By STEVE KRAH
Pulling together a Goshen College roster with players from 10 different states and one Canadian province, Alex Childers is going about teaching lessons on and off the baseball diamond.
Childers, who in his fifth season as head coach for the Maple Leafs, wants his athletes to be adaptable, students of the game and above all else — students. After all, GC is a highly-ranked institution of higher learning.
“At the college level, you have got to be good at development,” says Childers, who played his college baseball at Goshen College and Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill. “You want to recruit good players, but you’ve got to develop the talent as well.
“When you let then be athletes and players, you can maximize potential. That’s what we try to do.”
Making the most of the fall and winter and the rare spring practices, Childers and his coaching staff of Justin Grubbs, Jackson Callahan and Doug Wellenreiter do their best to create intelligent baseball players.
“I try to teach the game and concepts,” says Childers. “When you micro-manage too much, you’re not teaching the concepts of the game.
“I want guys to understand when it’s a good time to run vs. I’m going to give you the steal sign so you’re going to run. I want players to understand the game. When is it a good time to be aggressive on a ball in the dirt? When is it a good time being aggressive going first to third? As opposed to me just moving the chess pieces around.”
Childers also expects players to be willing to move around on the diamond, which sometimes involves some candid conversations.
“Most guys on our team had a position change,” says Childers. “In the fall, we try to move every single one of our guys around.”
The thought is that knowing a different position never hurts and it gives a player more of a chance to crack the lineup.
“If you think you’re just a second baseman and that’s where you think you’re going to play, that’s great,” says Childers. “But you have to make our team the best when you’re at second base.
“Sometimes that’s a tough concept for guys to get.”
Citing a couple of examples of getting Leafs to buy into a switch, Childers points to current senior Preston Carr and former player Arick Armington.
Carr, who hails from Ontario, came to GC as a pitcher-second baseman. He was turned into an honorable mention all-conference selection and two-time Gold Glove winner in center field.
Armington, who played high school baseball at Elkhart Christian Academy, was convinced to make an adjustment, moving from the middle infield.
“I told him, ‘Aric, we’re better when you’re in center field,’” says Childers. “You have to get guys to buy in.”
And confidence is key.
“It’s a tough thing,” says Childers. “You know how baseball is, if you don’t have an ego you don’t last very long because of how much failure is involved.
“You’ve got to believe that you belong. You’ve got to respect decisions I make as the coach. But if you don’t believe you can do it, you’re in the wrong sport.”
Childers wants his players, especially freshmen, to know what to expect.
“Let’s be honest, here in the north you play on good weather days,” says Childers. “On poor weather days, you’re not playing and you’re back in the (batting) cage. We play 55 games in essentially 2 1/2 months. It is a sprint.”
GC coaches talk about players having the ability to be present.
“We talk say ‘be where your feet are,’” says Childers. “That basically means stats are a reflection of what’s happened in the past, you need to be present right now. If you don’t have that concept, the season can get on you quick. Before you know it, you’re throwing away at-bats or throwing away games and you don’t want to do that in a career that’s so short.”
Some Leafs don’t have a short trip to campus. Besides Indiana and Ontario, the 2017 roster features players from California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
“We have students from all over, why can’t we have baseball players from all over?,” says Childers. “I’d love to have local guys, but we can’t limit ourselves to just that. We have to think outside the box (in recruiting).”
When recruiting, Childers and his staff are looking for players who are academically strong. The NAIA allows 12 scholarships for baseball, but the Crossroads League has a limit of 7.6, so things like institutional aid come into play.
“If the kid has a high GPA, it just increases his scholarship level for the school which I can add onto from a baseball standpoint,” says Childers. “It’s a little bit of a matrix trying to figure out how to package guys the best.”
Childers said players have gone on to professional baseball out of the Crossroads League, but that’s not the focus at GC.
“At the end of the day, college baseball is a means for you to get an education.” says Childers. “If you can keep playing for four more years, that’s just icing on the cake. We treat it that way. I tell parents all the time, we don’t apologize for the academic portion of what we do. You want to keep in perspective what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Childers, who graduated from New Haven High School in 2003, said he owes much of what he knows about baseball to Bulldogs head coach Dave Bischoff.
“You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who practices harder and is more passionate about the game,” says Childers of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He’s somebody who cares deeply.”
Bischoff instilled in Childers, who was also a New Haven assistant for two years after his college playing days, the importance of mental toughness and getting the most out of players.
“My senior year in high school was a pretty senior-laden group but not the most talented group,” says Childers. “Coach Bischoff got the most out of us. We were a 20-win team and won a sectional title. He fit guys into roles and maximized the potential he had.
“I’m pretty fortunate in having him as a mentor.”
Alex Childers is in his fifth season as head baseball coach at Goshen College in 2017. (Goshen College Photo)
Alex Childers (left) coaches third base during the 2014 season. (Goshen College Photo)