Thursday, March 18, 2010

Swing into spring at Nick's All Star Baseball Academy
by Sheryl Popp

Naturally, I know March Madness is just beginning, but baseball is the second sports world sign of spring. So it seems a good fit to profile Michael Nick's baseball academy now, even though the facility is open year round. I sat down with Michael and asked him to bring me up to speed.

Michael hails from Indiana originally, but moved to Silver Lake in West Bend when offered a job promotion in 1989. As he had always played and loved baseball, it was natural for him to foster that same passion in his son, Jonathan. They played together since Jonathan was little, and Michael took him to the academy (then owned by someone else), when he was eight. Four years ago, the academy's owner accepted a job out of town and was faced with closing the business. "I looked at the baseball academy as very beneficial to the community," said Michael. "So I offered to buy out his assets. It was kind of a hobby, and I thought both my children could work here in the summers." Before long, the hobby became expensive. Michael credits Vince and Janet Stockhausen with making it possible for Nick's All Star Baseball Academy to remain in the community. "This building (next to Stocky's Fast Track) was their old race track," explained Nick. "They made the space affordable and I have more room here - 5,000 square feet." The additional space has made it possible to grow the academy's offerings.

Actually, Michael had been widening the scope of the academy all along. "Originally," he said, "it was limited to private lessons and open hitting, and you had to be a member. I went out into the community looking for local talent like Wille and hired those people to teach specialty camps and clinics. I wanted this baseball academy to be different than any other." For other non-sports knowledge folk like me, "Wille," is Willie Mueller, a former Milwaukee Brewer pitcher. He played "The Duke" in the movie, Major League. Other trainers include local coaches, former Brewer Jim Gantner, and Mitch Knox, a West Bender who played for the University of Kentucky. Services at the academy include hitting lessons for baseball and softball, pitching lessons, hitting, fielding and pitching camps, catching, pitching and fielding clinics, girls' fast pitch lessons, men's slow pitch, weekly mini-camps throughout the winter months and more. One can still become a member and receive unlimited batting cage, soft-toss and pitchers mound usage. The facility's website,, lists all the various memberships and fees, plus scheduling. Camps and clinics are designed for various age groups, or to address a specific skill set.

"We film kids and analyze their form too," said Nick. "We place a great deal of emphasis on starting kids younger," he continued. "That's because most kids get hurt in sports because they don't know the basics. They didn't learn at a young enough age. Sports injuries are up like crazy. So, we introduce drills that you can't get in a big camp. We focus on quality and not quantity. Our camp size is about a dozen kids. That's about the biggest thing I've done since I bought the academy."

Specialty clinics help kids hone a skill that is rarely taught in a team environment. Not all are strictly physical. For example, an example of a mental issue might be a pitcher who runs into trouble whenever there are too many players on base. A physical example would be working on power hitting. That, said Michael, could literally be the difference between a double and a home run. Lest we forget, baseball has become an exact science. To succeed in this most competitive sport, players need to utilize every advantage. "Every kid dreams of becoming a pro," said Michael. "West Bend is really known for great baseball too. They've gone to State six out of the last seven years, and have done really well." Additional offerings and services that set Nick's apart include:

• a focus on younger girl's fundamentals and girl's fast pitch
• the indoor dirt pitching mound. It's completely regulation, with exact measurements. This is a huge advantage, said Michael, because a pitcher has to adjust his throw if using a simulated mound during the off season, and then back again. To the best of his knowledge, this is the only inside dirt mound in the state.
• a coach's key program. This allows local teams to have the facility to themselves for an hour and a half a week, year round. "This keeps kids' baseball muscles working," said Michael, "and it keeps the team cohesive, which builds continuity over the years. Also, it's just good general exercise during the winter."
• adult men's groups. Michael is developing less skill driven programs for men who would just like to practice. "I'd like to make it more of a social thing for them," he said. "I"m always looking for new ideas. For example, one of the kids who works here brought in the idea of agility and strength training. So we're offering a new clinic on that."

When Michael bought the academy, he looked at it as a community gathering place, but has learned it's a lot more than that. He employs six high school kids (including, as planned, his son Jonathan and daughter Jessica), and 12 local coaches. Other ex pros contact him because they have an interest in remaining active. He has also seen that the academy is ideally suited to promote a way for family members to connect, such as single parents and their children, or older siblings with their younger brothers and sisters. "The thing is," said Michael, "this remains a constant for them. Love of baseball doesn't change like musical taste."

Nick's All Star Baseball Academy isn't a money making venture. Michael is now self-employed, so he's able to handle the administrative end of things, and teach some of the clinics. It's open to anyone in the community and surrounding area, and fees are more than fair, considering class size and program advantages. If these costs are still too much for a family, inquire anyway. Something will be worked out. Nick's All-Star Baseball Academy is located at 6405 Stockhausen Lane in West Bend. The phone is 262-334-5093. Do go to the website above for a complete list of services, camps and clinics. Regular open hours at the facility are: Mon.-Thurs., 3:30-7:30pm, Fri., 3-6pm, Sat., 12-4pm and Sun., 12-3pm.

Michael told me he was a great cook. At first thought, you might not judge a cook by chocolate chip cookies. Take a closer look, these are indeed "special." "And," he added, "make sure to say they have to be put together in the order given or they don't work out."

