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Closser has Alexandria focused on work ethic, respect for the game

 

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tigers — in the wild — are known for being focused, determined and patient.

On the baseball field, the Tigers of Alexandria-Monroe High School are expected to display some of these characteristics and more.

Jeff Closser, a 1976 Alexandria graduate, is in his 11th season as the Alex Tigers head coach.

“We always play hard (and are focused on) the integrity of the game,” says Closser. “I’m real big on treating the game the way it’s supposed to be treated and teaching the kids life lessons.

“It’s not all about baseball. It’s about learning to get along and deal with life, too.”

Closser wants his young athletes to know about strong work ethic.

“Kids are different hard now,” says Closser. “They think they want to work hard and they really don’t know how. We try to teach that.”

Assistant coaches Jeff Sells, Adam Rusche and Braden Warren are helping the sometimes-intense Closser deliver the message.

“You’ve got to trust your assistants,” says Closser. “You’re going to tell them things don’t want anybody else to know. You want to bounce stuff off their heads. They’ve got to take some stuff, too.

“I’m a pretty uptempo guy and I sometimes get excited. They’ve got to know that some of the things I’m saying to them they’ve got to let go over their head and not take it to heart all the time.”

Closser appreciates it when his younger players who don’t yet know his ways are counseled by the veterans.

“Our older kids will take them off to the side and say, ‘his bark is worse than his bite. Take it for what it’s worth. Listen to what he’s saying and not how he’s saying it,’” says Closser. “Sometimes you have to be a dad to (players). Sometimes you have to be a coach to them or a mentor.”

When Closser took over at Alex, he established a junior high team, which mirrors what is being done at the high school and essentially has replaced Babe Ruth baseball in town. Those junior high boys play 20 games in June in the East Central Indiana League.

“I wanted them to start learning what we do at our level so when they come in as freshmen they could be ready,” says Closser. “It’s worked out really well for us.”

With so many three-sport athletes, there is not much travel baseball around Alex.

“I like three-sport athletes,” says Closser. “You don’t have to wonder what they’re doing when they’re not around you.

“I played three sports in high school. I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think it makes them a better person and more disciplined. You’ve got to have a routine.”

Alexandria, an IHSAA Class 2A school, has won 18, 19, 20, 22 and 16 games in the past five years and was off to a 5-2 start in 2017 despite not having a high team batting average.

“We’ll hang our hats on pitching and defensive this year and being aggressive on the bases,” says Closser. “We bunt; we steal; we hit-and-run. At this point, we have to do that kind of stuff to scratch out some runs.”

Baseball has a strong tradition at Alex. The Tigers have won seven sectional (1974, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1998, 2013, 2016), two regional (1981, 1998), one semistate (1998) and one state championship (1998).

The ’98 team (25-4), coached by Monte Sprague, featured Indiana Mr. Baseball J.D. Closser (Jeff’s son went on to play Major League Baseball with the Colorado Rockies after being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the fifth round in 1998 and spending parts of the ’98, ’99 and 2000 minor league seasons with the South Bend Silver Hawks).

“It was fun to just sit back and watch,” says Closser. “They had a great team. It wasn’t just about (J.D.).

“It was fun for the other guys because there were always a lot of scouts around.”

In a 4-3 championship game win against Evansville Mater Dei, Joe Granger, Justin Musick and Mike Clark drove in runs while Granger, Clark, Justin Melton and Mat Blanton scored them. Jim Linder went to distance on the mound with nine strikeouts. J.D. Closser was presented with the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award.

That was the first school year for IHSAA class sports and Alex, coached by Garth Cone, also raised the state championship trophy for 2A boys basketball. Wade Leer, David Potter, Trester Award winner Rusty Garner and J.D. Closser logged the most minutes in the 57-43 title game win against Southwestern (Hanover).

J.D., the oldest of Jeff and Emily Closser’s three children, is coaching in the New York Yankees system. He is the bullpen coach for the Trenton Thunder (a Double-A affiliate).

Josh Closser played basketball at Alex and graduated in 2000. Jackie (Closser) Novinger graduated in 2003 and went on to play basketball at Butler University. One of her high school teammates was 2005 Indiana Miss Basketball Jodi Howell (who played at Purdue University).

The Tigers have produced eighth Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association all-stars — DeWayne Allen (1981), Dan Overman (1984), Barry Morphew (1986), Dean Morehead (1990), Brian Yeagy (1991), Jeff Urban (1995), J.D. Closser (1998) and Owen Young (2014).

