Tag Archives: Anderson Lawmen

Taylor U. assistant Atkinson has seen so much baseball around Indiana

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Having Rick Atkinson around has given the baseball program at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., “second eyes” for the better part of the last two decades.

“I’m the Don Zimmer of the outfit,” says Atkinson, who has seen plenty on a diamond in his 73 years and has lent his insights to the Trojans for 18 years — the past 16 on a coaching staff headed by Kyle Gould

Bone cancer has not allowed the former Taylor player and longtime Gas City, Ind., resident to travel with the team on its 2021 trips to Arizona and Tennessee.

“I was looking forward to going,” says Atkinson, who tracks the 7-3 Trojans on the internet.

While COVID-19 precautions have also kept him away recently, Atkinson has shared plenty of diamond wisdom over the years.

“On the road, Kyle and I would be together and talk about baseball, the team and what-not,” says Atkinson. “We would not always agree. But when we left our room we were on the same page.”

Atkinson’s health no longer allows him, but he used to coach first base for the Trojans.

“I can’t move too quick,” says Atkinson. The cancer has eaten away his second vertebrae. “It’s good medicine to go over there when I don’t feel good.”

It had once been Atkinson’s responsibility to mow and water the grass and paint the lines at Winterholter Field. 

“All of the sudden we can’t do that,” says Atkinson.

With the advent of artificial turf, those staples of baseball coaching are no longer necessary.

Rick and Sondra Atkinson have three children who all live nearby — Molly and Abby in Gas City and Adam in Muncie. There are eight grandchildren.

“They love to come over to Taylor and hit in the barn or get in the new press box,” says Atkinson. 

A three-time Hall of Famer — Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Grant County (Ind.) as an individual and Taylor University as part of a team — Atkinson was a standout third baseman for Jack King-coached Taylor teams from 1966-68 and played one season at Greenville (Ill.) College before playing in the Atlanta Braves organization.

Playing for NAIA Coach of the Year Bob Smith at Greenville in 1969, righty-swinging corner infielder Atkinson hit 12 home runs in 22 games and lead NAIA in homers per game (.55). He was also third in runs batted in per contest (1.55) while hitting .428. Greenville lost in the regional that year and Taylor went on to the NAIA World Series. Smith was also president of the International Baseball Federation that helped get the sport in the Olympics.

As a fast-pitch player, Atkinson helped the Plymouth Club Bombers to three Amateur Softball Association state titles and two runner-up finishes.

Atkinson was in secondary education for 38 years (physical education and health) — eight at Eastbrook High In Marion, Ind., and 30 at Mississinewa High in Gas City. 

At Eastbrook, he was on the football staff with Terry Hoeppner (who went on to be head coach at Miami University in Ohio and Indiana University) at Eastbrook. 

Before returning in 2005, Atkinson served Mississinewa for 24 years as the athletic director and 20 years as the Indians’ baseball coach. He was the North head coach in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in 1990.

It was while dining at Cracker Barrel that Atkinson ran into Larry Winterholter who asked him to join his coaching staff at Taylor.

“Will you come back and help me?” Atkinson says of Winterholter’s question. “I’ve been there ever since.”

Gould was a freshman during Atkinson’s first season as as Trojans coach.

“We developed a good relationship,” says Atkinson. “A lot of people think I’m Kyle’s dad.”

Many relationships were formed through baseball over the decades. Atkinson got to know Dick Siler when they were both high school coaches.

“They had the ugliest uniforms I’ve ever seen,” says Atkinson of the bright red and yellow donned by Siler’s Elkhart Memorial High School teams, which included all-star pitcher Matt Ruess in 1990.

The friendship continued when they both began college coaching at Crossroads League schools — Atkinson at Taylor and Siler at Bethel.

Atkinson invited Siler to stay with him whenever he was in the area. IHSBCA Hall of Famer Siler died in 2020.

A 1965 graduate of Mississinewa, Atkinson earned 11 varsity letters playing baseball and basketball for coach Junior Mannis and football for coach Charlie Fisher. Nine of those teams won conference championships.

One of his fondest memories is playing five games in three different places in the same day.

“When I was 15 we had a high school doubleheader,” says Atkinson. “My mom took me to Kokomo for an American Legion doubleheader (featuring Jonesboro Post 95) then to Indianapolis for semipro tournament (with the Twin City Bankers). 

“We won all five games that day.”

A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers and Portland Rockets is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”

Atkinson played against one of former major league pitcher and Anderson, Ind., native Carl Erskine’s sons.

Erskine doesn’t address Atkinson by name. It’s “Hey, Gas City!”

He was 14 when Atkinson started playing for the Bankers. His father, John, was the team’s manager. 

John Atkinson helped build a diamond that is still used today.

There were days when young Rick sold Cokes while sitting on the back part of a station wagon.

