Category Archives: Travel

At all his coaching stops, Ratcliffe emphasizes hard work, character

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brett Ratcliffe helped change the mindset in his return to the Trine University baseball coaching staff.

Ratcliffe had helped Thunder head coach Greg Perschke during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and assisted in school-record 25-win seasons then went back to the high school ranks before coming back on board in Angola, Ind., for 2020.

Trine, an NCAA Division III school with a 40-game regular-season limit, averaged 17 wins per year from 2014-19 with high-water marks of 19 in 2017 and 2018.

That was not considered good enough.

So the Thunder went to work in the fall.

“We have our limits when we can and can’t be with them,” says Ratcliffe referring to NCAA D-III contact rules. “But there are expectations from Coach Perschke. His passion for the kids is electric. It just gets everybody.

“There’s an off-season weight program. Kids work around their academics to get a workout in.”

The message is clear: If you want the team to get better, this is what has to happen. Here’s how you do it. Do you want to be a part of that?

At a school full of engineering students and others with rigorous majors, the find a way to get the job done.

“We give them a lot of instruction during our weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “They take this and work hard in the off-season.”

Brought in to help with catchers, infielders and hitters and be a bench coach during games, Ratcliffe says there’s a difference between high school and college that has do with more than age.

“Kids at the college level want to be there instead of doing something in high school,” says Ratcliffe. “Development is extremely different. In high school, you’re developing their skills. In college, you’re fine-tuning their skills.”

Through conversations and short videos, Perschke (Trine head coach since 2002 and the Thunder’s pitching coach) and assistants Ratcliffe and Nick Pfafman provided instruction for a month and then the team’s veterans led a few more weeks of workouts heading into the winter.

“We developed a mindset of how to react and respond to things,” says Ratcliffe. “It’s one of the things I was brought in for.”

When the team came back from Christmas break it had less than a month before its first games. 

Trine went 1-2 Feb. 22-23 in Kentucky then 8-0 March 1-6 in Florida.

Then — suddenly — the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Thunder gathered for an impromptu team photo after a practice and said their goodbyes.

“It was a huge gut punch,” says Ratcliffe. “We had eight seniors (Tony Bottone, Caleb Deiter, Jacob Douglass, Chase Hall, Shawn Ligocki, Nick Ricci, Thomas Rivet and Jake Roddy) that took to this year’s culture. No longer was 18 wins a good year.”

Trine was chosen to finish seventh in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association preseason poll, but seemed to be a on a path that would put them in the MIAA’s top four and a playoff berth.

This summer, Ratcliffe is head coach for the 17U DeKalb County Thunder travel team. His assistant is Cody Krumlauf, a graduate of DeKalb High School and Earlham College who has been a player and coach for the Quakers.

The program was started a few years ago when the players were at the 15U level. The Thunder now also fields 15U and 13U teams.

To be eligible to play for the Thunder, players must play in community baseball organizations in Auburn, Butler, Garrett or St. Joe.

The 17U Thunder is a showcase team for college exposure and plays in events put on by Pastime Tournaments, Crossroads Baseball Series and at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and the World Baseball Academy in Fort Wayne.

Ratcliffe was head baseball coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School for two stints totaling 13 seasons (2000-06 and 2014-19).

He served as an assistant to DeKalb High head coach Chris Rhodes 2007-11 and was on the staff of Keith Potter at Fort Wayne’s Homestead High School 1997-99.

While with the Spartans, Ratcliffe got to work with future big league catcher Rob Bowen.

“I remember he was a starter working on being a switch hitter,” says Ratcliffe. “If he hit 50 balls off the tee right-handed, he had to hit 50 left-handed. Balance had to be there if h was serious about being a switch hitter.”

Ratcliffe recalls that Bowen hit homers from both sides of the plate early in his minor league days and went on to play in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.

Caleb Kimmel, who went on to play at Valparaiso University and is now CEO of the World Baseball Academy, was also at Homestead when Ratcliffe was on staff.

Summers from 2002-14 for Ratcliffe meant coaching and evaluating young players for USA Baseball through Tournament of Stars and National Team Identification Series programs. Working in Joplin, Mo., and later Cary, N.C., he got to be around rising diamond stars as teenagers, including Mike Moustakas, Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Trevor Bauer, the Upton boys (Justin and B.J.) and Jarrod Parker.

“(Moustakas) had the same kind of energy as a 17-year-old that he did (with the Kansas City Royals) in the World Series. 

“That guy has not changed one bit. He’s such a team player.”

Freeman became of Ratcliffe’s favorites.

“His character in the dugout was unbelievable,” says Ratcliffe of the future Atlanta Braves first baseman. “He was very coachable. Freddie wanted to get better. 

“I’ve told my players this is what you need to be like. It’s not all about baseball. Character is very crucial.”

Trout and Bauer are superstars now. But they didn’t make the national team back then. They didn’t sulk. They put in the work to get better.

The Uptons also failed, but learned from those around them and rebounded. Justin’s path to The Show included 113 games with the 2006 Mark Haley-managed South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks during his 18-year-old season.

While they were nearly two decades apart, Ratcliffe (Class of 1990) and Parker (2007) were both graduates of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind.

Ratcliffe had coached against right-handed pitcher Parker in high school and saw him help Norwell to an IHSAA 3A state championship in 2007.

When it came time for Parker to take the mound that summer Joplin, Ratcliffe offered a little advice: “Go be yourself.”

Parker went on to work out with the Top 40 players in Atlanta and was selected in the first round (No.9 overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in the bigs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. David Price and Moustakas went 1-2 in the ’07 draft.

Ratcliffe’s head coach at Norwell was Stan Reed.

“He had compassion for the players,” says Ratcliffe. “He really cared about us. It showed whether we won or lost.”

A catcher, Ratcliffe went to Purdue University and was redshirted his first season and played sparingly for Boilermakers coach Dave Alexander in his second, though he did get to catch Sherard Clinkscales, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, later scouted for Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Kansas City and coached at Notre Dame before going into athletic administration. 

Clinkscales was associate then senior associate athletic director at North Carolina State and is now AD at Indiana State University.

When Alexander left Purdue to become a scout and pitching coach Steve Green was promoted to head coach, he had a chat with Ratcliffe. It was apparent he was not going to get to play much for the Boilers.

“I was a kid who needed to play,” says Ratcliffe, who was released and allowed to sign at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, where Matt Kinzer was the Mastodons head coach.

What did Ratcliffe learn from Norwell grad Kinzer during the 1993 and 1994 seasons?

“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level,” says Ratcliffe. “If you want to get there you’ve got to put some time in. 

“Talent doesn’t get you to the next level. It takes things like working hard and having good character.”

By the time Tom Muth took over at IPFW in 1995, Ratcliffe knew he wanted to be a coach so he took the opportunity to play multiple positions and learn their nuances. Since the Dons were in need of a second baseman, Ratcliffe moved there and still took time to catch bullpens.

Ratcliffe played independent professional ball as a middle infielder for the Frontier League’s Richmond (Ind.) Roosters in their inaugural season of 1995. Larry Nowlin was the manger and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Cate part owner.

One of his teammates was future major league switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Morgan Burkhart. When he came to Fort Wayne as a member of the San Diego Padres coaching staff, Ratcliffe made sure he found a good fishing hole.

After finishing his degree at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ratcliffe became a teacher. 

Besides coaching baseball, he instructs special education classes at Garrett Middle School. His wife of 19 years — Stacy — is a kindergarten teacher at J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett. The couple have two sons — GHS senior-to-be Blake (17) and GMS eighth grader-to-be Easton (13).

Brett Ratcliffe returned to Trine University in Angola, Ind., for his second stint as assistant baseball coach. He has also been a head coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School and an assistant at DeKalb High School in Watlerloo, Ind., and Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. He has helped coach and evaluate players for USA Baseball. This summer, he is the 17U head coach for the DeKalb County Thunder travel program.

Relationships key for Hundley, Canes Midwest Baseball

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Coaching continuity is one of the ingredients that helps fuel the Canes Midwest Baseball travel program.

In order to build relationships and develop players, coaching staffs tend to stay with the same group of players from their 14U through 17U seasons.

“If I’ve only been around these kids for eight weeks in summer, I don’t really get to know the kid and the family,” says Jay Hundley, Canes Midwest Baseball president and 17U head coach. “The cycle — I believe in that.”

Hundley recalls an emotional goodbye by himself and his assistant coaches to the Canes 17U team when they played their last game of 2019.

“We cried like babies for 25 minutes straight,” says Hundley. “(The players and their parents) became our second family.”

That bond happens through years of training (off-season workouts are done at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind.), traveling and playing together. 

In 2020, Canes Midwest Baseball is fielding six teams — 11U (head coach Eric McGaha with help from Joe Haley), 12U (Jamie Nanny with Jeremy Sensenbaugh), 13U (Jeff Millington with Ryan Wolfe), 15U (Jeremy Honaker with Drew Koning and Drew Bertram), 16U (Phil McIntyre with David Bear) and 17U (Hundley with Phillip Webb, Ben McDaniel and Hunter McIntosh). 

McGaha (Mooresville), Honaker (Martinsville), McIntyre (Indianapolis North Central), Bear (Ben Davis), Webb (Western Boone) and McDaniel (Columbus North) are all high school head coaches. Sensenbaugh (Indianapolis Cathedral), Koning (Zionsville) and McIntosh (Columbus North) are also high school assistants. Bertram played at Purdue University and just graduated.

Hundley says there will be teams at each age from 10U to 17U when new squads are formed for 2020-21.

“We’ll only only ever have only one team per age group,” says Hundley. “We want to have the best kids and coaches. We’re trying to grow it the right way — slowly and surely.

“We’ve had the same coaches for almost 10 years.”

Hundley founded the Indiana Outlaws around 2012. A few years ago, that organization merged with Canes Baseball.

With President and CEO and 18U National head coach Jeff Petty and general manager and 14U National head coach Dan Gitzen based in the Virginia/Maryland/North Carolina area, Canes Baseball is one of the biggest travel programs in the country with thousands of players and a very large social media presence.

“The Outlaws were known in Indiana and surrounding areas,” says Hundley. 

While Canes Midwest Baseball is locally owned and operated, Hundley says the national Canes brand helps with outreach in getting better players and with exposure to college programs.

Canes Midwest Baseball does not have a huge board of directors.

“It’s like a mom-and-pop operation,” says Hundley. “It’s myself and our coaches. It’s about baseball at the end of the day. 

“We’re getting guys into college and developing our younger players. We build great relationships with families. We do it for the right reasons.”

Hundley says 21 of the 23 players on the 17U team in 2019 (members of the Class of 2020) made college baseball commitments.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 college season was cut short and players were given an extra year of eligibility. High school seniors missed the entire spring campaign.

The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft was sliced from 40 to five rounds. 

On top of that, the recruiting calendar for NCAA Divisions I and II was changed so coaches can’t see players in-person until after July 31. The travel season is essentially over by then.

To deal with that, Hundley says Canes Midwest Baseball will continue to provide those college coaches with video and use the equity built built over the years between the travel group and the college recruiters.

“We have to vouch for our player’s character, but we can’t oversell a player who’s not a fit for the school or we lose credibility,” says Hundley. “(Recruiters) can see a guy’s talent, but can’t see what’s in his heart or between his ears.”

It’s typical that close to 90 percent of players are committed by the end of the 17U summer.

Hundley says that it used to be that the 17U summer was the most important for players bound for Division I Power 5 programs. 

That has changed to 16U and some players have even made verbal commitments as 15U players. At 17U, there are still D-I commitments made as well as at other collegiate levels.

“The landscape has changed so much,” says Hundley. “There may be a chain reaction for three or four years. There are a lot of guys that didn’t leave college because of not being drafted.

“The waters have gotten very muddy. I don’t think it’s going to get clear for awhile.”

The 17U Canes Midwest team has already participated in three events for 2020. This week, the squad goes to the Prep Baseball Report Midwest Premier Super 17 at Creekside Baseball Park — an invitational-only tournament near Kansas City. That will be followed by the PBR Indiana Upperclass State Games and Bullpen 17 Amateur Baseball Championships (both at Grand Park in Westfield), the PBR 17U National Championship at LakePoint near Atlanta. 

Depending on participation by college recruiters, Hundley says the 17U Canes Midwest team might also play in the next Bullpen Midwest Prospect League event at Grand Park.

With their bright gold attire, it’s usually not difficult to spot the Canes at a tournament.

Hundley is a 1997 graduate of Ben Davis High School and played for head coach Dave Brown. Later on, Hundley was a Ben Davis assistant for six years and followed Aaron Kroll to staff Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and was on his staff 2015-19. 

The Roncalli Rebels — junior Michael McAvene was the winning pitcher (who later played at the University of Louisville and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2019) and sophomore Nick Schnell (who was selected as Indiana Mr. Baseball in 2018 and drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays that same year) —  won the 2016 IHSAA Class 4A state title. McAvene and Schnell are also Outlaws/Canes Midwest alums.

Other Outlaws/Canes Midwest players drafted in recent years include Jacson McGowan (Rays, 2018), Drew Campbell (Atlanta Braves, 2019), Andrew Saalfrank (Arizona Diamondbacks, 2019).

For the past 22 years, Hundley has been part of the concrete construction industry. He is the owner of Extreme Concrete Cutting, Inc.

The Canes Midwest travel baseball organization has six teams in 2020.
Jay Hundley (center) is the head coach and president of the Canes Midwest travel organization. The graduate of Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis started the Indiana Outlaws and later merged with the Canes.
Jay Hundley (right) with son Bronx Robert Hundley. Jay is the president and coach of Canes Midwest travel baseball.

Brogan, Midwest Irish take the diamond for 13th season

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When the Midwest Irish took the diamond for 2020 travel season it began Shane Brogan’s 25th year as a baseball coach.

“I was just as passionate in 1995 as I am now,” says Brogan, a Hammond (Ind.) High School graduate who coached the Hammond Seminoles starting in ’95. 

Brogan talked about his organization while waiting for his team’s next game in the Pastimes Tournaments event Tuesday, June 16 at Four Winds Field in South Bend.

Brogan started the program 13 years ago in Chicago as South Side Irish Baseball. He ran a baseball academy in Bridgeview, Ill., and fielded three teams.

When Shane’s son, Stone Brogan, was deciding on which high school he would attend, he picked Andrean in Merrillville, Ind., and the move was made from Chicago to northwest Indiana. The Brogans landed in Schererville and the travel team became the Midwest Irish.

Shane began coaching at Andrean and has been a 59ers assistant for nine years.

The 2020 Midwest Irish have four teams — 15U, 16U, 17U and 18U. Brogan is head coach of the 18U team. Rosters are predominantly made up of northwest Indiana players, but there are some from Illinois.

“We get a variety of college level players,” says Brogan. “We have a lot of everything.”

Stone Brogan played at NCAA Division III Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind.

“I watched Division III baseball for a long, long time,” says Brogan. “There’s great players everywhere.

“There’s a stigma attached to all of these divisions. That’s not the case. There’s tremendous baseball at all levels.”

Nearly half of the current Midwest Irish 18U squad has been with the Irish for at least three seasons. There are 17 players — all from the Class of 2020. 

Lake Central’s Brock Begesha (University of Dayton), Marian Catholic’s Adam Huekels (Niagra University) and Mount Carmel’s Nick Miketinic (Butler University) are committed to NCAA Division I schools for baseball.

Portage’s Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis) and Mount Carmel’s Ethan Imlach (Purdue Northwest) are going to D-II programs, Andrean’s Jacob Mullen (Wabash College) and Sam Nagy (Benedictine University), Boone Grove’s Austin Lamar (Manchester University), Chesterton’s Zach McKenna (Anderson University) and Marian Catholic’s Dominick Angellotti (University of Chicago) to D-III schools and Lake Central’s Doug Loden (Joliet Community College), Andrean’s Mason Sannito (Waubonsee Community College), Chesterton’s Max Weller (Wabash Valley College), Taft’s Ernie Day (Iowa Western Community College) and Illiana Christian’s Tavares Van Kuiken (College of DuPage) to junior college baseball.