Alex plays in the Central Indiana Conference (with Blackford, Eastbrook, Elwood, Frankton, Madison-Grant, Mississinewa and Oak Hill). Frankton has been ranked this spring in the IHSBCA Top 10. Each league team plays one another once on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

That leaves room for top-notch non-conference competition.

“We like to play a good schedule,” says Closser, who saw Alex host at an early-season tournament featuring defending 2A state champion Providence plus Rossville and Peru. “That puts us ready for the conference and for tournament time.”

JEFFCLOSSER

Jeff Closser, a 1976 Alexandria-Monroe High School graduate, is in his 11th season as head baseball coach for the Alex Tigers.

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South Bend owner Berlin enjoys being part of Cubs organization success

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andrew Berlin is still basking in the glow of the 2016 World Series win by the Chicago Cubs.

The minority partner in the Major League Baseball club and owner of the affiliate South Bend Cubs goes over the highlights of Game 7 (he was there along with his wife and two of his five children) and finds many way connects the bigs and the minors.

“It was the most draining game to be at with the most amazing ending,” says Berlin. “During that rain delay, they had a players-only meeting where they talked about ‘are we winners or are we losers?’”

Bottom line: Cubs 8, Indians 7 (10 innings). The longest championship drought in the history of American sports ended when the Cubs won it all for the first time since 1908.

“That chant of ‘we never quit!’, it never gets old,” says Berlin. “I still get chills when I think about it.”

Berlin, who became owner in South Bend between the 2011 and 2012 seasons and partnered with the Cubs beginning in 2015, talks about how the organization began shedding the tag of “Lovable Losers” when Theo Epstein resigned from the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season came to Chicago as president of baseball operations.

Epstein started overhauling things from the bottom up while putting his people and plan in place.

One of those people is field manager Joe Maddon, whom Berlin calls Obi-Wan Kenobi himself” and touts some of his quotes like “Never permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.”

Berlin notes that the keyword for the Cubs in 2017 is “uncomfortable.”

“There’s no complacency,” says Berlin. “The ring ceremony at Wrigley is going to be April 12. the ring is going to be a chandelier of sapphires, rubies and diamonds — all the Cub colors. But they’ve told those guys that ring has to go to a safe deposit box and they have to get another one. That’s the focus.”

It truly is a “C” change.

“The whole culture had to be changed and articulated,” says Berlin.

Part of all that is at the player development level and that’s where South Bend comes in.

“The road to the World Series starts in South Bend. I tell (Chicago Cubs chairman and owner) Tom Ricketts that all the time,” says Berlin, who notes that the world champs would not have had flame-throwing reliever Aroldis Chapman without having a player the caliber of Gleyber Torres, who played in South Bend, to trade to the New York Yankees.

While he played for the South Bend Silver Hawks as an Arizona Diamondbacks prospect, Miguel Montero went on to drive in a key run late in Game 7 for the Chicago Cubs.

“The amount of talent that South Bend has that goes on to the Chicago Cubs is undeniable,” says Berlin. “It’s absolute.”

Berlin also looks back on success at the turnstiles in South Bend and looks for even more exciting things at the downtown ballpark now known as Four Winds Field in 2017 and beyond.

After watching South Bend draw 350,803 customers (an average of 5,084 for 69 openings) in ’16, Berlin has set a goal of 400,000 in ’17.

A year ago, the Cubs ranked No. 5 out of 16 teams in the Low Class-A Midwest League in attendance (behind Dayton’s 548,574, Fort Wayne’s 413,701, Kane County’s 400,931 and West Michigan’s 386,416).

“We only want to be 1,” says Berlin, whose executive teams includes Joe Hart as president and Nick Brown and vice president and general manager.

In order to take a run at the goal, Berlin and his South Bend employees continue to make improvements from ballpark amenities like food to adding seats and (coming in 2018) an apartment complex with balconies overlooking the field.

“The apartments will be sound-proof,” says Berlin, who plans to have a ballpark dwelling of his own. “Unfortunately, we’re going to loose the foghorn. I don’t think residents want that going off every time we score a run.

“It’s not just about baseball. Since we’ve been here, we’ve attracted a lot of development to Downtown South Bend. We showed that it was possible to invest her and be profitable.”

The South Bend Cubs are scheduled to play an exhibition game against Notre Dame Wednesday, April 5. After two games in West Michigan, the 2017 home opener is scheduled for Saturday, April 8.

