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Indiana Bulls have grown baseball in state nearly three decades

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Developing and showcasing homegrown baseball talent has been the mission of the Indiana Bulls since the travel organization was founded in 1991.

Taking players exclusively from Indiana was how co-founder Dave Taylor wanted it and that’s the way it has remained all these years.

The Bulls have sent countless players on to college baseball and dozens have been drafted by Major League Baseball.

Two players on the first Bulls team — Todd Dunwoody (Harrison High School in West Lafayette) and Scott Rolen (Jasper) — made it to the big leagues.

Rolen is on the latest National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.

Recent Bulls alums to don MLB uniforms include Nevin Ashley (North Knox), Tucker Barnhart (Brownsburg), Tommy Hunter (Indianapolis Cathedral), Micah Johnson (Park Tudor), Adam Lind (Anderson Highland), Josh Lindblom (Harrison of West Lafayette), Lance Lynn (Brownsburg), Alex Meyer (Greensburg), Cameron Perkins (Southport), Clayton Richard (McCutcheon) and Drew Storen (Brownsburg).

“We have pride in that border with Indiana players,” says Bulls executive director Dan Held. “It’s impressive to see all the players that come out of here.”

In 2018, the Bulls have 26 teams from 8U through 18U.

With Held running the show, all will be present at noon Sunday, Jan. 28 at Westfield High School for the annual parent/player organizational meeting.

Barnhart will be the guest speaker and players will receive uniforms and equipment in anticipation of the upcoming season.

The campaign opens first for 8U to 14U. Those squads are expected to play 50 to 60 games apiece during their four-month season.

At this age, the Bulls try not to travel more than three weekends in a row.

“We are not chasing trophies,” says Held.

High school-aged teams — U15 to U18 — get started after the prep season concludes and have eight weekends worth of tournaments and will likely play 30 to 40 games each.

High school baseball is a priority at this age the the Bulls strive to develop relationships with prep coaches (and have several on the coaching staff).

“High school coaches are a fantastic resource,” says Held. “They are with those players for years.

“We are just an additional set of ears and eyes for those coaches.”

The 8U to 14U teams play many games in and around Indiana, but have been known to go to Cooperstown, N.Y., and Omaha, Neb.

Held puts all the schedules together for high school-level teams with an eye on exposure to college scouts.

Some of those showcases include the Music City Classic in Nashville, Tenn., and World Wood Bat Championships in Cartersville, Ga., as well as the Youth Amateur Baseball Championships and Midwest Prospect League run by Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield with its 26 synthetic surface diamonds.

At the end of the season, coaches fill out an evaluation form for each player — noting strengths and weaknesses — and presents it to the player or their parents and Held also gets a copy.

Annually, the Bulls offer three memorial scholarships — in honor of Daniel Mercer, Craig Moore and Lance Moore.

Once the season ends, there are optional fall workouts. There is no training activity in November and December.

Held left his post as a St. Louis Cardinals coach after the 2006 season to direct the Bulls, which are based in the Indianapolis area but draws players from all corners of the state.

With all his connections in the baseball world, Held is the face of the organization.

When he first came aboard with the Bulls, Held conducted player clinics. But with players spread out across Indiana it was difficult to reach all of them.

Held then decided to focus on educating the coaches to relay the message to the players.

He wants a non-threatening atmosphere and screamers and yellers are not welcome.

All coaches are hired by Held. He is looking for those with strong baseball backgrounds. That is more important than them having a standout player for a son.

“We need to have a coach who runs a quality program,” says Held. “We’d love to have all non-dad coaches. But with time restraints, we can’t always do that. (Coaching) does entail a lot of work.”

Head coaches get a stipend to off-set expenses which they share with their assistants. Player fees are waived for sons playing on a team coached by their father.

Last November, a mandatory coaches retreat was taken to Camp Emma Lou near Bloomington. It is the site of Rolen’s E5 Foundation camps for children and families dealing with illness, loss or other special needs.

“It was a big undertaking, but it was just worth it,” says Held. “It really paid off.

“Part of my job is make sure we’re doing things properly and evaluating the coaches. I give my coaches a big leash. Micro-managing them is a mistake.”

There is manual to help coaches conduct a productive practices.

“I don’t want them having home run derbies and just hitting ground balls,” says Held. “Practice is the most important thing. Players need to get something out of it.

“I monitor my coaches. I don’t want them to go rogue.”

Practices tend to be held once a week in the winter and twice a week in the spring for 8U to 14U teams. Games are mostly played on weekends.

Besides team practices in locales around the Indianapolis area, there are some organizational practices on the calendar. That’s one of the various ways the director stays connected with all the teams. Taking a cue from professional baseball, he has each coaching staff report to him after each weekend. If there was an incident or a significant injury, Held will know about it.

If a parent has a concern, Held says they need to go through the proper channels of communication. He prefers that the matter be addressed first with that player’s coach. Then comes a board member assigned to the team and then comes the director.

“I try to keep a close watch on the pulse of our teams,” says Held. “If there are issues, we try to be visible.

“It’s hard to control 300 sets of parents. You may give a message, but they hear what they want to hear. Our parents have been fantastic with going through the proper chain of command.”

The Bulls — an Indiana not-for-profit 501 (c) 3 organization has a board of directors filled with business professionals and a set of by-laws. There are currently 23 board members.

In a presentation at the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Indianapolis, Taylor told those assembled about how to put together and sustain a successful travel organization like the Bulls.

Taylor says the mission must be clear.

Some are established as high school feeder programs. Others are there to go after national championships. Yet others are there to develop talent.

The Bulls were formed to develop and gain exposure for ballplayers in the state.

“Indiana was Alaska in terms of developing college baseball players,” says Taylor.

It’s key to have business people of the board — bankers, lawyers, insurance agents etc. There expertise will help in securing facilities, making deals, establishing policies, setting budgets and managing social media. Other important things to consider are revenue, player fees, sponsors and fundraising.

Taylor says board members are expected to raise money and/or cut a check of their own. They should be “invested” in the organization.

The Bulls have had a sustaining corporate partnership with cap company Lids.

While keeping tabs on all the teams, Held will also coach 16U Black and join Rolen in coaching 10U Grey and their sons — Boston Held and Finn Rolen.

“We’re excited about that,” says Held. “We get our kids to play together and enjoy the game of baseball.”

Held and Rolen were both selected in the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies — third baseman Rolen in the second round and catcher Held in the 42nd round. They were minor league teammates.

Rolen played 17 seasons in the big leagues. Held was a pro player for nine years and a coach for five.

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Developing and showcasing homegrown baseball talent has been the mission of the Indiana Bulls since the travel organization was founded in 1991. (Indiana Bulls Image)

 

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Benjamin finds his baseball fit at Indiana Wesleyan

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Rich Benjamin is not the same person who took up residence in Marion, Ind., as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University prior to the 2016 season.

“I didn’t realize — in a positive way — how much it would change me in two years,” says Benjamin. “I enjoy being around like-minded coaches who care more about the other coach in the room than their own sport.

“It’s been a great place to be a mentor, to be mentored and grow and develop in the profession.”

Benjamin came to IWU following eighth seasons at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., where his teams amassed 304 wins with three Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season titles, four CCAC tournament championships. The Eagles also earned five NAIA regional appearances and two National Christian College Athletic Association World Series berths. Near the end of his stay, Benjamin added athletic director to his Judson responsibilities.

He began his coaching career as a student assistant at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn. (He played his last two college seasons there following two at Milligan College in eastern Tennessee).

From Martin Methodist, Benjamin became an assistant Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., before landing at Judson. He has extensive experience in coaching summer teams and working at camps and clinics.

Faced with multiple opportunities, Benjamin weighed his options and asked himself some questions before leaving Judson.

“What is the best fit for how I’m wired? What is the best fit for my family?,” says Benjamin, who is married to Casey and has a 5-year-old son in Ty. “Professionally, you do not want your job to cost your family more than what they’re benefitting from it.

“That’s always a delicate balance in the coaching profession.”

He recalls his initial meeting with Indiana Wesleyan athletic director and former Wildcats head baseball coach Mark DeMichael.

“I was blown away with the uniqueness of the environment,” says Benjamin of the NAIA member school. “It is a faith-based institution. It is not Christian in name only. The athletic department is founded on the Philippians 2 vision which — in short — means to be selfless. That was really attractive.”

Benjamin calls DeMichael one of the most-impressive leaders he’s ever been around.

“He really understands people, excellence and humility,” says Benjamin. “All the (IWU) coaches end up in his office at some point to use him as a sounding board for some of the cultural challenges that we are going through with our teams.

“He never tells you what to do. He lets you talk out loud. He asks really healthy open-ended questions and helps you find the answer you feel is the best solution for your program.”

During the interview process, Benjamin also learned from DeMichael about an institution with high academic and competitive standards. Every sport on campus had a combined grade-point average above 3.0 and the department winning percentage was in the top 15 in the nation.

“Here is an athletic department winning championships and killing it academically and they’re focused on people-first,” says Benjamin. “This is paradigm-shifting in college athletics. I was really attracted and wanted to be a part of it.

“Indiana Wesleyan is not one of those places where you can sell out in a couple areas to win games. You have to consider the social, academic and athletic sides of the person.

“We say, ‘if you build the person, the player will follow.’ You bring in a person and put them in a high-motored environment and you see them over their first 24 months. It’s a fun process to watch unfold because you have to do that part well.”

It’s all a matter of the right fit.

“Wherever you’re at, you have to recruit to your culture and the identity of your school, your resources,” says Benjamin. “We’re not fully-funded program (at IWU). Having to stretch dollars is the most-challenging aspect of the job.

“It’s also why we go after high financial-need students because they’ll get some government assistance or we go after high-academic students because they’re going to get a lot of academic aid.”

While attending the 2018 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention Jan. 4-7 in Indianapolis, Benjamin took the time to write in his journal about how he had performed with the knowledge he had gained since his first ABCA convention in 2004.

“It was humbling,” says Benjamin, noting some years were very good and some were not.

With the help of assistant coaches Kris Holtzieter (pitching coach and recruiting coordinator) and Drew Brantley (former Anderson University head coach, base-running/infield coach and assistant recruiting coordinator), Benjamin is looking for his players to grow from the start of the school year until the finish.

NAIA rules allow teams to be full-go for 24 weeks with a dead period between fall workouts (IWU was outdoors for about two months) and preseason training that allows coaches to be present for conditioning, strength training and team development without being able to coach baseball activities.

“That’s really healthy,” says Benjamin of the dead period. “There has to be a moment in which the player has space to go and figure out for himself the concepts you’ve been unpacking

“I’ve never had a great player that didn’t have a high motor to go take a lot of swings on their own and to find answers to the questions that have been exposed.”

To Benjamin, a coach is defined by someone who can help someone learn about themselves and the coach-player relationship works best when the athlete owns the process.

Mental training is also a part of what the Wildcats do.

“We realize your person can get in the way of your player and part of your person is your mental game and it’s your character,” says Benjamin. “We’ve all been around people who play above their skill because of their character and we’ve been around people who play who their skill because of their character.”

There are team values and goals and each player is asked to list three to five character areas they want to focus on.

“We’re able to use their list to interact with them about how they’re handling the performance level,” says Benjamin. “One of areas might be competitiveness or being fearless.

“If they get in the (batter’s) box and they have an unhealthy amount of fear or they’re not competitive or passive, they’re already beat,” says Benjamin. “If we can put guys in these scenarios each day and then talk about their person — those character values they want to grow in — you’re doing mental training right there.”

Benjamin’s 2016 Wildcats went 37-25-1 overall and 14-14 in the Crossroads League and followed that up with 27-30 and 12-15 in 2017.

Senior center fielder Brandon Shaffer (Albuquerque, N.M.) hit .348 with home runs and 39 runs batted in and 17 stolen bases made the 2017 all-Crossroads team. Freshman catcher/first baseman Brady West (Rockford, Ill.) hit .350 with 10 homers and was named CL Newcomer of the Year.

Honorable mention selections on the all-league squad were sophomore catcher Andrew Breytenbach (Palatine, Ill.) who hit .326 with 10 homers and 61 RBIs, sophomore right-handed reliever Kyle Hall (Chatham, Ill.), who went 3-1 with a 3.86 earned run average, and freshman right-handed starting pitcher Jon Young (Batavia, Ill.), who went 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA.

In addition, sophomore Caleb Eder (Jennings County High School graduate) hit .346 with eight homers and 40 runs driven in.

Indiana Wesleyan set four school records in 2017. The pitching staff racked up 379 strikeouts. On the offensive side, the Wildcats belted 68 home runs with 317 RBIs and a .478 slugging percentage.

The 2018 squad opens the season Feb. 9 against Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Benjamin considers Indiana and the adjoining states of Ohio and Michigan plus the Chicagoland area of Illinois to be fertile recruiting territory.

In comparing the two NAIA conferences where he has been a head coach — the Chicagoland Collegiate and Crossroads — Benjamin sees many similarities.

“Both conferences have a lot of coaches that coach for the right reason,” says Benjamin. “They are very professional in the way they interact with other teams, umpires, players and so forth. In a profession where you’re trying to build the person, it’s nice to be around other people who share the same vision.”