Boone Grove’s Elijah Covington is currently uncommitted.

“There’s a place for kids who say. ‘I’m going to put in my time. I’m going work hard and I’m going to get good grades.’ If they do that, there’s somewhere to play in baseball. Then however it works out is how it works out.

“At the end of the day, we know that baseball only goes so long for some guys. It’s about a school and a fit and getting that degree. Are program has a lot of that which excites me.”

The 18U Midwest Irish expect to participate in seven tournaments this summer. Following the Pastime event with games at Four Winds Field, Ancilla College, Bethel Unicersity and U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, the organization is heading to Michigan beginning Thursday, June 18. After that comes a tournament with games at minor league parks in Crestwood, Ill., and Rosemont, Ill. The squad is to compete in the Pastimes 18U National Championship (The Irish were runners-up in 2018) at Butler in Indianapolis and at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.

“We don’t do the excessive traveling,” says Brogan. “We don’t go to Georgia. We don’t go to Florida.

“I’m a big fan of Pastime. They are getting better and better with how they run their tournaments. They’re putting out more information. They’re shooting more video stuff. I’m really impress with the direction Pastime’s going. President Tom Davidson does a great job.”

With the cancellation of high school ball to COVID-19, the Midwest Irish have practiced more than they have in the past. Fields are northwest Indiana are used. Illiana Christian in Dyer, Ind., has been a home field, but is currently off limits along with all other high school facilities.

“It’s a strange, strange summer,” says Brogan. “I’m just so happy to see kids on the baseball field. Just being able to practice about three weeks ago put a smile on my face.”

Northwest Indiana Sports Performance, owned by strength and conditioning coach and Andrean assistant Jordan Smolar, is the indoor training facility for the Midwest Irish.

Brandon Murray, who played for the Irish and at Hobart (Ind.) High School and the University of South Carolina, is a Northwest Indiana Sports Performance pitching instructor.

Frank Podkul leads hitters at the facility.

Brogan says the Midwest Irish season might be lengthened by a week or two.

“We might go a little bit farther,” says Brogan. “We’ll just see how it goes health-wise. All my guys on my 18U team will be going off to college. Some may leave early so my roster might be a little thinner.

“We’ll see we’re at.”

Other Irish coaches include Damen Castillo at 18U, Luke Adams at 17U, Mike Huttel at 16U and Frank Podkul, Nick Podkul and Chase Dawson at 15U. Charlie Patrick is another assistant.

Castillo plays at Benedictine. Adams is a Crown Point High School graduate now playing at Bethel University. Huttel is an Andrean assistant. 

Both Podkul brothers played at Andrean. Frank went on to Franklin College and played independent pro ball. Nick went to Notre Dame and is now in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. 

Dawson played at Andrean and Valparaiso University. Former Irish player Patrick went to Crown Point and is on the roster at DePauw University.

The Midwest Irish travel baseball organization is in its 13th season in 2020. It started out at the South Side Irish in Chicago.
The Midwest Irish travel baseball organization was established by Shane Brogan 13 years ago. There are four teams in 2020 —  15U, 16U, 17U and 18U.

Fort Wayne’s DeJesus recalls amateur, professional roots

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Javier DeJesus was born in Puerto Rico, shined on the high school diamonds of Texas and excelled collegiately in Louisiana.

Drafted by the Minnesota Twins, his professional baseball career put DeJesus in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1994.

The former left-handed pitcher has been around the Summit City most of the time since toeing the rubber for the Fort Wayne Wizards (now known as the Fort Wayne TinCaps).

Javi met a local girl (Deborah), fell in love, got married and had three sons (Damon, Jordan and Evan) while staying close to his favorite game.

DeJesus’ day job as a health care administator keeps him busy, but he still has time to teach lessons at The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy, where Manny Lopez is director of baseball operations.

Javi DeJesus helps coach Fort Wayne Diamondbacks travel teams featuring Jordan (14U DeJesus) and Evan (12U). Damon DeJesus, who played at Indiana University South Bend and in the independent Empire League, is the 14U head coach.

DeJesus and former WOWO radio personality Charly Butcher founded the Fort Wayne Cubs, which later became the Diamondbacks.

Born in Ponce, P.R., DeJesus moved to Moss Bluff, La., as a boy then Beaumont, Texas, where he was one of only two sophomores to play varsity baseball at West Brook Senior High School (catcher Jason Smith, who went on to the University of Texas-Arlington and the Colorado Rockies organization, was the other).

It was as a 10th grader that DeJesus caught the attention of University of Southwestern Louisiana assistant coach Emrick Jagneaux.

“He said, ‘once you get this thing figured out with the curveball, I’ll come back and pick you up,’” says DeJesus of Jagneaux. “He was true to his word.”

DeJesus went to USL (now known as the University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and went 23-1 in three seasons (1990-92) for the Mike Boulanger-coached Ragin’ Cajuns. 

One of his signature victories was a complete game at Mississippi State University in 1991. That team was coached by American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Ron Polk and inside rowdy and intimidating Dudy Noble Field.

The lefty was 22-0 as a starter. He came on in relief against Oregon State University and three crucial errors led to his only college setback.

In his three seasons, the Ragin’ Cajuns went 47-18, 49-20 and 38-23 and won two American South Conference titles and a Sun Belt Conference West crown. 

DeJesus won 13 games for Southwest Louisiana in 1992, was an All-American, co-Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year and selected to Team Puerto Rico. An elbow injury suffered during the Olympic Trials kept him from going to the Barcelona Games, where first-time Olympic baseball qualifier Puerto Rico placed fifth.

In the summer of 1990, DeJesus played American Legion Baseball in Louisiana for McNeese State University head coach Tony Robichaux and assistant Todd Butler.

Robichaux was head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette 1995-2019 (he died after the 2019 season) and won more than 1,100 games in his 33-year career.

The Twins selected DeJesus in the 17th round of the 1992 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

He got into just two games in 1992 then went 9-0 at rookie-level Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1993. 

Ray Smith was the Elizabethton manager.

“He’s one of the nicest overall men that has ever graced us with his presence,” says DeJesus of Smith. “His philosophy was very simple: Show us what you can do.”

DeJesus remembers that Smith was very mild-mannered until the morning after an Appalachian League playoff loss at Bluefield, Va., that saw the team get extra-boisterous at the hotel.

Let’s just say the Twins were chewed out before riding back to Tennessee.

Playing at Low Class-A Fort Wayne in 1994, DeJesus encountered manager Jim Dwyer and pitching coach Stew Cliburn.

It was in Fort Wayne that DeJesus, who was in the bullpen at old Memorial Stadium, witnessed the first professional home run for 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez

DeJesus can still see the hanging slider by Shane Bowers, who had a cup of coffee with the 1997 Twins, that A-Rod popped for the Appleton Foxes.

Southpaw DeJesus was 5-2 with two saves, a 0.93 earned run average, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 38 2/3 innings at Fort Wayne and was at Double-A Nashville briefly before injury cut his season short.

DeJesus recalls that a Nashville TV station aired a lengthy piece about his injury. Xpress manager Phil Roof and pitching coach Rick Anderson were complimentary, saying how the lefty had the make-up to be a top-flight closer or set-up man. 

“My fastball never came back after surgery,” says DeJesus.

After four games at Double-A New Britain, Conn., in 1995, DeJesus spent parts of that season and all of 1996 in independent pro ball with the Alexandria (La.) Aces and the Rio Grande Valley White Wings in Harlingen, Texas.

DeJesus was with Alexandria again in 1997 and hooked on with the Chicago Cubs system, going 3-1 in eight games in 1997 and 5-5 in 1998 — both for High Class-A Daytona, Fla.

Stan Cliburn, twin brother of Stew and Alexandria manager in 1997, fondly recalls DeJesus.

“Great competitor and a winner when he toed the pitchers mound!,” says Cliburn. “Class act.”

Ricky VanAsselberg, who is now the general manager/field manager of the Acadiana Cane Cutters summer collegiate team in Lafayette, La., was an Alexandria teammate.

“I love Javi,” says VanAsselberg. “What a great guy. Great competitor.

“Warrior on the mound.”

