It was a night of firsts. The summer wood-bat Northern League’s Elkhart (Ind.) County Miracle played its inaugural contest Wednesday, May 31 on the turf at NorthWood High School’s Field of Dreams Complex in Nappanee and earned the first victory in franchise history. Elkhart County bested the visiting Crown Point-based Lake County CornDogs 6-3 to make Wilson Valera a winner in his first game as Miracle manager. “It makes me feel very good and to play the best team in the league,” said Valera after the Miracle topped the NL champions from 2022 and gave them their first loss of the young 2023 season. “Now we know we can do it. Hopefully we can continue to play this way.” Elkhart County led 3-0. Lake County (4-1) tied it at 3-3 with three runs in the sixth inning. The Miracle responded with two in the bottom of the sixth and added one in the seventh.
On-field firsts … Starting lineup: lf Rickey Nye (1-3), 2b Cole Mason (0-3), 1b Bryce Lesher (1-5), c Javier Guevara (2-2), 3b Angel Perez (0-3), cf Jaden Miller (1-3), ss Evan Laws (2-4), dh Dylan Rost (0-3), rf Hunter Christunus (1-3), p Conor Gausselin (6 IP, 6 K’S, 3 BB). Strikeout: Gausselin fanned Lake County lead-off batter Zach Zychowski in the first inning. Hit: Lead-off man Nye’s single to center field to lead off the bottom of the first inning. Home run: Guevara’s three-run blast to left field in the first inning. Stolen base: Miller swiped second base after being hit by a pitch in the first inning. Double play: Third baseman Perez to second baseman Mason to first baseman Lesher in the fourth inning. Relievers: Right-hander Ethan Lengfelder in the seventh inning and righty Robino Vazquez Vallejo in the eighth and ninth. Umpires: Corey Stewart behind the plate and Steve Kajzer on the bases.
Off-the-field firsts … Ceremonial first pitch: William Lee (Vendor Bill’s Bar-B-Que). National anthem singer: Les Eads (member of Hideous Business, a band who entertained prior to the game). Mascot: Scooter made his gameday debut.
The homestand continues with games at 7 p.m. Thursday vs. the Indiana Panthers, Friday vs. the Southland Vikings and Saturday vs. Northwest Indiana Oilmen and 2 p.m. Sunday vs. the Indiana Panthers. Former Chicago Cubs player Ben Zobrist is slated to throw out the ceremonial first pitch and sign autographs Saturday.
Wilson Valera was on the original South Bend (Ind.) White Sox in 1988. Then known as Wilson Uribe, the Dominican Republic native was 18 when he played in 69 games for the Midwest League team managed by Steve Dillard. Craig Wallin was a young broadcaster for that club. Fast forward to 2023 and Wallin is founder of the Northern League’s Elkhart County (Ind.) Miracle. He introduced Valera as the first-year team’s field manager Thursday, May 4 at D-Bat Elkhart training facility. “I’ve been around a little bit and I’m very glad to be able to share my experiences in baseball,” says Valera. “It’s very important for me to show them the right way to play professional baseball and see how they’re doing. “As soon as you see the player you know what kind of potential they have.” Opening week at NorthWood High School’s Field of Dreams Complex is May 31-June 4. Players report May 26 and will begin a series of workouts at Elkhart High School. First pitch on Wednesday, May 31 is slated for 7 p.m. Michiana blues and rock band Hideous Business is to perform from 6 to 7. Ben Zobrist, World Series MVP for the Chicago Cubs in 2016, is slated to throw out the first pitch on Saturday, June 3. It’s also Team Picture Night. “One way or another, this inaugural week of minor league baseball returning to Elkhart County is going to be one our fans will never forget”, says Wallin. “We hope the entire area comes out to join us in celebrating our new team and its entrance into the Northern League.” There are 30 scheduled regular-season home dates through Aug. 3. The Northern League is a hybrid circuit with a mix of summer collegiate players and professionals. Organized by former Notre Dame baseball/football player Evan Sharpley, a roster of 30 to 35 will feature players from around the country with some local talent. Among those featured on the Miracle website are Nathaniel Garcia, Bryce Lesher, Bryce Miller, Jaden Miller, Dylan Rost and Brycen Sherwood. Valera, who is also related to former South Bend Silver Hawks pitcher Greg Aquino, played eight minor league seasons in the White Sox, Cleveland Indians and New York Mets organizations. He was at bullpen catcher for the San Francisco Giants (1989-93) and Cincinnati Reds (1994-95) coached in the Dominican Summer League for the DSL Twins (1996) and DSL Diamondbacks (2008-11). He was with the Arizona Diamondbacks coaching staff in 2011 and moved down to the Missoula Osprey as hitting coach in 2013. He has championship rings from his time in the Carribean World Series. Wallin calls Valera “as good a baseball guy as there is. But he’s a better human being. He is a wonderful man and he has such respect for this game of baseball. “This is a rare breed when you can get a guy of this caliber with minor league experience and big league coaching experience in our inaugural season. It’s pretty special. We’re really, really pumped.” Valera resides in Elkhart and is an instructor at D-Bat Elkhart, 4411 Wyland Drive, Elkhart, which is owned by Jason and Shelbi Baugh and Eric Miller. “I see the enthusiasm from the kids over here and how they want to play baseball,” says Valera. “Elkhart needs to opportunity to have a real baseball team and now the opportunity has been given to coach the first team. “I’m very, very blessed.” Valera’s son — Mikey, 12 — is a talented player in his own right. It was revealed Thursday that Elkhart County will wear white tops with red pinstripes and a red cap at home and red tops with a blue-skulled/red-billed caps on the road. Scooter is the team’s mascot. Tickets may be purchased at the team’s website or at the gate. Fans purchasing Reserved Seat tickets will be seated behind home plate while General Admission ticket holders will find other seating in various spots around the park and are welcome to bring their own lawn chairs and blankets to sit on. To access the facility, take C.R. 150 east off S.R. 19 then follow the lane to the complex. For more, email email@example.com.
Antonio “Tony” Cruz Jr., came close to losing his life and the sport that occupies much of thoughts. The COVID-19 virus struck the husband and father of three in the first half of 2020 and he spent 25 days of May in Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Ind. — nine in the Intensive Care Unit. His oxygen level dropped to 55 and twice was not expected to make it. One night he was visited by a doctor and nurse. Cruz recalls the doctor’s words: “Well, we’re not going to sugar-coat it. We’re going to be honest with you. You might die tonight. We’ve got a yellow legal pad right here. If there’s anything you might want to write to anybody, now’s the time.” There was also plenty of support of his family — wife Ilka, sons Carlos and Santana and daughter Neveah and Amiyah, father Antonio Sr. (who also in the hospital with COVID but released before his son) and mother Lucy. “It wasn’t your time,” is what Lucy Cruz told her son of why he survived and recovered. Baseball also played a big part. “Legion was always on my mind,” says Cruz, the manager of the South Bend American Legion Post 151 senior baseball team. “It gave me a reason to keep fighting and get out of there.” Drawing strength from messages sent by coaching friends including John Kehoe, Joel Reinebold, Tom Washburn and Dennis Ryans. “You don’t forget that stuff,” says Cruz. “It means a lot to me.” While the pandemic caused American Legion Baseball to cancel its state, regional and national tournaments in 2020, Indiana teams were allowed to play games if they could provide their own insurance. Cruz got out of the hospital and with air bottle in tow came to the place he considers his home away from home — the baseball field. Jim Reinebold Field — named for the late Indiana High School Baaeball Coaches Association Hall of Famer — is where the South Bend Clay High School Colonials play and Cruz serves as an assistant coach and home to Post 151, though COVID caused cancellation of the high school season and had the Legion team playing home games at South Bend’s Boland Park in 2020. For his baseball foundation, Cruz looks back to his days at Maurice Matthys Little League, where his coach from 12 to 16 was Terry Cline. “He is who I pattern my coaching style after,” says Cruz of Cline. “He was about caring and giving back.” As a player at South Bend LaSalle High School, where he graduate in 1997, Cruz played for Lions head coach Scott Sill. Cruz was a coach on Kehoe’s staff at South Bend Washington High School and also led the baseball program at Dickinson Middle School — going 23-1 in two seasons — then joined Joel Reinebold at Clay. “Joel is so supportive,” says Cruz. “I’ve been blessed to be around him for so many years.” Carlos Cruz (now 23) and Santana Cruz (21) both played for the Colonials, graduating in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Carlos attended Indiana State University for three years. Santana also played at Ancilla College in Donaldson, Ind. Neveah Cruz (who turned 19 July 12) has been around Clay baseball from seventh grade until the present and has been a student manager, director of operations and coach. This summer, 2020 Clay grad and Sport and Recreation major at Trine University in Angola, Ind., is Post 51 Juniors (17U) team manager and assistant coach to her father with the Post 51 Seniors (19U). “It’s a good bonding experience with my dad,” says Neveah. “I’ve met a lot of good people through baseball — role models.” Being around teams has given Neveah something more. “I have a lot of older brothers now,” says Neveah. Youngest daughter Amiyah is 11. This is the sixth year Tony Cruz has coached American Legion ball. When Lenny Kuespert was no longer able to manage South Bend Post 50, Cruz started Post 357. He was 357 manager for two summers and after guidance from former Bristol Post manager Jim Treadway and Legion baseball organizer Joe Kusiak and consulting with post commander Mike Vargo has led Post 151 since the 2018 season. “Legion ball is good for families who can’t afford to play travel ball, which can be salty,” says Cruz. Post 151 baseball is supported through $650 registration fees and fundraisers to cover things like insurance, uniforms, hat, socks, field rental, umpires and, in the advent of rain, field conditioner. If there’s any money left over, Cruz use it to buy Legion shirts etc. for his players. “I always give back to the kids,” says Cruz. “It’s not about me.” Custom COVID masks were purchased as well a Post 151 visors for players’ mothers. Believing that Legion baseball is also a tribute to veterans and patriotism, Cruz outfits his squads in red, white and blue uniforms. American Legion teams are allowed to roster 18 players for the postseason. There is a total enrollment limit of 6,000 in the top three grades for the high schools that provide players. Besides Santana Cruz at Ancilla, athletes who have played for Cruz and gone on to college baseball include Hunter Aker at Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., Robbie Berger, J.P. Kehoe, Mason Ryans and Andrew Washburn at Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Tyler Bortone at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Tyler Cuma at Ivy Tech Northeast in Fort Wayne, Gabe Galvan at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Nathaniel Garcia at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Chris Gault, Cooper Lee, A.J. Klimek, Andy Migas and Lee Timmons at Trine, Colin Greve at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Dylan Hensley at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, Roman Kuntz and Bryce Lesher at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich., Michael Payne at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., Hunter Robinson at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, Ind., Cole Steveken at Ancilla, Chantz Stover at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., Tony Valle at Bethel University in Mishawaka, Ind., Cameron Waters at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Community College and Gabe Yonto at BCA College Post Grad in Knoxville, Tenn. Both 151 teams played about a dozen regular-season weekday games in 2021. Thursday, July 15 at 5 p.m. and following and Friday, July 16 at 5 (if necessary), South Bend Post 151 hosts Bristol Post 143 in best-of-3 Regional 3 at Jim Reinebold Field for a berth in the eight-team State Finals Friday through Tuesday, July 23-27 at Highland Park in Kokomo. Other feeder regionals are slated at Highland Post 180 Regional 1-2 (with Valparaiso Post 94, East Chicago Post 369/Lake Station Post 100 Region Legion Expos and South Haven Post 502), Regional 4 at Kokomo Post 6 (with Lafayette Post 11 and Muncie Post 19), Regional 5 at Terre Haute Post 346 (with Crawfordsville Post 72 and Sullivan Post 139), Regional 6 at Jasper Post 147 (with Washington Post 121) and Regional 7 at Rockport Post 254 (with Newburgh Post 44 and Boonville Post 200). As State Finals host, Kokomo will represent Regional 4 with the other highest finisher also advancing. The top two at Highland and the winner at the other sites will move on. Vera Cruz Tree Service has tended to customers in the South Bend, Ind., area for four decades. Recently, Tony Jr. took over the running of the family business from his father. Not long after the Legion season ends comes the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp (the instructional league is heading into its 27th year). Between seasons and conditioning, Cruz is involved with baseball about 10 months a year. The diamond — and what it represents — is his passion.