By Dixie Jordan
To someone whose hands-on experience with baseball has been cheering the Oakland A's, the thwack of a pitched ball hitting a swinging target at Alameda's Next Level Softball/Baseball Academy is astonishingly loud.
I jump, but to everyone else — the high school player taking a lesson, instructor Adrian Martinez, academy owner Trini Sanchez-Blumkin — it's the sound of music. It means the ball is traveling fast, some 75 to 80 mph, excellent for a high school pitcher.
The young pitcher, like all of Next Level's softball and baseball students, is there to improve the fundamentals of his game.
For the youngest students — training begins as early as age 5 — that can mean learning not to be afraid of the ball. Sanchez-Blumkin starts them out with soft, spongy balls and works them up to the real thing as they gain confidence.
"They'll have the fundamentals by the time they are going to Little League," she says.
And for anyone who thinks T-ball is only for little kids, Sanchez Blumkin points out that even pros continue to practice daily using a batting tee.
For older students, instruction becomes more sophisticated, with pitching machines and full-length tunnels.
They are taught by dedicated instructors, many of them alums of the Alameda High School softball and baseball programs, either as players or as coaches. Sanchez-Blumkin played at AHS and at Cal State East Bay, where she's in the university's Hall of Fame. Her daughter, Ashley Sanchez, played at AHS and won a softball scholarship to Oregon State University.
Adrian Martinez never turned pro himself, but some of the students he coached at Alameda High did, including Jordan Pries and Joshua Nervis.
"We won the NCS championship that year," recalls Martinez proudly. He now works a second shift as a part-time Next Level instructor while holding down a full-time sales job.
Sanchez-Blumkin says she was inspired to start Next Level in August, 2013 because, until then, Alamedans had to take their children off-island for individualized softball and baseball instruction.
"We're not just batting cages," she emphasizes. "We're an academy."