Tag Archives: Australian Baseball League

Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

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Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)

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West Vigo baseball’s DeGroote wants to be role model to his players

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As the son of coach and middle of three athletic brothers, Culley DeGroote soaked in plenty of knowledge on his way to becoming head baseball coach at West Vigo High School. He has led the West Terre Haute-based Vikings since the 2014 season after eight seasons serving under father Steve DeGroote.

The elder DeGroote was an assistant at Indiana State University to American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Bob Warn 1980-85 joined the coaching staff at West Vigo and led the program from 1993-2013. His teams went 441-118 with 11 Western Indiana Conference titles, 10 sectional champions, five regionals, one semistate and one state runner-up finish (2009). In 2017, he was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame.

“Ninety-five percent of what I do I learned from (my father),” says Culley. “I learned how you treat players. Dad was a master motivator. He got them to buy into something bigger than themselves.”

While the rules were the same for all players, Steve DeGroote knew how to relate to each one as an individual, something he picked up from his athletic career and his days as an ISU recruiter.

“They say that coaching is not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes and dad got the most out of those Jimmys and Joes,” says Culley. “He was genius at reading talent. He was one of those who could see a kid come in as freshmen and see the finished product. He could see potential in a kid that very few people could see.”

Culley saw his dad attracted to the student and the athlete who was on a straight path.

“He had that ability to read people,” says Culley. “He could pick up on people’s habits and their priority in life. He navigated toward kids who had their priorities straight like him. Dad doesn’t drink, smoke or party. His faith is important to him. He was the (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) director at West Vigo. He lived a clean life and lived by example.

“I’ve tried to role model that with my players. I know you’re not going to be perfect, but you need to be striving for perfection.”

Steve DeGroote’s boys — Cory (West Vigo Class of 1991), Culley (1995) and Casey (1998) — were all three-sport athletes for the Vikings. Cory and Culley are both in the West Vigo Athletic Hall of Fame.

Cory DeGroote went to The Citadel to play basketball and baseball and then transferred to Indiana State, where he played baseball for three seasons. He coached multiple sports at North White High School and then served 12 seasons as head baseball coach at Mattawan (Mich.) High School. He is now president of Peak Performance, a travel sports organization based in Mattawan.

Casey DeGroote was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched as a professional until 2004. He served as general manager of the Terre Haute Rex in the summer collegiate wood bat Prospect League and is now a train engineer.

Culley DeGroote earned the McMillan Award as the top male athlete in Vigo County and was an IHSBCA All-Star as a senior. He was a three-year starter in football, basketball and baseball and went on to be a three-year starter on both the hardwood and diamond at Franklin College.

His last baseball season was his junior year (he transferred to Indiana State to finish his degree). It was also the first as head coach for Lance Marshall, who still guides the Grizzlies.

“He cared about us as people,” says Culley. “He wanted to know your story and your background. I told myself that when I become a head coach, I hope my players in some way feel about me the way they felt about Coach Marshall.

“He was quiet and no-nonsense, but a super positive guy. You felt good about yourself after talking to Coach Marshall.”

Culley began his coaching career with a four-year stint on the staff of Scott Spada at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High School. Before Spada, Derek Jeter played baseball for the Maroon Giants and went on to be captain of the New York Yankees. Future Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings did play for Spada.

Also the school’s head boys soccer coach, Culley heads in the 2018 baseball season with Zack Kent (varsity) and Kyle Stewart (junior varsity) as assistant coaches.

Steve DeGroote is still helping the Vikings baseball program as middle school director. The feeder program fielded two squads last spring — sixth and seventh graders combined and eighth graders. Playing 15 to 20 five-inning doubleheaders, the middle schoolers are heading into their third season in 2018.

“It’s an awesome thing,” says Culley. “It gives you a lot of flexibility and unity. It’s closed the gap between middle school and high school ball. We teach the same things. Getting coached in a lot of the little things that can win you a championship at a younger level.

“(Middle schoolers) get to play on the high school field and they love that.”

At a cost of more than $10,000, that field was upgraded in the fall of 2016 with more than 100 tons of infield dirt and artificial turf around the mound and home plate areas.

“That was the best idea I ever had,” says Culley. “We were getting in games (in 2017) we never got in before.”

