Twenty years ago, THBA founder Brian Justine was driving back home to Palm Beach County from Madison, WI with his dad after being released near the end of his second minor league season. Only 23 at the time, Justine knew his playing career was most likely coming to an end and it was now time to figure out “life after baseball.”
Like all good dads, Justine’s father Jerry (who is more affectionately known at the THBA as Chef Jerry), didn’t let him dwell on the past for long.
Justine fondly remembers: “I think a day or two after I was home after being released, my dad started talking to me about how much rent would be to live at my parent’s house. That was just the kick in the rear I needed to begin putting the baseball camp idea into a business plan and get the wheels into motion. I stayed up for 5 straight days and nights and completed the first and only draft of the plan that was used to launch the Tommy Hutton Baseball Academy. And, I was certain it would be successful.”
Perhaps an act of fate, one of Justine’s childhood best friends had also just been released from the Chicago White Sox organization. Jason Hutton, Tommy Hutton’s oldest son, found himself in the same situation as his good friend. Sensing that the two of them would be effective business partners, Justine presented the idea to Hutton. Like Justine, he grew up in northern Palm Beach County and still had a passion for the game and helping others.
“Jason and I shared a strong desire to remain around baseball. We both believed strongly in running the business with the purpose of serving others by sharing our passion and knowledge with kids. With his dad being a former major league player and well known baseball personality, it was a no brainer to name the camp in Mr. Hutton's honor. Tommy Hutton and his class and high character became the brand we set out to build. And we had a blast doing it!” commented Justine.
The next hurdle was developing the partnerships the camp would need for facilities and funding. Justine started with Rob Rabenecker at Roger Dean Stadium. Justine was an original employee at Roger Dean and developed a good relationship with Rabenecker during his internship.
“Rob took my call and I was in his office only days after completing the camp business plan. The pitch lasted about an hour and I left with the feeling that this was really happening. Sure enough, he called the following week and said we were in. We signed a five year deal and were set to hold our inaugural camp on the back fields at Roger Dean in June!” exclaimed Justine.
Now, with the clock ticking and only six months until the first camp, Justine and Hutton needed to secure funding for startup expenses.
“One of my favorite parts of the story is how we were scrambling to find funding. Neither Jason nor I wanted to ask our parents for a loan. Although they most likely would have come through for us, we wanted to do it ourselves on merit and the strength of our business plan. We sent the plan to Kathy Willoughby at Bank of America and she got back to us and said it was one of the best business plans she had seen. We were approved for a $50,000 SBA loan and our dads cosigned the note with us. That day in the office with us and our dads, closing on our startup loan is a very special memory!” Justine explained.
With only four months until the first scheduled camp at Roger Dean, Hutton and Justine executed a grass roots marketing campaign that would make even the savviest entrepreneur proud. Partnerships were formed with schools, local recreation leagues and small businesses.
Justine recalls: “We ended up with 98 players at our first camp. Alex Perez was the first to ever enroll. For that, we awarded him a signed Derek Jeter ball. We paid almost the entire loan back by the end of our first year in business, nearly ten years ahead of schedule. Kids were learning. Our best friends were on staff. Major leaguers were coming out to visit every week. We had 200 kids at one of our camps! It was a dream come true!”
Now, 20 years and over 10,000 participants later, the Tommy Hutton Baseball Academy continues to be a place where young players of all ages and abilities can learn and fall in love with the game. Hutton has moved on, but Justine remains as the camps general manager. Frank Torre, an original THBA staff member and Justine’s elementary school best friend, has served as a coach, director and guest instructor throughout the camps history. Justine, Hutton and Torre all played high school baseball locally and were summer teammates on Kevin O’Sullivan’s American Legion teams.
And of course, the two dads who made it all happen are still involved. Tommy Hutton, now retired, makes regular appearances at the THBA while his golfing buddy, Chef Jerry Justine, continues to grill his world famous hot dogs for the camp each week. The Tommy Hutton Baseball Academy is a true American entrepreneurial success story founded on family values, friendship and baseball!
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