By STEVE KRAH
Chris Ulrey has a knack for teaching the game that he loves.
As a professional hitting instructor, the former college player and Major League Baseball draftee works with more than 150 baseball and softball athletes a week at The Yard Sports Complex in Greenfield, Ind. It was formerly the home of Dream Big Baseball.
Those athletes come from as far away as Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan and all over the state of Indiana.
Ulrey has been involved in youth travel sports as a coach, mentor and instructor since 2010.
In 2015, the New Palestine High School graduate founded the Midwest Astros Academy. In 2018, the academy fields 31 baseball and softball travel teams in age divisions 8U to 17U with players from Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.
Ulrey handles the day-to-day baseball operations, facility operations, college consulting, instruction and Ben Taylor handles the softball operations and scheduling.
“I am thankful to have a guy like Ben within our academy,” says Ulrey. “Ben puts a lot of time and work into the operations of the Midwest Astros.”
As a player, Ulrey helped New Palestine to a 2004 IHSAA Class 3A state championship. In his senior year (2006), the left-handed swinging and throwing outfielder was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 33rd round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
Because of an injury Ulrey made the choice not to sign and went to college.
When Ulrey concluded his college playing career in 2010, he took his first coaching job at Beech Grove High School and opened up his first indoor training facility.
At BG, he helped lead the Hornets to their first winning season since 2004 and first sectional title since 2005 when they went 13-9-2 in 2012.
At the same time, Ulrey was coaching summer travel teams.
The Yard Sports Complex is the fifth he’s had since 2010 and the only one he runs since moving away from his last facility in Beech Grove.
With the academy based at the Greenfield complex, Ulrey is able to serve his hitting students and oversee the whole operation.
Ulrey tries to manage his schedule so he can interact with as many of the academy’s teams as possible and to watch them play.
“I want to show support,” Ulrey, 30. “But not only that, I love the game of baseball. Every week — seven days a week — I’m either training, coaching or watching our teams practice at the complex or in games on the weekends.
“It’s my life.”
Ulrey is also an associate scout for the Texas Rangers and works under area scout Michael Medici.
The organization continues to grow and have success on and off the field, however; Ulrey doesn’t take all the credit.
“It’s been a blessing,” says Ulrey. “I’ve had a lot of help along with the way. None of this would be possible without great coaches, directors, instructors, players and the support of the parents.”
Christian Montgomery, a Lawrence Central High School graduate and a former New York Mets minor leaguer, works with pitchers.
Nick Ulrey, brother of Chris and assistant coach at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, travels to Greenfield to instruct catchers.
Ulrey leaves tournament scheduling up to his coaches.
The youngest teams tend to stay in Indiana. As they reach 10U or 11U, they may take out-of-state trips.
At 12U or 13U, the teams tend to travel a little more. The 13U Majors team, coached by Chris Emberton, goes all over the country to compete in elite tournaments.
Emberton has been with Ulrey since the beginning and has continued to progress and compete at a high level every year.
“It’s nice to get out of Indiana every once in a while and play some different teams,” says Ulrey.
The Midwest Astros’ 15U through 17U Showcase teams, including the Tom Ancelet-coached 17U squad, play in tournaments attended by college coaches at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., and other locations around Indiana as well as top-level events in places like Nashville, Louisville, Michigan, Georgia and Florida.
“It’s fun watching your older age groups play because you see guys who have developed already,” says Ulrey. “It’s not so much the coaching. It’s like managing with the older teams. They know how to play. You expect them to go out there and do their job and make plays.
“You get to sit back and watch some really good baseball. These are guys you’ll be seeing at the next level.”
As a coach and instructor, Ulrey gets to work with a wide range of ages.
“We try to teach the basics at 8,” says Ulrey. “They take in as much as they can. Off-speed pitches, mental approach and hitter and pitcher counts, a lot of that stuff is for the older age group kids.
“You try to make it fun for an 8-year-old while still trying to teach them the basics. You’re not trying to teach the older guys — high school, college, professional level — how to stand and how to hold the bat. When they feel there’s something wrong with their swing, you put your opinions in an make adjustments.”
Ulrey wants to relate to everyone on a personal level.
“What a lot of people lack in this profession is the relationship you build with the hitter and the parents,” says Ulrey. “For a kid to trust in what you’re teaching and what you’re saying, they’ve got to believe in you. They’ve got to want be there.”
So as work goes into making the complex ready to host tournaments, Ulrey and the rest of his staff will stay with the plan that has helped the academy grow.
“I feel like we’re doing all the right things right now,” says Ulrey. “Our teams are competing well. Our coaches are doing a good job.
“We’ll keep bringing in quality coaches and players and putting in the work.”
Chris Ulrey is founder and president of Midwest Astros Academy, which operates out of The Yard Sports Complex in Greenfield, Ind.