Culley teaches physical education at the middle school and gets a chance to have a relationship with athletes as sixth graders.

West Terre Haute Little League, where Steve Shaffer is president, has three fields and four leagues (T-ball, minor and major).

“They are the lifeline of our program,” says Culley.

All of it has gone to help numbers at the high school. There were 15 freshmen baseball players at West Vigo in 2017 and 19 the year before that.

The varsity Vikings went 17-9 and lost to Edgewood in the semifinals of the IHSAA Class 3A Northview Sectional.

West Vigo is in the West Division of the Western Indiana Conference with Greencastle, North Putnam, Northview, South Putnam and Sullivan. Brown County, Cascade, Cloverdale, Edgewood, Indian Creek and Owen Valley comprise the WIC East Division.

With about 1,023 students, Northview is the biggest school in the 2A/3A league with Cloverdale (370) as the smallest. West Vigo (581) is in-between.

Conference games are played five straight Tuesdays with a crossover game on the sixth Tuesday.

Since 1998, the Vikings have sent eight players on to NCAA Division I baseball and had three players drafted out of high school (Casey DeGroote by the Yankees in 1998, infielder Lenny Leclercq by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round in 2005 and Jeremy Lucas by the Cleveland Indians in the 12th round in 2009).

Right-hander Morgan Coombs, a 2006 graduate, played at Lincoln Trail College and Ball State University and went un-drafted before three seasons with the independent Gary SouthShore RailCats. He was the Australian Baseball League’s Pitcher of the Year in 2015 with the Adelaide Bite.

Middle infielder Tyler Wampler, a 2010 graduate, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Indiana State in the 17th round in 2014. He was head coach for the Terre Haute Rex in 2016-17.

Three of Culley’s players are currently at the D-I level — pitcher Davie Inman (West Vigo Class of 2015) at Coastal Carolina University, middle infielder Jordan Schafer (2016) at Indiana State and first baseman/pitcher Ty Lautenschlager (2017) at Northern Illinois University.

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Culley DeGroote, a 1995 West Vigo High School graduate, is entering his fifth season as Vikings head baseball coach in 2018. Before that, he was an assistant to father Steve DeGroote, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

Vaughan at home behind the mic on either side of the globe

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dan Vaughan doesn’t swing a bat or throw a baseball for a living.

But he is just invested in what his team does as the players.

Vaughan talks about the end of his first season as the play-by-play voice of the independent American Association’s Kansas City (Kan.) T-Bones as if he were between the lines.

“It came down to the last inning of the last game to see if we were going to make the playoffs,” says Vaughan. “I was thinking there would be postseason baseball Wednesday and then DONE! I was a stunned mess. We had been going and blowing everyday.”

Vaughan admits to being a homer — in two hemispheres. When he’s not calling baseball in the U.S., he is Down Under with the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League.

Vaughan, who worked for the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats before going to Kansas City, was asked by a youngster in the business about the approach to take with his broadcasts through the Play by Play Announcers, Sideline Reporters, Color Analysts, Studio Hosts page on Facebook.

Vaughan summed up his response.

“There’s no governing body,” says the Texas native. “It’s all preference. There’s no right or wrong answer to the question. You’re on the bus with people for 100 days a year. You get to know people. You can’t help but care.

“It’s human nature to me. I try to be fair (and will let the audience know if a player makes a mistake). But I want them to do well.”

Vaughan was in pre-season mode in Gary — working on play biographies, sending out contracts, updating the website and travel planning — when the KC opportunity presented itself.

T-Bones vice president/general manager Chris Browne, whom Vaughan knew during their time together with the Double-A Jacksonville (Fla.) Suns in the mid-1990’s, invited the broadcaster to join his operation.

“We prayed about it,” says Vaughan, who is married to Dallas area school teacher GayMarie, someone he has known since junior high. “We wanted a clear answer.

“Things happen for a reason — Faith, Hope and Love.”

GayMarie was a regular visitor to her husband in Gary and Dan was close to family in the Elkhart/Goshen area. Being in KC put him closer to his home in Texas.

“They were good to me (in Gary),” says Vaughan. “They gave me a chance (after an 11-year hiatus from broadcasting baseball).”