At 15, the Bankers placed third in the state tournament and all-stater Atkinson hit .454.

Atkinson recalls when amateur baseball went from wood to metal bats.

“I didn’t like it,” says Atkinson. “I collect fungos. None of them are aluminum.

“I do not remember breaking a bat. I’m sure I did.”

He does remember mending some clubs.

To keep wood bats in circulation, Atkinson used to use small black brad nails to hold them together.

For a few years, Atkinson was in charge of Taylor hitters.

He’d study the players’ swing to see what suited him best. It was easy to identify the best ones.

“A blind man can come into this barn and tell who the good hitters are just by the sound,” says Atkinson. “It’s a different sound.”

Leading a Taylor-based team in a collegiate wood bat league, Atkinson counted future big league center fielder Kevin Kiermaier as one of his players.

Atkinson encouraged the Fort Wayne Bishop Luers graduate to cash in on his speed.

“I know Coach, bunt the ball,” says Atkinson of Kiermaier’s echoing what the coach often told him. “They don’t teach the bunt anymore.”

The coach also lent his know-how with the independent professional Dubois County Dragons in Huntingburg, Ind., and the Anderson (Ind.) Lawmen. The latter team was managed by Texas Rangers bird dog scout Jay Welker and featured Brian Cruz who also played for Atkinson at Mississinewa.

For a few years, Atkinson was a camp director for Little League Central Region Headquarters in Indianapolis.

“I really loved it,” says Atkinson. “Kids from all over the country would come in.”

Campers and counselors affectionately referred to Atkinson as “Papa Bear.”

Rick Atkinson, a longtime assistant baseball coach at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., is the member of the Indiana High School Baseball Association, Grant County (Ind.) and Taylor University halls of fame. (Taylor University Photo)

Anderson native Shirley fitting puzzle pieces together as White Sox amateur scouting director

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Taking his ability to evaluate baseball talent and manage people, Anderson, Ind., native Mike Shirley is embracing the complexities of his new job as amateur scouting director for the Chicago White Sox.

Shirley, 49, took over his current role in late August. He was named assistant scouting director for the White Sox in November 2018. He began serving the organization as a cross checker in 2010.

As a cross checker, Shirley managed five or six area scouts.

“I was very active with a certain set of people, helping guide their schedule and my own schedule,” says Shirley. “As assistant scouting director, I was helping the director fulfill the entire (Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft) process.”

That meant helping to coordinate the entire amateur department while also acting as a national scout.

As director, Shirley is in charge of everything for the amateur scouting department.

“There’s so much more that goes into being a baseball scout than looking at players,” says Shirley. “There’s management of people, (molding) philosophy, understanding budgets and personnel and keeping everybody on track.”

Shirley notes that more attention is paid to the draft than ever before and there are so many pieces to the puzzle.

“I love the fact that scouting is so difficult some days to put all these pieces in order,” says Shirley. “That’s the most interesting part of the challenge that comes with it.”

With the training now available, players are now reaching the elite level at younger ages.

“Prospects now have currency and value as your organization changes and grows,” says Shirley. “The restructuring at the major league level has changed.

“The rebuild has changed the dynamic of what prospects mean. If your club is in a rebuild and it’s you know it’s not competitive let’s say in 2019, your processes become completely different.”

Clubs take into consideration drafting players that will give them the most currency in the market place.

“There are times now you’re drafting players you know — based on your cycle of talent from top to bottom — may be used as trade chips to get you to the next major league star,” says Shirley. “That’s really changed. There was a time 20 years ago when every team felt like they had a chance to win and every team was running for the title.

“We’re all trying to be competitive, but we also understand where are cycles of talent are (at any given time).”

With the 2020 season and June draft looming, where are the White Sox led by executive vice president Ken Williams and senior vice president/general manager Rick Hahn?

“We’re hugely in a position to be successful for the next five to eight years,” says Shirley. “It’s pretty well-documented we’ve in a rebuild process the last four years. It’s been trying times for everybody, especially for our fans, to stomach the tough days and the losses. I think we’re on the back of that now.

“Everybody is so excited about where we’re headed and what we’re capable of doing in the near future. Our young talent is significant. Our minor leagues is strong.”

Shirley is always taking in information from members of the White Sox amateur scouting department.

“The listening skill has to be sharp everyday,” says Shirley. “You have to be able to comprehend what these guys are doing and listen.

“There’s constant communication.”

During the season, area scouts are filing daily reports and messages are flying back and forth via calls, texts and emails.

A recent three-day recent organizational meeting at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., brought together all the scouting department and part of the player development staff.

“It was designed to get everybody in one room,” says Shirley. “We talked about philosophy, planning and where are evaluations are for the 2020 draft class.

“We listened to player development speak about players we’ve drafted in the past, where those players are at and shared information.”

It’s all about getting better and evaluating performance as scouts and player development folks.

“We did a good job here. We missed here,” says Shirley. “There’s constant evaluation of those two departments. We try to work together to make sure our decisions are tighter. Where are we missing? Where are we strong?

“You’re looking at it with full transparency. You’re not tricking yourself.”

Shirley has began conducting conference calls with his 17 area scouts.

“It’s a little deeper conversation than just what they submitted on the follow list,” says Shirley of a catalog of every player in a scout’s area that is likely to be drafted in 2020. “We want to listen to their voice.”

Scouts have been meeting with high school and college players and will continue to do so. These interactions help the White Sox put the make-up piece together in their draft evaluation.

Shirley says the club wants to know if a player is smart of lackadaisical, engaged or disengaged in the conversation or is a grinder.

“How do they go about their business?,” says Shirley. “What’s their family dynamic like? What’s their mom and dad like? Who influences them the most?”

Those pieces start to be put together via these conference calls.

“We’re always willing to take a risk on players who have elite talent,” says Shirley. “But if you don’t have elite talent and you have bad make-up, obviously there’s a red flag we try to stay away from.”

Scouts have been working on the 2020 draft for two years already. They were on the road again three days after the conclusion of the 2019 draft.

Most of the players who wind up in college, we’ve seen when they are in high school,” says Shirley. “The depth at which we follow these players is significant. The elite players we spend a lot of time on.”

There’s many ways to track players, including seeing them play in-person, video services, TrackMan and Rapsodo data and more.

“There’s so much more to the process than what your eyes tell you any more,” says Shirley. “We have multiple angles and multiple opinions.

“The sharing part among your departments becomes so tremendous. Everybody is in the boat rowing together trying to get to the destination.”

Born in Anderson, Shirley played at Pendleton Heights High School for Bill Stoudt, who was selected to the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006.

Stoudt-coached teams won 654 games with 14 sectional titles and three regional championship and 10 conference championships in 32 years as a head coach through 2012. He sent a number of players into college and professional baseball.

“He was tremendous,” says Shirley of Stoudt. “He built a program of high-end talent.

“He expected you to show up and held you accountable. He pushed you to be you best. He was demanding and his demand forced you to raise your expectations for yourself.”

Shirley graduated from Pendleton Heights in 1988 and played his freshmen collegiate season (1989) at Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, Mich. As a “draft and follow” player, Jonathan Michael Shirley was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 45th round of the 1989 MLB Draft, played his sophomore season at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill., then played in the Indians system from 1990-94.

Having an elite arm in right field, Shirley was reluctantly converted to a pitcher. He hurt his arm, underwent Tommy John surgery and was released. He concluded his pro career with the independent Anderson Lawmen in 1995 (Mid-America League) and 1996 (Heartland League) while also completing his degree at Indiana University.

Mike and Kimberly Shirley have been married 22 years and have three baseball-playing sons.

Jaxon Shirley is at Lubbock (Texas) Christian University after starting his college career at Danville (Ill.) Area Community College and transferring to Oklahoma University. He was drafted by the White Sox in the 34th round out of Lapel (Ind.) High School in 2016 as a 6-foot-4, 190-pound second baseman. He is now a 6-5, 220-pound left fielder.

Caden Shirley is a freshman at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Colton Shelton is a Lapel senior.

Various ailments, including stress fractures, caused Caden and Colton to miss long stretches of development as high school players.

“Being a baseball man like I am and watching my own children suffer, it’s been one of the biggest challenges as a father,” says Shirley. “You see how hard they’ve worked through their lifetime and you see them lose almost two years of their careers and it’s very difficult.”

For years, Shirley has operated a training facility in Anderson called “The Barn.”

“There’s so many young, talented players in there that have bright futures,” says Shirley. “That’s why I’ll always stay connected.

“You want to give them the guidance and give your expertise.”

Players from youth through major league come to the facility to train.

Jeremy Hazelbaker, who has played in the big leagues, took swings at “The Barn” during Thanksgiving week.

Minor leaguer Nick Schnell (selected in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018) got in the cage before heading off to Florida.

Zack Thompson (a first-rounder for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019) and Drey Jameson (a first-rounder for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019) have trained at “The Barn” since they were youngsters.

So has Cole Barr, a Yorktown (Ind.) High School product who slugged 17 home runs at Indiana University in 2019.

“It’s been a really productive situation,” says Shirley. “There are guys in there who are going to be the next Nick Schnell or next Cole Barr.

“It’s a special place. We don’t ever try to be famous. We’re not on Twitter. If you’re a baseball guy, the proof’s in the pudding. Are you making players or not? Are you helping players get to their goals?”

MIKESHIRLEY

Mike Shirley, a native of Anderson, Ind., is the amateur scouting director for the Chicago White Sox. He is a 1988 graduate of Pendleton Heights High School. (Chicago White Sox Photo)