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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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Uggen accepts challenge of returning to to alma mater Blackford

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tony Uggen achieved much diamond success away from the place he grew up.

As head coach at Northfield High School from 1994-2013, Uggen’s Norsemen enjoyed many victories. IHSAA state championships came in 2001 and 2012 with a state runner-up in 2013.

But Uggen’s heart belongs to Hartford City, so he came back Blackford High School as athletic director and head baseball coach, beginning with the 2013-14 school year.

“Although I loved it at Northfield (and also served 10 years as AD there), I felt it was time to focus on the greater challenge of rebuilding my alma mater that hadn’t had a winning season since ‘04,” says Uggen, a 1983 Blackford graduate. “I guess you could say I personally wanted to know if I really was a good coach or just a by-product of being in the right place at the right time.”

On the heels of 4-23 in 2015 and 8-21 in 2016, Uggen’s 2017 Bruins went 17-13 overall and 3-4 in the Central Indiana Conference. It was Blackford’s first winning varsity baseball season since 2004.

The special campaign also included the school’s first sectional title in any sport since 2010 when the Red, Black & White reigned at 2A Blackford Sectional.

“I am proud of where we have come over the past three years,” says Uggen. “And it was great to see the community come out at sectional in full force as it was a great experience for the kids and community.”

The spring of 1991 is the only year since 1980 that Uggen has not coached a baseball team at some level. He helped coach a Babe Ruth League squad at 16. A few years later, he started a six-year run of guiding his own Babe Ruth team.

Uggen took his first teaching job at Northfield in 1991-92 and was hired as junior varsity coach and heir apparent to long-time Norsemen head coach Craig Winegardner.

As a player, Uggen was part of minor league (third grade), Little League (Grades 4-6) and Babe Ruth (7-9) programs before playing for coach Gary Cheesman at Blackford.

“I liked his passion for the game and the fact that he had high expectations for us,” says Uggen of Cheesman. “Looking back I appreciated that he ran a disciplined program as well.”

Uggen played three seasons (1985-87) at Taylor University, where Larry Winterholter was head coach. A pitcher during his freshmen and junior seasons, Uggen sat out his sophomore year because a rotator cuff injury that plagued his college career.

Out of eligibility because of tranferrng from Purdue University at mid-semester and then going to Ball State University, Uggen did not play as a senior. Winterholter did allow him to pick his brain as a student assistant coach.

“Coach Winterholter was less intense as a coach than Coach Cheesman, but he still was a disciplinarian,” says Uggen. “I appreciated playing for each as they gave me different perspectives as to how to reach athletes. It allowed me to learn that different players respond differently to how they are coached. So some kids like the more ‘in your face approach’ while others are more receptive to being pulled aside and talked to.

“Over the years I try to adapt to how I feel the kids best respond which can be a challenge. A couple years I never felt like I was on the same page, but I have always liked a challenge so that makes coaching interesting.”

What qualities does Uggen wish to instill in his players?

“First and foremost, I want our kids to reflect a ‘class act’ program,” says Uggen. “And that starts with discipline. Without a doubt, the best teams I have coached were the ones who were disciplined and focused on wanting to learn and get better. Not all of them had winning records, but I felt many of those teams still exceeded my expectations and that’s a testament to their efforts.

“I also want to instill a strong work ethic and a commitment to excellence. In short, I want them to learn to compete at a high level.

Hopefully, my hope would be that all who play for me look back and say ‘Coach Uggen made me a better baseball player and person’ and have pride in their accomplishments as individuals and as teams when all is said and done.”

The 2017 season marked the first for the new IHSAA pitch rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days) and Uggen has has his take on it.

“I will admit I was leary at first,” says Uggen. “But in the end, the pitch count rule was a big reason we won the sectional. Taylor, who we beat in the sectional final, had to throw their ace all 10 innings in the opening win so he was done for the tournament.

“And in the sectional championship, we tied it when down to our last strike and they unfortunately ran out of pitching and had to turn to a young many who had only thrown about eight innings all year. So yes, the pitch count worked in our favor in the tournament.”

Uggen tried to worked up to five pitchers into a game early in the season then whittled back to three or less per game as pitch counts went up and the pitchers who could consistently throw strikes were identified.

“I think that helped us develop more kids capable of handling the grind of as the season wore on,” says Uggen. “And, thankfully, most of those kids are back (for 2018).”

His assistant coaches will be Bob Banter, Travis Huffman and Devon Kirkwood at the varsity level with Travis Huffman has JV head coach and Lucas Miller as JV assistant.

Uggen says he would be in favor of changing the IHSAA ‘open gym’ rule.

“I think it ties coaches’ hands only being able to work with two kids directly at a time,” says Uggen. “That frustrates me, especially knowing that there are schools probably not following the rule.

“Yes, I understand that not having it may open up some coaches to coaching year-round. We do it because it is the right thing to do and because I can’t say we are going to be a ‘class act’ and then break the rules.

“And, frankly, there are a lot of kids today that get pulled in the wrong direction for whatever reason. If I could work with more kids than those kids are less likely to get lured into doing something they shouldn’t.”

Tony and and wife Lisa have been married eight years and have five children ages 12 to 23 — Stephanie Uggen, Christian Fleener, Brandon Fleener, Brendan Uggen and Elly Uggen.

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Tony Uggen, a 1983 Blackford High School graduate, has been athletic director and head baseball coach at his alma mater since 2013-14 after a long stint in both jobs at Northfield High School. (Blackford Photo)