Tag Archives: Detroit Tigers

With Griffin guiding merger of teams, Purdue Northwest enjoys strong first season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Two Purdue University entities became one in the Region.

Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central came together to form Purdue Northwest.

On the baseball field, the new merger yielded a 30-18 mark for the PNW Pride.

Purdue Northwest coach Dave Griffin, who helmed the Purdue Calumet program for three seasons before the change, expected their to be a little trepidation from some of the players with new leadership. The 2017 roster, which included 25 players with Indiana hometowns and six from Illinois, was roughly split in thirds by former players from PUC and PNC and new recruits.

The transition was a smooth one.

“The kids worked hard and got along really well,” says Griffin. “It was one unit.

“The situation was great. We molded the kids together. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was a very, very satisfying season.”

At 20-7, the Pride tied Olivet Nazarene for first in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference South Division during the regular season.

PNW’s season ended after it went 1-2 in the CCAC tournament.

The Pride played its home games on the turf of Dowling Park, a facility owned by the City of Hammond and shared with area high schools.

Sophomore outfielder Larry Crisler (.347) was PNW’s top hitter and senior right-hander Matt Sandoval (8-2, 2.48 earned run average) the top pitcher.

Griffin, 55, and his staff, which included former PNC head coach Shane Prance plus Phil Madvek, Vinnie Tornincasa, Dave Waddell, Tom McDermott and Jeff Rutherford this spring, have been recruiting Indiana, Chicagoland and beyond while the program develops an identity.

“People catch on pretty quick,” says Griffin. “I think we’re going in the right direction.”

Since season’s end, Griffin has been tying up loose ends and getting ready for the fall.

This summer, he will coach the Outsiders 17U team based out of Dave Griffin’s Baseball School in Griffith.

He has his views of the travel baseball world.

“I tell parents to play for a solid organization who has a good support staff,” says Griffin. “Games are just one part of the equation. There’s training and speed and agility.

“You need the right people to steer you the right way and someone who’s going to tell you the truth. Some will tell you anything as long as they’re going to make a buck. That’s sometimes where we lose focus a little bit.”

PNW players will hone their skills this summer in various collegiate circuits, including the Midwest Collegiate League, Northwoods League and Prospect League.

Griffin grew up in Dolton and Roseland, Ill., and played at the Dolton-Riverdale Babe Ruth League, where he played with Jimmy Boudreau (son of National Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau) first met baseball mentor and scout Bill Bryk.

“He’s always given me good advice,” says Griffin of Bryk, who now works for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “He kept me involved with the right people.”

Griffin also looks up to scout Bob Szymkowski.

“My story is similar to The Sandlot (movie). We use to play in the sandlot everyday. We’d choose up teams and I’d always be the manager.”

In 1979, Griffin graduated from Thornridge High School and went on to be an NAIA All-American first baseman at Texas Wesleyan University.

He was drafted in 1982 by the Atlanta Braves. His best pro season was 1988 with the Triple-A Richmond Braves, when he hit. 289 with 21 home runs and 72 runs batted in and was named Howe Sports Player of the Year and played in the International League All-Star Game.

Griffin also played in the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees organizations.

During a six-year stint as head coach at Hammond Bishop Noll Institute, Griffin helped lead the Warriors to an IHSAA Class 2A state title in 2004 and a 2A state runner-up finish in 2006.

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Head baseball coach Dave Griffin led Purdue Northwest to a 30-18 mark in 2017. The PNW Pride came about after a merger of Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central programs. (PNW Photo)

Sassanella brings passion to Brebeuf baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeremy Sassanella played baseball with zeal.

A sense of intensity and enthusiasm followed the switch-hitting catcher and first baseman from his days at DeKalb High School, where he graduated in 1997, to professional stops in the Detroit Tigers organization and the with independent Frontier League’s Richmond Roosters.

He took that energy into coaching at the high school level as a varsity assistant at Fort Wayne Northrop in 2004 (the Bruins won the sectional) and head coach at Fort Wayne South Side from 2005-07.

Meanwhile, Sassanella was entering the financial services world and his family was growing (Jeremy and Kate count six in their blended bunch).

When he moved from northeast Indiana to Indianapolis, he continued in his daytime work (he’s employed by Horizon Planning Group) but maintained his interest in coaching. He led the Mudsox, a Fishers-based travel team, in 2013.

Sassanella joined the Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School program as an assistant, but was not actively pursuing high school head coaching positions when a friend and president of the Indianapolis Adult Baseball League, John DeCosta, persuaded him to throw his hat in the ring when the top spot on the Braves staff came open.

With his plate full away from the diamond, Sassanella added one more duty to his list.

“I have a very, very gracious and understanding wife,” says Sassanella. “She knows this is a passion, I enjoy it and I’m good at it.”

Good enough that he led the Braves to a 25-8 record and a Bishop Chatard Sectional crown in his first season as head coach in 2016

“We weren’t playing any patty cakes,” says Sassanella. “The first week I took over, I said to (Brebeuf athletic director) Ted (Hampton), I want to build the best schedule I can.

“Like it or not, it will help us be ready fro the 3A tournament.”

Not only do the Braves compete in the new Circle City Conference (with Chatard, Guerin Catholic and defending 4A state champion Roncalli), the 2017 slate includes Carmel, Hamilton Southeastern, Zionsville, Indianapolis Cathedral, Andrean and defending 3A state champion Northview — just to name a few.

As a coach, Sassanella takes his own diamond experiences and relates them to teenager ballplayers.

“I want them to have some opportunities and insights I didn’t have,” says Sassanella. “There are things I wish I could go back and tell my 16- or 17-year-old self.

“Playing pro ball was a blessing. I understand what it is to have success and fail at a high level. I was a talented athlete, but I absolutely had to work my butt off to have the success I had.”

Sassanella insists that his players go all out and they know the sport. He and assistants Joe Perkins, Rob Baker and Chris Vale — the latter two played at Purdue — “keep it really simple” while also talking constantly about situations.

“We do drills over and over and over again,” says Sassanella. When something happens in a game, it’s already been covered in practice.

“I hope when baseball people watch us play, they see that,” says Sassanella. “Our kids play hard and fundamentally sound.

“So much of the game is emotional and mental.”

What about the new pitch count rules for 2017?

“With my background, I’m probably overprotective of arms,” says Sassanella. “My top two pitchers threw just over 40 innings apiece (last year).”

The most pitches thrown by a Brebeuf varsity pitcher in 2016 was 103 and that was in the third week of May.

“With the amount of depth we have, I’m never worried about running into pitch count issues,” says Sassanella.

While the private school does not have a traditional feeder system, Sassanella has established an off-season six-week instructional program with open fields for incoming freshmen.

“Brebeuf is going to sell itself and all it is academically and culturally,” says Sassanella. “Everything goes through admissions. Parents want this education first. They’ll seek out Brebeuf and want to be part of our baseball program.”

The coach is also a strong believer in sportsmanship and would like to see umpires do something about cat calling and the like.

“It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about respect for the game,” says Sassanella. “I’d crack down on some of the nonsense.

“Do it with grace and dignity and go home.”

JEREMYSASSANELLA

Jeremy Sassanella is in his second season as head baseball coach at Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis. The Braves won 25 games and a sectional title in 2016.

Technology meets training at Teddy Ballgames

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Taking technology and using it to train and entertain.

That’s what owner Mike Branch is doing with his baseball and softball training facility in South Bend called Teddy Ballgames.

Opened in 2016, the place features six indoor batting cages.

One cage is set up with the HitTrax Baseball Simulator, a state-of-the art video capture system capable of tracking the path of a batted ball and displaying it on a big screen monitor.

“This generation is visual,” says Branch. “They don’t realize how cool this is. For somebody our age, we didn’t have this when we were growing up. We didn’t have video. We didn’t have the information that made us better hitters. You either hit or didn’t.”

Branch said the system takes instruction and training from the old “keep your eye on the ball” and allows the player to see what the mechanics of a swing look like.

With patent pending HitTrax technology feedback data telling them the location and speed of the pitch and their average exit velocity plus distance and location of hits (spray chart), they learn things like taking the outside pitch the other way and what pitch they can strike with the biggest probability of getting a hit.

“Eventually, they become their best hitting coach,” says Branch. “My son is 13 and I still work with him quite a but I’ll have him go through some of his swings and assess himself.”

HitTrax users start out with a baseline assessment and can be tracked for progress over a period of time.

Branch notes that not all players and coaches will embrace the technology, preferring to stick with age-old methods.

“Men have egos,” says Branch. “The fact is you can’t see everything at full speed.”

But the lifelong baseball fan (the Bridgman (Mich.) High School graduate roots for the Detroit Tigers) says this is where the game is going.

“This is how the pros train (with video),” says Branch. “They use video of the pitcher and they use video of their own swing to determine what they’re doing so they can make those small adjustments.”

Because of the considerable investment in the system (there are not that many available to the public in Indiana), Branch charges more for the HitTrax cage, but has tried to keep it just a little higher than bowling alley fees.