It was Alan Dunn, Daytona pitching coach in 1997, that DeJesus learned the 3-2-1 pitch sequencing method that he employs with his young players to this day.

“He showed me that concept and it’s made a world of difference,” says DeJesus. “It gives you the opportunity to be your own pitching coach.”

The method begins with 12 pitches to various parts of the strike zone — inside and outside — and allows the pitcher to evaluate where is more or less consistent, where he is improving or regressing and where his mechanics can be altered to effect the release point.

DeJesus, who likes to take to Twitter to debunk modern training philosophy, is not a big fan of speed for speed’s sake.

“Look at players’ heart,” says DeJesus. “That can’t be quantified. They don’t play for numbers.

“Velocity is king now. To me that’s not pitching. That’s measurables. You have to integrate velocity and command. 

“If you have no clue where it’s going, what’s the purpose of training.”

When teaching his sons to hit, DeJesus has spent time listening to hitting coaches and it’s also helped him as pitching instructor.

“The more I know about hitting, the more I can help pitchers,” says DeJesus. “We can expose weaknesses.”

Puerto Rico-born Jose Santiago, a former big league pitcher and Daytona’s pitching coach in 1998, tried to get DeJesus to become a coach in the Cubs organization.

“I thought I still had some games to play,” says DeJesus. “I wanted to retire on my own terms and not someone else’s.”

The final three pro seasons for DeJesus were spent in independent ball — Nashua (N.H.) Pride in 1999, Lehigh Valley (Pa.) Black Diamonds in 2000 and Alexandria Aces in 2001.

The 2000 season is memorable because it wound up with the team living in tents when bankruptcy proceedings got them thrown out of area hotels.

New Orleans native Kim Batiste, who played on the Philadelphia Phillies World Series team in 1993, cooked for his teammates.

It was also in the Atlantic League that DeJesus got a valuable baseball lesson thanks to former big league slugger Ruben Sierra.

During a pro career that spanned 1983-2006, Puerto Rican Sierra was with the Atlantic City Surf in 1999 and rapped a few offerings from Nashua’s DeJesus.

Baseball lifer Doc Edwards was the Atlantic City manager. 

“Those are the guys who taught me how to pitch,” says DeJesus, who got a chance to talk baseball with those men deep into the night. “The conversation got me to understand what it is to pitch.

“Today, too many pitchers don’t call their own pitches. They don’t get to think for themselves.”

Javier DeJesus and his sons are involved with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Diamondbacks travel baseball organization.
Javier DeJesus was an All-American baseball player at Southwestern Louisiana University (now known as the University of Louisville-Lafayette).
Javier DeJesus with the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins (Classic Best Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Rio Grande Valley White Wings.
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Baseball Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (left) meets with Javier DeJesus. The latter played 10 years in pro baseball and lives in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Former two-way standout Whisler still passing along diamond wisdom

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Wes Whisler was still playing when he began passing along his baseball knowledge.

During breaks from off-season training as a professional, Whisler provided lessons in the same town where he became Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville (Ind.) High School in 2001 before coming a two-way player at UCLA and pitcher in the Chicago White Sox and Florida Marlins systems.

“I had extra down time,” says Whisler, now 37 and the owner of Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone, 15475 Endeavor Drive, Noblesville (he founded his business in 2014, buying The Strike Zone and re-branding it). “What can i do to keep my mind sharp and give back to the younger generation? 

“At the end of my playing career, I was able to make a smooth transition to coaching and instructing, something I loved to do.”

There are three regular baseball instructors at the academy — Whisler, Travis Reboulet and Brent Miller (also with Pastime Tournaments). 

Jim Reboulet, who helps Travis coach the Indiana Nitro 18U Gold team, has conducted infield schools. 

Academy softball instructors are Kevin Schmidt, Kristen Boros and Alexandria Heygood. Schmidt coaches for the Indiana Dream travel program. Boros and Heygood played softball at Butler University.

After two years as general manager, Whisler is also in his second full year of running USAthletic Baseball Club, a travel organization he took over from long-time friend Rob Barber when the latter began focusing on The BASE Indy urban youth inititative.

USAthletic Baseball Club currently has four teams — 15U, two in 16U and 18U. 

Whisler says he looks to added other levels in the future, but is building with purpose.

With the recent lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, USAthletic players just got back together after about 10 weeks apart.

“Everybody is on a shortened time frame and under the gun,” says Whisler, who will see teams open their seasons June 14. “We’ve got to be ready to go. We pretty much jump into games.”

Whisler is always trying to provide another learning tool for his players and encouraging them to be students of the game.

Problem is the pandemic shut down live baseball in mid-March and Major League Baseball still has not started in 2020 season.

“If you’re going to play, one of the best ways is by watching,” says Whisler. “Wait, there’s no games on (TV).”

Plans call for USAthletic to play in games at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., Victory Field in Indianapolis plus road trips to Louisville and St. Louis.

Whisler has about 125 private instruction clients at his academy — many are two-way players.

A lefty hitter and thrower, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Whisler was a first baseman/designated hitter as well as a pitcher through his college career and first two pro seasons.

“That’s all I knew my entire life,” says Whisler. “I said let’s see how it plays out. Essentially, they were getting two players for one.”

In three seasons at UCLA (2002-04), Whisler hit .304 with 34 home runs and 129 RBIs and also went 11-14 with a 5.00 earned run average, 172 strikeouts and 105 walks in 259 1/3 innings on the mound.

Selected in the second round of the 2004 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the White Sox, Whisler got to swing the bat some when not pitching and went to Chicago in the off-season to work with hitting instructors.

“The decision came down after two seasons that we’re going to make you a left-handed pitcher,” says Whisler. “That’s the way we want it. 

“At the time, the system was loaded with first baseman. (As a pitcher) I could be on the upswing and move up quicker.”

Whisler made three relief appearances with the big-team White Sox in 2009 with Ozzie Guillen as manager and Don Cooper as pitching coach and remained in pro baseball through 2013. He retired having been in Triple-A in six of 10 minor league seasons.

Whisler got his organized baseball start at Skiles Test Little League in Indy’s Lawrence Township. His seventh grade year, his family, including father Mike, mother Kristie and older brother Brandy, moved to Noblesville. 

Wes played for the Indiana Bulls from age 13-18. That last summer before college he also suited up with the Ohio’s Midland Redskins.

At Noblesville High, Whisler’s head coaches were Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dennis Kas for baseball and Dave McCollough for basketball.

“They were very in-line together with their coaching styles,” says Whisler. “They were both hard-nose and expected a lot of you. It was a work ethic they instilled.

“I may not have agreed with everything, but I can look back and say it made me a better player and a better person.”

Ohio native Gary Adams was head coach at UCLA when Whisler was with the Bruins.

“Skip was extremely genuine and a heart-felt guy,” says Whisler. “He was on the shorter side, but when he got fired up he was a pistol.”

Adams retired in 2004 after 30 seasons at UCLA. At 65, he ran five miles a day.

“He always expected and gave us his all,” says Whisler of Adams. “He got you back on track when you needed it.”

Gary Adcock was UCLA’s pitching coach for Whisler’s first two seasons.

“In high school, I was a hard thrower,” says Whisler. “He helped me learn what it was to pitch at that level.

“Facing top hitters night in and night out, it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing

he helped me under that process.”

In 2004, former big league pitcher Tim Leary was the Bruins pitching coach and helped Whisler get ready to make the leap into pro ball.

Vince Beringhele was UCLA’s hitting coach for all three of Whisler’s seasons. He had worked with a long list of distinguished alums, including Chase Utley, Troy Glaus, Eric Karros, Dave Roberts and Eric Valent.

One day, Beringhele called in Glaus to take batting practice with Whisler. Once he got over being starstruck, he got to pick the brain of a big league power hitter.

The summer after his first two collegiate seasons, Whisler went to the Cape Cod Baseball League to play for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. Future big leaguer Chris Carter was on the team in both 2002 and 2003. Future MLB players Michael Bourn, former Indianapolis Cathedral High School catcher Jake Fox and Jamie Vermilyea played for Y-D in 2002 and Trevor Crowe, Philip Humber, Nick Hundley, Rob Johnson, John Mayberry Jr., John Meloan, Garrett Mock and Curtis Thigpen in 2004.

