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Gary SouthShore RailCats embrace independent baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Outside the lines, professional baseball in Gary, Indiana, is very much like it is in many places.

Affordable family-friendly entertainment is the goal. Fans are invited to have a good time at the ballpark. The experience at U.S. Steel Yard includes food, giveaways and other forms of fun.

As a member of the independent American Association, the Gary SouthShore RailCats operate differently than Major League Baseball-affiliated clubs.

“It is not a developmental league, but it is an opportunity league — an opportunity for everyone from the radio broadcasters looking to break into professional baseball to groundkeepers to general managers and managers,” says 13th-year Gary manager Greg Tagert. “And, most importantly, it’s an opportunity for players who may have never gotten the opportunity to continue their careers or extend their careers.

“What it’s done for the industry cannot be underrated.”

But the emphasis is on the pennant race (Gary went into play Monday, Aug. 7, at 40-33 and seven games behind first-place Lincoln in the AA Central Division; the RailCats were two games out of the wild card lead in a 100-game season) and not getting a player ready for the next level.

“We make no apology to the players,” says Tagert. “We tell them from the beginning, we are all about winning.

“When a player steps through the door, it’s not about: Is he going to get his at-bats? Is he going to bat third? Is he going to pitch the sixth inning every night?

“Sometimes the players find that out the hard way. They’re used to a different type of format. They are surprised at the level of competition and the emphasis put on winning … It’s not for every player, just like it’s not for every manager.”

Tagert is a native of Vacaville, Calif. He a pitcher at San Francisco State University. He served as pitching coach at the University of New Mexico in 1988 and an associate scout for the Detroit Tigers in 1993-94.

A manager in independent baseball since 1995, Tagert enjoys the challenge of having the ability and the responsibility of building a team.

Unlike affiliated ball where players and coaching staff are assigned to a franchise and are told how to develop the talent with hopes of one day seeing them in the big leagues, Tagert makes all on-field personnel decisions.

“Player procurement and all the player decisions sit at this desk,” says Tagert. “That’s something I would not give up.

“It is the lure of the job for many of us (independent baseball managers) … The challenge is great. But it’s like anything else in life. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”

League rules limit rosters to 23. An additional one player may be on the disabled list during the regular season. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4.

Tagert says the classifications create a unique kind of parity in the league and also creates opportunity.

The American Association is full of players with MLB experience and others who played at the Triple-A or Double-A level.

Right-handed pitcher Jorge DeLeon, a reliever for Gary, played for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014.

MLB scouts regularly cover the independent leagues.

Notable Gary alums include outfielders Jermaine Allenworth and Nathan Haynes and left-handed pitcher Tim Byrdak.

Allensworth, who played at Madison Heights High School and Purdue University, was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1993 and played in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. He was with the RailCats in 2006 and 2007.

Haynes was a first round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. He played in Gary in 2006 and then with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

Byrdak made his MLB debut with Kansas City in 1998. He played in Gary in 2003 and became the first former RailCats player to play in the big leagues with the 2005 Baltimore Orioles.

Wes Chamberlain, who played six MLB seasons including in the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was a RailCat in 2003.

Some players to see at least a little MLB time that also wore a Gary jersey include first baseman Randall Simon (2010), third basemen Howard Battle (2003) and Jarrod Patterson (2008), outfielders Trey Beamon (2004), and Bubba Carpenter (2002, left-handed pitchers Tony Cogan (2007-09), Jim Crowell (2007), Brad Halsey (2010), Onan Masaoka (2009), right-handed pitchers Zach McClellan (2010) and Brad Voyles (2008).

Crowell played at Valparaiso High School and the University of Indianapolis. McClellan played at Indiana University.

There’s were Australian first baseman Ben Risinger (2005) and Japanese outfielder Masato Fukae (2016).

Texas Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce was a former RailCats outfielder (2004-05).

The team has retired No. 23 for right-handed pitcher Willie Glen (2005-07, 2010) and No. 45 for Gary native and coach Joe Gates. Glen played at Plainfield High School and the University of Evansville. Gates played at Gary Roosevelt High School and briefly with the Chicago White Sox.

The RailCats were part of former Northern League and began as a road team in 2002 while 6,139-seat U.S. Steel Yard was being constructed along U.S. 20, South Shore rail lines and I-90 (Indiana Toll Road) and very close to the steel mills.

The first RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard was May 26, 2003.

Chicagoans Pat and Lindy Salvi bought the team in 2008.

Gary was a member of the Northern League through 2010 and won league titles in 2005 and 2007. In 2010, the RailCats joined the American Association and reigned over it in 2013.

The current AA lineup includes Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.), St. Paul (Minn.), Sioux Falls (S.D.) and Winnipeg (Manitoba) in the North Division, Gary, Kansas City (Kan.), Lincoln (Neb.) and Sioux City (Iowa) in the Central Division and Cleburne (Texas), Salina (Kan.), Texas (Grand Prairie) and Wichita (Kan.) in the South Division. Salina is a partial road team in 2017.

Gary takes a bus to all its games. It’s about 16 hours to both Grand Prairie and Winnipeg. There’s usually days off built into he schedule to allow for that kind of travel.

A commuter trip will be added in 2018 when the Rosemont, Ill.-based Chicago Dogs join the league.

RailCats general manager Brian Lyter is in his fifth year on the job after working four seasons in affiliated baseball with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers.

With Tagert handling most of the baseball side of things, Lyter tends mostly to the business side.

Lyter has watched the community embrace the independent baseball model while embracing the amenities at the park.

In a competitive Chicagoland market that offers the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and many other entertainment options, the RailCats draw well with most fans come from northwest Indiana.

Through it’s first 37 openings, Gary was averaging 3,573. That ranked fourth in the league behind St. Paul (8.293), Winnipeg (4,336) and Kansas City (3,984).

Some of the things Lyter appreciates about the American Association is that players have a “little more staying power” and that the product is top notch.

“Some people underestimate the quality of baseball,” says Lyter, who compares the overall level of play to Double-A.

GARYSOUTHSHORERAILCATS

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Lafayette’s McNeil has Aviators in thick of pennant chase

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With players coming and going and roles constantly changing during the 2017 summer collegiate wood bat baseball season, Brent McNeil has kept the Lafayette Aviators in the Prospect League playoff hunt.

McNeil, a 2007 Lafayette Jefferson High School graduate and the only head coach the Aviators have had in their two seasons of existence, took his squad into play July 29 and with eight regular-season contests remaining, West-leading Lafayette was 30-22 and two games ahead of Terre Haute.

The Prospect League, which debuted in 2009, includes two divisions in 2017 — Lafayette, Terre Haute, Danville (Ill.), Quincy (Ill.) and Springfield (Ill.) in the West with Butler (Pa.), Champion City (Springfield, Ohio), Chillicothe (Ohio), Kokomo (Ind.), West Virginia (Beckley, W.Va.) in the East.

The 60-game season, wood bats and strong competition gives players a taste for professional baseball. Some thrive and others see that the grind is too much for them.

Prospect League rules limit rosters to 28 (the current Aviators roster features players with hometowns in 13 states and Puerto Rico). Mostly because of injuries, there has been plenty of movement for the Aviators throughout the summer.

“You really have to watch out for warning signs of injuries, take care of them and make sure (pitchers) are not throwing too many pitches in one inning,” says McNeil, who played Eastern Illinois University and recently recently hired as the pitching coach at Quincy (Ill.) University after past two spring seasons on the coaching staff at the University of North Florida and director of baseball operations at Indiana State University prior to that.

There is no disabled list in the PL. Players are either on the roster or they are released. It’s up to the teams to find replacements.

“I can’t count how many times the roster has changed since I started putting it together in the fall,” says McNeil, who enlisted the help of second-year assistant Ryan Dineen in building the Aviators. “Having college contacts is huge. Some players have reached out, but I’ve mostly relied on his own contacts. There are coaches I’ve known over the years and trust.”

The old saying in baseball is you can never have too much pitching and that really rings true in summer collegiate baseball, where injuries and innings limits keep mound staffs continually morphing.

“(Working with) pitchers is tough,” says McNeil. “The top 1, 2 and 3 (starters on college teams) are either shut down for the summer or go to Cape Cod or the Northwoods (leagues). I believe we began the summer with about nine starters (and now have seven).

“We’re still trying to establish roles at this point in the season. At any moment, you could lose that guy. You have to find more guys and figure out where they fit in.”

Caleb Sleeman fit the bill July 23 when the Michigan State University right-hander threw the franchise’s first no-hitter in a 12-0 win against Kokomo.

With so many talented players and so much playing time, McNeil makes it a point to do something constructive with his bench players on a daily basis — maybe extra time in the batting cage.

College baseball players try to put on muscle in the weight room during the summer.

“It’s real hard when you’re playing six days a week,” says McNeil.

Loeb Stadium next to the Columbian Park Zoo is the Aviators’ home field. McNeil played his high school baseball there and was with the Lafayette Lightning in the Colt World Series after coming up through the Pony Baseball Leagues at Lafayette’s Armstrong Park. He was a Prospect League player for the former Slippery Rock (Pa.) franchise.

Dineen, who serves as hitting, infield and third base coach for Lafayette, played at Andrean High School for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur then at Eastern Illinois University for Jim Schmitz. He played two seasons as an infielder in the Houston Astros system and has served on the coaching staff at McKendree University.

Parker Osborne replaced Dan Peterson as an Aviators assistant during the season.

Osborne, a former Southern Illinois University outfielder, has been an assistant at Western Illinois University.

Peterson pitched at Indiana State and went to Iowa to pursue a junior college coaching opportunity.

The Aviators are operated through MKE Sports & Entertainment, the same group that runs the rival Kokomo Jackrabbits.

LAFAYETTEAVIATORS

Kraemer coaches Terre Haute South with passion

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kyle Kraemer is passionate about the way he coaches baseball at his alma mater — Terre Haute South Vigo High School.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” says Kraemer, a 1986 graduate who is in his 23rd season as Braves head coach. “I learned at a very young age (from a youth coach named Mike Kennedy): ‘When I tell you something, don’t take it personally.’ When I stop talking to you, I don’t care about you and when I don’t care about you, you’re not at a very good place in the program.

“There are kids you can get on and they can take it. There are kids you can get on and they can’t take it, but they learn quickly by watching how others act and respond to what’s going on.”

Kraemer played at South for Ken Martin, learned more about the game while at Purdue University from head coach and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Alexander and pitching coach Steve Green (Kraemer was a Boilermaker team captain and bashed a team-high 10 home runs in 1990), served one season as an assistant at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, returned to Terre Haute as a volunteer assistant to Martin (1993 and 1994) and took over as head coach for the 1995 season.

As a football coach, Kraemer was on the Braves staff from 2007-15. Former South baseball player Mark Raetz was head gridiron coach 2007-12.

The Kraemer-led baseball Braves have won nine sectional titles and four regional crowns — the last of each coming in 2011.

Since his second season as head coach, Kraemer has been assisted by 1981 South graduate and U.S. Marines veteran Brian Pickens.

Kraemer and Pickens share hitting coach duties.

A.J. Reed, who made his Major League Baseball debut with the Houston Astros in 2016 and is currently at Triple-A Fresno, socked 41 homers and drove in 150 runs during his South career, which concluded in 2011. The next year, the bats were changed and it made it harder for teams to score runs with extra-base hits.

“He was a quiet kid,” says Kraemer, who also saw Reed go 26-10 with 390 strikeouts in 260 innings and a 1.88 earned run average on the mound for the Braves (he once threw 143 pitches in a 10-inning semistate outing). “He had the most natural ability I’ve ever seen.”

Another of Kraemer’s top products is Matt Samuels, who pitched at the University of Tennesee and Indiana State University and briefly in the Minnesota Twins organization.

Kyle’s son, Koby, played for him and at ISU and in the Toronto Blue Jays system.

With less-explosive bats a few years ago, Kraemer and Pickens began to change the way they teach hitting.

“Small ball became more important,” says Kraemer. “The bats we use are just dead.”

To generate more power in the hips — not necessarily via home runs — hitters are loading up by raising their knee and creating some momentum in the lower half of the swing and uncoiling to drive the baseball.

All but one of seven 2017 Braves coaches are South graduates. Besides Kraemer and Pickens, there’s Chad Chrisman (23rd year and charged with infield positioning) and three who played for Kraemer — Daniel Tanoos, Scott Flack and T.C. Clary. Pitching coach Adam Lindsay is a graduate of West Vigo High School, where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Steve DeGroote.

Todd Miles is a former longtime South coach. After returning from the Indiana State Police, Miles (who played on ISU’s College World Series team in 1986) took a job at Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute that does not allow him the time to coach with the Braves.

South, who is preparing for the Class 4A Mooresville Sectional, fielded two teams this spring — one varsity and one JV.

The new pitch count rules adopted by the IHSAA (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) “forced us to cut back on one (JV) team because we’ve had to limit pitches and we’re short on pitchers.”

“Personally, I don’t think (the pitch count rule) was needed,” says Kraemer. “Most (coaches) did it right.”

As of May 18, none of Kraemer’s moundsmen had thrown more than 103 pitches in a game.

Conference Indiana, which South joined in 2013 after holding membership in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference, tends to play league doubleheaders on Saturdays (against Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Columbus North, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian and Southport). Braves starters generally work once a week.

“If you use common sense, you’re OK,” says Kraemer. “It will be interesting to get feedback from smaller schools, where can walk and chew gum, they’re going to be a pitcher until they prove they’re not.”

Baseball players learn the game in Cal Ripken Leagues at Riley and Terre Town, Little Leagues at Terre Haute North and West Terre Haute and through various travel baseball organization, including Junior Rex, Indiana Havoc, Redbirds, Junior Sycamores and Mad Dogs plus senior and junior American Legion teams for Wayne Newton Post 346. That program was ran by John Hayes for years and is now headed by his brother Tim.

“Travel ball has really taken off,” says Kraemer. “You might as well embrace it. It’s here to stay. (Post 346) now has more of a travel feel (playing in tournaments with travel ball teams).”

KYLEKRAEMER

Kyle Kraemer is in his 23rd season as head  baseball coach at his alma mater — Terre Haute South Vigo High School. (TH South Photo)

Franklin College’s Marshall continually gets committed student-athletes

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Getting a group of athletes to commit to a common goal.

That’s what coaches strive to do with their teams.

Lance Marshall has been able to get his Franklin College baseball players to bond for the good of the program and the school for nearly two decades now.

“The key is people,” says Marshall, who has led the NCAA Division III Grizzlies since the 1998 season. “Sometimes you may get more in the pitching department and sometimes you may get more in the hitting department. But we try to go get good guys and help them continue careers that they’re proud of. We’ve been fortunate to recruit terrific student-athletes.

“We all realize at some point athletic careers are going to come to an end.”

Franklin’s 2017 roster includes 31 players — 29 with hometowns in Indiana, one from Kentucky and one from Minnesota.

Wherever they come from, Marshall is proud to field a team of “hard-nosed, competitive guys who play hard and play the right way.”

Helping mold the team are assistants Grant Bellak and Vinny Trivisonno.

“These two young guys do a terrific job,” says Marshall. “I’m really fortunate to have them here.”

The Griz — off to a  16-9 start — are slated to play 27 games this spring in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, mostly in three-game series. The loop has opted to play 18 conference games in 2018 (nine doubleheaders).

“Baseball is played in series, especially at the big league level and D-I,” says Marshall. The pros to a three-game series is that there is a winner and loser in each if all three games are completed. The down side is the added expense of staying an extra night on the road.

“We’re in a very competitive conference,” says Marshall. “It seems like all the programs continue to get better.”

The 10-team HCAC (which has scheduled its 2017 postseason tournament May 11-13) has been represented in the D-III regional championship game four of the past five seasons — Rose-Hulman in 2014 and 2016, Manchester in 2012 and 2013.

The conference tournament winner receives an automatic bid to the regional. In 2015, the D-III tournament was expanded from 48 to 56 teams.

There are eight regionals with six or eight teams in each. Each regional champion advances to the D-III World Series May 26-31 in Appleton, Wis. Because of a scheduling conflict at Fox Cities Stadium, the 2018 World Series will be held at another location to be determined.

“I’d love to see the championship pool expanded to 64 teams,” says Marshall. “D-III is making a move to (four-team) regionals and (on-campus two-team) super regionals like DI. That’s an exciting change.”

Marshall is also part of the athletic administration. Working with Franklin athletic director Kerry Prather and fellow assistant AD Mary Johnston, Marshall has enjoyed being involved in all FC sports.

“I love being here and being able to support everything,” says Marshall. “We have a ton of outstanding coaches down here.”

Marshall is a 1988 graduate of Springfield (Ill.) High School, where he played for Jim Steinwart. In 2016, Steinwart’s Senators were IHSA Class 3A state runners-up.

Jim Pransky coached Marshall for one year at Quincy University and Bob Fabrizio coached him for three at Elmhurst College.

Marshall graduated from Elmhurst in 1993 and went on to be a graduate assistant for two years at Rockford College, assistant for two years at Elmhurst and also served as an instructor, regional director and manager of operations for Chicago White Sox Training Centers.

He was an associate scout for the Houston Astros from 1995-98.

LANCEMARSHALL

Lance Marshall has been head baseball coach at Franklin College since the 1998 season. He is also an assistant athletic director for the Grizzlies.

Kokomo’s Thatcher on next diamond adventure

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Joe Thatcher didn’t see himself pitching in Major League Baseball.

But he did it.

He didn’t see himself coaching college baseball in his hometown.

But he’s doing it.

Thatcher grew up playing the game in Kokomo. There was UCT Little League and stints with Kokomo American Legion Post 6, Russiaville Cubs and Indiana Bulls in the summer and Kokomo High School in the spring.

Many games were played at Kokomo’s historic Highland Park, which was once home to Kokomo Giants, Kokomo Dodgers and Kokomo Highlanders.

“The short porch in right is what I remember most,” Thatcher said. “It was a cool place to play. There were a lot of stands and so it felt big at the time.”

After graduating from KHS in 2000, Thatcher became a legacy at Indiana State University. His father — Phil — played for the Bob Warn-coached Sycamores and so did Joe.

The Warns were family friends and the Thatchers spent many alumni weekends in Terre Haute. It was an easy decision for Joe to go to ISU and be a teammate of Barry Warn, son of Bob the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.

“(Coach Warn) was great,” Thatcher said. “He really cared about his players. You felt you were part of a family.”

A 6-foot-2 left-hander, Joe started as a freshman then served as ISU’s closer as a sophomore and junior. When the Sycamores got off to a tough start in his senior year and there was not much call for someone to get the last few outs, he went back into the starting rotation.

When the 2004 MLB Draft came at the end of final college campaign, Thatcher’s named wasn’t called. Instead, the southpaw played part of two seasons in the independent Frontier League.

Thatcher joined the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2005 and made his MLB debut came with the San Diego Padres in 2007.

By this point, he knew he was exclusively a reliever.

“In organized pro ball, hard-throwing guys are usually projected as closers,” Thatcher said. “I knew I was going to be a left-handed match-up guy (lefty on lefty). That’s what I tried to focus on.”

Sometimes called a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy charged with getting out the opponent’s big left-handed batters lat in games), Thatcher was also called upon to pitch full innings, worked with his low three-quarter delivery against left-hander and right-handers.

“I always had confidence in myself that I could get anybody out,” Thatcher said. “I ended up having pretty good numbers against righties in my career.

He also kept himself in shape and shared his off-season regiment along with Dr. Jamey Gordon of St. Vincent Sports Performance and USA Baseball at the recent IHSBCA State Clinic.

“I was around some of the best conditioning staffs in the world (in pro baseball),” Thatcher said. “I saw all the innovative stuff.”

Thatcher was with the Padres organization until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He pitched for the D-backs and Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and the Houston Astros in 2015. His 2016 was spent with Triple-A clubs in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs organizations, but was not on the postseason roster during the World Series run. He decided to retire at the end of the season at age 35.

“I’m most proud of how long I was able to play,” Thatcher said. “It takes a lot to stay there and build up that trust with the coaches and front office people. To go from being un-drafted to someone who spent nine years in the big leagues, I’m pretty proud of that.”

Thatcher had studied insurance and risk management in college and planned to follow his father into that business (Phil works for Regions Bank Insurance) and even got his license and spent some off-seasons as an agent.

“I wasn’t planning on having a big league career,” Thatcher said.

Now, he is staying in baseball as associate head coach for a brand new program at Indiana University Kokomo (the IUK Cougars are scheduled to debut in 2017-18). He has been on the recruiting for about a month.

“We have a lot to offer — an IU degree, good coaching staff (including head coach Matt Howard and assistant coach Zach Hall) and (Kokomo Municipal Stadium) is a huge draw,” Thatcher said. “It gives us a leg up on the competition.

“(The school) wanted to make sure they did it right before they started the program so it wasn’t just thrown together. They do everything top level, first class. The only thing small school about what we’re doing is the actual school size (around 4,100 enrolled students, according to the IUK website).”

IU Kokomo has centrally-located campus and is up to nine sports in its athletic department. The Cougars are an NAIA program and member of the River States Conference.

Thatcher will share his experiences with his student-athletes.

“I played with a lot of good veterans and learned how to be a pro,” Thatcher said. “That meant being disciplined enough to take care of your business without being told to do it.”

And he almost didn’t do it at all.

joethatcherpadres

Kokomo’s Joe Thatcher as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres.