John Riffle is passionate about three things: his family, his faith, and his favorite sport. The local father and coach has figured out a way to bring all three together through the Grayson Heat travel baseball team. The team, which Riffle started and coaches, is composed of baseball players ages 7-8 from the Grayson area. They are currently raising funds to help the players and their families cover the costs of travel ball.
Riffle, a former baseball player himself, says the goal of the Grayson Heat is a little different from other travel teams.
“There are so many talented kids in this area, and many are leaving to go play ball on other travel teams,” Riffle said via phone. “This team is a way of keeping some of those kids here in Grayson and building on their skills.”
The Grayson Heat travel team is taking a step up from regular recreation league ball. Like many travel teams, the players train with former Major League Baseball players and focus on developing the strengths of each specific kid. What makes the Heat a bit different is the type of kids that are included on the team.
“This team is a way to invest in kids who have been overlooked. A lot of times these teams are composed of kids who don’t really need the extra training. My idea is to train those kids who really want to play and have untapped potential,” Riffle said. “A lot of times, you can see a kid who’s really coming into his own just as the regular season ends, and then nothing happens after that until the next season rolls around. Our idea is to take kids like that and extend their learning curve while also training their parents how to work with their child at home.”
Riffle’s passion for helping players reach their potential stems in part from his own journey as a ball player. Signed to a minor league deal out of a tryout camp when he was a teenager, Riffle played for months in the minors until sidelined by a back injury. After rehab, Riffle hit the circuit, working hard to get tryouts with various teams.
“I was able to tryout with a few major league clubs,” Riffle said. “The Reds, the Marlins — but my favorite was the Indians. Growing up around Cleveland, that was my dream.”
Riffle’s tryout with the Indians began the way many do: timed runs combined with a timed position throw – in Riffle’s case, centerfield.
“They literally time how long it takes the ball to reach homeplate from your position,” he said. “If the run time and the throw time are good enough, they invite you to stick around for some more drills.”
Riffle’s times with the Indians were impressive enough that he got to not only stick around, but take some swings from home plate at Jacobs (now Progressive) Field, the home stadium for the Indians. While Riffle ultimately didn’t make the team, he did make good on a personal dream.
“They had this left-handed pitching prospect throwing to me, and I was hitting some solid shots off of him. I was able to turn on the final pitch and sent a ball over Jacob’s Ladder in left field. All my life, I’d dreamed of hitting a home run from that batter’s box, and there it was. I walked off the field, grabbed the ball, and never looked back.”
Riffle went onto play competitive softball with some other former ball players, but fatherhood channeled his love of the game into coaching.
“I love seeing kids grow, seeing a kid come into his own as a player, and the confidence they get from that growth,” Riffle said. “Plus, I get to help them develop their character and integrity. It’s a great way to remind the kids that there is more to be gained than just being great at a sport.”
The Grayson Heat have already begun their offseason training, and the team is hoping to offset some of the costs to its families via a GoFundMe page. The team is looking to raise $5,000 to cover uniforms, equipment, and travel expenditures, including a hoped-for trip to see Riffle’s friend Steve Geltz at the Tampa Bay Rays spring training site.
“There are two things that are true about me,” Riffle said. “I have the love of Christ in me, and I have a passion for baseball. This team is just God’s way of allowing me to share both in a way that makes a difference.”