HitTrax offers a data plan subscription where registered users can flag their videos and have access to them on a mobile device. Branch charges $12 a month for this service. Otherwise, players can see their videos at the facility.

Branch and Teddy Ballgames instructor Greg Harris (head coach at South Bend Riley High School) are both certified through the Mike Epstein rotational hitting program (TB throwing instructors include John Coddington and Jeff Jackowiak).

In teaching with HitTrax, Branch has learned a few things about working with young hitters.

“You can use cues positively now so they can start to make those improvements,” says Branch. “And you want them to become engaged. If I’m showing a kid this video and he’s staring at the ground, he’s really not picking it up.

Every kid is different in how they take coaching. You want to try to make it a positive thing.”

Branch emphasizes that this tool is being used to make them better and to identify where improvement is needed.

“‘I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m trying to make you understand what you’re doing wrong,’’’ says Branch is repeating his message to his players.

Staying positive is important. The idea is to uplift and not discourage.

“You can’t be all negative, especially with younger hitters,” says Branch.

Similar to golf simulators that allow players to tee it up at Augusta or Pebble Beach, HitTrax entertainment features include the ability to hit in any Major League Baseball park and even the site of the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Sessions can be set up for birthday parties, where attendees can go for the fences in a “Home Run Derby.”

Remote games can be played. Teddy Ballgames recently got 12U and 14U players to take on C-Side Sports in Washington, Pa., another facility with HitTrax.

Leaderboards are kept in-house and on the regional level to let players see how their scores — mostly tied to exit velocity — stack up with others. A Quality Hit Club competition is underway that pays $250 to the winner.

Branch started going to the batting cages for therapy after an accident about 15 years ago and began wondering where his solid strikes would have landed. He then did extensive study into video analysis technology, including discussions with Wayne State University about developing such a system.

“I knew it was going to take cameras, but then it got out of my wheelhouse,” says Branch.

Cost and the time it would take to process feedback caused him to back off. Then came word from his brother that the technology had been advanced by HitTrax.

“When I found out about it, I got very excited about it,” says Branch. “They took it a little farther on the training side.

“I was thinking more of the entertainment side. I wanted to be able to do remote tournaments and leaderboards and those things.”

Branch says the technology expedited his decision to transition from the rental business to the baseball training business.

The name of his facility pays homage to Hall of Famer Ted Williams aka “Teddy Ballgame.” The cages are surrounded with photos and books on Williams and others from baseball’s storied past.

“When we were kids, we listened to baseball on the radio,” says Branch. “Today, a lot of kids don’t follow the game. There are a lot more distractions for kids. I wanted to educate the younger generation on players like Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig.”

Of course it’s his business, but Branch sees the real worth in having a place to train — not just during the winter months — but spring, summer and fall, too.

“This may be a little controversial, but I believe the people in the south work at it harder than we do in the north,” says Branch. “We continually give the excuses that it’s nice year-round down there.

“Why are there more indoor facilities in the south than there are here? We go to our team practices and our games, but we don’t go back to our individual work. That’s just my opinion.”

Branch notes that one family visiting from the south came to him during Christmas break, saying their son could not go two weeks without batting practice because all the kids where he came from were still practicing.

“It has to be a cultural change,” says Branch. “We have to  get out of our paradigm of what we think is enough. I look at this and I’m excited about, but not everybody has that reaction to it.”

Jackowiak devoted to teaching baseball fundamentals

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Jackowiak has dedicated his life to teaching the fundamentals of baseball.

The former Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association first-team all-stater and 31st overall pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 1977 Major League Baseball draft pick does not do his teaching on a field.

Jackowiak offers indoor lessons year-round. He currently rents space across the state line at the School of Hard Knocks facility in Niles, Mich.

Jackowiak grew up on the west side of South Bend, played for coach Dan Cunningham at St. Joseph’s High School (the Indians lost 2-0 to LaPorte in Jeff’s senior year of 1977) and in the summer for American Legion Post 357.

In 1978, the right-hander pitched for the Lakeland (Fla.) Tigers managed by Jim Leyland.

Since 1993, he’s been passing along his knowledge as an independent instructor.

“We must teach the fundamentals,” says Jackowiak. “They are the things in sports that allow you do things correctly more times than not.”

Recently, Jackowiak sat down for an IndianaRBI Q&A session.

Q: What is “old school”?

A: “I consider myself a dinosaur. Even though I’m only 57, I’ve been through a lot of guys who played a lot of baseball without a lot of gimmicks. They just played hard, play with a lot of heart and figured out their game at the park in competition with their neighbors. They kept playing everyday during the summer. That’s where you really were made as a youngster … You can’t chance progress, but ‘old school’ is people who made it by playing everyday.”

