Tag Archives: Chicago Cubs

Pitching to contact helps South Bend lefty Rondon earn 10th victory

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Manuel Rondon averages more than seven strikeouts per nine innings and the left-handed pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization still likes to blow hitters away.

But the 22-year-old Venezuelan is beginning to appreciate what pitching to contact can do for him.

Rondon, a fourth-year professional, went a season-best 6 2/3 innings and pushed his 2017 record to 10-3 Monday, July 17 in helping the South Bend Cubs best the visiting Cedar Rapids Kernels 2-1 in Midwest League play.

His 10 wins are twice as many as any other South Bend pitcher has amassed so far this season.

After issuing a leadoff walk and seeing Cedar Rapids score a first-inning run without a hit, Rondon went on to put up zeroes.

The lefty would yield four hits (two doubles) with three strikeouts and three walks while getting five groundouts and six flyouts. He benefitted from double plays in the second and third innings.

South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence chalked up Rondon’s successful outing to “attacking the hitters and not being predictable.”

Lawrence watched the southpaw command his fastball and mix in his other pitches and throwing different pitches and different ball-strike counts to keep the Kernels off-balance.

“He’s done that well for the last couple starts,” said Lawrence of a player who was purchased in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015 and was named the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year in 2016. “(Early in the season) he had some games where he was missing up in the zone and got hit around a little bit. It just took him a little bit of time to get his rhythm again. Now, it comes down to keeping the ball down and changing speeds.”

Getting ahead of hitters allows Rondon to effectively use his change-up.

Rondon, whose native language is Spanish, spoke through South Bend teammate Alberto Mineo after Monday’s start.

“He said he honestly loves striking out guys, but there are situations where you have to pitch to contact, if you want to go longer in the game and keep your pitch count low,” said Mineo. “Today was his longest game (of the season) and he was pitching to contact.”

Mineo, who singled in both South Bend runs Monday, related that Rondon liked how his curve ball was working. With more experience, he is gaining confidence in his ability to get hitters out.

Rondon also expressed his appreciation for the Cubs coaching staff to cheer up players during good days and bad days and how the South Bend fans support the team.

MANUELRONDON

Manuel Rondon is a left-handed pitcher with the South Bend Cubs. (South Bend Cubs Photo)

 

IHSBCA All-Star alum Fox speaks from the heart

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Fox knows the honor of being chosen as an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant.

Before he went on to play at the University of Michigan and 14 seasons in professional baseball — making his big league debut in 2007 with the Chicago Cubs — Fox played for the South in 2000 in Fort Wayne.

Fox, who is now retired as a player and living in Michigan, accepted an invitation from former Wolverines and current Ball State University head coach Rich Maloney to address the 2017 All-Stars and their families at a recognition banquet Friday, July 14.

A 1 p.m. doubleheader is slated for Saturday, July 15 with one wood-bat game at noon Sunday, July 16 at Ball State in Muncie.

Outlining the passion, persistence, perseverance and patience it took him to make it to baseball’s pinnacle and play five different positions with seven different MLB organizations plus stints in independent ball and in Mexico and Korea, the Indianapolis Cathedral High School graduate told his story.

Fox, 34, first congratulated the Class of 2017 All-Stars.

“This is a great honor,” said Fox. “You may not know it now. But looking back on my career, these are some of the memories that I hold dear. It is a testament to your talent and a dedication to your craft. It’s awesome.”

Why did Maloney choose Fox to speak when the coach has had so many players with what many would call better resumes?

“I asked him why me?,” said Fox. “He chuckled like the answer was obvious — ‘You played. You were there.’ Who else was going to stand up here and talk about getting from here to where I am now?”

Deciding against a prepared speech, Fox spoke from the heart.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t a superstar player,” said Fox, who was selected in the third round of the 2003 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs and signed by scout Stan Zielinski. “I was a role player my whole time in the big leagues (through 193 games, 489 at-bats, 20 home runs, 73 runs batted in with the Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles). These kids don’t want to be a role player. They want to be the best.”

Fox asked the people who know him best to list his best qualities and he compared them with his own self assessment and came up with those four P’s.

Playing with passion, persistence, perseverance and patience, Fox found a way to stay on the field. He related a story of playing in Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs. He came up as a catcher and was working out before a game as a third baseman when his manager came to him.

“‘Of all the players I ever managed or coached, you’ve got the most out of your ability,’” said Fox of the words he heard that day. “That’s probably the biggest compliment I ever got.”

The manager went on to say that Fox did not have the physical ability of some of his teammates, but he possessed something special and said: “You come out here and find ways to compete. You’re trying a different position not because you have to but because you want to. You’re trying to get better.”

Fox said he was not equipped to talk about being a superstar, but he could speak to the effort it takes to get the most out of his God-given talent.

