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From first-time fatherhood to Gold Glove, life has been full for Reds catcher Barnhart

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s been an eventful last six months or so for Tucker Barnhart.

In August, the Cincinnati Reds catcher and Indiana native and wife Sierra welcomed first child Tatum into the world. Before you knew it Tucker was buying a tiny catcher’s mitt he found on Amazon.com.

“I was bored one day and I was trying to find a glove,” says Barnhart. “It just so happened there was a (miniature) black and red catcher’s glove. It made a ton of sense to grab it.”

In September, the switch-hitting backstop signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him with the Reds through at least the 2021 season. The deal also includes a club option for 2022.

In October, the 2009 Brownsburg High School graduate rapped his fourth Major League Baseball season with career-high totals for batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.347), slugging percentage (.403) and games played (121).

Reds manager Bryan Price told MLB.com in December that Barnhart will be Cincy’s primary in 2018 with Devin Mesoraco backing up.

“Tucker’s going to get the lion’s share of the playing time now; he’s earned that,” said Price.

“He has stamped himself — without a doubt — as a day-to-day big league catcher,” says Marty Brenneman, the Reds radio play-by-play voice since 1974. “He’s a guy who’s wonderful at handling a pitching staff, a guy who proved he could hit big league pitching before than the Average Joe. And above all that, he won the Gold Glove for defensive excellence in the National League.”

In November, Barnhart became the first Reds catcher since 10-time recipient Johnny Bench in 1977 to be awarded a Rawling Gold Glove in the Senior Circuit.

Brenneman calls Barnhart beating out St. Louis Cardinals receiver Yadier Molina — eight times a Gold Glove winner and NL All-Star — “a big, big deal.”

November was also a time celebrate his second wedding anniversary. Tucker is married to the former Sierra Thompson.

While adapting to fatherhood and recovering from the grind of the long season, the Zionsville resident has found the time to take in Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers games.

“I’m a big-time Pacers fan,” says Barnhart. “Basketball is my favorite sport. It’s in my blood.”

He is childhood friend of Boston Celtics small forward Gordon Hayward and Reds relief pitcher Drew Storen — both Brownsburg graduates.

Barnhart was a freshman and sophomore when he caught during Storen’s junior and senior Brownsburg seasons.

Years later, Barnhart looks into the stands at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and sees a lot of Bulldogs purple and white.

Barnhart has also consulted this fall and winter with long-time personal hitting instructor Mike Shirley near Lapel and Reds catching coordinator Mike Stefanski in Cincinnati.

“Mike’s a great guy,” Barnhart says of Shirley, a national cross-checker scout for the Chicago White Sox. “I’ve worked with Mike since I was I would say 11 years old. Other than my dad (Kevin Barnhart), Mike has seen my swing more than any other person around. I trust Mike a lot. He’s cutting edge. He looks at all the numbers and all that stuff. I really appreciate the work he’s done for me.

“We look at video of other hitters and things that they do that I can do or things that I do that are similar to what they do. We do a lot more talking than hitting, which is good in my opinion.”

Barnhart said his offense has picked up as he has gotten more familiar with National League pitching.

“It’s facing the same guys over and over again seeing how they pitch you and how to attack them as a hitter,” says Barnhart. “Obviously, I’d like to grow as a hitter. I think I could drive some more balls. I don’t know if that’s going result in more home runs (than the seven he hit in both 2016 and 2017) or more doubles or what have you, but I’m getting more out of my swing.

“I’m getting stronger and more explosive.”

There continues to be an education — in baseball and in life — from his father.

“What haven’t I learned from Kevin Barnhart?,” says Tucker, who turned 27 on Jan. 7. “My dad has been so instrumental in my career.”

Kevin Barnhart is an instructor at Samp’s Hack Shack in Brownsburg, a facility owned by former big league pitcher Bill Sampen.

Tucker also offers a shout-out to mother Pam Barnhart, sister Paige Barnhart and the rest of his relatives.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without (my family),” says Tucker. “I am extremely thankful.

“Being a dad (myself) puts that all into perspective.”

Tucker went on paternity leave Aug. 31-Sept. 3 to be with Sierra and Tatum.

“It’s difficult and it’s the best thing ever,” says Barnhart of fatherhood. “No matter what kind of day I’m having when I see him smile, that’s all that matters.”

Barnhart also found the time to make western swing of the Reds Caravan.

One fan at the Muncie stop gave Barnhart her own nickname, “Johnny Bench Jr.”

“That’s pretty humbling,” says Barnhart, who was selected in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Reds and won an MiLB Gold Glove in 2011 and the Reds Joe Nuxhall Good Guy Award in voting of the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 2016.

