Tag Archives: American Amateur Baseball Congress

Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball a 60-year tradition

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“Way to get off the bus, Gus. Scoring runs is fun!”

After the Portland (Ind.) Rockets plated three in the first inning at the National Baseball Federation major division (unlimited age) wood bat regional in Fort Wayne, manager Randy Miller shouted his approval from the third base coach’s box.

Miller has brought enthusiasm to the diamond for much of the organization’s long history.

The Rockets — started in 1959 by Dick Runkle and continued by Ray Miller (Randy’s father) — celebrated 60 years of diamond fun and memories in 2019. That makes it one of the longest-running continuous teams in amateur baseball.

“We go back to our 1960’s roots,” says Portland manager Randy Miller, who has seen the Rockets square off against squads from Albany, Geneva, Dunkirk, Elwood, New Castle, Upland, Yorktown and beyond. A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”

When the Rockets began, they were comprised of players from Portland and later fanned out from Jay County.

“We’re still townball,” says Miller”. We just come from a lot of towns.”

The ’19 Rockets (10-13) had four players who claim Portland as their hometown — Peyton Heniser, Chandler Jacks, Max Moser and captain Mitch Waters. They also came from Auburn, Bluffton, Carmel, Ellettsville, Frankton, Indianapolis, LaPorte, Marion, Pendleton, St. Joseph and Thorntown in Indiana and Coldwater, St. Mary’s and Vandalia in Ohio.

The oldest players were Waters (35), Chris Gaines (33), Zeth Tanner (29), Codey Harrison (28) and Craig Martin (28). The rest were under 25 with seven teenagers. Waters is the director of operations at the Jay County Community Center.

A graduate of Jay County High School and Manchester College, Waters played for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kings of the independent Frontier League.

“Our guys are some of the best athletes their high schools have ever had,” says Randy Miller. “They’re gamers.

“I’m just so proud of them.”

Miller, 65, began playing for the Rockets in 1972 and caught a doubleheader at 51. By the 1990’s, he was sharing manager duties with his father and has continued helped continue the tradition.

“I’ve got a motorcycle and a boat,” says Miller, a former teacher at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind. “I’m not on them very much in the summer.”

Runkle had the Rockets competing in the old Eastern Indiana Baseball League. Local talent included Steve Takats. His Ball State University teammate, Merv Rettenmund, played for Portland in 1966 and made his big league debut as a player with the Baltimore Orioles in 1968 and was an MLB hitting coach for many years.

The Rockets went 18-1 and won the EIBL in 1968.

With the team in financial trouble, Ray Miller took over in 1972. He doubled the schedule and included games with Fort Wayne teams.

With the support of wife Betty, Ray helped secure a playing facility in Portland that is now known as Runkle-Miller Field.

“Mom was always there with a sandwich and a cold beverage,” says Randy Miller of his mother, who served 16 years as city clerk.

In 1984, the Rockets merged with the Bank of Berne Lancers and went 34-20. The ’85 season was the best to date at 41-14 with Portland’s first-ever American Amateur Baseball Congress state title.

Miller became AABC state secretary in 1991 and the Rockets won AABC state crowns in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 and in more than 30 years as manager Portland won more than 900 games.

Ray Miller died in 2017 and was inducted into the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Randy Miller was enshrined in 2011.

With Randy Miller, siblings Brad Miller and Mickey Scott and many community members pitching in, the Rockets have survived. Mickey, who was city clerk for 12 years, used to run Runkle-Miller’s “Rocket Lunching Pad” concession stand and now Brad does it.

All three Miller offspring have taken turns watering the field. The baselines are seeded to help with all the excess rain.

For years, the Rockets were purely a family-funded operation.

Since the mid-1990s, the Rockets have swung wood bats. At first, Randy provided those. But that got too expensive and now the players provide their own clubs.

For $100, the team picks up the cost of caps, uniforms and handles insurance.

Randy Miller carries on a tradition by giving the “Rocket Report” on WPGW 100.9 FM on afternoons following games. Samantha Thomas, who once worked for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, is involved with keeping score and other team functions.

Randy Miller schedules games, recruits players, pays bills and generally keeps the Rockets going.

“That’s my legacy,” says Miller. “I carry the torch.”

The Rockets coaching tree spreads far and wide, especially along the U.S. 27 corridor.

“They want to give back to the game,” says Miller. “We are a baseball town. I really believe that.”

Among former Rockets are Jay County High School head coach Lea Selvey, Adams Central head coach Dave Neuenschwander and Bethel University head coach Seth Zartman.

Portland won 35 or more games a season throughout the 2000’s and went to the NABF World Series in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2012. A few years ago, the Rockets posted a 35-12 mark.

In 2018, an $28,000 scoreboard was installed at Runkle-Miller Field.

A 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of Portland’s Ritz Theatre was painted by Pamela Bliss and dedicated July 28 and many alums and Rocket backers came to celebrate.

Wearing the gold and black, fans were in Fort Wayne to see the Rockets’ latest season come to a close.

But the fun is not over yet for 2019. The annual Rocket Rally golf outing is scheduled for Sept. 22 at Portland Golf Club. For more information, email Randy Miller at ramiller15@embarqmail.com.

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Randy Miller and Mitch Waters share in the spoils of victory for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Dalton Tinsley hits for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Former players and fans gathered July 28, 2019 for the dedication of a 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural and celebration of 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Artist Pamela Bliss created the 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of the Ritz Theatre in Portland, Ind. On Aug. 28, 2019, there was a

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Siblings Brad Miller (left), Randy Miller and Mickey Scott stand in front of a “Wall of Dreams” mural in Portland, Ind., celebrating 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. The mural behind them depicts Randy and their father, Ray Miller, who were co-managers for years.

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The story of the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team and the “Wall of Dreams.” (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Runkle-Miller Field received a $28,000 scoreboard in 2018. The field is home to the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team, which has been around since 1959. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)