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Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

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With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

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Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

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Howard believes in keeping it simple for his Forest Park Rangers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball doesn’t have to be complicated.

Just ask Jarred Howard, who just completed his 18th year as head baseball coach at Forest Park High Senior/Junior High School in Ferdinand, Ind.

“In high school, you need to three things very well. It’s simple — throw strikes, make plays and put the ball in play.

“We do our very best to keep things as simple as we can. If we do the simple things, then we’re pretty successful.”

The Forest Park Rangers have found themselves ranked among the top IHSAA Class 2A schools in many of the seasons where they grasped and executed the simple concepts emphasized by Howard.

At a school of about 400, there are occasional downs mixed in with the ups. But Forest Park has won about two-thirds of games.

A member of the Pocket Athletic Conference (along with Gibson Southern, Heritage Hills, North Posey, Pike Central, South Spencer, Southridge, Tecumseh and Tell City), the Rangers and other PAC schools play each other once.

Forest Park competed in 2018 in the 2A Tell City Sectional (which also featured Evansville Mater Dei, North Posey, Perry Central, South Spencer plus host Tell City).

Schools in that field have made 11 state championship game appearances and won it all seven times — South Spencer 4, North Posey 2 and Mater Dei 1.

Forest Park has won four sectionals (1975, 1976, 1984 and 2002) and one regional (1976).

The 2018 squad went 10-11 and featured Trever Zink, who was team player of year, co-Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association district player of the year and participated in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in South Bend.

Senior Daniel Lusk earned a defensive and mental attitude awards. Freshman Gage Hasenour took the lowest earned run average/pitching award. Sophomore Gavin Knust gathered the hitting award for the highest batting average and was named most improved.

Zink and Lusk were all-PAC and Knust gained honorable mention all-conference.

The Rangers gave Howard his 300th career coaching victory April 30, 2018 against Evansville Bosse.

With proximity and Howard’s ties to Kentucky, Forest Park played some of its games against schools from the Bluegrass State.

Howard says it often makes scheduling easier than in Indiana since a statewide assigner matches umpires with games in Kentucky.

Being a smaller school, Forest Park relies on many multi-sport athletes. Baseball players are asked to get in their work when they can and the coaching staff, which also includes former Howard players Kyle Greulich, Brent Wendholt and Jesse Hagedorn plus volunteers Darren Weisheit and Andy Rohleder are all willing to help.

Greulich played at Oakland City University, pitching coach Wendholt at Vincennes University and then at the University of Southern Indiana, Weisheit at Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Ill. and Rohleder at the University of Evansville and in the Florida/Miami Marlins organization and with independent Gary Southshore RailCats.

“Our player development has been very good,” says Howard. “The summer time is a big deal. We do as much as we can.”

Howard has sent nearly 20 players on to college baseball. The most recent ones are Zink to Olney (Ill.) Central College and Eli Knust, who played at Vincennes University and is now at Huntington University.

Forest Park fields varsity and junior varsity teams with about 24 to 26 players in the program.

Both squads generally practice together.

“I want them to be able to understand what I’m doing,” says Howard. “I want them to get used to how I handle situations.”

Ranger Field, located on the school campus, sports Bermuda grass.

“Our playing surface is phenomenal — very fast,” says Howard, who reports that the program is looking into updating the backstop and adding visitor seating to get a chance at hosting a sectional or regional.

Feeding the high school program are the Forest Park Youth Sports. In this summer’s Indiana Little League tournaments, FPYS advanced its 10- and 11-year-old teams to the state semifinals while the 12-year-olds bowed out in the district finals. The latter group took the state title when they were 10.

There are seventh and eighth grade baseball teams at Forest Park in the spring.

“We’re excited about the next four or five years coming,” says Howard.

The 2018 Rangers had two seniors. On many days, there were as many as seven freshmen and sophomores in the lineup.

A 1993 McLean County (Ky.) High School graduate, Howard played for Rockport American Legion Post 254 then coaches John Hayes and T-Ray Fletcher at Oakland City. Howard was an assistant to Fletcher for two years before going to Forest Park.

The holder of a business education degrees with two masters (business management and school administration), Howard’s day job is as director of the Patoka Valley Career and Technical Cooperative. He has an office in Jasper, Ind., but spends much of his time on the road overseeing the 17 programs based at 10 high schools.

Jarred and Natalie Howard have three children — sons Drew and Reid and daughter Bree. Drew is heading into the ninth grade, Reid the seventh and Bree the second.

Both boys play for Ironmen Baseball travel organization.

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Forest Park Senior/Junior High School head baseball coach Jarred Howard (left) accepts a plaque commemorating his 300th career victory from Forest Park athletic director Doug Louden.

Educated at Anderson U., LaPorte grad Eaton is experiencing independent pro ball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Eaton thoroughly enjoyed his time on and off the baseball field at Anderson (Ind.) University.

Since his last game with the Ravens, the pitcher has been experiencing life as an independent professional player. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder left-handed pitcher is currently on the disabled list for the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things of the Frontier League.

“Faith has been a vital part of my baseball journey — in large part thanks to my development at Anderson University — and I feel fortunate that I am today in pro ball,” says Eaton, who completed his undergraduate accounting degree in 2015 and Masters of Business Administration with a focus on global business in 2016.

Eaton, a 2011 LaPorte High School graduate, pitched for Anderson in the spring of 2012 and 2013 and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in the fall of 2013, missing the 2014 spring season.

“It was from wear and tear,” says Eaton. “The ligament wasn’t torn. I had just put so much stress on it over the years, it wasn’t protecting the nerve anymore.

“I talked with a surgeon at Methodist Sports Medicine in Indianapolis. I wanted to continue playing baseball.”

Eaton was given the option of skipping the surgery and going through physical therapy with a chance of success at about 45 percent or getting the procedure with an expected 90 percent success rate.

“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” says Eaton, who came back to pitch for the Ravens in 2015 and 2016.

David Pressley was the head coach at AU for Eaton’s first four years at the school.

After Anderson won the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and qualified for NCAA Division III regional play in 2015, Pressley went back to his home state of Alabama to coach at powerhouse Madison Academy High School.

“I really grew as a person and player at Anderson,” says Eaton. “I learned to be role model for kids. (Presley) taught me how to be a better man and helped me develop my faith.”

Dustin Glant served as Ravens head coach in 2016 before becoming pitching coach at Ball State University.

“(Glant) helped me increase my velocity 6 mph in the (2015-16) off-season,” says Eaton. “I wouldn’t have stood a shot at pro ball if he wasn’t there for my last season at Anderson.”

In three college seasons, the southpaw appeared in 34 games (30 as a starter) with a 16-5 record, 3.21 earned run average, 161 strikeouts and 84 walks in 193 2/3 innings.

Spending much of his time for seven years studying, playing or working out around Anderson, Eaton also was employed part-time doing accounts payable and receivable for Reflectix, a stock reflective insulation manufacturer.

Eaton’s pro path has included stops with the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats of the American Association and Tucson (Ariz.) Saguaros in the Pecos League in 2016 and the AA’s Salina (Kan.) Stockade (which played all its games on the road) and Washington in 2017. He signed with the Wild Things in July, made 12 appearances (all in relief) with 1-0 record, one save, 2.21 ERA, 23 K’s and seven free passes in 20 innings and was re-signed in October for the 2018 season.

An ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain near the same area where he had Tommy John surgery has kept Eaton out of action so far this season. He got a Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injection and is back in LaPorte, where is working out and going through exercises to improve his wrist grip and forearm strength.

“I’m working on my core, cardio or legs — or a mix of them,” says Eaton of his regular gym sessions. Just this past week, he began doing light biceps and shoulder work.

It’s all about building strength back up around his left elbow.

Eaton says he expects to begin throwing again around July 2 and report back to the Wild Things a week after that, though the “diehard Indianapolis Colts fan” did plan to be in Washington to see former NFL Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee play for the Things at It’s All About the Warrior Field at ConSol Energy Park.

Eaton has been following the team’s game on video streaming.

Four pitches are in Eaton’s arsenal — four-seam fastball (he does work on a two-seamer during bullpen sessions), curveball, slider and “circle” change-up from the three-quarter overhand arm slot. He was consistently clocked at 86 to 89 mph on his heater while touching 90 a few times last season.

“As a left-hander, I can get away with a lot more than a righty would,” says Eaton.

But he has learned that there is a drastic difference between facing D-III and professional hitters.

“You have to use a lot more off-speed going into pro ball,” says Eaton. “Sometimes, you can blow it by them in D-III ball. (Pro) hitters a lot better at adjusting.

“They are good at picking up on your mechanics. That’s like smelling blood in the water for the hitter. They see it’s going to be a off-speed pitch and sit back on it.”

At LaPorte High School, Eaton was part of the Scott Upp-coached Slicers varsity for his junior and senior seasons. In 2010, he was 1-0, 1.05 and 20 strikeouts and six walks in 13 1/3 innings for a 27-4 team.

Eaton was 4-3, 4.16, 34 strikeouts and 14 walks in 38 2/3 innings for a 20-10-1 club in his senior season of 2011.

Upp is credited for teaching Eaton about always having an aggressive approach to the game.

“You can’t go in with a soft approach,” says Eaton. “You have to attack everyone.”

One thing Eaton appreciates about the Wild Things is that they are not as likely to swiftly cut someone after a few sub-par performances or for the promise of a better player.

“They stick by you and trust you and give you a sense of security,” says Eaton. “As long as you do everything to your full potential.

“That’s why we usually have such a good clubhouse. Guys can get close and don’t have to worry about leaving the next day.”

Eaton doesn’t mind the distance from home with the way he is treated.

“It’s well worth it playing for a classy organization like Washington,” says Eaton, who grew up in LaPorte and played in the local Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth baseball leagues, beginning at age 11.

His summer travel baseball experience included the Indiana Breakers in 2010 and Plymouth American Legion Post 27 in 2011.

Summers during his college days, were spent working a job and working out.

Eaton counts work ethic as his best quality as an athlete.

“I’ve always got a focus and a plan going into my workout or my day,” says Eaton. “I know what I need to do to get better.”

Jake is the son of Steve Eaton and Terri Wainscott and has a older half sister named Nikki.

His father is a retired from more than 40 years as a bricklayer.

“I mixed a lot of mortar for him over the years,” says Jake of projects around the house.

His mother is a registered nurse.

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Jake Eaton, a LaPorte High School graduate who holds undergraduate and masters degrees from Anderson (Ind.) University, is in independent pro baseball with the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things. (Washington Wild Things Photo)

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)

Former Northview, Indiana State standout Shoemaker displays desire to win with St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brady Shoemaker has a competitive fire. The Brazil, Ind., resident wants to come out on top on the baseball diamond.

The 31-year-old is currently feeding those flames in his second season as a first baseman with the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints of the independent American Association.

After being released by the Chicago White Sox organization in 2016, Shoemaker signed with St. Paul in February 2017.

The right-handed stick finished second in the AA in slugging percentage (.603) and on-base percentage (.435), tied for second in extra-base hits (44), tied for third in home runs (21), tied for fifth in walks (55) and eighth in average (.318).

Shoemaker opted to re-sign with the Saints for 2018.

“To me, independent baseball is more about baseball,” says Shoemaker. “It’s not so much about getting guys ready for the game. They want to win in this league. (St. Paul manager) George (Tsamis) is big about putting nine guys not the field who want to win.

“In (affiliated) minor league baseball, you have prospects and guys have to play. It’s not like that here. You’ve got to show up everyday wanting to win. And if you’re not one of those guys, you find yourself sitting on the bench.”

Shoemaker graduated from Northview High School in Brazil in 2005, played two seasons at Olney (Ill.) Central College (2006 and 2007) and two at Indiana State University (2008 and 2009).

He smacked 23 home runs and had 80 in pro ball leading into 2018.

Not that he goes to the plate thinking about hitting the ball over the fence.

“I’ve never, ever went up there trying to hit a home run,” says Shoemaker. “I just try to stay inside the baseball and drive it. If you hit it hard somewhere, good things will happen.”

Shoemaker’s earliest baseball days came in Clay Youth League. From ages 12 to 14, he played for the Wabash Valley Titans travel team

“That’s where I really started to learn a lot about baseball,” says Shoemaker. “We played really good competition. That helped boost me going into high school.”

At Northview High, Gary Witham was his head coach. Witham went 581-274-1 at Brazil and then the consolidated Northview.

“Coach Witham did a lot with us in the off-season,” says Shoemaker. “He was good in organizing off-season practices. He put together a place where some us could go hit.”

After graduation, Shoemaker played two summers for Terre Haute American Legion Post 346 and longtime manager John Hayes.

In 2006, Post 346 was American Legion World Series runners-up. Future major league catcher Josh Phegley was also on that squad.

Dennis Conley was Shoemaker’s head coach at Olney Central, where the player was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American.

“He was tough on us and made us work hard,” says Shoemaker of Conley. “You learned a lot about the game of baseball if you just listened to him.

“He was very instrumental with helping me further my baseball career.”

What Shoemaker remembers most from his time at Indiana State was how head coach Lindsay Meggs and his staff helped him make the transition to big-time baseball and the brotherhood of the players.

“Going from junior college to Division I baseball is a jump,” says Shoemaker, who was used mostly as a left fielder with the Sycamores. “During my time at Indiana State, we had a really close group of guys. We wanted to win together as a team.”

Shoemaker selected in the 19th round of the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the White Sox.

He hit safely in the first 28 games of his pro career in 2009.

“I was a 19th-round guy and a senior sign,” says Shoemaker. “I’ve always had to prove myself and wanted to prove myself. So I wanted to get off to a good start.”

At Bristol, Shoemaker led the Appalachian League in doubles (21), on-base percentage (.426), extra-base hits (30) and ranked second in slugging percentage (.585), third in average (.351) and total bases (120) and fourth in home runs per at-bat with 1 out of every 22.78. He was chosen as a Postseason All-Star in the Appy League in 2009.

In 2010, he spent the entire season at Single-A Kannapolis.

Shoemaker was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star in 2011 while finishing second in the South Atlantic League in average (.319) and fifth in on-base percentage (.399) and was promoted to High-A Winston-Salem in July.

In 2012, he went 2-for-4 in the Carolina League-Cailfornia League All-Star Game and was Carolina League Postseason All-Star and Orgainzational All-Star.

The right-handed thrower missed all of 2013 after surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder and biceps and was claimed by the Miami Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft in December

“It was more of over-usage tear,” says Shoemaker. “It wasn’t something that drastically happened.”

He spent the entire 2014 season with Double-A Jacksonville and was with Triple-A New Orleans all of 2015.

Shoemaker got into major league spring training games with the Marlins in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

After playing a combined 55 games at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, the Marlins traded Shoemaker back to the White Sox July. He spent few games at Double-A Birmingham and was released by that organization in August 2016.

Some after that, his independent baseball experience began.

Supporting him along the way are the people at home in Clay County.

“I’m real close to my family,” says Brady, the son of Brian and Lorie Shoemaker, brother of Natalie (Shoemaker) Lizanich, husband to Chelsea Shoemaker and father to 9-month-old son Drew Shoemaker. “I always have been.

“My grandparents have been a big part of my baseball career.”

Ed Pearce, his grandfather on his mother’s side, passed away April 20 as Brady was getting ready for the season. Grandmother Janet Pearce survives.

Both grandparents on his father’s side — Don and Nina Shoemaker — are gone. Grandmother Nina did in 2014.

Saint Paul (5-1) opened the season at the Gary SouthShore RailCats. The Saints, which are in the AA’s North Division, are scheduled to come back to Gary July 20-22 and visit the Chicago Dogs in Rosemont, Ill., June 15-17 and Aug. 23-25.

BRADYSHOEMAKERSTPAUL

Brady Shoemaker, a 2005 Northview High School graduate who played at Olney Central College, Indiana State University and in the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins organizations, is in his second season with the independent St. Paul Saints in 2018. (Saint Paul Saints Photo)

 

Former Homestead, IPFW pitcher Weaver briefly with Gary, goes back to Florence

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Chuck Weaver went undrafted by Major League Baseball at the close of his college career.

But the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher did not let that keep him from becoming a professional.

Weaver, who toed the rubber for Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Taylor University in Upland, Ind., Vincennes University and Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, earned his first paycheck for pitching with the Florence (Ky.) Freedom in the independent Frontier League in 2013. He was an FL All-Star in 2014.

Appearing in 49 games (45 as a starter) with 17 victories, he was with Florence until August of 2015.

That’s when he signed with the Miami Marlins organization and hurled 22 innings with 19 strikeouts and three walks with short-season Batavia.

In 2016, Weaver went 9-5 with Low Class-A Greensboro. He fanned 72 and walked just 10 in 83 innings. His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) was 1.04.

But he also hurt his elbow. Weaver underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery Oct. 25, 2016 and missed the entire 2017 season.

Weaver worked hard on getting back. He went to 2018 spring training with the Marlins only to be released a few weeks later.

He had played at Homestead for coach Steve Sotir with one season each at Taylor for Kyle Gould and at Vincennes for Chris Barney and two at IPFW for Bobby Pierce.

After his released, the Fort Wayne head coach welcomed Weaver to practice when he asked to throw to Mastodons catchers.

“I still stay in touch with Bobby all the time,” says Weaver of Pierce. “He’s a great guy.”

Florence still held Weaver’s contract and could have returned to the Freedom, but wanted to try his luck in the independent American Association.

“I’m a big family guy,” says Weaver, 27. “I wanted my mom to come watch and support. I feel like this is the best fit of all the teams in the American Association.”

Chuck’s mother and stepfather — Susan Abbott and Rod Abbott — as well as stepbrothers — Ryan Abbott and Ray Abbott — are all in the Fort Wayne area. They’re about 150 miles from Gary.

So Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey, who coached four seasons for Gary SouthShore RailCats manager Greg Tagert, recommended Weaver to the AA club based in northwest Indiana.

Weaver made his first start for Gary — a no-decision — Sunday, May 20 at U.S. Steel Yard.

He goes to the mound with a fastball, change-up and slider.

The majority of his fastballs are of the two-seam variety. However, he does have a four-seamer.

When he was making his way back from surgery with the Marlins, Weaver was reunited with former Florence pitching coach Chad Rhoades.

Rhoades, who pitched for Gary in 2012, coached pitchers at short-season Batavia in 2016 and later served as Marlins rehab pitching coordinator. In the latter role, he helped Weaver add a four-seam heater to his repertoire.

On May 31, the RailCats announced they had traded Weaver to Florence.

Like the majority of players in independent baseball, Weaver is looking to showcase himself for MLB-affiliated teams.

He explained the dynamic.

“You see more of a drive for the game and more desire to play (in indy ball),” says Weaver. “In affiliated, I feel a lot of the guys took it serious but not as serious as the guys here.

“It was more individualized in affiliated and it’s more (team-oriented) here. People are helping each other.”

While developing in an affiliated system, players may spend a lot of time working on one particular element of their game and teams are not focused as much on winning as getting the player up the chain toward the big league team.

“Guys would go out there and throw only fastballs because they had to work on fastball command,” says Weaver of affiliated ball. “Here, you’re trying to get that shot. You want to showcase all your stuff.

What does Weaver see as his strengths?

“I’m a real hard worker,” says Weaver. “I wasn’t drafted, but I felt like a pushed my way (to affiliated baseball). I have to continue to push myself.

“Even if I’m tired after a long bus ride, I have to take it serious and get my work in. I can’t be lazy about it.

“It’s my job.”

CHUCKWEAVERRAILCATS

Chuck Weaver, a Homestead High School graduate who also pitched for Taylor University, Vincennes University, Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and in the Miami Marlins organization among others, is now with the Gary SouthShore RailCats. (Gary SouthShore RailCats Photo)

 

Segal’s baseball path lands him with Otters, Brittton’s Bullpen in southern Indiana

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The baseball journey of Bobby Segal has taken the Indianapolis native all over the Midwest and beyond and he has gained something at each stop.

The hitting coach for the Evansville Otters of the independent professional Frontier League and an instructor at Britton’s Bullpen in Boonville, Ind., credits father Elliott Segal and grandfather Al Segal for his “love of the game.”

“My dad and grandpa instilled it in me at a young age,” says Bobby, who started out at Westlane Trails Little League and played on an Indiana state Babe Ruth championship team at age 13 before playing travel baseball for the Chris Estep-coached Indiana Mustangs. “They were never overbearing about it. I got constructive criticism at a young age.”

Bobby’s grandfather had played at Indiana University and his father played at Broad Ripple High School, where he later coached, taught and served as assistant athletic director.

Elliott Segal, husband to Carol, is a long-time scoreboard operator for the Indiana Pacers and Bobby spent his childhood at Market Square Arena (since replaced by Bankers Life Fieldhouse).

Bobby played baseball at North Central High School in Indianapolis for coach Rick Shadiow and served his last three prep years (2000, 2001 and 2002) as batboy and then two years on the grounds crew for the Indianapolis Indians.

“I enjoyed the relationship of running the balls to the umpires and going to their locker room before the game,” says Segal of his batboy duties. “I did whatever I could to make their jobs easier. I enjoyed being around the game and getting to know some of the players. I got see those guys move up (to the big leagues).

“I can’t think of a better job for a high school kid.”

He also took pride in taking care of Victory Field.

“That’s a big league playing surface — no doubt about it,” says Segal. “That’s why a lot of people enjoy playing there.”

