By STEVE KRAH
Baseball has given a great deal to Chris Bootcheck.
An Indiana high school standout at Michigan City Rogers and then LaPorte, where he played for coaching legend Ken Schreiber and graduated in 1997, Bootcheck’s passion and talent for the game helped him earn an NCAA Division I scholarship. After a standout career at Auburn University playing for head coach Hal Baird, he pitched 14 seasons as a professional, including seven in the big leagues.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander featured in the book Slicer Baseball: A Cut Above, A history of LaPorte Baseball was a first-round draft pick of the Anaheim Angels in 2000 and was 35 when he threw his last pro pitch in the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2014.
Chris played 91 games in the majors, 328 in the minors and even toed the rubber in Japan and Korea thanks to the game he learned from his father.
Dan Bootcheck, a Michigan City High School product, pitched for Detroit Tigers farm teams for six seasons.
When his mother died in March 2015 and his father passed eight months later, Chris lost his desire to play baseball.
But not his appreciation for it.
He decided to show that by becoming a coach.
“(Baseball’s) been a huge part of my life,” says Bootcheck. “It’s shaped how I worked, how I studied. A lot of players can take that for granted. You can never give back enough.
“I reflect on all the people who had an impact on me — my dad, Coach Schreiber, (current LaPorte coach Scott) Upp, Hal Baird, various coaches in pro ball. They inspired me to do this and help other players.”
Bootcheck helped pitchers at Georgia Gwinett College, an NAIA program in the Atlanta area, and also coached amateurs and sold muscle recovery devices.
All the while, he was making a positive impression and developing relationships.
“Some coaches are good salesmen, but lack the baseball I.Q,” Bootcheck said. “It’s not hard to sell myself. I believe in the right things. The knowledge and help I can give guys, I’ll put that next to anyone in the country.
“When you are genuine, a lot of people gravitate to that.”
Working camps, including at Auburn and the University of Georgia, Bootcheck gained the trust of the baseball community.
After a six-hour interview with a man bound for induction in the Georgia Dugout Club Hall of Fame, Bootcheck was hired at the downtown Atlanta school in August 2016.
“It’s a very rewarding job,” says Bootcheck, 38. “It’s a perfect place for me. Being a rookie at this, I’m learning the right way.”
With traffic, Bootcheck’s commute at GSU is two hours each way. But he doesn’t mind.
“It’s that important to me,” says Bootcheck, who uses the car time to clear his mind and get his baseball duties done so he can devote himself to his wife (Jina) and three young daughters (Marin, Olivia and Giana) when arrives home.
Not only does he get to coach pitchers, Bootcheck gets to sell the program. He and Andy Pavkovich are charged with recruiting for the GSU Panthers. That means knowing what’s in the 416-page NCAA rules book and being wise with how scholarship money is divided.
There are just 11.7 scholarships per D-I program.
Bootcheck, who earned his sports psychology degree from University of Phoenix in 2016, said he does his homework
“When I’m spending the money of the university, I want to make sure I’ve got the right guy,” says Bootcheck. “Put in the work upfront and you’ll be rewarded year after year.
“You’re putting your reputation on the line.”
So Bootcheck does his best to educate recruits on the system.
“You’d be surprised how many families have the wrong idea of how it works,” says Bootcheck. “If they tell me someone else is their team is getting a full ride, I know that’s probably to a junior college or they’re not telling the truth.”
Bootcheck works to make sure players are the right fit and that means athletically — those with the talent and heart to grind it out at the D-I level — but also academically.
Part of his recruiting message is that a low number of players ever make it into pro ball and the initial reason to go to school is for an education.
“Baseball is a bonus,” says Bootcheck, who likes to take advantage of Georgia’s HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship program which can pay for up to 2/3 of tuition to high school students who maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.
“If we can recruit guys in our area that fit D-I mold and are good students, we can be doubly-rewarded,” says Bootcheck.
Education has long been important to him. He was on a path to be an orthodontist and signed his first pro contract with a clause that would pay for his schooling. Along the way, he decided to change his major to sports psychology and was in the process of earning that degree during his last two years as a player.
“I be studying for exams and writing papers when in the Yankees clubhouse and Robinson Cano or CC Sabathia and ask, ‘what are you doing?’ (Getting the degree is) one of hardest and most gratifying things I’ve done as a person and a player.”
Georgia State currently plays its games off-campus at a place called Panthersville, but will be moving to a complex located at the former site of what was Fulton County Stadium across from Turner Field. GSU is taking over the old Atlanta Braves offices and locker rooms.
Bootcheck lets recruits know that the facilities will be upgraded in the future while also letting them know they will receive special attention from the coaching staff now.
“It’s not the kids who make decision on bricks and mortar, it’s the guys with heart and can grind, those are the players you really want,” says Bootcheck. “We make sure they are going to be taken care of the right way.”
It’s all about helping others and having an impact.