Tag Archives: Greg Maddux

Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

1200px-Purdue_Fort_Wayne_Mastodons_logo.svg

Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

Grant_Birely

Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

GRANTBIRELY

Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

Hall of Famer Hawkins talks about pitching ‘carrousel’, ‘ferris wheel,’ camaraderie

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

LaTroy Hawkins began his professional baseball playing career at 18 and wrapped it up at 42.

The 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate pitched 21 seasons in the big leagues, racking up 1,463 innings in 1,042 games.

There’s just no telling how many baseballs the 6-foot-5 right-hander might have thrown.

On the same day Hawkins became the 189th inductee into the Indiana High School Baseball Association Hall of Fame he talked to 2018 IHSBCA State Clinic attendees about pitching and more.

When Hawkins was selected in the seventh round of the 1991 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins and made his MLB debut in 1995, he was a rare commodity — an Indiana-born big leaguer.

There are many now.

“Baseball has definitely taken a step in the right direction in our state,” says Hawkins, who retired as a player after the 2015 season and now works with the pitchers in the Twins minor league system. “It’s because of (coaches) helping guys get better and pushing them to the next level.”

As a player, Hawkins worked out often to stay in shape. He kept his arm and shoulder sound by doing his “Jobe exercises” (arm raises and rotations with light weights of no more than five pounds) after he threw and then applied ice.

He never did any band work and only a little bit with a weighted ball.

While techniques have changed, Hawkins credits the industry for getting smarter about how to keep arms fit.

“At the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do — keep pitchers healthy,” says Hawkins. “When they’re around, they’re productive. When they’re sitting around in the clubhouse or the trainer’s room like I was my last two years in the big leagues, they’re not helping anybody.”

Hawkins had to have labrum surgery in 2010.

“I had two suchers put in my shoulder,” says Hawkins. “I didn’t think I’d ever pitch again. There’s a lot of guys who don’t come back from shoulder surgery.

“You’ve got to take care of your shoulder. The shoulder is much more complicated (than the elbow).”

Hawkins stresses the importance of pitching mechanics.

“The key is to have strong foundation,” says Hawkins. “Stand tall on that back leg. I still want you to have a slight bend in your knee so you can have something to push off with.

“Anything you do in sports, you want to be in an athletic position.”

Hawkins also saw value in having some rhythm to his mechanics.

“Everything is about timing and being in rhythm,” says Hawkins. “If you can dance, you can pitch.”

When his front leg went up, the ball was already coming out of his glove. If he held the ball too long it threw off his timing.

Hawkins sees so many pitchers today who want to tuck their glove under their lead arm during their delivery.

This tends to get the body going into a “carrousel” motion.

“You can’t pitch like that,” says Hawkins. “You’re fighting yourself all the time. You’re opening up way too soon

“I was always taught to be on the ‘ferris wheel’ (with the motion going toward the plate).”

To be able to repeat his delivery and stay relaxed, Hawkins kept his motion as simple as possible.

“I wanted to make it like I was playing catch,” says Hawkins. “I wanted to make it look like I didn’t have a care in the world — like it was second nature to me.”

He recalls learning from current 6-foot-10 Twins right-hander Aaron Slegers that he was taught at Indiana University to keep his motion compact as if he was throwing inside a phone booth (for those who know what one of those is).

With his height it is best for Slegers streamline his moving parts.

But it’s not a cookie-cutter world and Hawkins knows his way of thinking is not for everybody.

“Some are going to max effort guys,” says Hawkins. “I get that. But, at the end of the day, when I tried to throw hard I threw softer.

“When I was in my most relaxed state, that’s when i threw my hardest fastball. I’ve been trying to explain that to kids. They think if you muscle up, you’re going to throw hard. That’s not true. It’s not always about brute strength.”

While most hurlers stand on the same spot, Hawkins was known to move around on the pitching rubber looking for an advantage.

“I stood all over the mound,” says Hawkins. “It depended on who was hitting. If I’ve got a right-handed hitter, I’d stand on the third base side (of the rubber). I wanted a right-handed hitter to feel like I was on top of them.”

The hitter had to pick up a release point that was behind him and they had less time to see a fastball.

“It makes a huge difference,” says Hawkins. “I knew I could control my body and command my fastball so moving a few inches didn’t bother me.”

Hawkins learned these lessons over time. While he threw fastballs on more than 70 percent of his pitches, he also came to appreciate the change-up.

“The change-up is the best pitch in baseball,” says Hawkins. “Now everything is about velocity.

“We can’t throw the ball past guys anymore. Guys are seeing 100 mph everyday. They see it on the amateur level, in college, in he minor leagues. When you’re sitting on 100, you cannot hit (a good change-up).”

But an effective change is tough to develop. A pitcher must throw it all the time.

“I didn’t have a change-up my first 12 years in the big leagues,” says Hawkins. “But I knew one thing: If I didn’t work on it, I was going to be out of the game sooner than I wanted to.

“My last five years, I probably threw 100 change-ups to right-handed hitters.”

The idea is to deliver every pitch so it looks the same. When they were teammates with the Chicago Cubs in 2005, Hawkins remembers watching Hall of Famer-to-be Greg Maddux throw in the bullpen.

Maddux would use his peripheral vision to see that his release point was consistent.

With the change-up, it’s about selling it.

“You want your arm speed to look like your fastball,” says Hawkins. “You let the grip take away the miles per hour.”

At the beginning of his career, Hawkins threw daily and was amazed when he learned that Cubs teammate Mike Remlinger would take days off.

“He told me to save your bullets for the game,” says Hawkins of the left-hander who went on to log 14 MLB seasons. “I started doing that. It gave me life.

In 2017, the Twins acquired former Hawkins teammate Matt Belisle — someone who used to insist on throwing each day. Hawkins met up with him at the park.

Belisle: “Hawk, I’m saving my bullets.”

Hawkins: “Good, that’s why you’re still pitching.”

“You don’t have to throw everyday,” says Hawkins. “You won’t forget how.”

One thing that Hawkins wishes today’s players would not forget is their relationships with their teammates — the all-important cameraderie.

Even now, when former Twins players likes Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie come around home clubhouse at Target Field, they are cutting up with Hawkins and get stares from current players.

Hawkins knows what they’re thinking: “They’re so loud. What’s wrong with them?”

He recalls the fun of being around these guys day after day for months at a time.

“We didn’t have cell phones and iPads and stuff,” says Hawkins. “We had to talk to each other. We got a chance to know each other.”

When LaTroy and Anita Hawkins’ teenage daughter, Troi, has friends over to the house, LaTroy gathers all the cellphones so the teens can enjoy one another’s company.

If parents need to contact their child, they are to child LaTroy’s phone.

When Hawkins was with the Twins, teammates knew the names of each other’s children. They were in each other’s weddings. They went out to dinner together.

“We were friends,” says Hawkins. “It’s not like that now. When you’re with your teammates, you enjoy your teammates. You have to bond with your teammates. You have to know this guy has my back and I’ve got his back. We’re all pulling on the same rope.

“It’s all me, me, me. There’s no team mentality anymore and that’s killing baseball.”

LaTroy Hawkins #32 of the MinnesotaTwins

LaTroy Hawkins, a 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate, delivers a pitch for the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins pitched 21 years in the big leagues and was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018. (Minnesota Twins Photo)

 

Pierce puts long-term plan in place for D-I Fort Wayne Mastodons

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Going from a squad full of veterans and experiencing NCAA Division I baseball success in 2016, the Mastodons of Fort Wayne had much less college experience and suffered growing pains in 2017.

With a new focus, Fort Wayne is looking to get things turned around in 2018 under the guidance of 10th-year head coach Bobby Pierce.

“We wore it last year,” says Pierce, who saw the Mastodons go 9-43 after losing 14 impact players — senior shortstop Greg Kaiser, senior outfielder Brandon Soat and and drafted sophomore pitcher Evan Miller among them — from a 33-26 campaign in ’16 that included a second straight trip to the Summit League tournament finals. “(Junior college) guys made the (2016) team as good as it could be. Freshmen (in 2017) need to learned how to play here and do damage on the Division I level.

“But we like to think over the next three or four years, that was worth it. Strategically, it’s the right move to get where we want to get. We have to think more long-term. Up until this time, we were using a steady mix of high school and junior college guys and it was holding us back a little bit.”

Fort Wayne just wrapped annual fall workouts with the Blue-Black intrasquad series with teams captained by sophomore infielder Travis Upp and junior pitcher Damian Helm on one side and junior infielder Brandon Yoho and senior pitcher Brandon Phelps on the other.

“We got after it somewhere in the middle of September,” says Pierce. “We’ve been grinding it out until this (past) weekend.”

Pierce, assistants Grant Birely and Connor Lawhead and the Dons will continue work in preparation for the 2018 campaign.

As he goes forward, Pierce has the longest tenure as head coach in program history. Previous coach Billy Gernon (now at Western Michigan University) was also in charge for nine seasons.

