BY STEVE KRAH
With the onset of a COVID-19 pandemic, no high school baseball season was contested at historic League Stadium in Huntingburg, Ind., in the spring.
The Dubois County Bombers did not get to play when the Ohio Valley League canceled its 2020 summer collegiate campaign.
But there is now diamond action at the old ballpark thanks to the independent Liberation Professional Baseball League.
The four-team circuit staged its first game at League Stadium Aug. 7 and the schedule is slated to go through Oct. 18.
In the mix is independent baseball veteran Derrick Pyles. The 37-year-old outfielder is in his 11th season of indy ball. The former Avon, Ind., resident now has experience in 10 different leagues.
Pyles has been acting as a player-manager in the Liberation, which when it gets up to speed will have four full squads — Indiana Barn Owls, Indy Wind Storm, BaseballResume.com Bandits and California Dogecoin.
The league features players with professional experience and those looking to get some. Former major leaguer Johnny Barbato pitched in the first game and is now in the Atlantic League-satellite Constellation Energy League with four teams playing in Sugarland, Texas. The Atlantic — independent pro ball’s top circuit — is not operating in 2020.
The Liberation came to Indiana thanks to owner Brian Williams. He was ready to go in the Pacific Association when that league was shut down because of the coronavirus.
“Brian pounded on doors all over the country,” says Pyles, who is leading players in the new league along with Ray Ortega and Lance Myers.
Huntingburg answered the knock.
“It’s better than 90 percent better of the other places we could have went,” says Pyles. “It’s a wonderful place to play.”
It happened very quick. It was less than two weeks ago that Pyles first heard about the league, which is the only pro loop operating in Indiana this year.
“There was zero advertisement,” says Pyles. “It’s literally come out of the woodwork.
“If people give us a shot, I think they’ll enjoy it. This is a legit professional baseball league taking part inside their city.”
There is a plan to meet with the community this week with the hopes of picking up a few more host families. Some players are staying at nearby hotels.
Pyles commutes to his in-laws in Mooresville, Ind.
While it’s too early to say what level the Liberation will equate to in affiliated baseball, Pyles and the rest are hopeful.
“There’s just so much talent,” says Pyles. “Guys are hungry for opportunities.”
Pyles notes that in recent years the Pacific Association was equivalent to Low Class-A with the Frontier League Low-A or High-A, the Can-Am League High-A, American Association High-A to Double-A and Atlantic Double-A to Triple-A.
When the Empire League started in 2015 it was solid at the start and very good in the second half with Triple-A pitchers starting many games.
With Major League Baseball whittling down its minor leagues and no games at the lower levels this year, that’s raised the level in talent pool for independent ball.
But indy ball is not the same as being tied to a major league organization.
“Independent ball can be extremely cut throat,” says Pyles. “It’s way more about winning.
“In affiliated ball you’re getting prepped for the big leagues.”
Pyles, who bats and throws right-handed, has been a player-coach or player-manager the past few seasons. He hopes to get back to a higher league such as the Atlantic (he played for Sugarland and Long Island in 2017) would like to play until he’s 40.
After the 2019 season, he moved from Avon to Goodyear, Ariz., where it’s easier to stay in shape with the warm weather. He still comes back to train players in central Indiana.
“I love the people in Avon,” says Pyles. “Indiana definitely feels like home to me.”
A hitting instructor, Pyles has worked with Avon Baseball Club and taught players on the Indiana Bulls, Indiana Nitro, Indiana Expos and other travel ball organizations.
He started with Zyon Avery (a Ben Davis High School graduate who is now at Parkland College in Champaign, Ill.) and Allbry Major (an Indianapolis North Central grad who plays at Xavier University) when they were young.
Matt Moore, an Avon High School graduate, was a hitting Pyles hitting pupil who became a hard-throwing pitcher. The Purdue University left-hander is a MLB draft prospect.
“I love to train players that are very motivated,” says Pyles. “I’m 100 percent confident I can help the top players get better.
“The road has been so hard for me I really had to figure out the best stuff.”
Pyles’ best friend — Lance Zawadzki — is now working as a hitting coach with the Boston Red Sox.
In his approach to teaching hitting, Pyles borrows from the old school while embracing the new technology-driven methods.
“There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from the old guys who have been there,” says Pyles. “Technology is extremely important, too.
“We need to find a happy medium.”
The Liberation League is employing Blast and Rapsodo analytics through BaseballResume.com.
A native of Temecula, Calif., Pyles played two seasons at Riverside (Calif.) City College and two at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Led by head coach Dennis Rogers (who was also a short-season manager in the Oakland Athletics system), led Riverside to back-to-back state titles during Pyles’ time with the Tigers (2003 and 2004). Rogers was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2020.
Embry-Riddle was ranked No. 1 in the country among NAIA programs in both 2005 and 2006, finishing as national runner-up in Pyles’ junior season and fifth when he was a senior.
Greg Guilliams was the Eagles head coach with Nick Mingione and Todd Guilliams as assistants.
Mingione is now head coach at the University of Kentucky and former Embry-Riddle hitting coach Todd Guilliams is on the UK staff.
Greg Guilliams is now head coach at Valdosta State (Ga.) University. Both Guilliams brothers are both in the Embry-Riddle Athletics Hall of Fame.
Pyles can be reached at email@example.com.