“My nose was to the grindstone,” said Fox. “I was so concentrated on where I wanted to go that I never actually sat down and thought about what got me there.”

Fox and his closest friends and family agree that he has passion.

“I loved to play baseball and if you don’t love it, it’s not going to last long,” said Fox. “This game can chew you up and spit you out.”

The IHSBCA All-Star alum also encouraged the current All-Stars to enjoy baseball as a team game — something that often goes away when professionals are competing for jobs and playing time and looking out more for themselves than chasing victories.

“That’s why I enjoyed playing in Mexico and playing independent ball,” said Fox. “Guys were just out there playing games.

“There was a time in Triple-A that I hated the most. It didn’t even matter what team was on the other side of the field. It was a competition in your own dugout. That’s not baseball.

For Fox it was about enjoying the competition and seizing the opportunities.

“At the end of the day — even with all the business things — you go out and play,” said Fox. “No matter where it is. No matter what country you’re in. No matter what level you’re at. We get too caught up in where you play and not how you play.”

How about persistence and perseverance?

“Everyday in the major leagues, I was overmatched physically,” said Fox. “These guys were 5-star athletes. I had to find a way to compete. You’ve got to be persistent. Coach Maloney said to me, ‘You know what the second-most favorite thing about you was: You never took ‘no’ for an answer.’”

Fox got much of his MLB playing time on the days when a regular would ask off with a particularly tough pitcher going that day for the other team?

“If you name a tough left-handed pitchers between 2007 and 2011, I probably faced them,” said Fox. “(The regular) would come in and say, ‘CC Sabathia’s pitching today? I don’t feel so good.’”

“When I stepped in that box, I feel I had nothing to lose. They could be a Hall of Famer. What did I care? That’s what made me as good as I was. I just wanted to play.”

Fox also learned to be patient.

“It doesn’t happen on your time,” said Fox. “You can feel like you’re ready. You can feel like you deserve it and you see other people take your place. But you keep playing and you will get your chance.

“They pass guys over because they are too busy complaining (about being slighted).”

Fox reflected on his career and said it was not the numbers he put up but the times he spent with teammates and families and the places he got to see along the way.

“I encourage you to enjoy the journey,” said Fox to the All-Stars. “You don’t know where it’s going to take you. You don’t. You show up everyday, you play hard and you have fun doing it and the rest will take care of itself.

“I once had a friend tell me, ‘You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’ He’s right. You have no idea where this game is going to take you. You have no idea where life is going to take you.”

To illustrate his point, Fox talked about being invited to big league spring training with the Cubs in 2007 and where it led him.

It was Lou Piniella’s first season as manager and Chicago’s top two catchers — Henry Blanco and Michael Barrett — were called away to the World Baseball Classic. Fox was with the big club, but spent his sweaty afternoons warming up pitchers in the bullpen.

“I knew I was getting sent back down. I knew I wasn’t making the team. But I got the experience. I knew what the scouting report was about me: Good hitter. Can’t play defense. It bothered me. I wanted (Pineilla) to see what I was or wasn’t capable of doing before he read it in a report that I didn’t agree with.”

When Barrett came back from the WBC, Fox was the lone player on the roster who had not logged an at-bat or a defensive inning.

Barrett encouraged Fox to say something to the coaching staff.

The Hoosier finally worked up the courage ask for a chance to show what he could do before going to minor league camp.

Fox got his wish. He would play at the end of an away game against the Royals.

Called to hurry from the bullpen, Fox scrambled to the dugout and to the plate and socked the second pitch he saw — a slider — for a double off the wall.

In the ninth, Fox belts a first-pitch home run to plate the decisive run in a Cubs victory.

The next day, the Milwaukee Brewers came to visit the Cubs. Fox started the game on bullpen duty. When called upon to hit late in the game, he pops another first-pitch homer.

“I’ve seen four pitches (in big league camp) and have two homers and a couple,” said Fox.

The next day, Cubs bench coach Alan Trammel told the team to “keep it close until Fox can hit.”

Fox again homers that day.

“I thought I was going to black out,” said Fox.

The next day against the San Francisco Giants, Fox was called in from he bullpen to play left field — for the first time in his life.

Sent back to the minors, Fox opened the season by playing in the outfield and made his debut July 19 in right field at Wrigley Field.

“It just goes to show you that you never know where this game is going to take you,” said Fox. “I played five different positions in the big leagues (right field, left field, catcher, first base, third base). For a guy who couldn’t use a glove, I thought that was pretty good.

“So don’t ever put yourself in a box or limit yourself. Somebody else may see a capability in you that you don’t see yourself.”

JAKEFOX

Jake Fox, shown with the independent Somerset Patriots, played 14 professional seasons and was a 2000 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant. (Somerset Patriots Photo)

Fans keep turning out to see Fort Wayne TinCaps

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Downtown Fort Wayne has become a destination and TinCaps baseball is a big reason.

The minor league team welcomed a franchise-record 413,701 fans to Parkview Field for 68 dates in 2016 and was only slightly behind that pace in 2017 — the ninth at the ballpark on Ewing Street.

Fort Wayne, a San Diego Padres affiliate, drew 252,305 for its first 45 dates, including a single-game record 9,266 on July 4.

“The city has embraced us,” says TinCaps president Mike Nutter. “The people keep coming. It’s been an unbelievable 8 1/2 years and we just want to keep it going.”

A combination of exciting, young talent and ballpark amenities attracts fans from around the region.

“It’s an incredible sports market,” says Nutter, who notes that folks who who root for the Cubs, White Sox, Indians, Tigers, Reds and Cardinals agree that the TinCaps are their local team.

Before the streak was stopped in 2016, Fort Wayne had made the playoff seven straight seasons — a mark not matched in the minors or the majors.

Some people come to the park for the food and the promotions, but others want to see a winner and fondly recall the first season at Parkview when Fort Wayne, managed by Doug Dascenzo, won the 2009 Midwest League championship. Led by right-hander Mat Latos, 19 of those players landed in the big leagues.

Nutter has been with the franchise since the fall of 1999. The Fort Wayne Wizards played at the former Memorial Stadium from 1993-2008 and were affiliated with the Minnesota Twins through 1998.

“We were doing that and thought it was great,” says Nutter of the Memorial Stadium days. “We had a hard-working group.”

Current vice presidents David Lorenz, Brian Schackow and Michael Limmer were with the club in those days.

Before coming to the Summit City, Nutter had been in Nashville and watched that ownership have trouble getting a new ballpark (which eventually happened in 2015) so he knew new digs in Fort Wayne were not a sure thing.

“We didn’t know how realistic it was,” says Nutter. “Then it started to get legs and it started to move.”

The TinCaps are run by Hardball Capital. Jason Freier is chairman and CEO of that group, which also runs the Chattanooga Lookouts and Columbia Fireflies.

One idea TinCaps management had when they moved across town is still in place.

“When we came downtown we said lawn seats would be 5 bucks. We liked the way that sounded,” says Nutter. “At the old ballpark — again, not being criticial of it — the cheapest ticket was $6.50. Here was are in Year 9 and they’re still 5 bucks.”

Whether paying $5 or for more-expensive seats, patrons can see a TinCaps team that features three 18-year-olds in the starting infield, including Fernando Tatis Jr. at shortstop, Hudson Potts at third base and Reinaldo Ilarraza at second base.

Tatis, son of former MLB player Fernando Tatis Sr., has already been MWL Player of the Week twice in 2017 — the first Fort Wayne player to do that since Rymer Liriano in 2011. Baseball Prospectus ranks the young Tatis No. 22 among its Midseason Top 50 prospects.

“On a nightly basis, he stands out as the most-exciting player on the field,” says Sam Geaney, Padres director of player development. “From his raw ability and a lot of his performances, there’s a lot of positives.

“I love the way he plays. It seems like he enjoys playing the game.”

The Padres organization has definitely turned to teens to turn things around and that includes Fort Wayne.

“We are one of the youngest teams in the league,” says Geaney. “We understand there are going to be some growing pains.

“We had a lot of international signings. We have two 17-year-olds (Luis Almanzar and Justin Lopez) and an 18-year-old (Kelvin Melean) at (rookie-level) Tri-City playing on a nightly basis.

“When you sign guys from Latin America, for the most part those guys will be younger — 16 or 17 years old. It’s very clear with our staff that we’re trying to find the best players.”

Slugging first baseman Brad Zunica is a returnee from 2016.

“He’s just continuing to mature,” says Geaney of Zunica. “He had his first full professional season last year. There’s a maturing process that comes with that. He continues to tighten up his swing.

“With the combination of mechanical things and professional development, we’re going to see some results this year.”

With a re-worked pitching staff nurtured by veteran coach Burt Hooton, Fort Wayne manager Anthony Contreras had his team off to a 12-7 start in the second half after a league-worst 26-44 performance in the first half.

Michel Baez, a 6-foot-8 Cuban right-hander, made his first start in front of a paying crowd on American soil in the July 4 game and impressed by pitching five innings of two-hit shutout baseball with nine strikeouts

“The future is bright I think for the TinCaps in the second half and I know for the Padres in the future,” says Nutter.

FORTWAYNETINCAPS

Fort Wayne coach, toolmaker Dunno helps pitchers gain velocity

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana baseball man and toolmaker has combined his know-how in both areas to create a training device that has been embraced by professional and college teams.

Rich Dunno, a former college and current youth coach and owner and CEO of Ground Force Sports in Fort Wayne, has been making the King of The Hill to promote the importance of leg drive in the pitching motion.

Dunno says proper leg drive increases velocity and decreases stress on the pitching arm.

“As a pitching coach, I always knew you needed to use the legs,” says Dunno, who once led hurlers at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., and still gives lessons. “Back then it was called leg drive, now it’s more or less known as ground force.”

In working with young pitchers, he noticed that as they pushed the indoor mound back with their back leg their speed went up.

Dunno took his engineering background to develop a device that would let the pitchers know when they were properly getting the load on their back leg to transfer energy through the kinetic chain which ended with them delivering the baseball.

When pushed back 3/16 of an inch, the top plate of King of The Hill (www.trainwiththeking.com) makes a clacking sound.

“There is an auditory reward,” says Dunno. “When they hear (the pop of the plate moving back), they know they’re doing it right.

“It’s like Pavlov’s Dogs. Everytime they heard that bell — ding, ding, ding — he knew it was time to eat.

“Even in the big leagues, they want to hear that noise. If you don’t do it correctly, you don’t hear anything.”

The device, which has gone through some evolution in the four years since Dunno began tinkering the with the concept, has an adjustable spring that can be tightened to increase the force it takes to move the mound back.

When Dunno, a 1981 Fort Wayne North Side High School graduate who played for Myron Dickerson and then Dale Doerffler his last two prep seasons, first began to study pitching, he found two basic styles: Drop-and-drive (think Tom Seaver) and Stand Tall-and-fall (used by many pitchers).

“More and more, they are finding out that the healthier pitchers use the ground force through that (kinetic) chain,” says Dunno. “They did studies that showed faster throwers created more force off the back leg. We want energy in that front foot that cause the hips to rotate.

“It’s a kinetic chain reaction.”

Dunno has learned the Major League Baseball players are resistant to change and yet 20 MLB teams, including the Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and San Diego Padres use the King of the Hill (or King of the Swing which helps hitters create a back-side load prior to the weight transfer) to be used by their big league and minor league clubs.

Dunno was at Wrigley Field in Chicago last week meeting with San Diego bullpen coach Doug Bochtler, hitting coach Alan Zinter and was introduced to the Padres bench coach.

“(Zinter) and Mark McGwire say they love it because the kids can not only feel themselves doing it, but hear themselves,” says Dunno. “They know instantly whether they’re doing it right.”

Noting that “mass times acceleration equals power,” some strong hitters can get away with moving their upper body and “squashing the bug” while driving the ball.

“Some of the smaller guys like (Javier) Baez and (Bryce) Harper, they have to create more kinetic energy — getting the hips and upper body to rotate to create that power. If you see a video, watch what they do. Their back leg comes off the ground because they are accelerating so fast.”

A handle makes it mobile to place on mounds, in batter’s boxes, wherever.

Dunno has a couple of patents and he is entertaining an appearance on the Shark Tank TV show.

With the same process of transferring energy in mind, Dunno has devised a Queen of the Hill for fast pitch softball and he is working on trainers for football, track and other sports.

He has even come up with a line of tacky, all-weather “bat snot” — an answer to pine tar sticks — to give hitters a better grip.

KINGOFTHEHILL

The King of the Hill leg drive trainer, devised by Fort Wayne-based coach and toolmaker Rich Dunno of Ground Force Sports, has been adopted by many Major League Baseball organizations and college programs. (Ground Force Sports Photo)

RICHDUNNO

The blogger meets Rich Dunno, creator of The King of the Hill, King of the Swing, Queen of the Hill and more.

 

Hershberger pouring baseball passion into new Ivy Tech Northeast community college program

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Twice in a lifetime.

Lance Hershberger is starting another college baseball program in his native Fort Wayne.

Hershberger, who turns 62 Friday, June 9, built the Indiana Tech program from the ground up (1991-2003) and took the Warriors to multiple NAIA College World Series trips.

Now, Hershberger is heading up the new squad at Ivy Tech Northeast — the third community college baseball program in Indiana, following Vincennes University and Ancilla College. It also brings the number of Indiana college programs at all levels to 36.

Hershberger and his assistants — Connor Wilkins, Dru Sebastian, Todd Armstrong and and Mark Delagarza — are currently on the recruiting trail for the Ivy Tech Northeast Titans, which will field a team in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II in 2017-18. Teams are allowed to play 56 spring games with more contests in the fall.

Hershberger would like to carry about a 25 players the first year. That’s a minimum of four outfielders, three middle infielders, four corner infielders, three of four catchers and as many pitchers as he can get.

“If we get 100 kids in here for visits, we’ll meet our 25,” says Hershberger. “The excitement level’s there.”

As an NJCAA D-II school, Ivy Tech Northeast is eligible to provide athletic scholarships limited to tuition, books, fees, and course required supplies. The school is researching the possibility of joining a conference in the region.