Besides Indiana Wesleyan, the Crossroads League features Bethel, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Marian, Mt. Vernon Nazarene, Saint Francis, Spring Arbor and Taylor. All 10 schools are private.

Baseball-playing schools in the CCAC are Calumet of St. Joseph, Indiana University South Bend, Judson, Olivet Nazarene, Robert Morris, Roosevelt, St. Ambrose, St. Francis, Saint Xavier, Trinity Christian and Trinity International.

With IWU adding football (the first game is slated for Sept. 1, 2018 against Taylor), the whole athletic department has benefitted, including baseball. A $1.2 weight room has been added.

With the establishment of the football complex came a re-establishing of the dimensions and a brand new wall for the baseball field. A five-year plan includes other upgrades such as playing surface, backstop and fencing.

“Indiana Wesleyan has a vision for everything,” says Benjamin. “They are proactive. They think ahead.”

Looking back, Rich (who has a twin brother Bobby) grew up in Rhode Island and moved to Tennessee as he and his brother were turning 9.

Rich started playing baseball year-round.

“It was my escape. It was fun,” says Benjamin. “I had more passion for it than anybody else in my family.”

When he was 12 and 13, he attended the Doyle Baseball School in Orlando, Fla., and recalls his parents taking extra jobs to pay for his week-long immersion in the game.

“The Doyles (Denny, Brian and Blake) are very professional faith-based people,” says Benjamin. “They were the first people to share Christ with me. It became a very defining moment in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time. But looking back on it, it was certainly a game-changer.”

Bobby Benjamin is restaurant owner in Louisville, Ky. The twins have a stepsister named Kayla. Mother Janet is married to Gary Piper. Father Ben is married to Vicki.

With Casey’s parents, Ty can be spoiled by three sets of grandparents.

“As a 5-year-old boy in Indiana, he wants to be a farmer,” says Rich of Ty. “He’s a John Deere guy right now. That’s where his focus is. But he’ll pick up a bat. He’ll pick up a football. He enjoys jumping on this indoor trampoline.

“He certainly enjoys being around our team.”

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Rich Benjamin enters his third season as head baseball coach at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind., in 2018. (IWU Photo)

 

Hall helping dial in players as mental game development coordinator at Wright State

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“Without your mind, your body’s nothing. You can have the best swing in the world. But if your mental game is not on-point — a 0 out of 10 — that swing goes to waste. Without the confidence. Without the positive self talk. Without the mental toughness, it’s hard to be able to unlock your physical potential” — Diamyn Hall, Mental Game Development Coordinator for Wright State University baseball

Through his own experiences and continued study, Hall is helping develop the mental side for not only his NCAA Division I program in Dayton, Ohio, but his many followers on social media.

Hall, a Centerville, Ohio, resident, played on the diamond at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Grambling (La.) State University and Georgia Southwestern State University and was brought on-board last summer at Wright State as a full-time mental coach — a groundbreaking move in college baseball.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” says Hall, who joined a coaching staff of “go-getters” led by Jeff Mercer (a graduate of Franklin Community High School in Indiana) and also features assistants Matt Talarico (Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger graduate), Nate Metzger, Alex Sogard, director of operations Denton Sagerman, volunteer Jacob Burk and athletic trainer Brad Muse. “I’m coming on to a staff where they already believed in the mental game. It’s not a situation where I had to convince them that this is something important. They had already bought-in 100 percent.”

Halls says Mercer — and former Wright State head coach Greg Lovelady (now head coach at the University of Central Florida) — have always been advocates of the mental game.

“Hopefully, this can add a few extra wins to the column,” says Hall, an attendee at the American Baseball Coaches Association national convention, which drew more than 6,100 of all levels to Indianapolis Jan. 4-7. “Now, it’s a matter of executing this role in the best way possible.

“There’s no clear-cut way to do anything regarding the mental game. I’m individualizing for each player as best as I can with the resources that we have.

“I’m feeling my way around and figuring out how to balance efficiency and effectiveness in every situation possible,” says Hall. “It’s a matter of being able to manage the mental game with each of our guys. We don’t want them thinking too much, but we want them to have the tools to succeed.”

As soon as he was hired, Hall began building relationships with WSU players.

He meets with them one-on-one, as a team and in small groups (ie. pitchers or hitters). By using examples that players can relate to most, Hall sees the biggest potential for really driving the message home.

As the Raiders get ready to open the 2018 season Feb. 16 at Tulane University, Hall is loading the players’ tool boxes and setting their foundations. Once the season begins and the Raiders start playing games, he will be in the dugout as a quick fix.