Barnhart is slated to address the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization at their player/parent meeting Sunday, Jan. 28 at Westfield High School.

Barnhart played six seasons with the Bulls He made the 13U team at 11, but was not allowed to play for the fear of getting hurt. At 12, he played for the 13U squad then played 13U, 14U, 15,U 16U and 17U.

“It’s going to be a message of hard work, dedication and having fun,” says Barnhart of his remarks to Bulls players and parents. “You have to be able to have fun to get the most out of yourself. To achieve all the things you want to achieve in your life — whether it’s in baseball or in anything.”

The Barnharts plan to leave Thursday, Feb. 1 for spring training camp in Goodyear, Ariz. Pitchers and catchers are to report Feb. 13 (position players Feb. 18).

Cincinnati’s first Cactus League spring game is scheduled for Feb. 23. The season opener is slated for March 29.

TUCKERBARNHARTMLB

Tucker Barnhart, a Brownsburg (Ind.) High School graduate, goes into spring training 2018 as the primary catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. (MLB Photo)

 

 

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Baseball odyssey takes many twists, turns for Vincennes native Ashley

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nevin Ashley always wanted to be in charge on a baseball field.

Coach Bill Cary let him play different positions on the North Knox High School team.

But Ashley was always drawn back to catcher.

“He was great because he knew at that age I had a future in baseball,” says Ashley. “He challenged to think about the game in a little bit more of an in-depth way. That really helped me, especially as a catcher.”

Cary, who was on the South staff for the 2006 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches All-Star Series when Terre Haute North Vigo catcher Josh Phegley was MVP, encouraged Ashley to call pitches and manage the game on the field.

“I began taking extra time to read batters and see any adjustments they might make,” says Ashley. “That helped me have the long career that I had.”

The 2003 North Knox graduate went on to play three seasons at Indiana State University (2004-06) and 11 in professional baseball.

At ISU, he learned much from head coach Bob Warn and pitching coach C.J. Keating.

Warn’s last season with the Sycamores was also Ashley’s last in Terre Haute.

“He was definitely an old school baseball coach,” says Ashley of American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Warn. “He was a good influence on my career. I learned his will to win and how important it was.”

Keating and Ashley went over scouting reports so the receiver would know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. He would study the starters and potential pinch-hitters the night before games.

“I met a lot of good people at Indiana State that I stay in contact with,” says Ashley. “I was fortunate for those years of my life.”

Ashley was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and set out on a long minor league journey.

From team to team and organization to organization, he just kept going.

“I had a lot of perseverance and a lot of people in my corner,” says Ashley, the son of Dan and Jamie Ashley, younger brother of Natalie and Nathan, the grandson of Robert and Patricia Ashley and Jim and the late Shirley Cardinal, the husband of Ashley (yes, she’s Ashley Ashley) and father of two boys — Gaige (5) and Aiden (1).

His parents rarely missed a home game while Nevin was in college and came to see him whenever possible when he became a professional.

Not able to travel much, his paternal grandparents followed on the Internet. If the feed went bad or something about their Nevin on-air was incorrect, they were sure to get a phone call.

“She knows best, so you better listen to her,” says Nevin of Grammy Ashley.

Nevin, who was born in Vincennes, began his baseball players tagging along with Nathan at the Vincennes Cub League. Heading into his freshmen year at North Knox, Nevin played American Legion Baseball in Vincennes. His next three summers were spent with the Indiana Bulls. He went back to Legion ball for the summer prior to Indiana State.

Ashley played for the Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2004, Solano Thunderbirds in the Sierra Baseball League and Horizon Air Summer Series in California in 2005 and briefly with the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express in the Northwoods League in 2006 before signing with the Devil Rays.

Ashley strapped on the catching gear day after day, year after year.

Things he began learning back as a youngster were being reinforced and he was getting acquainted with analytics as part of the scouting report.

“It’s good and a bad thing,” says Ashley. “I’m kind of old school. But (analytics) is very crucial. Stats show that a guy might pull the ball on the ground so we make a shift.”

To stay on the same page, there would be a constant dialogue between innings involving Ashley and his pitching coach and — if he had a catching background — his manager.

“All that being said, it’s still up to the pitcher,” says Ashley. “Those stats go on his baseball card.

“As a good catcher you have to build a relationships with each and every pitcher and build their trust. Some guys you need to coddle a little more. Some you have to push — and maybe even make them a little mad — to get the best out of them.”