Hershberger, who was inducted last weekend into the Northeast Indiana Baseball Association Hall of Fame and coaches the Summit City Sluggers 16U travel team which includes son Grant (daughter Maddie just graduated from Homestead High School), is educating folks about community college baseball.

“I think there’s really a place for a JUCO here in northern Indiana,” says Hershberger. “In Indiana there’s a big void of knowledge about junior college. A lot of players think it’s a step down (from NCAA Divisions I, II and II and NAIA).

“You go south and you go west and they understand what they’re about.”

Hershberger, a Wawasee Prepatory School and Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne graduate (he also attended the University of Saint Francis) who has also coached high school ball at Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger and Whitko and with the Wildcat Baseball League, lists some of the main reasons a player chooses a junior college:

1. His grades weren’t good enough to go to a four-year school.

2. Maybe he was drafted and didn’t get the round or the money he wanted and doesn’t want to wait until after his junior year to get drafted again.

3. He’s not big enough yet or needs to work on his skills.

The top two objectives when Hershberger was flying high at Indiana Tech were compete for the national championships (during Hershberger’s tenure, the Warriors won 407 games and were NAIA World Series runner-up in 1998 and a fifth-place finisher in 2003 as well as a World Series participant in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 ) and send players on to the professional ranks.

While winning is important, development and getting a player ready for the next level will be the top priorities at Ivy Tech Northeast.

“Every program I run or am coaching for is going to compete we want to win,” says Hershbeger. “But we’re going to get kids ready.”

Hershberger (Kansas City Kansas), Wilkins (Jackson of Michigan) and Sebastian (Owens of Ohio) all played community college baseball. Hershberger is excited that Ivy Tech Northeast chancellor Jerrilee Mosier once worked at Allen Community College in Iola, Kan., which is in the same conference at KCK.

“She gets it,” says Hershberger of Mosier. “She knows what it takes.

“If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right or I’m not in. You can be a great coach at the college level, but if you don’t have the resources to get players it doesn’t matter.”

State Representative Bob Morris has also helped make baseball at Ivy Tech Northeast a reality.

Hershberger notes all the ties to northeast Indiana with the Kankakee (Ill.) Community College team that won the 2017 NJCAA Division II World Series.

Assistant coach Bryce Shafer (Northfield High School) played for the Sluggers, Valparaiso University and in the Chicago Cubs organization. KCC’s 2017 roster included Logan Gallaway (Fort Wayne Bishop Luers), Noah Hoeffel (Fort Wayne Bishop Luers), Devin Peters (Churubusco), Pancho Luevano (West Noble), Waylon Richardson (West Noble) and Brennan Kelly (Southwood) plus Indiana products Benjamin Clevenger (Carmel) and Caleb Matthews (RoncallIi).

“We hope to keep some of (the local talent) home,” says Hershberger, “We would eventually like to recruit nationally, but I don’t think we can every forget that we are a community college.”

The NCAA D-I College World Series is slated for June 17-27/28. Hershberger promises that the eight teams in Omaha will have rosters with plenty of players from junior colleges.

Hershberger signed on at Indiana Tech in late July, meaning that it was too late in the recruiting cycle to bring in much talent and the first squad went 0-23.

“I think it better positioned starting out than Indiana Tech was,” says Hershberger. “People find that hard to believe because they look at the stadium down there (at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Anthony Road) which I designed. They see the end product.”

All that happened over time. When Indiana Tech was national runners-up in 1998, the Warrior Field had one set of bleachers behind a chain link backstop (most fans sat on the berm), wooden bleachers and the “press box” was a card table with scoreboard controller.

“There’s going to be bumps,” says Hershberger of the Ivy Tech Northeast program. “There’s going to be naysayers. Indiana Tech was the same way.

“(Baseball) put vibrancy into that school. We’re hoping to do it again.”

As he does with all his other baseball ventures, Hershberger is bringing passion and “ridiculous attention to detail.”

He has already been checking on the facilities at Ivy Tech Northeast’s North and South campuses, picked out “old school” green and white uniform designs, met with planners on a baseball stadium (the Titans are likely to play home games at Shoaff Park until a field can be constructed on the north campus behind the Innovation Center on Stellhorn Road), talked with local patrons about funding and on and on.

“I’m really busy,” says Hershberger. “I’m really tired. But it’s a good tired. I’m really fulfilling what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m involved in all kinds of baseball stuff in Fort Wayne.

“It’s what I do. I’m a baseball coach, a baseball guy.”

Besides getting Ivy Tech baseball up and running, he’s also the executive director of Community Impact Zone, a non-profit organization that is partnering with groups like Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana and the Euell Wilson Center bring the game to intercity kids at Fort Wayne’s Strike Zone Training Center, 4141 N. Clinton.

Ivy Tech will also do its indoor workouts at the facility.