Pierce, who turned 39 on Oct. 17, came to Fort Wayne with lessons learned as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

A Las Vegas native, Pierce played for Rodger Fairless at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. Fairless coached 12 state championship teams at three Nevada schools. He helped develop Greg Maddux before going to Green Valley and turning that school into a diamond powerhouse. With the Gators, he produced a state champion in the program’s third season. Two Green Valley players — Chad Hermansen and Dave Krynzel — went on to the big leagues.

Pierce, a middle infielder, played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Central Arizona College and New Mexico State University.

Clint Myers was Pierce’s head coach at Central Arizona. National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association Hall of Famer Myers won more than 1,000 games as a baseball and softball coach with a number of national titles to his credit.

At New Mexico State, Pierce played for National College Baseball Hall of Famer Gary Ward and his son, Rocky Ward.

“I’m very fortunate to come from a very good pedigree of coaches,” says Pierce. “(Fairless) was super disciplinarian and fundamental coach and that was a great start for me. I got indoctrinated in it during my high school career. (Myers) taught me a team management perspective.”

Through structured live play drills in practice, Pierce is able to grow a player’s intelligence in playing the game — something he gained from Myers.

Pierce considers Gary Ward one of the best offensive-minded coaches of all-time and styles his Fort Wayne offense based in the Hall of Famer’s philosophy.

After he was done playing (he developed a labrum injury at New Mexico State), Pierce had planned to become an accountant in Albuquerque.

But fate intervened — hiring was curtailed after Sept. 11, 2001 and he was asked to go back to college for more schooling.

Pierce instead pursued coaching, first serving as an assistant at Central Arizona then the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (where he pulled his first tarp) before becoming head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver for two seasons before becoming head coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne for the 2009 season.

“The early years were hard. I was cutting my teeth,” says Pierce. “But you have to cut your teeth and learn your craft somehow.”

Pierce explains why he has stayed longer in the position than anyone else.

“It speaks to the people I work with and the community,” says Pierce. “The city of Fort Wayne is great. My family (Bobby and Lizette Pierce have two children — Bobby Jr., and Daycee) has grown roots and really love it here.

“I’ve been very fortunate to coach some student-athletes and been around great people. I love this job and I love baseball.”

Fort Wayne pulls many players from northern Indiana and the Indianapolis area, but is able to draw from outside of the state with the school’s policy of out-of-state students paying 150 percent of what in-staters pay.

“Before, we couldn’t afford out-of-state players,” says Pierce. “Their dollar goes further now. Indiana residents are still cheaper on our books. We target Indiana kids. We still like home cooking. We try to turn rocks up here.”

NCAA Division I allows 11.7 scholarships for baseball. Pierce says that of the 35 players on the roster, 27 of them can be on scholarship and those are broken up based on a number of factors, including performance and need.

“There is no such thing as a full-ride,” says Pierce.

Like most programs, most money goes to pitchers and then to the interior of the defense (catcher, shortstop, center field).

“We think we can do a good job of developing hitters,” says Pierce. “We spend the majority of our money in pitching.”

Balance must also be considered.

“Like pro baseball, if you overspend in one area, you are going to be light in another area,” says Pierce. “It becomes a numbers game.”

Pierce is proud to say that the Mastodons have performed well in the classroom with three straight years of 3.0 or higher (on a 4.0 scale) as a team grade-point average. All players are encouraged to graduate in four years and take 15 hours in both the fall and spring semesters.

To help them meet their scholarly goals, schedules are made to limit the amount of missed class time. There is an academic advisor, study halls and the resources of the Mastodon Academic Performance Center.

“I’ve proctored exams,” says Pierce. “Professors on our campus are willing to work with us. We’ve got it figured out.”

Being in the Summit League with Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota, South Dakota State and Western Illinois, there is plenty of travel.

But it’s not like the first few years of NCAA Division I status as an independent. That’s when Fort Wayne was on the road for all but a handful of its 56 regular-season games away from Mastodon Field. Having no conference ties meant a berth in the NCAA tournament was virtually impossible.

One former Don player is seeing the world while still playing the game. Caleb Fenimore, a senior catcher on the 2014 team, was recently named the top hitter in the North in the German Professional League. The Rushville Consolidated High School graduate has played in Germany in the summer and Australia in the winter.

BOBBYPIERCE

Bobby Pierce is entering his 10th season at head coach of Fort Wayne Mastodons baseball in 2018. The NCAA Division I program is a member of the Summit League. (Fort Wayne Mastodons Photo)