Tag Archives: Florida State League

Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

 

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Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

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Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)

Valparaiso graduate Suiter adds Mexico to list of baseball experiences

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s funny how life and baseball works.

Jerrick Suiter is closing up shop at a GNC store in Fort Worth, Texas, when he gets a call to join the Mexican Pacific League pennant chase.

Two days later, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout is off to new experiences with the Venados de Mazatlan.

Suiter, an outfielder, corner infielder and designated hitter in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, plays his first game South of the Border Dec. 21 and goes 2-for-3 with a run batted in on Christmas Day.

“This is my first time in winter ball and first time in Mexico — ever,” says Suiter. “It’s been quite an experience. I’ve learned a lot of Spanish.

“It’s going to help me with my Latin teammates. I can feel what they were going through their first time in the States. I have a greater appreciation for that now.”

When he’s not at the stadium or heading to the gym, Suiter has found time to soak up the sun. The team has set him up in a condo 50 yards from the beach.

Recent daytime temperatures have been in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s been around 40 in north central Texas and in the single digits or lower in northwest Indiana.

Suiter, who has been used primarily as a DH since he had not been throwing much in the off-season, would like to be a part of a couple of championship before reporting to 2018 spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., where he is due Feb. 19 — two weeks before his 25th birthday on March 4.

Mazatlan opened its season Oct. 11 and is closing in on the end of the regular season with hopes of winning the league and a berth in the Caribbean Series (which will bring champions from Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico).

In Mexico, Suiter has been reunited with Gerardo Alvarez, who managed the Bradenton Marauders in 2017.

After hurting his thumb at the end of spring camp, Suiter played briefly in the High Class-A Florida State League before joining the Altoona Curve of the Double-A Eastern League, where the right-handed swinger hit .285 with 10 home runs, three triples, 20 doubles and 58 runs batted in over 347 at-bats and 100 games.

Altoona beat Trenton to win EL title. Sutter had an RBI in the final game.

If the Pirates give him a promotion, Suiter would play Triple-A baseball with the Indianapolis Indians.

Suiter, who was selected in the 26th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after three seasons at TCU, made an adjustment in the batter’s box in 2017.

“I was very wide and kind of low,” says Suiter of his stance. “It was killing any chance I had to put some juice into the ball. Now, I’m pretty tall, kind of (Ken) Griffey-esque with my hands a little lower. I see the ball a little bit longer and use my legs more than the rest of my body to generate some power.”

Suiter, who stands 6-foot-4 and currently weighs around 250 pounds, has been an avid lifter for years, but he is not trying to get too big.

“I don’t need to put on much size,” says Suiter, who usually reports to spring training around 250, drops five pounds by the end of camp and five or 10 more during the season. “Size in baseball doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to make you slow and not very flexible. I know how my body works and that I lose weight very quickly. I’m looking to get stronger while leaning out.”

A football, basketball and baseball standout at Valpo (he was the Northwest Indiana Times Male Athlete of the Year in 2011), Suiter got a chance to spend a lot of time on the gridiron and diamond with coach Dave Coyle.

“He was a big discipline guy,” says Suiter of Coyle. “I loved him as a coach. He wanted to the best for his team and for his players.”

Work ethic was important to Coyle just like it was to Eric Suiter, who coached Jerrick and company as they grew up playing sports.

“My dad was extremely hard on me as well as the rest of the team,” says Jerrick. “It made me into the athlete I am today. I couldn’t thank him more for it.”

Jerrick’s father lives in Valpo and mother Jeanette in Chesterton. His sister Danielle Suiter plays volleyball at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Half-brother Carter just played his first Pop Warner football season in Chesterton. Step-sister Hailey is a student at Purdue University.

Jerrick was working toward a degree in Habilitation of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing before leaving TCU early for pro baseball. He has relatives on his father’s side that are deaf or hard of hearing and knows both basic and American Sign Language.

“I started signs before I was talking,” says Suiter. “I don’t use it every single day like I should, but I know more sign language than I know Spanish, I can tell you that.”

He was planning to go back to school when Bradenton made the playoffs in 2016, which meant he would be too late for the start of the fall semester. Suiter spends his off-seasons in Fort Worth and does some hitting at TCU.

“I love the city,” says Suiter, an Indiana Bulls travel baseball alumnus who was drafted in 2011 by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school but persuaded to play at TCU by former Horned Frogs recruiting coordinator Tony Vitello (who is now on the staff at the University of Arkansas) and played for head coach Jim Schlossnagle.

“He finds a way to win,” says Suiter of Schlossnagle, who now has Kirk Saarloos as a recruiting coordinator. “He brings the right guys in there. They’ve been to Omaha (for the College World Series) every year since my junior year. Something’s going right there.”

While he long wanted to be a pro baseball player, Suiter has an affinity for the hardwood.

“Basketball has always been my favorite sport,” says Suiter. “I’m not a big NBA guy, but I love watching college basketball.”

During winter break his sophomore year at TCU, he helped coach fifth and sixth grade AAU players. Shooting around on the court was one way he warmed up for his workouts.

But he has stopped doing that.

“The Pirates are writing my paychecks every two weeks,” says Suiter. “I don’t need to be roll a ankle or jeopardize my career in baseball.”

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Jerrick Suiter, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout, takes a cut in 2017 for the Altoona (Pa.) Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A team. (David Hague Photo)

 

Work ethic leads Riggins to long coaching career

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Diligence and determination learned as a teenager in southern Indiana has sustained Mark Riggins throughout a long baseball career.

Riggins, who played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Tim Nonte on the diamond and Indiana Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Butcher and assistant Nonte on the hardwood as part of the Loogootee High School Class of 1975, went on to pitch at Murray (Ky.) State University and logged five seasons in the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles organizations.

He has been in player development since 1984 and has been pitching coach for the Mike Quade-managed Chicago Cubs (2011) and Bryan Price-managed Cincinnati Reds (2016) as well as a minor league pitching coordinator and pitching coach for the Cardinals, Cubs and Reds.

Riggins, who was inducted into the IHSBCA Hall of Fame himself in 2016, is now charged with developing pitchers for the Dunedin Blue Jays.

“The work ethic I gained at Loogootee has carried me on,” says Riggins, who was a part of the Lions’ state runner-up basketball team as a senior. “Success and winning doesn’t come easy. We were very successful because of our dedication and hard work that we learned from the people that taught us.

“I still preach the work ethic to these players.”

Dunedin is a member of the talent-rich High-A Florida State League.

“We have quite a few good prospects,” says Riggins, 60. “We have really good arms trying to find the stroke zone and learn a second and third pitch.”

This season, while the team has earned a playoff berth (Game 1 vs. Tampa is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 5), Riggins has helped eight pitchers move up to Double-A or beyond.

“It’s very rewarding to see these kids get better,” says Riggins.

Each Major League Baseball organization has its own philosophy on developing players.

Like the St. Louis Cardinals when Riggins was a part of system, the Toronto Blue Jays tend to be patient with their prospects.

“Other organizations move them along rather quickly,” says Riggins. “That’s a problem in baseball. (Players are rushed to the big leagues and) not prepared to handled that level of talent. We want to make sure the guy is ready to move to the major league level.”

Riggins guides a staff with a five-man starting rotation that rare has a hurler go over 100 pitches in a game.

Relievers rarely pitch on back-to-back days or go more than two innings at a time. Starters tend to pitch 120 to 150 innings during a 140-game season while relievers go 50 to 60.

“We’ve had a really successful year in keeping guys healthy,” says Riggins. “We pick the starters out of spring training. They are best arms with the best chance to be a starter at the major league level.”

Of course, that could change along the way and the pitcher might be deemed better-suited to a bullpen role.

The use of analytics has steadily increased in baseball and they come into play in the FSL.

“We do have scouting reports on every team we play,” says Riggins. “I simplify those reports to what I feel (my pitcher) can handle. Some pitchers can’t do it as well as others.

“But the guys at this level are pretty advanced in being able to execute pitches. We always pitch to their strength vs. a hitter’s weakness. Having reports at A-ball was unheard of five years ago.”

Riggins welcomes the advancements in information and training methods.

“I like new things,” says Riggins. “I have to see how it applies. You have to be open-minded.

“Everybody is getting the information now. If you’re not, you’re way behind. It’s what you do with it that makes each individual organization different.”

The Blue Jays organization has a plan for each one of its player. That plan is reviewed every two weeks during the season and is tweaked as necessary.

The player’s input is always considered.

“If they’re on board, they work hard at their efficiency and trying to make it better,” says Riggins. “Players have changed a lot. They’re smarter. They’re pretty sharp at gaining information from other sources.”

It’s up to Riggins to help them get the most out of the info and their ability.

“I dissect what they do best,” says Riggins. “They are not sure. They are just throwing the baseball.

“The difference is consistency. How often can you execute pitches? Once they can do it on a consistent basis, they can cut hitters apart.”

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Mark Riggins, a 1975 Loogootee High School graduate, began his career as a professional baseball coach in 1984. He is now the pitching coach for the Florida State League’s Dunedin Blue Jays. (Dunedin Blue Jays Photo)