Whisler looks back fondly on his summers on the Cape. 

“There was camaraderie on that team,” says Whisler. “We were very good.”

Whisler encountered a number of managers (Marc Bombard, Chris Chambliss, Chris Cron, Ken Dominguez, Nick Leyva, Joe McEwing, Max Oliveras, Rafael Santana, Joel Skinner and Julio Vinas) and pitching coaches (Britt Burns, Richard Dotson, J.R. Perdew, Sean Snedeker and Bobby Thigpen) in the White Sox minor league chain.

“They were all instrumental in helping me get to the big leagues,” says Whisler. “They are gave me a piece in helping me become a complete pitcher.”

Whisler credits Perdew for getting his mechanics back on track after a bout with shoulder tendonitis and Dotson cleaned things up even more.

Wes and Warsaw, Ind., native Kara have four children — 5-year-old triplet girls Gwynn, Molly and Vivyan and 3-year-old boy Guy.

The Whisler family (from left): Front row — Guy, Molly, Gwynn and Vivyan; Back row — Wes and Kara. Wes Whisler is the owner of Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike in Noblesville, Ind., and runs USAthletic travel teams. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville High School and played at UCLA and in the Chicago White Sox system, making the majors in 2009.

Kara and Wes Whisler are the parents of Gwynn, Molly, Vivyan and Guy. Wes owns Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone in Noblesville, Ind. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville Noblesville, Ind., and runs USAthletic travel teams. He was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Noblesville High School and played at UCLA and in the Chicago White Sox system, making the majors in 2009.
Wes Whisler, a graduate of Noblesville (Ind.) High School who played at UCLA, made it to the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 2009. In 2014 he established Wes Whisler Academy at The Strike Zone in Noblesville. He also runs the USAthletic travel baseball organization.

Allowed to return to practice, gratitude is the attitude for Morris Baseball

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With the lifting of some COVID-19 restrictions, players at Morris Baseball in northwest Indiana can finally practice again and founder/president Bobby Morris couldn’t be happier.

“It’s as much fun as I’ve had on a baseball field in ages,” says Morris of a workout earlier this week. “The big reason is quarantine and the chaos going on around us.

“I feel a sense of gratitude. Our players feel a sense of gratitude — more so than in January or February.”

Morris says he hopes his organization with around 200 clients, including Chiefs travel teams, will help bring a sense of community and unity as the 2020 season moves forward.

“if we can spread a little positivity and a little gratitude, I’m all for it,” says Morris, who started his training business in 2011 and merged five years ago with the Hammond Chiefs, which mark their 30th season this year.

The first clients Morris had were 9-year-olds.

“Those kids are just now graduating and going on to play college baseball,” says Morris.

A relationship began when Brian Jennings brought Morris together with Chiefs founder Dave Sutkowski.

“It’s mutually a good fit together,” says Morris. “Dave has been pleasure to work with. We got some Chiefs coaches when we merged. They’ve been great mentors with our kids.”

The Morris Baseball mission statement: To recruit excellent talent and provide them with disciplined, well-organized, focused practices with superior instruction and place them in highly competitive opportunities to achieve principle-based success.

“If we produce great players, everything will take care of itself,” says Morris. “We make sure we have great practice facilities and plenty of practice time. 

“We try to produce well-rounded baseball players. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.”

Until recently, Morris Baseball and the Chiefs were housed at Franciscan Physician Network Schererville Family Health Center (formerly Omni Health & Fitness).

The organization just moved to a training facility at 1075 Breuckman Drive in Crown Point. Morris says the name for the new place will be revealed soon.

The new centrally-located home includes plenty of workout space plus classrooms, player’s lounge, kitchen and coach’s offices.

“For our kids it will be great,” says Morris. “We have internet at player desks. They can hang out there all day if they want.

“We prefer that they study and take batting practice.”

The Morris Chiefs tend to play many local games at the Crown Point Sportsplex, Central Park in Dyer, Ind., and Ho Chunk Baseball Tournaments in Lynwood, Ill.

“Our kids play a lot ,” says Morris. “We do a lot of practicing during the off-season. We play a lot during the season.

“One of our strengths is we keep our kids active throughout the year.”

This summer, the Chiefs’ 15 current teams (with manager): 2021 (Chip Pettit), 17U (Alex Triantafillo), 2022 (Bobby Morris), 16U (Trevor Howard), 15U (Andrew Lowe), 15U (Lee Turnbough), 14U (Shawn Donovan), 13U (Trevor Howard), 13U (Corderro Torres), 12U (Michael Scharnke), 12U (Alex Triantafillo), 11U (James Stovall), 10U (Derek Woerpel), 9U (Bobby Morris) and 8U (Bryan Lopez). 

Sutkowski and Mike Curiel assist Pettit with the 2021 squad. Pettit, who is superintendent of Duneland School Corp., was the first Indiana Mr. Baseball in 1992.

“It’s an extremely gifted group,” says Morris of the 2021 team. “(Pettit and Sutkowski) are two phenomenal sports minds.”

Assistants for Morris with the 2022 Chiefs are Morris Baseball general manager Mike Small plus Tim Horneman.

Bobby’s youngest son, Gavin (10), plays for the 9U Chiefs. Bobby also helps coach the 8U team.

Nick Amatulli has more than 40 years of coaching experience and helps with both of Trevor Howard’s squads. 

Some other Chiefs coaches are John Adams, Tom Blair, Brad Fedak, Brian Fernandez, Trent Howard, Dale Meyer, Kevin Peller, Brad Rohde, Kenny Siegal and Eric Spain.

“We don’t differentiate ‘A’ team and ‘B’ team,” says Morris. “It’s more geared toward the name of the coach. We don’t want the potential for the stigma there. It also incentivizes our coaches to play the game hard and represent themselves well.

“We want Chiefs teams to play hard and be smart players. Any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”

Three Chiefs alums are currently playing pro baseball — third baseman Mike Brosseau (Tampa Bay Rays) and left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics) in the majors and second baseman Nick Podkul (Toronto Blue Jays) in the minors.

Other players who were selected or played in pro baseball (affiliated and/or independent) include right-hander Matt Pobereyko (Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Mets), infielder/outfielder Ryan Dineen (Houston Astros), left-hander Trent Howard (Baltimore Orioles), right-hander Dan Faulkner (drafted by Philadelphia Philies), left-hander Blake Mascarello (Phillies), left-hander Andy Loomis (Florida Marlins, Phillies, Orioles), outfielder Ryan Basham (drafted by the Blue Jays), right-hander Cesar Carrillo (San Diego Padres), right-hander Mike Ryan (Atlanta Braves), outfielder Mike Coles (Orioles), left-hander Jon Nourie (Padres), first baseman Matt Mamula (New York Yankees) and right-hander Neal Frendling (Rays).

Morris is a 1990 graduate of Munster (Ind.) High School where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Shinkan.

“Bob is an extremely decent man,” says Morris of Shinkan. “He has such a genuine, caring nature.”

Shinkan can also be strict and he expects his players to be disciplined.

“I had a great experience there with Bob,” says Morris. 

After high school, lefty-swinging infielder Morris spent three seasons at the University of Iowa playing for long-time Hawkeyes head coach Duane Banks.

“Duane was just a smart baseball guy,” says Morris. “At Iowa, they really believed in self starters. They threw you out there and expected you to compete for a position.

“That culture helped me a lot in professional baseball.”

Morris was selected as a third baseman in the ninth round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs and played nine minor league seasons (1993-2001), logging 636 games and hitting .290 with 36 home runs and 326 RBIs. He reached Double-A in the Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds systems. By hitting .354 with seven homers and 64 RBIs, he was chosen as MVP of the 1994 Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs of the Low Class-A Midwest League. That team was managed by Steve Roadcap

Morris also played for teams managed by Steve Kolinsky, Dave Trembley and Bruce Kimm while with the Cubs, Joel Skinner, Jeff Datz and Max Oliveras with the Indians, Bobby Jones with the Rangers and Mike Rojas and Phillip Wellman with the Reds.

Men that stick out for Morris in his development include Trembley, Jimmy Piersall, Sandy Alomar Sr. and Joe Tanner.