It’s going to be more ‘observe and serve.’ If everything’s good, I’m not going to have to do too much. At the end of the day, you want to give them all of the tools so if you drop off the face of the planet, they’ll be able to use the things you’ve taught them and they’ll know what works for them and what doesn’t. I believe that Awareness Activates Ability.”

Hall counts it as extremely important, that players are competing one pitch at a time, controlling what they can control, staying in the present moment and keeping their confidence level and their teammates’ confidence as high as possible at all times.

Many baseball coaches are emphasizing the mental side and don’t realize it.

“If they talk about discipline, leadership, competing one pitch at a time and keeping your confidence high, they sound like a mental game coach,” says Hall, who says the mental game works best when it is ingrained in hitting, pitching, base-running and fielding and not looked at as a  separate entity.

To foster growth of the mental game, Hall suggests implementing as many competitions in practice as possible and making practice feel more game-like for the players.

“Now you’re bringing up the competitive nature,” says Hall. “It plays a big role in the culture, in which Coach Mercer has created.”

Hall filled up notebooks with his observations during his playing days and learned the importance of keeping the body relaxed under pressure.

“The higher the stakes, the more calm, relaxed and confident you must become,” says Hall, who wants players to get to the point where treat those moments not as high-pressure situations but as tests to see how well they have been working on the things that really matter.

Some baseball people call it “Backyard Loose.”

“You want to be in that state at all times or at least as much as possible,” says Hall. “You need to practice those things in order to be able to implement those things during the game.”

Among Hall’s mentors is Dr. Charlie Maher (Sport and Performance Psychologist for the Cleveland Indians).

Hall, who holds a bachelor’s degrees in Psychology from Grambling State and Sociology from Georgia Southwestern State and is pursuing a masters and doctorate in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, is constantly educating himself.

“I make sure I’m always learning the newest things through self-education,” says Hall. “When I’m driving, I don’t listen to music anymore. I usually listen to a podcast or an audio book. To some, music is what moves the soul. For me, constantly and serving, is what what moves my soul. It keeps me going.

“If I have a 13-hour trip to Louisiana for a speaking engagement that can be time for me to learn. I make sure I’m getting all the best information so that I’ll be able to use with our guys

“I want to be able to practice what I preach and maximize on every single moment and execute things one step at a time.”

Hall uses the analogy of a dresser. Pull all the drawers out at the same time and it tips over. Or pull out one drawer at a time; putting all of your focus and energy in that drawer, closing it, and then moving on to the next drawer.

“That’s what it means to compete one pitch at a time,” says Hall. “For me, it’s learning one thing at a time. The language is all the same, it’s just a matter of where we’re applying it.”

Hall shares his gained wisdom with more than 15,000 Twitter followers at @DiamynHall and upwards of 6,200 Instagram followers at diamynhall can be contacted through his website — DiamynPerformance.com. His girlfriend — Grambling State volleyball player Diemend Richardson — is expected to join the business soon.

“I do it for the players and coaches that want to get better,” says Hall. “It’s just kind of taken off.”

Hall began his baseball-playing career as a high school sophomore. He played at football powerhouse Kettering Archbishop Alter (the Knights won Ohio High School Athletic Association Division IV state champions in 2008 and 2009) and sustained a neck injury. Doctors found that he had congenital spinal stenosis (a narrowing of fluid in the spine) and would not clear him to play football again.

He turned to baseball.

“When I first started playing a lot of coaches told me, ‘you’re not going to be able to play at the next level,” says Hall, a 2012 graduate of Centerville High School. “‘You’re not good enough. You’re not skilled enough. It’s too late to pick this up.’

“Of course — in my mind — I believed otherwise. I worked my tail off day after day and was getting a decent amount of results. I was a 5-tool player, but I wasn’t get the results I thought I should be getting with the athletic ability that I had so I turned to the mental side of the game.

“I wanted to find an edge to be able to separate myself from everybody else — not only catch up to my peers, but pass them.”

The first mental game book Hall read was “Heads-Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time (by Tom Hanson and Ken Ravizza)” and it gave him the foundation that led to his role as a mental game coordinator.

Drs. Hanson and Ravizza, who have come out with “HeadsUp Baseball 2.0,” were clinic speakers at the ABCA convention in Indianapolis.

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Diamyn Hall (left) speaks to IndianaRBI.com’s Steve Krah at the 2018 Indiana Baseball Coaches Association convention in Indianapolis. Hall is the Mental Game Development Coordinator for Wright State University baseball.