In 2007, Ashley smashed 12 of his 66 career minor league home runs for the Columbus (Ga.) Catfish. He played in the 2009 Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

For all his hard work, he finally got called up to the big leagues in as a reserve for the Rays (by this time they had dropped the Devil) during the 2010 playoffs. He did not play.

In 2011 (and again for a short time in 2015), Nevin, Ashley and Gaige went to learn another way of living and about baseball in the Dominican Winter League.

“It was a great experience,” says Nevin, who was with Gigantes de Cibao in 2011 Toros del Este in 2015. “I wanted to submerge myself into their culture. Now I have a better understanding of why Latin players they play the will they do. All that showmanship, fans thrive on it. It’s good for baseball.”

A seven-year run with the Tampa Bay organization ended when Ashley declared free agency and signed with the Cincinnati Reds before the 2013 season. That year, he played not far from where he grew up with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

He was again granted free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was assigned to the Indianapolis Indians in 2014. He got called up to the majors again with Pittsburgh in New York. The catcher he was going to replace decided to play through injury and Ashley was sent back to Triple-A.

Once again, he became a free agent after the season and caught on with the Milwaukee Brewers and went to their Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

That summer, Ashley was called up to the bigs late in the season. After 870 minor league appearances, he made his MLB debut on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. He was 31 years old. Batting eighth in the Milwaukee order, he collected his first big-league hit — an RBI double in his first at-bat — off Tom Koehler.

Ashley would finish the season with one more hit — an infield single off Carlos Contreras on Sunday, Sept. 20 in Cincinnati — and a .100 batting average. He got into 12 games and drove in one run and scored two.

After the 2015 season, Ashley declared free agency and signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and played with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s in 2016 until being traded to the Texas Rangers organization in June and putting on the colors of the Triple-A Round Rock Express.

Once again a free agent, he joined the Seattle Mariners organization for 2017.

In Arizona for spring training, Ashley suffered a pretty severe concussion that kept him off out of games for the whole season.

“When I first started playing, concussions were not looked as thoroughly as they are now,” says Ashley, who turned 33 in August. “As a catcher, I had my bell rang plenty of times. I shook it off, took a few aspirin and kept going.

“This was different. I had two little ones at home. I started looking at my priorities in life.”

Ashley opted to retire as a player and come home to Evansville to sort out his future.

The tagline on his Twitter profile at @nevin_ashley reads: Baseball is what I do, not who I am.

It is followed by a Bible verse — Philippians 4:13. That passage — “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.”

“I’m trying to mend,” says Ashley. “I still having constant migraine headaches.

“I’ll move on from there. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in the baseball world. I have a few opportunities. Right now, I’m going to catch up with all the family time I missed.”

Nevin and Ashley grew up together. They were wed early in his professional baseball career and she and the couple’s oldest son have put in plenty of miles together.

“We decided that we were going do this baseball thing together — no matter what,” says Nevin. “We signed up for it. It doesn’t make it any easier. We have had to deal with a lot of ambiguity.

“But she’s independent. I don’t know how any of the baseball moms do it. They go through a lot out there that not a lot of people see. They think it’s glitz and glamour and it’s not.”

While baby Aiden imitates a bowling ball.

“He runs into everything,” says Nevin. “My 5-year-old, he loves baseball.”

Gaige was eight days old when he attended the first of many baseball games.

“I don’t push it at all, but if he wants to play baseball that will be special for me,” says Nevin. “He’s a lefty. He’s going to have to find a different position.”

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After 10 years in the minors, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Nevin Ashley hits a double in his first Major League Baseball at-bat Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. The Vincennes, Ind., native began his professional career in 2006 and retired in 2017. (MLB Photo)

 

Time away from baseball coaching changes Adams Central’s Neuenschwander

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dave Neuenschwander pushed the pause button on his high school baseball coaching career.

While away from the diamond, he gained a different perspective and came back refreshed with a changed outlook.

Neuenschwander, who has also a football assistant for 22 years, led the Adams Central Flying Jets baseball program from 1991-98 then took 1999 through 2002 off. During that time, he read a book by Tony Dungy — “Quiet Strength.”

“It was very positive for me and my coaching,” says Neuenschwander, who altered his style when he returned to the dugout at the school in Monroe, Ind., in 2003. “I’ve learned to enjoy it more and more. I don’t take the winning and losing as personal as I used to. I used to be a screamer and yeller. But there’s other ways of doing this. I have more of a relationship with my players. It doesn’t mean I can’t push them when they’e not putting out.”

Neuenschwander, who has been teaching for 27 years, has come to really appreciate the relationships with current players and those that have graduated and gone on to make their way in the world as husbands and fathers.

“We can fellowship,” says Neuenschwander. “I know that each player is different. Each player’s home life is different. Their expectations are different.”

If they are on the team long enough, youth athletes are also bound to change during their careers.

Take the case of Dalton Combs (Class of 2013), who is now an outfielder in the San Francisco Giants organization after a standout career at Huntington University.

“(Combs) was part of one of most successful senior classes here,” says Neuenschander of a 2013 AC club that won 26 games and lost to Northfield in the IHSAA Class 2A Kokomo Semistate. “He started as freshman. He matured physically, mentally and athletically in four years.”

Five of AC’s eight sectional titles have come on Neuenschwander’s watch — the latest in 2016.

The coach has also come to embrace that no two teams are the same.

“The beauty of coaching high school baseball, each year is a new puzzle and it’s my job to put that puzzle together,” says Neuenschwander. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Neuenschwander is grateful that he got to play baseball for two Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famers — Dean Stahly at South Adams High School and Mike Frame at Huntington College (now Huntington University). Dave graduated high school in 1983 and college in 1987.

“He was there a long time,” says Neuenschwander of former Starfires coach Stahly. “He loved the game of baseball. He taught me how to throw a curveball and still use his old-fashioned drills when I want to teach the curve.”

Neuenschwander was a junior on the 1982 South Adams team that lost to Roncalli in the semifinals of the single-class State Finals. Mike Dull was on that ’82 team and went on to play at the University of South Alabama where he was a roommate of Luis Gonzalez, the man who drove in the winning run in the 2001 World Series.

Many lessons were learned in four seasons the Frame-led Foresters.

“He taught us about discipline,” says Neuenschwander. “Becoming a teacher in general, I was given the fundamentals. There was also integrity. Mike’s a man of faith and his integrity was well taught to us.

“He’s a good friend.”

Tom Roy, founder Unlimited Potential Inc., and is now an assistant coach and chaplain at Grace College was a Frame assistant when Neuenschwander’s time at Huntington.

Neuenschwander has sent Combs and others to play for Frame and currently has a couple players on college rosters — Conner Lengerich at Spring Arbor University and Andrew Hammond at Indiana Tech.

“At a small school (enrollment under 400), we have to be really proactive in letting schools know if our kids are interested,” says Neuenschwander. “I see it as a major part of my job. It’s something I want to do. If a student-athlete wants to go to college, I will assist in any way I can. I will show them how to get on-line and do things.”

AC players attend showcases in order to be seen by college coaches. Younger players in the area play travel baseball for the Bluffton Bandits while others have gone to the Summit City Sluggers and Berne Bears among others.

The three-sport athlete is alive and well at Adams Central.

“We encourage them to do everything,” says Neuenschwander. “One of the biggest challenge high school baseball players have is that they’ve been on the go all year and the seniors getting ready to graduate and ready for school to end. Some kids need to get jobs to pay for college so we have to be flexible with practices during the state tournament.”

Being married to an educator has also helped Neuenschwander. Wife Christy teaches third grade at Salamonie School in Huntington County.

“She is definitely a coach’s wife,” says Dave. “She’s very supportive in what I do. She is very level-headed. We weigh out issues and work through them.”

The couple have a married daughter (Whitney teaches at Speedway) and son in eighth grade (Nick).

The Jets are members of the Allen County Athletic Conference (along with Bluffton, Heritage, Jay County, South Adams, Southern Wells and Woodlan).

“It’s pretty competitive,” says Neuenschwander of the ACAC. “Schools are fairly close to each other. We know the players and coaches very well.”

Neuenschwander was a teammate of current Jay County head baseball coach Lea Selvey back in the early 1980’s with the Portland Rockets.

Winter workouts are starting with about 10 players participating and the others in a winter sport. Neuenschwander’s assistants are Josh Foster (varsity) and Joel Reinhard (junior varsity). Fall open fields were run by Reinhard with Neuenschwander coaching football. Other volunteers are expected to help the Jets on the diamond in the spring.

In 2017, the IHSAA adopted pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“It didn’t bother me at all,” says Neuenschwander. “It really makes the game a little more strategic in a sense.”

He and his assistants had to really plan when they would use a pitcher and for how long.

“You need to develop more pitchers — not just throwers,” says Neuenschwander. “At the JV level, it’s really positive. There are more opportunities for players to play.”

JV limits are tighter than varsity and there has been discussions about making it the same as varsity.

We’re still here to protect you because you are a child,” says Neuenschwander. “Some summer coaches may not protect them as much as they should so they put it in the hands of the educators. It became the coach’s responsibility to document (pitcher use). I become liable if he didn’t have the proper rest.”

