Tag Archives: Harry Caray

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

RBILOGOSMALL copy

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.

TOMNICHOLS2

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)

TOMNICHOLS1

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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Combs brings intensity, love for the game to Decatur Central baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jason Combs brought passion to the Decatur Central High School Hawks as a player and he’s still bringing it as he goes into his seventh season as head baseball coach in 2018.

Combs earned eight letters at DC in football, basketball and baseball. His head baseball coach was Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Phil Webster.

“I loved him from the get-go,” says Combs of the fiery leader. “Webby is the best one I’ve been around as far as taking a player and developing him. I matched him beat for beat in intensity.

“He had this attention to detail and got me understanding the game.”

Combs was part of a 2000 squad that won Conference Indiana, sectional and Marion County championships.

Webster, who would see his Hawks win an IHSAA Class 4A state championship in 2008, put Combs in center field and used the right-hander as a No. 3 pitcher behind 2001 IHSBCA All-Star John Tolson and Matt Elder.

“In all the years I played and have coached, Tolson’s still the nastiest curve ball I’ve ever seen,” says Combs.

A decade after playing for him, Combs joined Webster as his varsity assistant and followed him as DC head coach in 2012. The two still talk regularly and Combs leads his program at Phil Webster Baseball Complex — aka “The Web.”

Combs graduated from Decatur Central in 2001 and played four seasons for head coach Steve Farley at Butler University, receiving a secondary education degree in 2005.

Farley used Combs in the outfield with a few games on the mound and taught many off-field lessons.

“There’s more to being a baseball player than playing baseball,” says Combs. “There being a good human being and a good student.”

Farley pointed his players toward community service opportunities and got them to work youth camps.

Combs also learned to curb his on-field temper.

“I learned to control my emotions, which was always a problem with me,” says Combs. “If I slam down my helmet, I’ll find someone else standing at my position.

“I saw that it’s not all about me. It’s about the team.”

Not that he figured out all his coach was telling him right away.

“When I was playing for him, I was not smart enough to realize how good of a coach he was,” says Combs. “A couple years later, when I became a coach, I figured out Coach Farley was right.”

Combs and Farley stay in touch and he had his former Butler boss address his DC team last season.

Doing his student teaching at Westfield High School, Combs was invited by Shamrocks head baseball coach Ryan Bunnell to join his staff and he wound up serving three seasons as junior varsity head coach and two as varsity assistant. He was there when Westfield, featuring current MLB catcher Kevin Plawecki, finished as 2009 IHSAA state runners-up.

“(Bunnell) taught me the ins and outs and logistics of being a head coach,” says Combs.

If it were possible, Combs would like to see every player get a chance to be a coach. By explaining the game to others, it will help their own understanding of baseball.

Jason’s baseball passion was first stoked by his father, Steve Combs. The retired fireman was a fixture at Carnine Little League in Rhodius Park on the near west side of Indianapolis and did everything from coaching to cutting grass.

It’s in that atmosphere that Combs developed into a fierce competitor.

“We had people who taught us how to compete,” says Combs. “It was grown-men baseball at 10 and 11 years old. You had to fight and not give up no matter what.

“I still embrace that today.”

Donna Combs was also supportive of Jason’s athletic exploits.

“She was a loving, caring, awesome woman,” says Jason of the mother who passed away in February 2017.

Jason’s older brother Josh graduated from Washington High School in Indianapolis in 1995. When Jason was in the eighth grade, the family moved into the Decatur Central district.

Along the way, the youngest Combs gained an affinity for the history of the game.

“You respect what happened before you,” says Combs, who teaches social studies at DCHS. “You know it, learn it and love it.”

He received baseball books as gifts while growing up.

He came home from school and watched Chicago Cubs games on TV and heard famed announcer Harry Caray telling stories about the game’s past.

Combs has watched Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary series numerous times.

His favorite player was a tall shortstop named Cal Ripken Jr.

Decatur Central is part of the Mid-State Conference (along with Franklin Community, Greenwood, Martinsville, Mooresville, Plainfield and Whiteland). Next year, Perry Meridian is to join the circuit.

“It’s a really good baseball conference,” says Combs. “It’s always been pretty even. It’s competitive and it will be again this year.”

MSC games are played in a Tuesday and Wednesday home-and-home series.

“You’ve got to prove it,” says Combs. “You can’t have one guy who can (pitch every conference game). You’ve got to have a team.”

There has been discussion in going to Friday night doubleheaders like the Hoosier Heritage Conference.

“I like the way we do it,” says Combs.

There are 35 players in the program this spring for varsity and junior varsity games. The coaching staff features Alan Curry (pitching coach), Ben Ferrell and Jeff McKeon with the varsity and Brandon Curry (Alan’s son) and Brayton Lake with the JV. Curry joined Combs in his second season as DC head coach and Ferrell in his third. McKeon was head coach at Plainfield High School and head coach of the South squad at the IHSBCA North/South All-Stars in Muncie last summer.

Recent Decatur Central graduate Jack Wohlert is a pitcher for Indiana University Southeast. Current seniors Bradley Brehmer (Wright State University) and Alex Mitchell (Indiana Tech) have made commitments and Austin Mitchell (twin brother of Alex) and Devin Gross are among those Combs expects to play college baseball.

The Hawks are scheduled to open the season with three games at historic Bosse Field in Evansville against Evansville Reitz, Evansville North and Indian Creek. Other 2018 non-conference opponents include Beech Grove, Ben Davis, Franklin Central, Homestead, Perry Meridian, Roncalli, Southport, Speedway and Warren Central.

Decatur Central plays in a Class 4A sectional group with Ben Davis, Perry Meridian, Pike, Roncalli and Southport. The host rotation lands on Ben Davis this year.

Phil Webster is helping son and Pike head coach Todd Webster  this spring.

The Hawks last won the sectional in 2015 and the games were played at Decatur Central.

“I like to play a tough schedule,” says Combs. “You’ve got to get ready (for the IHSAA tournament) somehow. You’ve got to see what you’ve got.”

Located less than 10 miles apart, Decatur Central and Mooresville are backyard rivals.

Thanks to Webster and current Pioneers head coach Eric McGaha, the two baseball programs play each spring for the “Battle of 67” trophy.

The school that holds the trophy — currently Decatur Central — must be beaten on their own field to have it taken away. That means the “trophy” game in 2018 will come when Mooresville visits DC.

Mooresville is heading into its second season with artificial turf, causing many in the Decatur Central community to ask, “Are we next?”

Combs knows of no immediate plans for that kind of investment.

The coach is thankful for the assistance of Hawks athletic director and close friend Justin Dixson. They went to Decatur Central and Butler together and were in each other’s weddings.

“Within reason, he does just about anything I want,” says Combs.

Helping to feed the high school program are seventh grade and eighth grade teams at Decatur Middle School.

“I’m going to do that as long as we can,” says Combs. “There’s something to playing middle school baseball. We try to teach them our system. Plus they have to act right in school and stay eligible.”

Add Decatur Central Little League at Southeastway Park and travel baseball and some seventh graders are playing games with 60 feet between bases then 70 then 90 — sometimes in the same week.

“But the more you play, the more chances you have to get better,” says Combs. “We let the kids play where they feel comfortable.”

Jason and Jamie Combs reside in Decatur Township with daughters Amelia (5) and Josie (2).

JASONAMELIACOMBS

Decatur Central High School head baseball coach Jason Combs (left) embraces with oldest daughter Amelia following a game against Whiteland in 2017. DC graduate Combs heads into his seventh season as Hawks head coach in 2018.