Q: Can you throw too much?

A: “I don’t think you can throw too much from a certain distance. You have to look at how hard and what pitches you’re throwing. How many curve balls are you throwing? … Growing up, I threw a lot of baseballs and it didn’t hurt me one bit. It strengthened me. But I wasn’t infatuated with a lot of things that could have hurt my arm …There are all kinds of ways to throw a baseball. First of all, you have to have elasticity and be loose when you throw a baseball. You can’t be weight-bound.”

Q: Why is baseball such a great game?

A: “Because of failure. As a batter, you fail and you have to wait eight more guys to hit again. You miss a ground ball and you don’t know when the next one’s coming to you. As a pitcher, you can have a great game and the next game you can get shelled or walk a lot of guys and get pulled early … It helps in life. Life is ups and downs. That’s what baseball is.”

Q: What would you change about baseball?

A: “We have to understand that baseball is not instant gratification. Kids need to know that you must play a lot, play catch a lot , play sand lot a lot and do a lot of things. That’s the key to it … They know themselves if they’re getting better.”

Q: What gives you the most satisfaction about teaching the game?

A: “The satisfaction comes from seeing a kid that isn’t very good who improves and does what you ask him to do … Teaching is a process. If the process continues and the parent allows the process to continue and the kid says I like this guy, the process will continue and that’s how teaching evolves. It doesn’t happen in a week’s or half hour’s time … Teaching is about information … You have to prepare for a lesson. You have to impress me. In impressing me, you’re going impress yourself. I’m not easy on kids. Sports is about performance. Guys who don’t perform, don’t play. They sit the bench … Keep at it or you’ll regress. Use it or lose it.”

Q: Here’s a two-parter: Can you work too much at baseball and do you believe in burnout?

A: “Burnout occurs when there is so much going on and you have to pick and choose where you spend your time. Life presents a lot of things that kids want to do … You can get burned out if there’s not a balance in your life. You have to work a lot, but there has to be a balance in time management … I ask the kids to work out 5 minutes a day because that’s achievable. I don’t think you can get burned out by doing that. Make it a priority.”

Q: Did you ever imagine there would be so many training facilities?

A: “I owned Grand Slam USA (in Elkhart) from 1993-99 and that was a training facility. It was really neat. Kids really took to it. We had hitting leagues and a lot of things that promoted repetition. But it wasn’t like today … We need to allow kids to learn and not think they’re pros. They’ve got to learn fundamental, easy ways to start the process … There are so many training facilities because of travel baseball.”

Q: What did you learn while playing for Jim Leyland?

A: “Jim Leyland was a very cognitive manager. He was thinking all the time. That’s what he wanted you to do. I learned from him that you go out and give it your best because that’s why you’re here … Jim Leyland did not teach me how to pitch, he gave me the confidence to go out and pitch … Jim Leyland gives people the opportunity to go out and spread their wings … He’ll sit on you if you go beyond what he thinks is right … He was the kind of guy that was hard on you, but you knew he had your back.”

Q: What’s the current state of Indiana baseball?

A: “Being in a cage for 24 years, I don’t see a lot of games and I teach all ages … But I know the coaches that want to win state championships, those are the ones who are successful. Don’t say sectionals, regionals and semistates. If you have state championships in mind, you’re going to do something better. Why lower your expectations? High schools have to understand that it’s hard game, a dedication game … How do you put all players on the same page? … And the talent starts in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, not high school.”

Q: Can you tell me about American baseball the way it was when you played for South Bend Post 357?

A: “When you were picked for American Legion Baseball, you were considered an all-star … The coaches were not parents … American Legion is great baseball and I hope it takes off again.”

Q: How fierce was baseball competition when you were growing up?

A: “It was real fierce. Everybody loved baseball and that was their ego …. We wanted to win, no matter what we did growing up … It was about coaches like Lenny Buczkowski, Jim Reinebold, Ric Tomaszewski and Ken Schreiber. They brought that to high school baseball. They were pretty tough guys … There was that edge.”

Q: Can you tell me about your HotZones throwing system?

A: “In 2008, I developed what I thought was the best target for kids to throw to and better their technique. They can throw the ball high, low, inside or outside within the strike zone … I also developed it for (non-pitchers) because if you can’t throw a baseball, you can’t play this game. Defense comes first before hitting and all good coaches know that.”

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Jeff Jackowiak with his HotZones target throwing system.