While Trembley never played pro baseball, he managed (Orioles) and coached (Houston Astros) in the big leagues.

“Dave had a great habit for excellence,” says Morris, who won a High Class-A Florida State League championship with Trembley on the 1995 Daytona Cubs. “He expected a lot out of himself and a lot out of us and how we carried ourselves.”

Morris, who turns 48 in November, grew watching Piersall and Harry Caray call Chicago White Sox games on TV. When he learned Morris was from Chicagoland, Piersall became close to Morris as a minor league hitting/outfield coach.

“Jimmy took on a second grandfather role for me,” says Morris.

It was in the Cubs organization that Morris encountered Alomar.

“He’s as smart a baseball person as I’ve ever met,” says Morris. “He’s an absolute genius.”

Tanner was Morris’ first full-season hitting instructor and the inventor of Tanner Tees — a product used by Bobby and brother Hal Morris (a left-handed first baseman/outfielder who played 14 seasons in the big leagues).

“Joe was a was a renaissance man for baseball,” says Bobby Morris. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great influences.”

His earliest diamond influences came from brother Hal.

Hal is seven years older than Bobby. 

“We were constantly competing with one another,” says Bobby. “I was challenged a lot. We were always very close. As I matured and got into high school, Hal brought back stuff from his (college and pro) coaches and we worked on it. 

“That helped in fine-tuning my ability to hit at an early age.”

As youngsters, the brothers spent hours taking batting practice with father Bill pitching and mother Margaret chasing baseballs.

Bill Morris was a four-year baseball letterman Davidson (N.C.) College, went to medical school, did his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, entered the U.S. Army and was at Fort Rucker in Alabama when daughter Beth (who went on to be a state swim champion at Munster High) and son Hal (who shined in baseball for the Mustangs) were born.

The family later came to northwest Indiana, where Bill was a pediatrician working at the Hammond Clinic, St. Margaret’s Hospital in Hammond and Community Hospital in Munster. He died at 82 in 2017.

“He taught us how to compete and how to be gentlemen,” says Bobby Morris of his father. “He was a class southern gentleman.

“My mom is still with us. She has probably shagged as many baseballs in her life as any big league pitcher.”

Bobby and Gloria Morris have three children. Besides Gavin, there’s recent Arizona State University graduate Gina (22) and Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis student John (19). Gloria Morris is a Hobart (Ind.) High School graduate.

“We’re Region rats,” says Bobby Morris. “I love northwest Indiana.”

The Morris family (from left): Gina, John, Gloria, Gavin and Bobby. Morris Baseball was established by Bobby Morris, a former college and professional player, in 2011. Five years ago came a merger with the Hammond Chiefs travel organization.

Former pro slugger Zapp giving back to baseball as youth coach

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A.J. Zapp is like so many baseball coaches. He is anxious to practice with his team.

Hopeful that time will come soon, Zapp gives an indication of how that session might go.

“We like to get into a lot of fundamentals early on — things like PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice), bunt defense, baserunning and defensive outfield play,” says Zapp. “We run multiple stations during batting practice. We keep (players) busy and avoid a lot of standing around.

“We like to keep practices short and sweet. Get your work done and get out of there.”

Zapp likes practices to take 1:30 to 1:45.

“After that you lose their attention,” says Zapp. “It’s not the number of reps, it’s the quality of reps you want to be taking.

“It requires the right mindset. Kids must come to practice to work.”

A.J. and wife Nikki Zapp reside in Greenwood and have three children — Evan (15), Ellen (13) and Emilie (10).

Evan Zapp (Center Grove High School Class of 2023) plays on the Indiana Bulls 15U Grey travel baseball team with his father as an assistant to head coach Zach Foley.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has teams separated now, there is hope they might be able to play in the latter half of June. Zapp’s team is supposed to play three of four events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., with out-of-town tournaments in Bloomington, Ind., and the Atlanta and Kansas City areas.

A.J. has coached his son on the diamond since Evan was 6, including some time with the Indiana Astros and Indiana Bulls.

Like his father, Evan throws with his right arm and bats from the left side.

“I encouraged him to be left-handed hitter,” says A.J.

In 2019, A.J. Zapp was Bulls 14U Red head coach. For eight years — seven with the Astros and one with the Bulls — A.J. coached with Phil Milto (uncle of former Roncalli and Indiana University pitcher and current Chicago White Sox farmhand Pauly Milto). Doug Zapp, A.J.’s father, was bench/pitching coach for seven seasons.

A former baseball player at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., Doug Zapp is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame. Doug and Linda Zapp have an older son named David.

Eighth-grader-to-be Ellen Zapp and sixth-grader-to-be Emilie Zapp play for the Circle City Volleyball Club in Plainfield, Ind.

Zapp, who turned 42 in April, got his organized baseball start at Center Grove Little League (now know as Center Grove Youth Baseball) in Greenwood, Ind. In 1992 and 1993, he was on Center Grove Senior League squads that went to the Senior World Series in Kississimmee, Fla.

Up until high school, A.J. was coached by his father. The younger Zapp was a catcher when he was younger. At 12 or 13, he moved to first base.

With a stacked Center Grove High varsity team, A.J. got just 10 varsity at-bats as a sophomore then began turning heads with the Indiana Bulls in the summer of 1994. He also shined on the CG varsity in the spring of 1995 and with the Bulls that summer.

In the fall of 1995, Zapp signed a letter of intent to play for head coach Paul Mainieri at the University of Notre Dame. As his senior season approached, he was hearing from that he might be taken high in the draft.

“I had a tough decision to make,” says Zapp, who helped his pro ball status with a 1996 season that saw him hit .524 with 16 home runs and be named first-team All-American, first-team all-state and Indiana Mr. Baseball. Center Grove won the Franklin Sectional, Franklin Regional and Richmond Semistate before bowing to eventual state champion Jasper at the IHSAA State Finals.

Zapp did not make an early verbal college commitment.

“It’s a little bit different now,” says Zapp. “We have (high school) freshmen and sophomores committing now.

“It makes it tough on the college recruiters to have to evaluate players at 15 and 16. But it’s the times we live in.”

Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph was Zapp’s head coach at Center Grove.

“Coach Gandolph ran a great practice,” says Zapp. “He was well-prepared for the games. All the players loved playing for him.

“He’s just a good guy and a great baseball guy.”

Andrew Joseph “A.J.” Zapp was selected in the first round (27th overall) of the 1996 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

South Spencer High School right-handed pitcher Josh Garrett (No. 26 by the Boston Red Sox) was also a first-rounder in 1996. He pitched in affiliated baseball through 2001, reaching the Double-A level.

Both Zapp and Garrett signed pro contracts prior to the 1996 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series.

Zapp played 1,046 games in the minors (1996-2006) in the Braves (seven seasons), Seattle Mariners (two), Cincinnati Reds (one) and Los Angeles Dodgers (one) systems with 136 home runs and 542 runs batted in.

He socked 26 homers and drove in 92 at Double-A San Antonio as a Texas League postseason all-star in 2003 and belted 29 homers and plated 101 while hitting .291 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2004. On Aug. 20 of that year, he drove in nine runs and vaulted the Rainiers to victory with a walk-off grand slam.

Zapp is one of the few players to launch a homer over the tall wall in center field at Cheney Stadium – the “Blue Monster.”

Notable Zapp teammates included Mike Hessman (Minor League Baseball home run king with 433), Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa, Matt Kemp, Edwin Encarnacion and Marcus Giles.

Brian Snitker, who is now the manager in Atlanta, was Zapp’s manager at Low-A Macon in 1998, High-A Myrtle Beach in 2000 and Double-A Greenville in 2002.

Former Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves manager and current Baltimore Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez was Zapp’s manager at Triple-A Richmond in 2002. After that season, Zapp was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.

Former major leaguers Paul Runge (Greenville in 2002), Dan Rohn (Tacoma in 2004), Rick Sweet (Louisville in 2005) and John Shoemaker (Jacksonville in 2006) also managed teams that included Zapp.

Some of Zapp’s hitting coaches were Franklin Stubbs, Glenn Hubbard, Tommy Gregg and Sixto Lezcano in the Braves organization, Adrian Garrett with the Reds and Mike Easler with the Dodgers.

Zapp played on pennant winners at Myrtle Beach (Carolina League in 2000) and San Antonio (Texas League in 2003). Jacksonville (Southern League in 2006) lost in the finals.

He also played winter ball in Australia (voted MVP), Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

As baseball goes about streamlining Minor League Baseball, the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft scheduled for June 10-11 will be just five rounds — down from the 40 of the past several years.

“Those days can change a kid’s life,” says Zapp. “Losing out on that many rounds, I’m not a fan of it.

“There will be a lot of free agent signs.”

An unlimited amount of undrafted players can be signed for $20,000 each.

Kris Benson was the No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Clemson University. Besides Zapp, first-round high school draftees were Texas pitcher John Patterson (No. 5 by the Montreal Expos), Pennsylvania pitcher Matt White (No. 7 by the San Francisco Giants), California third baseman Eric Chavez (No. 10 by the Oakland Athletics), Washington pitcher Adam Eaton (No. 11 by the Philadelphia Phillies), Florida pitcher Bobby Seay (No. 12 by the Chicago White Sox), California outfielder Robert Stratton (No. 13 by the New York Mets), New York outfielder Dermal Brown (No. 14 by the Kansas City Royals), Virginia shortstop Matt Halloran (No. 15 by the San Diego Padres), Louisiana shortstop Joe Lawrence (No. 16 by the Toronto Blue Jays), Louisiana pitcher Todd Noel (No. 17 by the Chicago Cubs), Georgia pitcher Jake Westbrook (No. 21 by the Colorado Rockies), Louisiana pitcher Gil Meche (No. 22 by the Seattle Mariners), Kansas third baseman Damian Rolls (No. 23 by the Los Angeles Dodgers), Florida pitcher Sam Marsonek (No. 24 by the Texas Rangers) and Pennsylvania outfielder John Oliver (No. 25 by the Cincinnati Reds).

Sandwich first-rounders in 1996 included North Carolina outfielder Paul Wilder (No. 29 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), California pitcher Nick Bierbrodt (No. 30 by the Arizona Diamondbacks), Florida pitcher Matt McClendon (No. 33 by the Reds), Canadian pitcher Chris Reitsma (No. 34 by the Red Sox) and New York pitcher Jason Marquis (No. 35 by the Braves).

Benson (70 wins in 10 seasons), Patterson (18 victories in six seasons), Chavez (260 home runs in 17 seasons), Eaton (71 wins in 11 seasons), Seay (11 wins in eight seasons), Brown (271 games in eight seasons), Lawrence (55 games in 2002), Westbrook (105 wins in 14 seasons), Meche (84 wins in 10 seasons), Rolls (266 games in five seasons), Marsonek (one appearance in 2004), Bierbrodt (six wins in five seasons), Reitsma (32 wins and 37 saves in seven seasons) and Marquis (124 in 17 seasons) all made it the bigs. Bierbrodt made a stop with the 1997 South Bend Silver Hawks along the way.

Stratton and McClendon made it as high as Triple-A, Halloran Double-A, Noel and Wilder Advanced-A and Oliver Low A.

In 2019, there were 13 high schoolers drafted in the first round — Texas shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 2 by the Royals), Florida outfielder Riley Greene (No. 5 by the Detroit Tigers), Georgia shortstop C.J. Abrams (No. 6 by the Padres), Texas corner infielder Brett Baty (No. 12 by the Mets), California third baseman Keoni Cavaco (No. 13 by the Minnesota Twins), Washington outfielder Corbin Carroll (No. 16 by the Diamondbacks), Illinois pitcher Quinn Priester (No. 18 by the Pirates), Georgia Premier Academy/Panamanian pitcher Daniel Espino (No. 24 by the Cleveland Indians), North Carolina pitcher Blake Walston (No. 26 by the Diamondbacks) and New Jersey shortstop Anthony Volpe (No. 30  by the New York Yankees).

North Carolina high school pitcher Brennan Malone (No. 33 by the Diamondbacks) was a compensation first-round selection.

Competitive balance first-round picks from high school were Texas pitcher J.J. Gross (No. 36 by the Rays) and Pennsylvania outfielder Sammy Siani (No. 37 by the Pirates).

Abrams played for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2019.

Indiana’s three 2019 first-rounders came from the college ranks — University of Kentucky pitcher Zack Thompson (No. 19 by the St. Louis Cardinals), Tulane University third baseman Kody Hoese (No. 25 by the Dodgers) and Ball State University pitcher Drey Jameson (No. 34 by the Diamondbacks). Thompson (Wapahani), Hoese (Griffith) and Jameson (Greenfield-Central) are prepped in the Hoosier State.

Generally speaking, there are more right-handed pitchers out there. That means lefty swingers will see pitches breaking into them. Of course, the opposite is true with righty hitters against lefty pitchers.

Zapp sees big leaguers try to combat this trend.

“The two-seamer and cutter very popular in Major League Baseball now,” says Zapp. There’s also been plenty of lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty. “Games lasting longer because of the match-ups late in the game. Relievers have wipe-out sliders. Every reliever seems to throw 95 mph-plus with their fastball.”

When Zapp was playing, the gas increased as he went up in levels.

“A lot of those big arms are starters early in their careers and they move to the bullpen,” says Zapp.

Looking at how the youth baseball scene has changed over the years, Zapp says in the impact of social media and entities like Perfect Game USA and Prep Baseball Report give players so much exposure.

“The training, too,” says Zapp. “Kids are training all year-round. There’s a lot of hard workers.

“The competition is getting better. It’s a very competitive sport.”

Zapp, who was head baseball coach at Franklin (Ind.) Community High School in 2007, is around sports during his day job, too. As a sale representative for BSN Sports — the largest Nike and Under Armour team dealer in the country — he talks all day with athletic directors and coaches and sells practice gear, football, uniforms, spirit wear and more.

AJZAPPCARD

A.J. Zapp graduated from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., and was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 1996. (Best Card Image)

AJZAPPFAMILYNikki and A.J. Zapp are surrounded by their three children (from left): Evan, Emilie and Ellen. A.J. was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Center Grove High School in 1996, played 11 professional seasons and is now a coach with the Indiana Bulls with Evan on the team.

 

Stout sees ‘cool moments’ in roles with Indiana Prospects

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

So many in the baseball world are eager to step between the white lines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cut college seasons short and taken away high school slates.

As Indiana and other states move into various stages of emerging from quarantine, what about travel ball and getting exposure for players looking to play in college?

Austin Stout, Director of Player Development for the Indiana Prospects and head coach for the organization’s 2022 team (16U), is hopeful that his organization will be able to begin play in mid-June.

Assisted by Kenny Overbey and Jeff Brisman, Stout is supposed to take his squad to three events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., the Music City Classic in Nashville, the World Wood Bat Association National Championship in Georgia and the Marucci World Series in Louisiana.

“There are some kids you can tell they have it at a young age,” says Stout, who is anxious to show off the talents on a roster made up of athletes from multiple states.

That includes University of Kentucky commit Caden Dana, a right-handed pitcher/lefty-swinging third baseman from Montgomery, N.Y.

“(Dana) has tremendous feel on the mound,” says Stout.

Among the uncommitted on the 2022 Prospects are lefty-batting catcher/third baseman George Baker from Waldorf, Md., and 6-foot-5, 270-pound right-handed pitcher/first baseman Hunter Pudlo of Antioch, Ill.

“We have kids who will be committed at a high level,” says Stout. “The 16-year-old summer is most important summer for recruiting.”

While they can’t sign until the fall of their senior year, many players are expected to make a verbal commitment in the summer or fall.

“The 17-year-old season is still recruited,” says Stout. “But in this day and age scholarship money is pretty much gone at that point.

“We educate kids as much as possible and prepare them for the next step. You don’t want them to enjoy (the commitment) so long you don’t improve. (College) coaches have walked away from a kid (even after a commitment has been made).

“College coaches get paid to win.”

That’s why Stout stresses that a player should go where he is comfortable and he must produce once he gets there.

“It’s all about relationships and how you treat people,” says Stout. “Baseball is a small world. You never want to burn bridges You don’t lie about kids. It’s all about finding right fit for the kid.

“It is cool as an organization to commit to a high-level school. But we don’t want to kids to get on campus and transfer out. That doesn’t make us think we did our job.”

Austin Stout, 25, is the son of Shane Stout, President of the Indiana Prospects.

“My dad is passionate about what he does,” says Austin. “I’ve seen some cool moments.”

Austin saw his father weep when former Prospects player J.J. Bleday was selected in the first round of the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Vanderbilt University by the Miami Marlins as a lefty-swinging outfielder.

Bleday, a 2019 Golden Spikes Award finalist, was going to visit with current Prospects via a Zoom video conference this weekend.

“It’s important for the kids to hear about different types of recruitments,” says Stout, who recently brought on lefty-batting shortstop Clay Dungan to share his story. Dungan played for the Prospects and was a sophomore at Yorktown (Ind.) High School when Stout was a senior then was a mainstay at Indiana State University. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Kansas City Royals in 2019.

Dungan was undersized coming out of high school.

“He committed as a roster spot guy,” says Stout. “He started 90 percent of the games for (Sycamores head coach) Mitch Hannahs.

“He’s earned it. It’s fun to watch.”

Stout grew up aroundC Muncie and began playing with the Prospects at 11. He played for Mike Larrabee at Yorktown, graduating in 2013, followed by Dennis Conley at Olney (Ill.) Central College (2014 and 2015), where he was a middle infielder, and Mike Kunigonis at Northern Illinois University (2016 and 2017), where he was mostly at designated hitter.

“(Conley) made a man of me,” says Stout. “He was a no-cutting-corners coach.

“He’s in the junior college Hall of Fame for a reason. That guy’s a legend.

Shane Stout and Kunigonis developed a relationship when the latter was a Virginia Tech assistant and saw Austin as a undersized kid.

The younger Stout grew in stature and talent and Kunigonis brought him to DeKalb, Ill., shortly after taking over the program there. Stout earned at Corporate Communication degree from NIU in 2017.

Besides his Prospects duties, Stout is an assistant at Yorktown on the staff of P.J. Fauquher.

It was only natural that Stout would go into player development after his playing days.

“I’ve been around it from a very young age,” says Stout. “I’ve always felt I could do this side of it. I love the beginning steps of baseball. I’ve had no motivation to be a college coach.

“There are some kids who wouldn’t go to college without baseball as a vehicle. I truly enjoy what I do. I’m a helping hand in grooming those kids who will some day be husbands and fathers.”

Prospects founder Mark Peters is the father of major league pitcher Dillon Peters.

AUSTINSTOUT

Austin Stout, a graduate of Yorktown (Ind.) High School and Northern Illinois University, is an assistant baseball coach at his alma mater and Director of Player Development for the Indiana Prospects travel baseball organization.

 

French plays to strength as Indiana Bulls director of baseball operations

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Scott French looks back through the decades and sees all the support his father and mother provided he and sister Jessi when they were growing up near southern Indiana town of Jasonville.

“My parents never said no to anything I wanted to do in athletics,” says French, the director of baseball operations for the Indiana Bulls travel organization since June 2019. “My dad (Steve) was a coal miner and my mom (Pat) a dental assistant. Sports were a priority.

“My dad gave me the opportunity to get better every day.”

Steve French built a batting cage in the back yard of the French home near Shakamak State Park.

“I took a lot of swings in my life,” says Scott. “We didn’t have lessons back then. In that era, we watched more baseball (for French, it was lefty swingers like Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs). Kids get more instruction and more games now.

“I didn’t play more games until I got older.”

French did put his batting cage hacks to use at Shakamak Little League and later Shakamak Junior/Senior High School, where he hit .568 as a junior in 1997 and a state-leading .586 as a senior and was MVP of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All Star Series in 1998.

IHSBCA Hall of Famer Chip Sweet was the head coach when French played for the Lakers.

“He was a very good example to all of us,” says French of Sweet. “He was very consistent. You knew what you were getting every single day. He threw very good batting practice and he threw it every day.”

Shakamak players also saw plenty of fly balls and grounders in practice. French roamed center field.

Jessi French (now Stanton and a math teacher and dean of students at Linton-Stockton High School) also took advantage of the family cage and paced Indiana in runs batted in during one of her final high school softball seasons.

Scott French was introduced to travel baseball by coach Gary Sylvester and the Indiana Hawks, which were based on the south side of Indianapolis.

When French was 17, Sylvester took he and a few others to the Bulls, where Craig Moore was head coach. The Bulls offer the Craig Moore Memorial Scholarship in honor of the man who died in 2004.

“Craig Moore was awesome,” says French, who helped the Bulls win the National Amateur Baseball Federation High School Division World Series in 1997. “I owe a lot to Gary. I owe a lot of Craig.”

In his Bulls position, French answers to a board of directors with 11U Black head coach Quinn Moore as president, Josh Loggins as vice president, Brent Mewhinney as treasurer and Todd Mewhinney as secretary. Quinn Moore and Jared Moore, head coaches of 11U Black and 11U White teams, respectively, are sons of Craig Moore.

French played for Rich Maloney at Ball State University (1999-2002). The .321 career hitter with a school-record 139 walks played mainly in center or left but was used some in relief and at first base and helped the Cardinals to regular-season Mid-American Conference titles in 1999 and 2001.

He was a volunteer assistant at BSU (2003-07) for head coach Greg Beals and a full-time assistant (2013-18) to Maloney. He holds a degree in Heath and Physical Education/Fitness from Ball State.

At the end of his playing career, French felt the pull of player development.

“I think it’s a strength of mine,” says French. “I’ve got to play to my strength.”

Through Ball State teammate Justin Wechsler, French met instructor/scout Mike Shirley and at 23 went to work for Shirley at his Anderson-based training facility.

While working with Shirley, who is now director of amateur scouting for the Chicago White Sox, French got the chance to instruct players from elementary to college.

“It prepared me for what I’m doing now,” says French. “I was well-rounded.

“I like seeing kids that work hard grow and become something. An average athlete can doing something in baseball through hard work and experience.”

French says the Bulls teach the same concepts and talk about movement patterns with the youngest and oldest players. Once it clicks, they can really take off.

“You can effect a 9-, 10-, 11-year old kid,” says French. “They just have more room to grow.

“We always tell parents, you have to be patient with it. It takes a lot more work than people think it does.”

It ties in with the make-up and dedication of the player and his family.

“That’s life,” says French. “Baseball’s a frustrating game. It gets harder as you get older.

“It takes a certain mentality to play for a long time.”

With the current live baseball shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, French says the Bulls are waiting to see what will be allowed by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb as the state begins to gradually re-open.

“We’re waiting for Grand Park (in Westfield) to find out how they can use their space,” says French. “We’re still a lot of figuring out as far as schedules are concerned.

Bullpen Tournaments works hard. They’re planning to have some baseball.”

It may mean playing deeper into August than is typical for the summer season. The current calendar show the Midwest Prospect League from June 16-21 at Grand Park.

In addition to being director of operations, French coaches 15U Black — one of the Bulls 28 teams for 2020.

French says high school teams typically play seven tournaments, taking one weekend a month off.

It’s not uncommon for some younger teams to play in a dozen events spaced out from April to July.

Bulls tryouts are scheduled for Aug. 1-2.

French says there’s a strong possibility that date will get moved to late August.

Bulls head coaches — screened for baseball knowledge, coaching experience and commitment to developing players — are selected by French and approved by the board of directors. Head coaches choose assistant coaches and players.

All coaches, both head coaches and assistants, are required to submit a background check and take online child protection training. The Bulls use ChekCoach to ensure our coaches are informed of their responsibilities to protect all players.

A resident of Noblesville, Ind., French has a 11-year-old daughter and sixth grader-to-be (Lanie) living in Decatur, Ind.

French talked with Sean Laird and Adam Heisler for the LT Brings The Heat podcast episode that dropped May 14.

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Scott French is a graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where he played baseball and spent two stints as an assistant coach. He is now director of baseball operations for the Indiana Bulls travel organization. (Ball State University Photo)