“It’s a been a dream of mine for a long time, this urban initiative,” says Hershberger. “I don’t want to walk away from it right when I’m finally getting it going. I don’t want kids to limit their options or their horizons. I want them to look at baseball as a viable option for college and beyond.

Many area high schools have already volunteered to the Community Impact Zone instructors.

Hershberger is working with urban leaders to get young adults from the community to observe his coaches so they can take knowledge back to their neighborhoods and maybe rejuvenate local youth leagues.

“I love teaching the game,” says Hershberger.

He does that for players from college age on down to kindergartners.

Baseball. It’s what he does.

LANCEHERSHBERGER1

Lance Hershberger has been involved in many baseball ventures in his hometown of Fort Wayne in his 62 years. The latest include the new Ivy Tech Northeast community college program along with Community Impact Zone. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

South Bend’s Wawrzyniak helps ballplayers navigate language, cultural gaps

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Building better communication bonds between foreign professional baseball players and the club’s that employ them.

That’s what Linda Wawrzyniak is doing for the game with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. When she started her business it was tied to adult education.

It has morphed into a service for teams who have increased their international investments and built baseball academies in Latin American countries but did not have an effective system to integrate players in ways that include more than balls, strikes and outs.

Based in South Bend and traveling extensively in the U.S. and Latin America, the bilingual Wawrzyniak works to help athletes navigate language and culture gaps.

She teaches English classes and so much more.

Wawrzyniak and HSA had a contract with South Bend Community School Corp., when she was approached about a decade ago by the South Bend Silver Hawks, then a Low Class-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s where she met South Bend field manager Mark Haley and D-backs executives. They wanted her to teach a few language classes.

“My son was in baseball at the time,” says Wawrzyniak. “I thought it would be fun. Then I realized that they didn’t have a great system to do this. Guys didn’t have a lot coming in and when they left, I didn’t know what they were going to. There were a lot of holes.”

Immersing herself into the world of baseball and figuring out how to help these young foreigners pursuing their diamond dreams, Wawrzyniak created a necessary niche.

“There’s just a ton of need,” says Wawrzyniak. “The broad brush stroke of English doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s so much that happens behind the scenes when they’re with us. It’s trust. We’re a different kind of coach, really.

“We’re not just teaching English, we’re teaching a few other things. It’s the heart. It’s the cognitive processes of learning. It’s having another person to lean on emotionally.”

Wawrzyniak notes that it takes 500 hours in a classroom setting to learn conversational English.

“We don’t have 500 hours, so we have to do it faster,” says Wawrzyniak. “You develop some systems and methodologies.”

Many contractors work in-season only. Wawrzyniak trains them and oversees their programs.

“We take a lot of time to find good people,” says Wawrzyniak.

Major League Baseball requires all its teams have an integration program in the Dominican Republic. Some hire teachers and others have someone on staff.

By investing much time and energy, Wawrzyniak has learned how to get the conversation started and how to build relationships.

“With what I do, you’ve got to know those kids,” says Wawrzyniak. “You’re not just supplying paper and pencils. You know lives. You’re directly involved with player development. I know those kids and I know the teachers that know those kids.”

Three of the many players that Wawrzyniak has a connection with and has watched blossom in professional baseball are Venezuelans Ender Inciarte and Wilson Contreras and Dominican Eloy Jimenez.

Inciarte, 26, played in South Bend in 2010 and 2011, broke into the big leagues with Arizona in 2014 and is now with the Atlanta Braves. The center fielder was recognized as one of baseball’s best defenders in 2016.

“To see him win the Gold Glove, I cried,” says Wawrzyniak. “I was overjoyed for him. I knew the struggles he went through. He struggled with losing his father. For awhile, it really slowed him down but it didn’t stop him.”

Contreras, 25, played in the Midwest League in 2013 with Kane County and made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. A versatile player, he has played most of his pro games as a catcher. He played in Game 7 when the team finally snapped its 108-year world championship drought.

“He just learned to temper himself,” says Wawrzyniak. “He’s a neat person. You watch these players figure out who they are. You see them mature. He learned to make the most of who he was.”

Jimenez, 20, is considered the top prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America. The outfielder played in South Bend in 2016 and is now at High Class-A Myrtle Beach.

“He’s just a naturally joyful person who loves to play,” says Wawrzyniak, who has faced the rising star in ping pong and basketball. “That’s neat. You don’t see that very often.

“He’s paying attention to every aspect of his career.”

When the Cubs started expanding into the Dominican Republic a few years ago, they sought out Wawrzyniak to help them smooth the transition.

“By that time, I was already working in the D.R. and the U.S.,” says Wawrzyniak. “I already had that international experience and understood what that required.”

She understands that culture is an all-encompassing concept.

