Located strategically at 3160 Charles Town Road, Kearneysville, WV (just east of the VA Hospital entrance and the Berkeley/Jefferson County line), “The Game Changer” baseball and softball training facility is unlike anything this community (or region) has ever seen.
The $2 million complex literally has it all: 16,800 square feet of space (15,400 of which is turf); 70,000 square feet of netting; a typical set up of eight net-enclosed “hitting/pitching lanes” (108 feet deep, 15 feet wide, and 27 feet high), which can be divided in half to comprise 16 lanes if needed—or a complete high school/college level infield (with a tiny outfield); a parents’ lounge (with leather couches, large viewing windows, and two huge TVs—and a wine bar on the way); a party area for birthdays and celebrations; a separate bullpen upstairs for pitching; a full weight room; and a pro-shop. (And even WiFi.)
Owner D.J. Knotts, a Jefferson County native who owns several businesses, including Martinsburg companies
Appalachian Heating & Air Conditioning and 100 Proof Tattoo, completed the complete build-out in just 61 days.
“It took around two years to secure this space; we needed a large area free of poles and other obstructions,” he explained. “After months of negotiations, the owner was on board, and we jumped right in. There was absolutely nothing here; it was literally empty.”
Through his other businesses, Knotts was able to access all the labor and expertise needed to quickly and efficiently complete the build-out: from HVAC to carpentry to electric. With one exception: “I laid the turf, all of it, by myself—my knees and hands were trashed for weeks,” he noted.
He also admitted that a business model like this is a huge gamble, but he’s definitely got one thing going for him—exclusivity. “There is no place like this for a hundred miles. There are batting cages, small baseball training facilities, etc.—but nothing this size, or as comprehensive. We’re double the size of anything remotely similar to this. And there isn’t a place that has a whole infield for four or five hundred miles.”
An acknowledged baseball fan, Knotts played as a kid and then a little in high school, but began working at 14, and eventually lost sight of the sport. It wasn’t until he had kids of his own that his passion was renewed.
“My oldest son is fifteen. When he had his very first tryout and practice, it somehow reignited within me. In ten years, I’ve missed one practice.”
Knotts also marks a pivotal moment in recent years when his son came to him and asked an important question—which would ultimately lead to the development of the facility.
“Three years ago, he said to me, ‘Dad, I want to get better.’ I said, if that’s truly what you want, then I’ll give it to you. We work out almost every day now. He’s become a beast, as they say—with two college looks already, as a high school freshman.”
The Game Changer evolved from that initial request. “I’ve been lucky enough to own some businesses that allow me to travel,” Knotts indicated. “We’re in Florida a lot, and these types of places are everywhere—same with Texas. Those kids are able to work out year-round. I started coaching baseball three years ago, as well. At one point, we got beaten badly by a Florida team, and I remember thinking, the talent isn’t any different, so what is the difference? It was endurance—they play every day of the year—and kids around here just don’t have that option.”
The Game Changer is already impacting the local baseball scene since officially opening in December (2017). Ten travel teams, as well as a girls’ softball team, compete beneath The Game Changer brand—and are based out of the complex. Knotts also said three area high schools train out of the facility, and he’s looking for two more. He also pointed out that the endeavor has garnered interest from local and regional colleges, travel teams, and even some local Major Leaguers looking to get ready for spring training later this month.
“For this business, success means getting local kids into college via baseball/softball scholarships,” he stressed. “Even though we’re close to Northern Virginia and D.C., there’s still a lot of financial limitation for talented kids around here. This place needs to exist for the kids that need help to go to school and need a place to work out year-round. I want them to be able to come here and get the tools they need.”
To that end, Knotts is giving away $10,000 this year in scholarships, as well. “We’ll have our requirements posted on Facebook and our website,” he indicated. “I’ve been lucky enough in life to work hard and see successful results—working is what got me here. I’m not a doctor, a scientist, but there are kids in this building right now who will be one day—and I want to make sure they have the ability to pursue that potential through college and beyond … with baseball as the channel. Everyone has their own definition of success; mine has never been money, but freedom. My goal here is to put as many people as possible in college from this place—and afford them the freedom to achieve both their potential and their dreams.”
In-house staff at The Game Changer includes ex-Major Leaguer Brandon King and 30-year coach Jeff Nichols. “The knowledge within those two guys is unmatched,” added Knotts—who also personally offers strength/conditioning and flexibility classes three days a week. “We offer private instruction, as well, with five additional guys—all top-notch instructors—who cover everything from hitting to pitching to catching to fielding. We like to base a kid’s ability and age to the right instructor.”