So he took the job. On the first homestand, GayMarie drove the seven hours to surprise the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations at the park.

Besides calling live action, Vaughan posts game stories and videos on social media and helps promote the team — whether in the U.S. or Australia.

He was sure to let local media know when comedian Bill Murray came to KC to film some promo spots or when the crew from “Brockmire”— the IFC series starring Hank Azaria — was there to do the same.

He got the word out when Kansas City Chiefs first-round pick out of Texas Tech University — Patrick Mahomes — made a T-Bones game his first public appearance in the area.

“You have to be creative,” says Vaughan, who notes that the AA was home to Pete Rose Jr. (Wichita Wingnuts manager), Billy Martin Jr. (Texas AirHogs manager) and Joe Jackson (KC outfielder and great great grand nephew of the Deadball era star Shoeless Joe Jackson) in 2017.

George Tsamis is now manager of the AA’s Saint Paul Saints. In 1994, he plunked Michael Jordan “ between the 4 and the 5” and Vaughan was there in Birmingham to call it as part of the Jacksonville broadcast. Terry Francona was MJ’s manager during the Basketball Hall of Famer’s baseball interlude.

A baseball character both with Saint Paul and the Melbourne Aces in Australia is pitcher Mark Hamburger.

When Matt Sergey started as a right-hander on a Thursday and relieved as a left-hander on Saturday for KC, Vaughan was sure to accommodate the media who wanted to know more.

“I’ve got to get reasons for them to come out here,” says Vaughan.

He plans to start a KC blog in October and will also launch a podcast.

Down Under, Vaughan does less writing and more videos for YouTube etc. It’s all about being interactive.

“People love the videos,” says Vaughan. “The ball club has become the source (of information). That’s a responsibility that wasn’t there when I first started (in broadcasting after graduating from Texas Tech).”

“We want to get Facebook likes and Twitter clicks.”

Kansas City (Mo.) is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and Buck O’Neil (who died in 2006) was a regular at T-Bones games in the early years of the franchise) and is remembered on the wall at CommunityAmerica Ballpark to this day.

Through baseball, Vaughan has been able to talk about the game with Hall of Famer and Royals vice president of baseball operations George Brett and his son Jackson — on both sides of the Pacific.

Browne, a Royals bat boy back in the 1980’s, has former second baseman Frank White as a first base coach with the T-Bones.

Vaughan notes that independent baseball is flourishing because of the on-field talent and family entertainment and the second chance it offers for ballplayers. Many teams pick up players through word of mouth or former associations.

“That’s there best recruiting tool,” says Vaughan.

In a few weeks, Vaughan will head into his fifth season based in Western Australia, where he co-hosts “Talking Baseball Australia,”  the only live baseball radio show aired on the continent.

Thanks to Vaughan, broadcast partner Paul Morgan and others, the Heat achieved their goal of broadcasting every game — home and away — during the 2016-17 season.

“It was a real commitment,” says Vaughan. “Being online helps. Baseball is still a fringe sport in Australia. Cricket and Australian rules football get more radio and TV coverage during (their) summer.”

Like baseball, cricket is a bat and ball sport. But the rules differ greatly and some matches can go on for days.

Vaughan notes that the Twenty-20 cricket — a short form — is gaining an audience and even has the elements of minor league baseball with promotions and sing-alongs.

“(Cricket) is trying to appeal to a younger crowd,” says Vaughan.

Australian baseball has sent some of its finest players into Major League Baseball.

Liam Hendriks (Oakland Athletics), Peter Moylan (Kansas City Royals) and Warwick Saupold (Detroit Tigers) have all pitched in the big leagues in 2017.

ABL rules call for six domestic players to be on the field at any given time.

“The spirt of the rule is to grow the game,” says Vaughan.

An MLB showcase is one way for Australian players to get a chance to play in North America and international tournaments — like the U-18 World Cup (held in 2017 in Thunder Bay, Ont.) and U-23 World Cup (held in ’17 in Monterrey, Mexico, with Australia placing second to Japan) are others.

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Dan Vaughan, a Texas native and former play-by-play man for the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats, calls baseball action for the Kansas City (Kan.) T-Bones in the U.S. and Perth Heat in Australia.