“Let’s break that down,” says Wawrzyniak. “Culture is defined as societal norms. But because America is a melting pot, we don’t have one culture. Navigating that is one thing. There’s also gender cultures and age cultures.

“Culture’s a lot of things. Until you’ve had to teach it, you don’t really realize how big that is.”

College-age people today have a different verbiage and values from those of 30 years ago.

“It’s basically a difference in generations,” says Wawrzyniak. “Slang in the United States changes every five years. The reason it changes is that it’s driven by pop media.”

A typical baseball clubhouse is full of multiple generations. The references that a staffer in his 50’s makes may not connect with a player of 20.

“You might have coach who grew up with The Terminator and this new generation who has never seen The Terminator, and the coach says “I’ll be back!” and the Latin goes are going “What?” The Korean guys are going “Huh?” It doesn’t carry.

“If you haven’t integrated social media and pop media into what you’re doing, you’re behind the times. You have to be able to help kids understand those things.”

Wawrzyniak, featured recently on MLB.com, did her job well enough to receive a big thank you from the Cubs — a World Series ring.

“The Cubs are an amazing organization — world class,” says Wawrzyniak. “They didn’t have to give me a ring. But they did because I think they saw the value in working with all these Latin players, which is such a huge percentage of their minor league system.

“Huge progress was made. They saw that and acknowledged that.”

In the Cubs organization, South Bend represents the first full-season team for its minor leaguers. They play 140 regular-season contests compared with about half that at Eugene, Ore., in the short-season Northwest League.

“It’s hard,” says Wawrzyniak. “It’s more games than they’re used to playing. There’s a little more traveling than before. It’s a higher level of competition.”

It’s also “not their first rodeo.”

By the time they come to South Bend, they’ve usually already been in the U.S. three or four times. First there’s a month in the fall instructional league. They go home and then come back for spring training or extended spring training. They return home and then come back the next year for another spring training or extended spring training session before heading to Eugene.

While the Cubs have a nutritionist and many meals are provided, players usually are responsible for one meal a day and they crave foods from back home. Many grocery stores carry Latin American brands like Goya and there’s some chains that are attractive.

“They love Chipotle,” says Wawrzyniak. “That’s as close to home as they can get.”

Of course, it all comes down to the game.

“I’ve learned more baseball than I ever thought I would know,” says Wawrzyniak. “I now see the game within the game. I ask questions of coaches all the time. We build that into our programs.

“It’s not like what you learn in the first year of high school Spanish — Donde Esta La Biblioteca? (where’s the library?). They don’t want to know that. We have to give them words that make sense in their environment. We create materials that correspond to that.”

Wawrzyniak has made it a point to know what it feels like to throw a pitch, swing a bat, make a slide. She watches baseball on TV each night and breaks it down. She has devoured history and statistics.

“It’s not something you can do without knowing,” says Wawrzyniak. “I’ve spent a lot of my time just learning. You’ve got to know all of it. If you want to be effective, you have to. Any field you’re in, you have to know it.”

HSA teaches players how to interact with reporters. Normal conversation-starting questions revolve around who, what, when, where, how and why. But many times it comes across as very open-ended and sets the player up for failure.

“Speaking to the media, to me, is one of the hardest things and it’s not because they don’t have the words,” says Wawrzyniak. “It often comes down to how the question is formulated. There are a variety of ways reporters ask questions and they’re not always the same. One is ‘tell me about …’ That’s so vague.

“Most men don’t like opened-ended questions. (It’s the difference between) ‘tell me about what you envision for Mother’s Day vs. ‘what do you think we should do for Mother’s Day?’ Most guys struggle with that, regardless of their nationality. It’s kind of a sneak attack on these guys because they don’t really know what you want.

“It’s better, when you’re dealing with an international player, to be more specific.”

Wawrzyniak’s advice: The reporter should know what they want from the interviewee when they pose the question.

It’s all about communication and making a connection.

LINDAWAWRZYNIAK1

Linda Wawrzyniak is helping the baseball community integrate foreign players with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. The Chicago Cubs recently said thank you with a World Series ring.

Schmack giving back to baseball at Valpo U.

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Schmack enjoyed a long career as a baseball player.

He excelled at Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High School and Northern Illinois University. A right-hander pitcher, he persevered for years in the minors and made 11 appearances for the 2003 Detroit Tigers (1-0, 3.46 earned run average).

When his playing days were over, he wanted to give back to the game. He is doing that in his 11th season of coaching at NCAA Division I Valparaiso University (the first seven as pitching coach and the past four as head coach).

Of all the baseball experiences Schmack has enjoyed in his 43 years, he cherishes most his college days and he feels most comfortable in that setting.

“I love this age group,” says Schmack. “For the most point, guys want to be here. Sometimes in high school, they play because they’re the best athlete or because their parents make them or because it’s a small school.