Segal was a walk-on catcher at Indiana University, playing three seasons for Bob Morgan and one for Tracy Smith.

Many lessons were learned at IU.

“I learned about punctuality, how to present yourself and being unified as a team,” says Segal. “The game speeds up at each level.”

He recalls vividly a defensive drill run by Morgan that employed two fungo bats and had three baseballs in motion at one time

“If you weren’t paying attention, you were bound to get a ball whizzing past your head,” says Segal. “His practices very regimented. (Morgan) is one of the most passionate guys I’ve been around. He loves the game so much. He wanted his players to be disciplined.

“I have a lot of respect for him. He gave me a chance to play college baseball.”

Right out of IU, where he received a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing/management, he joined the Cincinnati Reds organization in baseball operations, spending time at spring training as well as the minors and in Cincinnati.

Segal then became a graduate assistant coach at Union (Ky.) College, where he worked for Bulldogs head coach Bart Osborne.

In Osborne, he found a kindred spirit and mentor.

“Bart and I very similar,” says Segal. “He is a planner. Whether there was a practice or a game, I’ve never been around anybody who was more competitive than he was.

“I learned a lot of great things from him on the baseball side and the planning side.

“Bart has a great baseball mind.”

After two springs at Union, Segal served one season each as a volunteer assistant to Steve Farley at Butler University in Indianapolis, assistant to Marc Rardin at Iowa Western Community College and assistant to Bryan Conger at Tarleton State University in Texas.

The Reivers of Iowa Western won National Junior College Athletic Association Division I World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and qualifying during Segal’s season in Council Bluffs (2011).

Segal was also recruiting director at Tarleton State and left the Texans for a four-season stint as hitting and catching coach/recruiting director to Rob Fournier at Wabash Valley College in Illinois.

During the summers, Segal got more diamond know-how as hitting coach and interim manager for the North Adams (Mass.) SteepleCats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League in 2010, hitting coach for the Brian Dorsett-managed Terre Haute Rex of the summer collegiate Prospect League in 2012, third base/hitting coach for the Greg Tagert-managed Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent professional American Association in 2013 then returned for two seasons as manager of the Terre Haute Rex.

Gary won the AA championship when Segal was on the staff.

“It was a veteran clubhouse,” says Segal. “I was around guys with Double-A and Triple-A time. We had chemistry and experience for the entire summer. It is one of the best experiences I ever had.”

The 2015 Rex won a frachise-record 43 games and the Prospect League title.

“A lot of guys that bought into what we were trying to do,” says Segal. “I was trying to give them a pro experience at the collegiate level.

“They got a taste of it and a lot of team chemistry. We completed the mission at the end of 2015.”

Hired by manager Andy McCauley, Segal spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with Evansville and will be back with the Otters in 2018.

Meanwhile, Segal is teaching the game to younger players. He enjoys working with both amateurs and pros.

“I love to see the light bulbs turn on for the young kids,” says Segal. “I encourage them to do a more athletic movement and then we see the ball jump off their bat or go in their mitt and get a good exchange.”

Looking to give a well-rounded experience, he spends the first half of a lesson on things like base running and defense and the second half on hitting.

“We’re doing all facets of the game in one trip to Britton’s Bullpen,” says Segal.

At the pro level, it’s about batting cage work and developing daily routines.

“I love the uniqueness of the routines and the camaraderie I can build with the professional guys,” says Segal. “It’s all about competing when the lights come on (at game time).”

In his one-hour sessions with younger players, he helps them make small adjustments and keeps the mood light.

He avoids the major overhaul with his pro hitters.

“I see them a little over four months of the year,” says Segal. “Most of them have hitting coaches back home or wherever they’re at. I’m preaching routines and game-time approach

“I’m trying to give them as much information from a mental approach side of things.”

Matt Segal, Bobby’s older brother, is a former media relations worker for the Indianapolis Indians and sports information director at Morehead State University. He was with the National Football League’s Rams before they moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles and is now digital content manager for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

Matt’s wife, Jenifer Langosch, covers the St. Louis Cardinals for MLB.com.

Bobby and Rachel (Harvey) Segal reside in Fort Branch with their two children — son Asher (2 1/2) and daughter Lillian (almost 6 months).

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Bobby Segal, an Indianapolis native, is entering his third season as hitting coach of the Evansville Otters in 2018. He is also an instructor at Britton’s Bullpen in Boonville, Ind. (Evansville Otters Photo)