” Runnells says, adding he hoped the squads’ successes will attract more, talented players. The BC Attack! 14-Us will field a team this spring and the club is also already looking to Fall 2014 leagues again.

"The hope, ultimately, is to have BC alumni moving on to the big leagues," Runnells says. “We have some players who have gone on to college and minor pro leagues. And we have been around long enough now to start seeing this more often in the future.”

As to Runnell’s on-field career, he admits to still having dreams about playing in the Major Leagues.

“But being able to teach and help the kids on their journey, pursuing a possible career … none of it would have happened if I was on another path.”