“They’re impressionable and many are away from home for the first time. We get to teach life lessons … (College baseball is) a huge commitment and it’s not for everybody.”

Schmack has made effort, conviction and unity the foundation of the Crusaders program.

“For us, it starts with hard work,” says Schmack, who regularly has VU players doing early-morning running. “Hard work. That’s how you succeed at life in general. We also have confidence, which leads to success.

“We want to outsmart, outwork and outplay (opponents).”

NCAA rules limit the hours players can practice or compete, depending on the time of the school year. But Schmack wants maximum effort when they are doing baseball activities.

There are 32 players on the 2017 roster and Schmack wants them all working together.

“We do a lot of team things here,” says Schmack. “Being good teammates is one of the first things we stress.”

Among other things, being a good teammate means checking the negativity at the locker room door.

As a reminder, there’s a sign in the clubhouse next to Emory G. Bauer Field: No Energy Vampires Allowed.

“Ultimately, we want guys to be positive,” says Schmack. “We want to be positive toward them. With sports, there’s failure involved.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds. A kid has three balls roll through his legs and it’s hard to be positive about that. We try to say ‘keep your head up.’ We’re all fragile and we all make mistakes.”

Schmack knows negativity can spread quickly throughout a team.

“I’ve been on many, many teams in my life,” says Schmack. “You have to eradicate it. You have to get rid of it, even if it’s a good player. You have to have guys who are positive.”

With such a large roster, not every player is going to be a regular. Bench players must remain upbeat and ready.

“They have to be good teammates because they can take a team down,” says Schmack. “We’ve had situations where we have a walk-on pitching or batting in the biggest game of the year. The guys that prepare themselves for a possible situation are the ones that are going to do well.”

Schmack notes that readiness got Mike Montgomery his first career save while helping the Chicago Cubs win Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

“He probably never thought that would happen,” says Schmack.  “But he stayed ready and the opportunity came because of the situation. That’s  a great example that you always have to be ready.”

When recruiting athletes to the private school in northwest Indiana, the staff looks wherever there’s talent and there are many Californians on the current roster.

Recent successes (Valpo won Horizon League titles in 2012 and 2013 and won a school-record 25 games in 2014) have attracted more local players.

But no matter where they come from, Schmack said the recruiting process is about the VU staff and high school and summer coaches shooting straight with one another.

“We’ll ask is he a competitor? Is he a hard worker?,” says Schmack. “You get, ‘He’s the first one there and the last one to leave.’

“I don’t really know you. Are you just trying to help that kid out or is he really one of those kids? Every coach wants their players to go on to play college baseball. But sometimes maybe they aren’t as honest as they should be.

“Maybe he’s the last one there and the first one to leave. Is he going to say that about the kid? He doesn’t want to bury him.”

Schmack, whose assistants include Ben Wolgamot, Nic Mishler, Kory Winter and Ryan Fritze, wants to get players that are a good fit and it’s hard for someone who has never seen Valpo play and does not know the makeup of the roster to know that.

The same dynamic is in place when pro scouts come to Schmack to ask about his players.

“If I tell them he’s throwing 95 mph and he’s a great kid and they come out to watch him and he’s throwing 87 and has bad body language, they’re not going to come around anymore because we’re overselling them,” says Schmack. “It’s just about being honest with people and forming relationships and knowing who you can trust.”

What about body language?

“It shows a lot about a kid if he doesn’t get rattled very easily,” says Schmack. “He understands baseball is a game of failure. How does he handle it? Does he throw his palms up?

“I’m a big ‘palms up’ guy. It shows blame to me. I always talk about being on an even keel. Baseball is a very humbling sport. You play a lot of games. You can hit three home runs one game and strike out four times the next game. If you’re always the guy who’s happy when you’re doing well and you’re throwing things when you’re bad, guys don’t like to hang around you.

“I want to walk up to a game and not know if the kid is throwing a shutout or he’s given up 10 runs. I won’t be able to tell by his body language.”

Schmack learned not to make a situation bigger while playing for Joe “Spanky” McFarland at NIU, mechanics, reading swing and what to throw in certain situations from first pro pitching coach, Sean Snedeker, and countless little nuggets from all the other coaches and managers to cross his path.

He’s also learned that players must learn to coach themselves.

“We go one-on-one with a player and see what makes him tick,” says Schmack. “Each guy has his own tweak. One guy might lunge. Another might stay back too much. Whatever it is, I have to be able to identify (the issue) and pass it on. Hopefully, he’ll eventually be able to identify it on his own.

“At some point you have to be your own coach and make the adjustment. It’s a game of adjustments. If you can’t make them, you’re out of it. If you can, you have a chance.”

BRIANSCHMACK

Brian Schmack is in his fourth season as head baseball coach at Valparaiso University after seven seasons as the Crusaders pitching coach.