By STEVE KRAH
Brian Schmack enjoyed a long career as a baseball player.
He excelled at Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High School and Northern Illinois University. A right-hander pitcher, he persevered for years in the minors and made 11 appearances for the 2003 Detroit Tigers (1-0, 3.46 earned run average).
When his playing days were over, he wanted to give back to the game. He is doing that in his 11th season of coaching at NCAA Division I Valparaiso University (the first seven as pitching coach and the past four as head coach).
Of all the baseball experiences Schmack has enjoyed in his 43 years, he cherishes most his college days and he feels most comfortable in that setting.
“I love this age group,” says Schmack. “For the most point, guys want to be here. Sometimes in high school, they play because they’re the best athlete or because their parents make them or because it’s a small school.
“They’re impressionable and many are away from home for the first time. We get to teach life lessons … (College baseball is) a huge commitment and it’s not for everybody.”
Schmack has made effort, conviction and unity the foundation of the Crusaders program.
“For us, it starts with hard work,” says Schmack, who regularly has VU players doing early-morning running. “Hard work. That’s how you succeed at life in general. We also have confidence, which leads to success.
“We want to outsmart, outwork and outplay (opponents).”
NCAA rules limit the hours players can practice or compete, depending on the time of the school year. But Schmack wants maximum effort when they are doing baseball activities.
There are 32 players on the 2017 roster and Schmack wants them all working together.
“We do a lot of team things here,” says Schmack. “Being good teammates is one of the first things we stress.”
Among other things, being a good teammate means checking the negativity at the locker room door.
As a reminder, there’s a sign in the clubhouse next to Emory G. Bauer Field: No Energy Vampires Allowed.
“Ultimately, we want guys to be positive,” says Schmack. “We want to be positive toward them. With sports, there’s failure involved.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds. A kid has three balls roll through his legs and it’s hard to be positive about that. We try to say ‘keep your head up.’ We’re all fragile and we all make mistakes.”
Schmack knows negativity can spread quickly throughout a team.
“I’ve been on many, many teams in my life,” says Schmack. “You have to eradicate it. You have to get rid of it, even if it’s a good player. You have to have guys who are positive.”
With such a large roster, not every player is going to be a regular. Bench players must remain upbeat and ready.
“They have to be good teammates because they can take a team down,” says Schmack. “We’ve had situations where we have a walk-on pitching or batting in the biggest game of the year. The guys that prepare themselves for a possible situation are the ones that are going to do well.”
Schmack notes that readiness got Mike Montgomery his first career save while helping the Chicago Cubs win Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
“He probably never thought that would happen,” says Schmack. “But he stayed ready and the opportunity came because of the situation. That’s a great example that you always have to be ready.”
When recruiting athletes to the private school in northwest Indiana, the staff looks wherever there’s talent and there are many Californians on the current roster.
Recent successes (Valpo won Horizon League titles in 2012 and 2013 and won a school-record 25 games in 2014) have attracted more local players.
But no matter where they come from, Schmack said the recruiting process is about the VU staff and high school and summer coaches shooting straight with one another.
“We’ll ask is he a competitor? Is he a hard worker?,” says Schmack. “You get, ‘He’s the first one there and the last one to leave.’
“I don’t really know you. Are you just trying to help that kid out or is he really one of those kids? Every coach wants their players to go on to play college baseball. But sometimes maybe they aren’t as honest as they should be.
“Maybe he’s the last one there and the first one to leave. Is he going to say that about the kid? He doesn’t want to bury him.”
Schmack, whose assistants include Ben Wolgamot, Nic Mishler, Kory Winter and Ryan Fritze, wants to get players that are a good fit and it’s hard for someone who has never seen Valpo play and does not know the makeup of the roster to know that.
The same dynamic is in place when pro scouts come to Schmack to ask about his players.
“If I tell them he’s throwing 95 mph and he’s a great kid and they come out to watch him and he’s throwing 87 and has bad body language, they’re not going to come around anymore because we’re overselling them,” says Schmack. “It’s just about being honest with people and forming relationships and knowing who you can trust.”
What about body language?
“It shows a lot about a kid if he doesn’t get rattled very easily,” says Schmack. “He understands baseball is a game of failure. How does he handle it? Does he throw his palms up?
“I’m a big ‘palms up’ guy. It shows blame to me. I always talk about being on an even keel. Baseball is a very humbling sport. You play a lot of games. You can hit three home runs one game and strike out four times the next game. If you’re always the guy who’s happy when you’re doing well and you’re throwing things when you’re bad, guys don’t like to hang around you.
“I want to walk up to a game and not know if the kid is throwing a shutout or he’s given up 10 runs. I won’t be able to tell by his body language.”
Schmack learned not to make a situation bigger while playing for Joe “Spanky” McFarland at NIU, mechanics, reading swing and what to throw in certain situations from first pro pitching coach, Sean Snedeker, and countless little nuggets from all the other coaches and managers to cross his path.
He’s also learned that players must learn to coach themselves.
“We go one-on-one with a player and see what makes him tick,” says Schmack. “Each guy has his own tweak. One guy might lunge. Another might stay back too much. Whatever it is, I have to be able to identify (the issue) and pass it on. Hopefully, he’ll eventually be able to identify it on his own.
“At some point you have to be your own coach and make the adjustment. It’s a game of adjustments. If you can’t make them, you’re out of it. If you can, you have a chance.”
Brian Schmack is in his fourth season as head baseball coach at Valparaiso University after seven seasons as the Crusaders pitching coach.
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