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Purdue grad Isom embraces independent pro baseball manager role, wins title with Joliet Slammers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Isom got to do something for the first time in nearly two decades as a professional baseball manager in 2018.

Isom got to hoist the championship trophy as the decision maker for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers — his first title as a pro skipper.

“It only took me 18 years, but I finally got one,” says Isom, a 1990 Lafayette Jefferson High School and 1998 Purdue University graduate who still resides in West Lafayette, Ind. “A lot of teams made the finals and just came up short for one reason or another. Our pitching staff (at Joliet) was outstanding and did not lose guys to major league clubs like some teams did.”

Without Major League Baseball feeding them players, Isom and other independent ball managers go out and found their own players. The Slammers championship squad featured 14 that came from tryout camps.

“I love getting guys that have been overlooked by the draft for one reason or another,” says Isom of his attraction to independent baseball. “Scouting is not an exact science. We work with them and try to continue to make them better players.

“In independent baseball, most teams rely on the manager. I like it that way. I have the ultimate say in who is going to be on our club.

“I value those tryouts. I know the players are hungry if they’re going to a tryout camp.”

The Frontier League is considered a developmental circuit and the maximum age is 27. A couple of top pitchers from 2018 — Nate Antone and Liam O’Sullivan — will age out and Isom intends to help them make connections so they can keep playing either at the independent or affiliated level.

“Indy ball has been a great time for me,” says Isom, a three-time Frontier League Manager of the Year (2002, 2016 and 2018) who turned 46 on Sept. 22. “I loved every minute of it when I was a player and I’ve loved every minute of it as a manager.

“I’ve been fortunate to make a career out of this.”

Isom doesn’t see it as a job. He sees it as an opportunity to pass along what he knows about the game. He soaked up information from the folks in affiliated baseball and he has done the same thing in independent ball.

Besides his current job with the Slammers, Isom’s managing stops have taken him to the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles, Washington (Pa.) Wild Things, Joliet JackHammers, Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums and Lake Erie (Ohio) Crushers.

In six seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers system, he managed the West Virginia Power, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees and Helena (Mont.) Brewers.

As a left-handed pitcher, Isom played for Tony Primavera at Lafayette Jeff then three seasons at Purdue (1991-93) — one for head coach Dave Alexander and two from Steve Green. Isom went 16-4 with five saves and a 3.72 earned run average over his last two Boiler seasons. In 149 1 /3 innings, he struck out 119 and walked 55.

Isom was born in Pullman, Wash., and wound up in West Lafayette when his father was hired at Purdue (Gary Isom is Professor Emeritus of Toxicology in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology).

The southpaw was an all-Big Ten Conference honoree in 1993 along with teammate and future major league Jermaine Allensworth. The Boilermakers were the only college to recruit Isom.

“As a player, (Alexander) instilled discipline in me,” says Isom of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He taught time management skills and how to hold yourself accountable.

“I had to grow up quick.”

Green imparted wisdom and inspiration.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Coach Green,” says Isom. “He’s probably the most influential person I’ve had in my baseball career.”

At age 14, Isom played for a Green-managed Pony League team.

“He taught me how to throw a split-finger fastball (forkball) and my career took off from there,” says Isom. “As a pitching coach/head coach, (Green) instilled a lot of confidence in me. He wanted me to have the baseball in my hand.

“I got drafted because of what he taught me.”

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 18th round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Isom pitched three seasons in the Pirates and San Diego Padres organizations and then four more in indy ball.

While playing in indy ball, he met two managers — Doug Simunic and Andy McCauley — that helped him on what would lead to a career as a manager.

Isom played for Simunic with the independent Northern League’s Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.) RedHawks and was allowed to pick the skipper’s brain.

“I was just trying to learn and he took me under his wing,” says Isom of Simunic, who went on to become the first independent baseball manager to reach 1,000 wins. “I took best from all the managers I had.

“I’m learning everyday.”

MacCauley coached in Fargo-Moorhead and met up with Isom again with the Frontier League’s Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kodiaks.

Isom was released eight times during his pro playing career. After three starts and three losses for Kalamazoo, he cut himself from the team and headed home only to be called back by MacCauley to be pitching coach. The two men have bounced baseball ideas off each other ever since.

MacCauley has been the manager of the Frontier League’s Evansville (Ind.) Otters since 2010.

Isom’s best friend in baseball, MacCauley was in his wedding (Jeff and former Purdue volleyball player/current Klondike Middle School physical education/health teacher Lisa Isom have two children at Harrison High School in West Lafayette — senior volleyballer Samantha and freshman baseballer Will) and trades between Joliet and Evansville are common.

When school is out, Will travels with the Slammers and sees the effort that goes into being a pro player.

“In independent baseball, you’ve got to put up numbers or there’s going to be changes,” says Isom. “Hard work will pay off.”

When he’s not away managing professionals, Isom can be found back in West Lafayette spending time with his family and teaching private lessons at On Deck Baseball, a business owned by former pro player Josh Loggins.

“I want to see kids get quality coaching,” says Isom, who coached two seasons at Lafayette Central Catholic High School in the 1990s.

