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ON THE DIAMOND: Grip N Rip Baseball founder Tony Lewis stands on home plate at U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark before two teams face off in the adult amateur league.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
ON THE DIAMOND: Grip N Rip Baseball founder Tony Lewis stands on home plate at U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark before two teams face off in the adult amateur league.

Business Spotlight: The Business of Baseball

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Once a week this time of year, roughly 150 men trade business suits and work attire for baseball uniforms – complete from caps to cleats.

They leave behind their weekday briefcases or toolboxes to gather on Sundays at U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark, instead picking up wooden bats and leather gloves. Their tasks on these days are to face off against curveballs and line drives rather than spreadsheets or machinery.

Welcome to the Grip N Rip Baseball league.

Founder and organizer Tony Lewis says the league is designed for amateur yet talented ballplayers – guys who just love the sport.

“They are the lawyers, the bankers, the plumbers, the insurance people. I throw them back into the limelight of baseball,” says Lewis, a banker by trade but who first worked on his baseball career.

There are no paychecks here. The men of Grip N Rip Baseball pay to play and to cover league operations – fees for the stadium, umpires, uniforms, the website, marketing and a small front-office staff.

“This is a passion piece for myself and everyone involved,” Lewis says.

The for-profit league now comprising six teams started play in 2016, but Lewis says the concept began to form several years prior when he was holding youth baseball camps and teaching lessons.

“I had a lot of my pro friends come in,” he says of the ballplayer connections he made while playing in professional independent leagues in Canada and France.

Lewis formally organized Grip N Rip Baseball LLC in 2014 and the first season was played in 2016.

Caleb Cole is one of the original 60 players from that season. The four-year starter and scholarship player at Drury University hadn’t played baseball for a few years after graduating but is glad for the chance to regularly step onto the ball diamond again.

“I’m ate up with the game itself,” says Cole, the general manager of Redline Athletics youth sports performance facility. “It has always intrigued me. How much failure is involved and how much pride you take in succeeding. It teaches you how to be mentally strong.”

As in life, Cole says he could go through a rough patch and be 0 for 4 at the plate one week and find success the next, going 3 for 4 with a home run. The goal: “Figure out how to string eight or nine wins together and pop Champagne at the end of the season.”

He’s done it once. But he’s been to the championship game two other times. There’s that failure lesson.

The league held its annual tryouts and live draft on July 31, and the season runs mid-August – triple headers every Sunday but Labor Day weekend – through the championship game on Oct. 23.

Lewis’ weekday title is community bank president at The Bank of Missouri – a new role for him this summer – but for Grip N Rip he’s known as commissioner. He’s in charge of the administration and structure of the league.

It takes about $50,000 a year to run the league and roughly $30,000 comes from player dues and ticket sales, Lewis says, declining to disclose annual revenue. There’s a $5 gate fee, of which $1 goes to a nonprofit and another buck is set aside for the championship team.

“Last year, I split the pot, so the guys actually got paid,” Lewis says, noting the share was $150 apiece.

The nonprofit pool is typically $2,000, he says, and beneficiaries over the years have been Care to Learn, Community Blood Center of the Ozarks, Rescue One and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

The annual players’ fee is $300 and some are sponsored by small businesses. Lewis says nearly 20 businesses sponsor players at $375 a pop. Another 10 businesses sponsor teams; Henry’s Towing owns two of them.

Similar to Minor League Baseball, sponsorship opportunities range, in part, to maintain a fun atmosphere. Lewis’ employer, The Bank of Missouri, for instance, is the foul ball sponsor.

Another financial institution, Mid-Missouri Bank, is a player sponsor for one of its commercial lenders: Skyler Henson.

“It waives our player fee and allows the bank to get a little exposure through the livestream,” Henson says of the games streamed on the league’s Facebook page.

Also, when he’s on the mound pitching or in the batter’s box hitting, the stadium video board shows an animation with the bank’s logo.

Henson says the weekend play intertwines with his professional life. He got into banking after earning an accounting degree on a baseball scholarship at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The 30-year-old Marionville native has worked for Commerce Bank and Springfield First Community Bank.

“I wasn’t done playing ball,” Henson says. “This was a way I could continue my professional career and still get the joy of playing the game.”

This year, Henson suits up for the Branson Showmen. And he looks to increase his lead as Grip N Rip Baseball’s all-time leading strikeout pitcher.

Let’s play ball!

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