The entire setup is also universal and easily modified, Knotts suggested. “We have to be flexible when it comes to the lanes because we don’t know how many pitchers or batters will come in every day. And sometimes, we need two tunnels open just for infield practice. So, everything here is movable and easily adapted for the needs of the players. We have portable mounds for baseball and softball, protective screens, bats or gloves for people that forget their stuff (even for customers), balls everywhere, pitching machines—literally everything you need. Basically, if you want to get better, it’s here.”
The Game Changer, essentially, serves as an “all-roads-leads-to” hub for the local (and beyond) baseball community. “We have four-year-olds coming in,” said Knotts. “We see what their skill level is. We have outside travel teams coming in. The local high schools think it’s not going to be affordable, but it turns out it’s actually very affordable to them. And then the Major Leaguers. So, we’re literally getting four-year-olds all the way up to the pros … in just a couple months.”
Setting the Expectation
Game Changer General Manager Jamie Davis already sees an undeniable energy take over the facility during operating hours. “It’s just an excitement. Whether it’s entire teams in here or what we call ‘John Q’ customers who just want to come in and hit some balls, or even first dates—you can just feel it.”
Knotts agreed, “The excitement from this so far has been the most enjoyable thing for me—and example: Coach Lowery from Jefferson High comes in here once a week. And you know you’ve done something right when you wow that man. Or when the kids come in for the first time, and they’re just looking around in amazement—and they see the quality. Everything they dream of is here, all under roof.”
That said, Knotts is quick to acknowledge Davis. “I have to give credit to Jamie on that. I’m the creator—ideas—but at the end of the day, she won’t let one of my businesses open up until it’s complete in her mind. When we have parents come in, clients, we don’t want them to leave thinking ‘Man, I wish they had that, or this was missing. And we don’t get that—because of Jamie.”
Davis added, “I just feel like if you’re selling a product or service to someone, I always want them to feel like they’re not getting taking advantage of. I want them to know that any dollar they’re spending in any of our businesses is well worth it. As we were building this out, there were a few guys who said, do you really need a parents’ lounge at this point—do you need two big TVs? Well, I said, have you ever been a mom sitting in the car while your kid is playing or practicing? Yes, they’re paying; we want to make people comfortable and even have them enjoying the moment. They can sit on a comfortable couch, do some work, watch TV, or watch through the windows.”
Knotts echoed. “The only way to do something like this is to make it as nice as possible. If you’re going to do it, then do it right.
“We’re setting the expectation, and what comes with that is the perception that ‘… if this is available around here, then maybe I can be bigger or better than what was expected of me—go farther—even go to the pros.’”
The Wow Factor
Knotts sees his facility as a way for local kids to get out. “This is about more than just baseball or softball; this is teaching an athlete to go further than their local levels,” he said. “This is about the kids who don’t yet think they can achieve greatness—or who are close to realizing something about themselves—and when they do, watch out.”
He uses his 17-year-old travel team as an example. “They’re the closest to college, so they’re a high priority—but most of them have never seen turf or played on it,” he said. “Our travel team has allowed them to play at Virginia Tech—an amazing facility—Lynchburg (VA)—and more. Seeing these types of places makes them believe that bigger and better is possible. Then, coming back and training here drives that realization home. Places like Florida, South Carolina, Duke—they’ve played so many places, with amenities they never imagined—and now they want it, which makes me feel good, because now they’re trying harder in school in order to potentially get to one of these places. The wow factor pushes them to believe.”
Ultimately, Knotts succeeded in creating an irrefutable “wow” factor, and now wants to leverage that experience within young people to motivate them into being their best. “I set the bar, the expectation, extremely high with this place, so that these kids will, in turn, do the same within themselves. When a young person, or a team, sees that a local person like me—who grew up poor and went straight to work—pushed himself and went all out on a place like this, then they will expect the same from themselves. Curiosity becomes passion becomes determination.”
Davis added, “D.J.’s an inspiration to these kids—he came from much less than what they have, and now he’s very successful. And he was able to create The Game Changer as well. They can see that if he did all this, then they can climb up out of their situations too, and do or be anything. He freely shares his story with them—from sports to education. Everyone involved here is open with the kids about sports, school, and life. Young people can tell the difference between when people care and when they don’t. They don’t ever have to question that here.”
— For more information, call 304-901-4068, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or find The Game Changer on Facebook.
(All images within the story courtesy of Josh Triggs and 3MI Photography)