Michael's "Very Famous" Chocolate Chip Cookies
Cream together:
1 cup of softened butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
Next, add to the above:
1 Tbl. milk
1 tsp. vanilla
Beat two eggs and add into the above. Then stir in:
1 cup dry crumpled corn flakes
3 cups oats
Set aside and in separate bowl, mix:
1 1/2 cups unsifted four
1 1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. mace
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. powdered cloves
Add to the above mixture. Finally, stir in:
4 oz. coconut flakes
1 pkg. chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts (Michael uses walnuts)
Drop cookies onto cookie sheet and bake at 350ยบ for 10 minutes.
Note: To preserve softness, put into container with a piece of bread.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In Good Taste features Hartford Players

Hartford Players enthusiastically entertain community and surrounds
By Sheryl Popp

For over 20 years, the Hartford Players have been happily staging plays in Hartford, providing a creative outlet for talented area residents, and giving back to the community through scholarships. They are currently in the middle of a dinner theater production called "Wake me When I'm Dead," to benefit the Schauer Center. Murder mystery dinner shows are tremendous fun, and I thought it would also be fun to learn more about the company in general. I visited with the troupe's current president, Fred Wittenberger, to learn more.

Although not a founding member himself, Fred had the company's genesis story ready. "Jim Mohr and Jerry Becker, two Hartford attorneys, were attending a play," said Fred. "Mohr turned to Becker and said 'Hartford should have a community theater.' They put the idea into action pretty quickly, and by recruiting friends and family, they were able to stage A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum that summer." That was 1988. They must have had fun and a decent turnout, because the next summer they were back with Music Man - and have not missed a year since. For most of their history, the players performed at Hartford High School. When the Schauer Center opened in 2001, The Hartford Players became one of its resident groups. "When the community began looking for a spot for an arts center, some of our members were even contacted to help search for a location," said Fred. "Once it was built, they still had some undeveloped space and some of our members volunteered to help construct the backstage area and build dressing rooms."

The Hartford Players were conceived as an acting company that would provide a venue for adult community members. While the occasional role might call for a child or teen, plays with mature casts are generally chosen. They have a board of directors with nine members, who are also the corps group of actors and directors. "Most of what I do now as president," explained Fred, "is read plays. Lots of them." Once he or another board member finds a piece they think is a good fit, it's taken to the board for a vote. There are open auditions for all plays. People come from all over the area to try out for parts, many from other local community theater groups. The company stages two plays a year. "The first, scheduled in March generally, is usually a comedy," said Fred. "I like comedies, and I'm convinced they sell better. The July play is a musical, which will have a bigger cast. Since we've been at the Schauer Center, we've also done a benefit show for them every other year."

Fred began acting with the group after college. A local guy, he enjoyed acting in high school and continued at St. Norbert College before majoring in business. (Fred is the third generation owner of Wittenberger Bus Service in Hartford.) At the time, the company was performing Arsenic and Old Lace and one of the leads broke a limb. The director filled in for him, another actor filled in for the director, and a smaller part opened in the play. Fred was asked to perform it. That, as they say, was that. "I had been on stage a lot after Arsenic," he said. "Then, we decided to do a benefit performance for the Chandelier Ballroom after the rotary club took it over. It was going to be cocktail theater show. I had an idea for a small, four-person play. And, I had an idea of who to cast as the main couple. So, the board liked it and I ended up directing it. That was in November of 2001, and since then, I've done a lot more directing. I like it, I like choosing a piece and working with it." There are on-line resources to find plays, I learned, and I can see why choosing and reading is the most time consuming part of Fred's involvement. I briefly looked at one service he mentioned. You could find plays in a variety of ways, but a quick alpha check offered me 66 plays beginning with "O," and 105 that started with the letter "W." Whew. Once a play is chosen, Fred will block it and then schedule auditions, about four months in advance of the play. "That's because I like to get the play cast and get the actors their books. I like them to be able to come to the first rehearsal fairly well prepared. People know that when I direct, rehearsals won't run much past 9pm because I have to get up at 4:30," he laughed.

The Hartford Players are a non-profit organization, with a strong commitment to community. "We try to keep our prices affordable, and we like to make enough to fund our scholarship program," explained Fred. "Although we're a resident company at the Schauer, we still have to pay rent for performances. We have operational costs and licensing costs. We do five performances of a given show, and that may cost us $10,000. Ticket sales cover that, and we give out two to four $1,500 scholarships each year." Applications for the scholarships are available on the Hartford Players website. Applicants must be from the area, and be interested in a degree in any of the arts.

Their current play, the dinner mystery, was a bit of a trailblazer for the company. The Pikes Peak lounge on the second floor of the Schauer is now open, and offers a casual atmosphere for cabaret-style events. "They asked us to do a dinner show in Pikes Peak as a fundraiser," said Fred. "So they set up the event catering and we chose a play that coincided with St. Patrick's Day." Although this play doesn't wind up until March 13, Fred is really excited about the next production, an adult version of Grease for their summer musical. "Sue Gilbertson found the play and will direct," said Fred. "Auditions begin May 11 and we're looking for a 50-ish cast. The concept is that the characters are at a high school reunion and sort of relive events." Fred says that one thought he'd like to get across is that the Hartford Players are really a fun group of people to work with. With that in mind, consider volunteering for technical crew (always needed), if you don't want to act or sing on stage. To learn more, and to contact the group, go to All ticket sales for the Hartford Players are handled through the Schauer Center.

Fred provided the following recipe from his wife, Betsy, also an actor. He says it is very easy to make, and popular.

8 oz. corned beef, cut into small pieces
1 16 oz. can sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
8 oz. grated Swiss cheese
1 cup thousand island dressing
Mix all ingredients together and pour into small casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve with rye chips.