Dave is the youngest of six children born to Delmar and Dessi Neuenschwander. His father was a butcher. Berne Locker Meats has been in the family for about 70 years.

Brothers Don and Doug also played at Huntington. Doug went on to pitch at Triple-A in the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates systems. The three girls are Dana, Danita Jo and Dian. Doug and Dana are both in the Huntington University Athletics Hall of Fame.

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Dave Neuenschwander is the long-time baseball coach at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind.

 

Oakland City’s Fletcher enjoys watching Mighty Oaks grow as ballplayers, students

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Drawn to a private Christian school in southern Indiana renowned for its education, Kentucky native T-Ray Fletcher went to Oakland City University in the early 1990’s as a student-athlete and never really left the campus in Gibson County.

After graduating in the spring 1995, Fletcher was named to the OCU baseball staff for the fall. By the spring, he was the Mighty Oaks head coach and 2018 will mark his 24th season.

“It was one of those right place at the right time situations,” says Fletcher, who was a catcher for the Oaks after playing at Madisonville North Hopkins High School. He was junior varsity as an eighth and ninth grader and varsity his last three years.

“(Oakland City) used to be known as the teacher/preacher school and it is still known for the School of Education and School of Business,” says Fletcher. “It’s a strong academic school.

“As a part of our core principles and values, we set the example of what other athletes should be on campus. We’re pretty adamant about class attendance. We give them resources to succeed academically. Drugs and alcohol are not going to be tolerated here.”

Fletcher, an Oakland City University Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, says communication is the key to making it all happen and most of his players have graduated and flourished in a structured environment.

“Kids still want to be coached and they still want discipline,” says Fletcher.

At one time, the coach had 16 former players coaching high school or travel baseball in the Indiana-Kentucky-Illinois tri-state area.

Among six players Fletcher has sent into professional baseball, the most recent is Eric Barnes, who was recently named head baseball coach at Boonville High School.

In 2017, Oakland City went 18-29 and made its 12th National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association tournament appearance on Fletcher’s watch (the Oaks placed ninth after finishing third in 2016).

In 2016, Fletcher passed the 400-win plateau and has the most victories in the long history of the program.

Oakland City is also an NCAA Division II member — one of just three baseball-playing schools in Indiana. The others are the University of Indianapolis and the University of Southern Indiana. Saint Joseph’s College was D-II, but that school closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

By comparison, Indiana collegiate baseball boasts nine in NCAA D-I (Ball State, Butler, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Indiana State, Notre Dame, Purdue, Valparaiso), nine in NCAA D-III (Anderson, DePauw, Earlham, Franklin, Hanover, Manchester, Rose-Hulman, Trine, Wabash), 13 in NAIA (Bethel, Calumet of Saint Joseph, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Indiana Tech, Indiana University Kokomo, Indiana University South Bend, Indiana University Southeast, Marian, Purdue Northwest, Saint Francis, Taylor) and three in the National Junior College Athletic Association (Ancilla, Ivy Tech Northeast, Vincennes).

While there is no set number of athletic scholarships available, Fletcher says athletes at Oakland City can get scholarship money through a combination of academic and athletic performance and economic need. A dollar amount is divided among athletes.

“We do not offer full-ride scholarships to any athlete on campus,” says Fletcher. “We’re looking for a strong academic kid who can be supplemented from athletic money. You get a good package here.”

OCU typically has 450 to 500 students. The incoming freshmen class of 100 was the biggest in a decade. The 2010 census had nearly 2,500 folks living in the town of Oakland City, making it the third-largest in Gibson County behind Princeton and Fort Branch.

An independent with no conference affiliation, Oakland City does play several schools in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and Great Midwest Athletic Conference — both D-II leagues.

“My whole philosophy is to play the best competition we can play to challenge our athletes and also give us a chance to succeed,” says Fletcher, who typically carries a roster of 25 to 30 with only a varsity schedule.

Fletcher handles recruiting for the Oaks. Most most players come from Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. But there have been some from Canada, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as New York and Ohio.

“We’re located in a good geographic area for baseball in my opinion,” says Fletcher.

Oakland City plays on-campus on Brooks C. Pinnick Memorial Field. The facility has been upgraded over the years. In 2014, the outfield grass and drainage system was re-done and the Oaks spent much of the season on the road.

Fletcher’s assistant coaches for 2018 are former OCC players Alex Portee’ (fourth season) and Zach Deutsch (second season). Washington (Ind.) High Schoolg graduate Portee’ is the Oaks pitching coach. Deutsch went to Evansville Harrison High School and played two seasons at Vincennes University and two at Oakland City.

Tommy Ray Fletcher II has gone by T-Ray since age 1. He was given that nickname when older brother Zane asked why there were two Tommy Ray’s in the household of Tommy Ray and Judy Fletcher.

“(Zane) was a big influence on me at an early age,” says T-Ray of the brother who died in 2015. “He was a big fan of the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds of the 1970’s) and really got me introduced to baseball at an early age.”

T-Ray became a Chicago Cubs fan and tries to attend a game at Wrigley Field each year.

It’s not always easy with a busy schedule that includes coaching, serving at OCU as assistant athletic director as well as in Compliance and the School of Business (he teaches three classes each semester) while spending time with wife Maddie and their three daughters — Sophie (10), Avery (8) and Alaine (4).

The Fletchers reside in Evansville. T-Ray also has two younger siblings — Brandon and Chiara.

TRAYFLETCHER

T-Ray Fletcher, a 1995 Oakland City University graduate, has been the Mighty Oaks head baseball coach since the 1996 season and has more than 400 victories. OCU is a member of both the National Christian College Athletic Association and NCAA Division II. (Oakland City U. Photo)

 

Work ethic leads Riggins to long coaching career

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Diligence and determination learned as a teenager in southern Indiana has sustained Mark Riggins throughout a long baseball career.

Riggins, who played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Tim Nonte on the diamond and Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Butcher and assistant Nonte on the hardwood as part of the Loogootee High School Class of 1975, went on to pitch at Murray (Ky.) State University and logged five seasons in the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles organizations.

He has been in player development since 1984 and has been pitching coach for the Mike Quade-managed Chicago Cubs (2011) and Bryan Price-managed Cincinnati Reds (2016) as well as a minor league pitching coordinator and pitching coach for the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds.

Riggins, who was inducted into the IHSBCA Hall of Fame himself in 2016, is now charged with developing pitchers for the Dunedin Blue Jays.

“The work ethic I gained at Loogootee has carried me on,” says Riggins, who was a part of the Lions’ state runner-up basketball team as a senior. “Success and winning doesn’t come easy. We were very successful because of our dedication and hard work that we learned from the people that taught us.

“I still preach the work ethic to these players.”

Dunedin is a member of the talent-rich High-A Florida State League.

“We have quite a few good prospects,” says Riggins, 60. “We have really good arms trying to find the stroke zone and learn a second and third pitch.”

This season, while the team has earned a playoff berth (Game 1 vs. Tampa is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 5), Riggins has helped eight pitchers move up to Double-A or beyond.

“It’s very rewarding to see these kids get better,” says Riggins.

Each Major League Baseball organization has its own philosophy on developing players.

Like the St. Louis Cardinals when Riggins was a part of system, the Toronto Blue Jays tend to be patient with their prospects.

“Other organizations move them along rather quickly,” says Riggins. “That’s a problem in baseball. (Players are rushed to the big leagues and) not prepared to handled that level of talent. We want to make sure the guy is ready to move to the major league level.”

Riggins guides a staff with a five-man starting rotation that rare has a hurler go over 100 pitches in a game.

Relievers rarely pitch on back-to-back days or go more than two innings at a time. Starters tend to pitch 120 to 150 innings during a 140-game season while relievers go 50 to 60.

“We’ve had a really successful year in keeping guys healthy,” says Riggins. “We pick the starters out of spring training. They are best arms with the best chance to be a starter at the major league level.”

Of course, that could change along the way and the pitcher might be deemed better-suited to a bullpen role.

The use of analytics has steadily increased in baseball and they come into play in the FSL.

“We do have scouting reports on every team we play,” says Riggins. “I simplify those reports to what I feel (my pitcher) can handle. Some pitchers can’t do it as well as others.

“But the guys at this level are pretty advanced in being able to execute pitches. We always pitch to their strength vs. a hitter’s weakness. Having reports at A-ball was unheard of five years ago.”

Riggins welcomes the advancements in information and training methods.

“I like new things,” says Riggins. “I have to see how it applies. You have to be open-minded.

“Everybody is getting the information now. If you’re not, you’re way behind. It’s what you do with it that makes each individual organization different.”

The Blue Jays organization has a plan for each one of its player. That plan is reviewed every two weeks during the season and is tweaked as necessary.

The player’s input is always considered.

“If they’re on board, they work hard at their efficiency and trying to make it better,” says Riggins. “Players have changed a lot. They’re smarter. They’re pretty sharp at gaining information from other sources.”

It’s up to Riggins to help them get the most out of the info and their ability.

“I dissect what they do best,” says Riggins. “They are not sure. They are just throwing the baseball.

“The difference is consistency. How often can you execute pitches? Once they can do it on a consistent basis, they can cut hitters apart.”

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Mark Riggins, a 1975 Loogootee High School graduate, began his career as a professional baseball coach in 1984. He is now the pitching coach for the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays. (Dunedin Blue Jays Photo)

 

Versatile VanMeter seeking opportunties in Reds organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Versatility is valued by the Cincinnati Reds.

That’s why they have Josh VanMeter playing multiple positions for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

“I take more than one glove to the park everyday,” says VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate who has played third base, left field and first base in his last 10 games and is listed on his MiLB.com profile as a second baseman. “It’s good for my career to play many different spots. I’ve definitely enjoyed it.”

Dick Schofield, a former major league shortstop, is Pensacola’s defensive and third base coach and has helped VanMeter with positioning and attacking the ball.

While guiding Pensacola into a Southern League playoff berth, Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly has continued to get at-bats for lefty-swinging VanMeter.

“(Kelly) likes the way I go about my business,” says VanMeter, a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder. “I’m a guy who plays the game the right way. I give you competitive at-bats day in and day out.

“Show up and compete. That’s a big thing in the game of baseball.”

In his first 125 games and 451 at-bats at Double-A, VanMeter was hitting .264 with five home runs, one triple, 29 doubles, 52 runs batted in, 45 runs scored and 15 stolen bases.

With Gookie Dawkins as his hitting coach, VanMeter says he is improving his knowledge of the strike zone.

“You learn to lay off the tough pitches, especially with two strikes,” says VanMeter, 22. “It’s about not missing good pitches to hit.”

VanMeter was traded by the San Diego Padres to the Reds organization Dec. 9, 2016 and was told by agent Joe Speed how that would increase his opportunities. He was selected by San Diego in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

He had committed to play at Illinois State University, but decided to go pro and signed with area scout Mark Conner (now director of scouting for the Padres).

“The opportunity to go straight into pro baseball was something I couldn’t pass up,” says VanMeter. “I thought I was mentally ready to play baseball everyday

“I promised my mom after I got drafted I would someday get my degree.”

Josh is the middle child of Greg and Amy VanMeter. Older brother Tyler played high school soccer. Younger sister Carlie was a cheerleader at Norwell and is now on the cheer squad at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.

After closing his record-setting Norwell career with a Class 3A Indiana state championship, Josh VanMeter played for the Arizona League Padres that summer before spending all of 2014 with the Low Class-A Fort Wayne TinCaps.

In April 2015, VanMeter suffered a leg injury while turning a double play at second base. Playing at Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field, he collided with Lansing Lugnuts runner Rowdy Tellez. The result was a broken left fibula and months of grueling physical rehabilitation.

VanMeter walked on an aqua treadmill with the water level lowered every two days. He underwent painful deep tissue massage stop the build-up scar tissue. He did end up playing 25 games in Fort Wayne in 2015 before moving on to High Class-A Lake Elsinore then Double-A San Antonio as well as the Arizona Fall League in 2016.

He split his time between second base and shortstop in 2013 and 2014, played second base in 2015 and was a third baseman in 2016.

So popular was VanMeter — the first player from northeast Indiana to play for the TinCaps — that president Mike Nutter decided to honor the player with his own bobblehead.

“It was pretty special,” says VanMeter. “Pat Kelly made a big deal about it in spring training. Getting to play in Fort Wayne was special that year and a half.”

VanMeter played travel baseball from 2007-12 with the Fort Wayne-based Summit City Sluggers, playing for father Greg (now Sluggers president) and diamond veteran Mark Delalarza.

“That was a great experience,” says Josh VanMeter. “(Delagarza) had a huge impact on me. He taught me to be a man and made me the player I am today. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world.”

Josh’s profile in the baseball universe raised with his MVP performance while playing fall ball for the Andy Slack-coached Reds Midwest Scout Team at the Perfect Game Kernels Foundation tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2012.

Playing for coach Andy McClain at Norwell, three-time all-stater VanMeter set school records for career doubles (44) and single-season pitching wins (14) and walks (41) while tying for single-season home runs (9) in 2013 and single-season hits (53) and doubles (20) in 2011. The win record had been held by Jarrod Parker, who went on to pitch in the big leagues.

“(McClain) is always there for me,” says VanMeter. “He’s just a great person. He has held me accountable.”

During the state title run, VanMeter saw how McClain handled a team featuring 10 seniors.

“We knew what we had to do to win a state championship,” says VanMeter, who scored both runs on hits by Jonah Patten in a 2-1 win against Jasper. “He gave us a lot of freedom and that was good for us.”

With VanMeter at point guard, Norwell was a 3A basketball state runner-up in 2012. He went on to become a school record holder for 3-pointers, No. 2 in all-time scoring and third in assists.

“High school with him was a lot of fun,” says Greg VanMeter, who was calling much of action on the internet for www.wellscountyvoice.com. The site covers Knights football, boys basketball, girls basketball and baseball games.

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Josh VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate, is in his first season in the Cincinnati Reds organization with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in 2017. (Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos Photo)

More than 6,000 games in, Kellman still pursuing excellence as ‘Voice of Indians’

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Like raindrops, no two baseball games are exactly the same.

That’s kept things fresh for Howard Kellman, who has called more than 6,000 games for the Indianapolis Indians since that first one on April 17, 1974.

“Everyday at the ballpark is wonderful,” says Kellman. “It never gets old at all. Everyday is unique.”

The “Voice of the Indians” for all but two seasons (1975 and 1980) since 1974, Kellman likes to see the Tribe emerge victorious. But his main job is to keep the radio or TV audience informed and entertained.

“The most important thing is to pursue excellence – not fame,” says Kellman. “Calling the game is the most important thing. It’s about doing the job, enjoying the moment.

“I want the Indians to win, however I maintain professionalism and paint an accurate word picture. I will certainly display more enthusiasm when the Indians win.”

Kellman is now in his 42nd season with the Indians and serves as one of minor league baseball’s broadcast deans along with Jim Weber (who called his first Toledo Mud Hens game in 1975).

A 2016  heart attack caused Kellman to miss 10 games, but he plans to keep on painting those word pictures.

“I feel great and I would like to go for a long while if I still can,” says Kellman, who majored in radio and television at Brooklyn College receiving his B.A. degree with Cum Laude honors in 1975.

When he started the gig in Indianapolis, the Indians played at Bush Stadium (opened in 1931).

Since the middle of the 1996 season, the Triple-A club has called Victory Field home and Kellman has let folks know that “The lights are on in this beautiful downtown ballpark, located on the corner of West and Maryland.”

Fueled by his devotion to preparation, including pre-game research and chats with those around the game, Kellman is able to share information and stories.

“I can tell things that people don’t know because of my access to players, coaches and managers,” says Kellman. “On radio, it’s about painting a word picture. On TV, it’s about adding captions.”

For more than 20 seasons, he has had a broadcast partner. The past three seasons it’s been Andrew Kappes.

From Vern Rapp in 1974 to Andy Barkett in 2017, Indianapolis has employed 23 different men as managers since Kellman first went behind the mike for the team.

Former big league catcher Buck Rodgers impressed Kellman with his knowledge of moundsmen.

“I saw the way our pitchers improved that (1984) season,” says Kellman.

The Indians were in the American Association through 1997 and have been in the International League since 1998.

Kellman says the IL was very much a pitcher’s league in those early years, but that changed with the addition of newer ballparks. In the 14-team circuit, the oldest stadium is Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium (opened in 1946). All the others debuted since 1988.

A change that Kellman has appreciated is the addition of a pitch clock installed at Triple-A and Double-A parks in 2015. The idea is the speed up the pace of play.

After each pitch during an at-bat (except for those following foul balls), the pitcher has 20 seconds to start his windup or come set if there are baserunners. If he does not comply, a ball is to be called.

“That’s a good thing,” says Kellman. “You don’t need hitters to step out of the box after every pitch. After two years, it has become habit and has shaved 15 minutes off the average times of games.

“You want the ball in play. You want action. It’s important. You want a batter to be up there ready to hit and for a pitcher to throw strikes.”

During Kellman’s tenure, the Indians have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds (twice), Montreal Expos, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates. A Bucs’ AAA affiliate since 2005, Indianapolis signed a Player Development Contract extension with Pittsburgh that carries through 2020.

Many honors have come Kellman’s way, including induction to the Indiana Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 2009 and Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2015.

Kellman is also an author and professional speaker. He produced “61 Humorous & Inspiring Lessons I Learned From Baseball” and belongs to the National Speakers Association.

His speeches cover Becoming a Champion, Leadership and Teamwork and more. He recently addressed the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association.

Indians games can be caught on several broadcast platforms, including cable TV, over-the-air radio and online streaming.

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Howard Kellman broadcast his first Indianapolis Indians game in 1974. He is able to inform and entertain his radio and TV audience through his access to players, coaches and managers. (Indianapolis Indians Photo)