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Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

TOMNICHOLS2

With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

TOMNICHOLS1

Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

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Hall of Famer Hawkins talks about pitching ‘carrousel’, ‘ferris wheel,’ camaraderie

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

LaTroy Hawkins began his professional baseball playing career at 18 and wrapped it up at 42.

The 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate pitched 21 seasons in the big leagues, racking up 1,463 innings in 1,042 games.

There’s just no telling how many baseballs the 6-foot-5 right-hander might have thrown.

On the same day Hawkins became the 189th inductee into the Indiana High School Baseball Association Hall of Fame he talked to 2018 IHSBCA State Clinic attendees about pitching and more.

When Hawkins was selected in the seventh round of the 1991 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins and made his MLB debut in 1995, he was a rare commodity — an Indiana-born big leaguer.

There are many now.

“Baseball has definitely taken a step in the right direction in our state,” says Hawkins, who retired as a player after the 2015 season and now works with the pitchers in the Twins minor league system. “It’s because of (coaches) helping guys get better and pushing them to the next level.”

As a player, Hawkins worked out often to stay in shape. He kept his arm and shoulder sound by doing his “Jobe exercises” (arm raises and rotations with light weights of no more than five pounds) after he threw and then applied ice.

He never did any band work and only a little bit with a weighted ball.

While techniques have changed, Hawkins credits the industry for getting smarter about how to keep arms fit.

“At the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do — keep pitchers healthy,” says Hawkins. “When they’re around, they’re productive. When they’re sitting around in the clubhouse or the trainer’s room like I was my last two years in the big leagues, they’re not helping anybody.”

Hawkins had to have labrum surgery in 2010.

“I had two suchers put in my shoulder,” says Hawkins. “I didn’t think I’d ever pitch again. There’s a lot of guys who don’t come back from shoulder surgery.

“You’ve got to take care of your shoulder. The shoulder is much more complicated (than the elbow).”

Hawkins stresses the importance of pitching mechanics.

“The key is to have strong foundation,” says Hawkins. “Stand tall on that back leg. I still want you to have a slight bend in your knee so you can have something to push off with.

“Anything you do in sports, you want to be in an athletic position.”

Hawkins also saw value in having some rhythm to his mechanics.

“Everything is about timing and being in rhythm,” says Hawkins. “If you can dance, you can pitch.”

When his front leg went up, the ball was already coming out of his glove. If he held the ball too long it threw off his timing.

Hawkins sees so many pitchers today who want to tuck their glove under their lead arm during their delivery.

This tends to get the body going into a “carrousel” motion.

“You can’t pitch like that,” says Hawkins. “You’re fighting yourself all the time. You’re opening up way too soon

“I was always taught to be on the ‘ferris wheel’ (with the motion going toward the plate).”

To be able to repeat his delivery and stay relaxed, Hawkins kept his motion as simple as possible.

“I wanted to make it like I was playing catch,” says Hawkins. “I wanted to make it look like I didn’t have a care in the world — like it was second nature to me.”

He recalls learning from current 6-foot-10 Twins right-hander Aaron Slegers that he was taught at Indiana University to keep his motion compact as if he was throwing inside a phone booth (for those who know what one of those is).

With his height it is best for Slegers streamline his moving parts.

But it’s not a cookie-cutter world and Hawkins knows his way of thinking is not for everybody.

“Some are going to max effort guys,” says Hawkins. “I get that. But, at the end of the day, when I tried to throw hard I threw softer.

“When I was in my most relaxed state, that’s when i threw my hardest fastball. I’ve been trying to explain that to kids. They think if you muscle up, you’re going to throw hard. That’s not true. It’s not always about brute strength.”

While most hurlers stand on the same spot, Hawkins was known to move around on the pitching rubber looking for an advantage.

“I stood all over the mound,” says Hawkins. “It depended on who was hitting. If I’ve got a right-handed hitter, I’d stand on the third base side (of the rubber). I wanted a right-handed hitter to feel like I was on top of them.”

The hitter had to pick up a release point that was behind him and they had less time to see a fastball.

“It makes a huge difference,” says Hawkins. “I knew I could control my body and command my fastball so moving a few inches didn’t bother me.”

Hawkins learned these lessons over time. While he threw fastballs on more than 70 percent of his pitches, he also came to appreciate the change-up.

“The change-up is the best pitch in baseball,” says Hawkins. “Now everything is about velocity.

“We can’t throw the ball past guys anymore. Guys are seeing 100 mph everyday. They see it on the amateur level, in college, in he minor leagues. When you’re sitting on 100, you cannot hit (a good change-up).”

But an effective change is tough to develop. A pitcher must throw it all the time.

“I didn’t have a change-up my first 12 years in the big leagues,” says Hawkins. “But I knew one thing: If I didn’t work on it, I was going to be out of the game sooner than I wanted to.

“My last five years, I probably threw 100 change-ups to right-handed hitters.”

The idea is to deliver every pitch so it looks the same. When they were teammates with the Chicago Cubs in 2005, Hawkins remembers watching Hall of Famer-to-be Greg Maddux throw in the bullpen.

Maddux would use his peripheral vision to see that his release point was consistent.

With the change-up, it’s about selling it.

“You want your arm speed to look like your fastball,” says Hawkins. “You let the grip take away the miles per hour.”

At the beginning of his career, Hawkins threw daily and was amazed when he learned that Cubs teammate Mike Remlinger would take days off.

“He told me to save your bullets for the game,” says Hawkins of the left-hander who went on to log 14 MLB seasons. “I started doing that. It gave me life.

In 2017, the Twins acquired former Hawkins teammate Matt Belisle — someone who used to insist on throwing each day. Hawkins met up with him at the park.

Belisle: “Hawk, I’m saving my bullets.”

Hawkins: “Good, that’s why you’re still pitching.”

“You don’t have to throw everyday,” says Hawkins. “You won’t forget how.”

One thing that Hawkins wishes today’s players would not forget is their relationships with their teammates — the all-important cameraderie.

Even now, when former Twins players likes Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie come around home clubhouse at Target Field, they are cutting up with Hawkins and get stares from current players.

Hawkins knows what they’re thinking: “They’re so loud. What’s wrong with them?”

He recalls the fun of being around these guys day after day for months at a time.

“We didn’t have cell phones and iPads and stuff,” says Hawkins. “We had to talk to each other. We got a chance to know each other.”

When LaTroy and Anita Hawkins’ teenage daughter, Troi, has friends over to the house, LaTroy gathers all the cellphones so the teens can enjoy one another’s company.

If parents need to contact their child, they are to child LaTroy’s phone.

When Hawkins was with the Twins, teammates knew the names of each other’s children. They were in each other’s weddings. They went out to dinner together.

“We were friends,” says Hawkins. “It’s not like that now. When you’re with your teammates, you enjoy your teammates. You have to bond with your teammates. You have to know this guy has my back and I’ve got his back. We’re all pulling on the same rope.

“It’s all me, me, me. There’s no team mentality anymore and that’s killing baseball.”

LaTroy Hawkins #32 of the MinnesotaTwins

LaTroy Hawkins, a 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate, delivers a pitch for the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins pitched 21 years in the big leagues and was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018. (Minnesota Twins Photo)