JEFFISOM

Jeff Isom, a graduate of Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., managed the Joliet (Ill.) Slammers to the championship of the independent Frontier League in 2018. (Joliet Slammers Photo)

 

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Former LaPorte, Indiana standout DeMuth heading into fifth pro baseball season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dustin DeMuth’s fourth professional baseball season gave him the chance to see what it means when you move up the ladder.

DeMuth, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Indiana University by the Milwaukee Brewers, played 96 games at High-A Brevard County, Fla., and 34 contests at Double-A Biloxi, Miss., in 2016 then 116 more at Biloxi in 2017.

“It was definitely an up-and-down season,” says DeMuth, who hit .244 with nine home runs, 20 doubles and 40 runs batted in from the left-handed batter’s box and also honed his skills at first base in ’17. “There is a separator from High-A to Double-A ball. It was a grind. It was fun though. I learned a lot.”

DeMuth, a 2010 LaPorte High School graduate, saw the pace of play speed up in the Double-A Southern League. He also faced pitchers who have better command of their stuff.

“You see velocity all through the minor leagues,” says DeMuth. “(Double-A pitchers) have velocity and can put it where they want it. They can locate off-speed pitches. You have to be ready for any pitch in any count.

“They’ll attack you differently every time you go up there. You have to keep making adjustments.”

Defensively, DeMuth continued to pick up on the cues needed to play well at first base.

“I’ve always been a pretty good hitter,” says DeMuth. “But I always thought my defense was lacking.”

DeMuth has picked up a number of things from Brewers coaches on hitting, fielding and footwork.

“A lot of people have different ways of teaching things,” says DeMuth. “You find something that clicks in your head,you understand it and you go with it.”

DeMuth’s off-season has been eventful. He got engaged to girlfriend of more than four years — Caitlin Hansen — last November and the couple plans to wed this November.

Dustin and Caitlin met through mutual friends. The Roncalli High School graduate is a former defensive specialist on the IU volleyball team.

DeMuth has also been in Bloomington working out with the Hoosiers baseball team as he gets ready for 2018 spring training in Arizona. The Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate is at Colorado Springs, Colo.

Indiana’s program is now headed by Chris Lemonis. Tracy Smith was the Hoosiers head coach when DeMuth played in Cream and Crimson.

DeMuth credits Smith for instilling mental toughness in his players.

“He helped us move on from the rough spots and mistakes and continue to grind,” says DeMuth of Smith, who is now head coach at Arizona State University. “He was a great mentor for all of us.”

It was a talented and close-knit group that played in the College World Series in 2013 and the NCAA Regional in 2014 and won back-to-back Big Ten Conference titles. DeMuth’s teammates included several players on their way to pro baseball, including Kyle Schwarber (who made his MLB debut in 2015 with the Chicago Cubs), Aaron Slegers (2017 with the Minnesota Twins), Sam Travis (2017 with the Boston Red Sox) and Jake Kelzer (a Bloomington native now pitching in the Philadelphia Phillies system).

“It was like a family to be honest,” says DeMuth. “Most of those guys are still good friends.”

DeMuth was drafted in the eighth round by the Twins in 2013, but opted to go back to IU. After being chosen as a third-team All-American as a junior, he was a first-team All-American while hitting .374 with five homers and 40 RBIs as a senior. His career average was .344 in 236 games (all starts) and left the program ranked No. 1 all-time in doubles (63) and No. 2 in hits (316).

Born in Merrillville, DeMuth went to school in Highland, Ind., through sixth grade, went to Edgewood Middle School in Ellettsville, Ind., then moved to LaPorte during his seventh grade year. He played four seasons for the LaPorte High School Slicers and is grateful for the chance head coach Scott Upp gave him to be a varsity regular in left field as a freshman.

“That was a big deal back then,” says DeMuth. “(Upp) is one of the reasons I went on to play baseball in college.”

A three-sport athlete at LaPorte, there was a time early in his prep career where DeMuth ranked basketball and football ahead of baseball.

But he saw 6-foot-2 point guards becoming a rarity at the big-time college level and began seeing the opportunities on the diamond.

“I always wanted to go to college and play D-I and baseball was definitely the best route to go,” says DeMuth, who is featured in the book Slicer Baseball, A Cut Above: The History of LaPorte Baseball.

While in high school, DeMuth played a few summers of travel baseball for the Indiana Chargers.

At IU, he followed up his freshman year with the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs of the Florida Collegiate Summer League and his sophomore year with the Wareham Gatemen of Cape Cod Baseball League.

Dustin, 26, is the youngest Dave and Judy DeMuth’s four children, coming after David, Jenny and Julie. Dave, a former Merrillville High School assistant principal, is retired. Judy DeMuth is superintendent of Monroe County School Corporation. The girls both played college basketball — two-time all-Big Ten performer Jenny at Indiana and Julie at Ball State University.

DUSTINDEMUTHBILOXISHUCKERS

Dustin DeMuth, a former LaPorte High School and Indiana University baseball standout, is going into his fifth season in the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2018. (Biloxi Shuckers Photo)