ANDREWTBERLINMILB

South Bend Cubs owner Andrew Berlin is also a minority partner with the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs. (MiLB Photo)

Kokomo’s Thatcher on next diamond adventure

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Joe Thatcher didn’t see himself pitching in Major League Baseball.

But he did it.

He didn’t see himself coaching college baseball in his hometown.

But he’s doing it.

Thatcher grew up playing the game in Kokomo. There was UCT Little League and stints with Kokomo American Legion Post 6, Russiaville Cubs and Indiana Bulls in the summer and Kokomo High School in the spring.

Many games were played at Kokomo’s historic Highland Park, which was once home to Kokomo Giants, Kokomo Dodgers and Kokomo Highlanders.

“The short porch in right is what I remember most,” Thatcher said. “It was a cool place to play. There were a lot of stands and so it felt big at the time.”

After graduating from KHS in 2000, Thatcher became a legacy at Indiana State University. His father — Phil — played for the Bob Warn-coached Sycamores and so did Joe.

The Warns were family friends and the Thatchers spent many alumni weekends in Terre Haute. It was an easy decision for Joe to go to ISU and be a teammate of Barry Warn, son of Bob the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

“(Coach Warn) was great,” Thatcher said. “He really cared about his players. You felt you were part of a family.”

A 6-foot-2 left-hander, Joe started as a freshman then served as ISU’s closer as a sophomore and junior. When the Sycamores got off to a tough start in his senior year and there was not much call for someone to get the last few outs, he went back into the starting rotation.

When the 2004 MLB Draft came at the end of final college campaign, Thatcher’s named wasn’t called. Instead, the southpaw played part of two seasons in the independent Frontier League.

Thatcher joined the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2005 and made his MLB debut came with the San Diego Padres in 2007.

By this point, he knew he was exclusively a reliever.

“In organized pro ball, hard-throwing guys are usually projected as closers,” Thatcher said. “I knew I was going to be a left-handed match-up guy (lefty on lefty). That’s what I tried to focus on.”

Sometimes called a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy charged with getting out the opponent’s big left-handed batters lat in games), Thatcher was also called upon to pitch full innings, worked with his low three-quarter delivery against left-hander and right-handers.

“I always had confidence in myself that I could get anybody out,” Thatcher said. “I ended up having pretty good numbers against righties in my career.

He also kept himself in shape and shared his off-season regiment along with Dr. Jamey Gordon of St. Vincent Sports Performance and USA Baseball at the recent IHSBCA State Clinic.

“I was around some of the best conditioning staffs in the world (in pro baseball),” Thatcher said. “I saw all the innovative stuff.”

Thatcher was with the Padres organization until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He pitched for the D-backs and Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and the Houston Astros in 2015. His 2016 was spent with Triple-A clubs in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs organizations, but was not on the postseason roster during the World Series run. He decided to retire at the end of the season at age 35.

“I’m most proud of how long I was able to play,” Thatcher said. “It takes a lot to stay there and build up that trust with the coaches and front office people. To go from being un-drafted to someone who spent nine years in the big leagues, I’m pretty proud of that.”

Thatcher had studied insurance and risk management in college and planned to follow his father into that business (Phil works for Regions Bank Insurance) and even got his license and spent some off-seasons as an agent.

“I wasn’t planning on having a big league career,” Thatcher said.

Now, he is staying in baseball as associate head coach for a brand new program at Indiana University Kokomo (the IUK Cougars are scheduled to debut in 2017-18). He has been on the recruiting for about a month.

“We have a lot to offer — an IU degree, good coaching staff (including head coach Matt Howard and assistant coach Zach Hall) and (Kokomo Municipal Stadium) is a huge draw,” Thatcher said. “It gives us a leg up on the competition.

“(The school) wanted to make sure they did it right before they started the program so it wasn’t just thrown together. They do everything top level, first class. The only thing small school about what we’re doing is the actual school size (around 4,100 enrolled students, according to the IUK website).”

IU Kokomo has centrally-located campus and is up to nine sports in its athletic department. The Cougars are an NAIA program and member of the River States Conference.

Thatcher will share his experiences with his student-athletes.

“I played with a lot of good veterans and learned how to be a pro,” Thatcher said. “That meant being disciplined enough to take care of your business without being told to do it.”

And he almost didn’t do it at all.

joethatcherpadres

Kokomo’s Joe Thatcher as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres.