Tag Archives: Indiana University

Oakland City’s Fletcher enjoys watching Mighty Oaks grow as ballplayers, students

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Drawn to a private Christian school in southern Indiana renowned for its education, Kentucky native T-Ray Fletcher went to Oakland City University in the early 1990’s as a student-athlete and never really left the campus in Gibson County.

After graduating in the spring 1995, Fletcher was named to the OCU baseball staff for the fall. By the spring, he was the Mighty Oaks head coach and 2018 will mark his 24th season.

“It was one of those right place at the right time situations,” says Fletcher, who was a catcher for the Oaks after playing at Madisonville North Hopkins High School. He was junior varsity as an eighth and ninth grader and varsity his last three years.

“(Oakland City) used to be known as the teacher/preacher school and it is still known for the School of Education and School of Business,” says Fletcher. “It’s a strong academic school.

“As a part of our core principles and values, we set the example of what other athletes should be on campus. We’re pretty adamant about class attendance. We give them resources to succeed academically. Drugs and alcohol are not going to be tolerated here.”

Fletcher, an Oakland City University Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame inductee, says communication is the key to making it all happen and most of his players have graduated and flourished in a structured environment.

“Kids still want to be coached and they still want discipline,” says Fletcher.

At one time, the coach had 16 former players coaching high school or travel baseball in the Indiana-Kentucky-Illinois tri-state area.

Among six players Fletcher has sent into professional baseball, the most recent is Eric Barnes, who was recently named head baseball coach at Boonville High School.

In 2017, Oakland City went 18-29 and made its 12th National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association tournament appearance on Fletcher’s watch (the Oaks placed ninth after finishing third in 2016).

In 2016, Fletcher passed the 400-win plateau and has the most victories in the long history of the program.

Oakland City is also an NCAA Division II member — one of just three baseball-playing schools in Indiana. The others are the University of Indianapolis and the University of Southern Indiana. Saint Joseph’s College was D-II, but that school closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

By comparison, Indiana collegiate baseball boasts nine in NCAA D-I (Ball State, Butler, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Indiana State, Notre Dame, Purdue, Valparaiso), nine in NCAA D-III (Anderson, DePauw, Earlham, Franklin, Hanover, Manchester, Rose-Hulman, Trine, Wabash), 13 in NAIA (Bethel, Calumet of Saint Joseph, Goshen, Grace, Huntington, Indiana Tech, Indiana University Kokomo, Indiana University South Bend, Indiana University Southeast, Marian, Purdue Northwest, Saint Francis, Taylor) and three in the National Junior College Athletic Association (Ancilla, Ivy Tech Northeast, Vincennes).

While there is no set number of athletic scholarships available, Fletcher says athletes at Oakland City can get scholarship money through a combination of academic and athletic performance and economic need. A dollar amount is divided among athletes.

“We do not offer full-ride scholarships to any athlete on campus,” says Fletcher. “We’re looking for a strong academic kid who can be supplemented from athletic money. You get a good package here.”

OCU typically has 450 to 500 students. The incoming freshmen class of 100 was the biggest in a decade. The 2010 census had nearly 2,500 folks living in the town of Oakland City, making it the third-largest in Gibson County behind Princeton and Fort Branch.

An independent with no conference affiliation, Oakland City does play several schools in the Great Lakes Valley Conference and Great Midwest Athletic Conference — both D-II leagues.

“My whole philosophy is to play the best competition we can play to challenge our athletes and also give us a chance to succeed,” says Fletcher, who typically carries a roster of 25 to 30 with only a varsity schedule.

Fletcher handles recruiting for the Oaks. Most most players come from Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. But there have been some from Canada, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as well as New York and Ohio.

“We’re located in a good geographic area for baseball in my opinion,” says Fletcher.

Oakland City plays on-campus on Brooks C. Pinnick Memorial Field. The facility has been upgraded over the years. In 2014, the outfield grass and drainage system was re-done and the Oaks spent much of the season on the road.

Fletcher’s assistant coaches for 2018 are former OCC players Alex Portee’ (fourth season) and Zach Deutsch (second season). Washington (Ind.) High Schoolg graduate Portee’ is the Oaks pitching coach. Deutsch went to Evansville Harrison High School and played two seasons at Vincennes University and two at Oakland City.

Tommy Ray Fletcher II has gone by T-Ray since age 1. He was given that nickname when older brother Zane asked why there were two Tommy Ray’s in the household of Tommy Ray and Judy Fletcher.

“(Zane) was a big influence on me at an early age,” says T-Ray of the brother who died in 2015. “He was a big fan of the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds of the 1970’s) and really got me introduced to baseball at an early age.”

T-Ray became a Chicago Cubs fan and tries to attend a game at Wrigley Field each year.

It’s not always easy with a busy schedule that includes coaching, serving at OCU as assistant athletic director as well as in Compliance and the School of Business (he teaches three classes each semester) while spending time with wife Maddie and their three daughters — Sophie (10), Avery (8) and Alaine (4).

The Fletchers reside in Evansville. T-Ray also has two younger siblings — Brandon and Chiara.

TRAYFLETCHER

T-Ray Fletcher, a 1995 Oakland City University graduate, has been the Mighty Oaks head baseball coach since the 1996 season and has more than 400 victories. OCU is a member of both the National Christian College Athletic Association and NCAA Division II. (Oakland City U. Photo)

 

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Hall of Famer Gandolph back at home at Scecina with high hopes

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis has won six IHSAA football sectional titles since the Crusaders last won a sectional baseball championship.

The Crusaders reigned on the gridiron in 2001 in Class 2A, 2002 in 2A, 2012 in 1A and 2015 in 2A. Scecina last hoisted a sectional trophy on the diamond in 1992.

Dave Gandolph, a football, wrestling and baseball standout for the Crusaders in the 1960’s, would like to give that ’92 trophy some company in the case.

“We are kind of on the verge,” says Gandolph, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer who became head baseball coach at his alma mater prior to the 2014 season after 33 years leading Center Grove in Greenwood and two guiding Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter (with an assistant stint at Carmel in-between). He has a varsity record of 766-352-4 in 39 total seasons. “We’ve lost twice in the sectional by one run.”

Scecina bowed out of the tournament by losing 2-1 to Heritage Christian in the 2014 Heritage Christian Sectional final, 12-9 to Park Tudor in the 2015 Park Tudor Sectional semifinals, 8-7 to Ritter in the 2016 Speedway Sectional semifinals, 11-5 to eventual 2A state champion Ritter in the 2017 Park Tudor Sectional semifinals.

The Crusaders compete in the Indiana Crossroads Conference (along with Ritter, Park Tudor, Beech Grove, Indianapolis Lutheran, Monrovia, Speedway and Triton Central) and then there’s the Indianapolis city tournament.

Athletic director and former Crusaders head baseball coach Jason Kehrer and Gandolph craft Scecina’s non-conference slate.

“We play a pretty tough schedule,” says Gandolph.

To get ready for the postseason, Scecina has faced a buzzsaw of a regular season. The 2017 campaign, which carried the team-picked motto “Trust the Process,” opened with losses to traditional powers Indianapolis Cathedral (4A), Indianapolis Bishop Chatard (3A), Guerin Catholic (3A), Lafayette Central Catholic (2A) and Evansville Memorial (3A). Cathedral went on to win that program’s third state championship and seven-time state champion Lafayette Central Catholic was a regional finalist.

Gandolph has enjoyed plenty of success in his career by stressing the importance of hitters putting the ball in play and since he does not have many players who promise to mash the baseball out of Neidlinger Field or other parks, that is still his approach.

“I teach a lot about ‘small ball’ and moving runners over,” says Gandolph. “(The opposing defenders) have to catch it, throw it and catch it again.

“But you have to have good pitching. That’s where it starts.”

The 2017 season was first for the IHSAA’s new pitch count 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).

“The rule was put in because pitchers were getting used too much, but that was more in the summer and fall and all that,” says Gandolph. “High school coaches — for the most part — were not abusing anybody’s arms. This (new rule) creates a little more paperwork, basically.”

At state tournament time, coaching staffs must plan and strategize with the pitch count in mind.

“Everybody puts the best pitcher out there they can and go with them as long as they can,” says Gandolph. “You get a complete game or near-complete game and you’re in pretty good shape. If you get a big lead, you may want to get your (top) pitcher out of there.”

One change Gandolph would favor is seeding the sectionals.

“Seeding the sectional might alleviate some of that imbalance that might happen with a blind draw,” says Gandolph. “The city tournament is seeded and has 16 or 17 teams. We’re only talking about five, six or seven teams in the sectionals. In most cases, it’s fairly obvious (how to seed the field). You don’t want a championship game that is a blowout. That is not good for our game.

“The IHSAA has seeded wrestling for a long time and that’s a lot harder than seeding baseball teams.”

While most athletes play a fall sport, Gandolph has been working with about 10 who are not once a week this fall while sharing part of the baseball field with the Crusaders’ soccer programs. His assistants are Ted Clements, Tim Anderson, Pat Gedig and Jim Maslar. Clements and Gedig are Scecina graduates and Maslar teaches at the school. Anderson graduated from Lawrence North.

Gandolph, a 1968 Scecina graduate, was in football for coach Dave Oberting, wrestling for coach Jeff Lazo and baseball for coach Larry Neidlinger when Scecina had about 1,000 students, encourages multi-sport participation at a school of school that now has about 450.

“At smaller schools, you have to share athletes,” says Gandolph. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to compete.

“I was in football, wrestling and baseball both at Scecina and Saint Joseph’s College (in Rensselaer). I’m a firm believer in a multi-sport athlete.

“For those who specialize, there are limits what they might be able to do in some other sport. They might get get burned out mentally and it’s good to use other muscles. It keeps you more balanced.”

Participating in wrestling kept Randolph in shape for baseball and football, where he was invited to training camp at SJC with the Abe Gibron-coached Chicago Bears in 1973. He played many years of minor league football around Indianapolis and was an assistant at Center Grove for two decades, retiring after a Class 5A state runner-up finish in 2000.

Gandolph notes that his top Scecina pitcher — 6-foot-3 junior right-hander Mac Ayres — is also the starting quarterback for the Crusaders’ 7-1 football team. To keep his pitching arm in shape, Ayres gets in workouts on Sundays.

A teacher for 40 years, Gandolph retired from the classroom Jan. 1, 2014. But he welcomed the opportunity to come back to the east side of town where so many memories were made and so many friends still live and keep coaching baseball.

“I’m glad I went back to Scecina,” says Gandolph. “It’s like going back home. There are still a lot of people around from my era. It’s where I met my wife (Ann). At the time, my mom (Pat and brother Ron) were were practically living across the street in the house where I grew up.”

Dave, the oldest of Eugene and Pat Gandolph’s seven children, lost Ron in November 2016 then his mother, Pat, in December.

“It was a tough winter and spring,” says Gandolph.

Dave and Ann Gandolph still reside near Center Grove. Their four children — Dave Jr. (47), Dan (42), Tom (40) and Jennifer (34) — and eight grandchildren are all on the south side.

Dave Jr. averaged more than two strikeouts per inning during his Center Grove career, which concluded in 1988.

“Those were some boring games,” says his father.

After playing at Indiana University, 6-foot-4 left-handed Dave Jr. was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 26th round of the 1991 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and logged five minor league seasons. He is one of seven draft picks developed by Dave Gandolph Sr.

Among the others is 1996 Mr. Indiana Baseball A.J. Zapp, who hit .524 with 16 home runs and 50 runs batted in and was taken in the first round of that year’s MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves and got as far as Triple-A.

Dan Gandolph played football and Tom Gandolph baseball at SJC. Dave Jr. and Dan are now in financial services and Tom is an Indianapolis firefighter.

Jennifer Gandolph was a senior member of Center Grove’s 2000 4A state championship team which featured her mother as an assistant coach and went on to play volleyball at the University of Michigan. Now known as Jennifer Hawk, she is now head volleyball coach at Perry Meridian High School and manages Orangtheory Fitness, owned by retired WNBA All-Star Katie Douglas, in Greenwood.

Dave and Ann Gandolph (she is an IU graduate but “Puma at Heart”) have remained close with St. Joe alumni even through the closing of the school at the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

Embracing the idea of #PumasForever, the couple attended an off-campus homecoming event a few weeks ago.

“It’s such a strong bond that everybody has,” says Gandolph, who is hopeful SJC will be able to rise from the ashes like a Phoenix. “It’s a big part of our lives.”

More than 80 players have gone on to college baseball during Gandolph’s coaching career, including Scecina graduates Bradley Meade at Anderson University, Aaron Leming at Franklin College, Genero Angeles at the University of Saint Francis.

“We have had a lot of football players go on to college from Scecina,” says Randolph. “We are trying to make them think about playing baseball in college.”

Catholic grade schools that feed into the school have not had baseball programs in recent years. Many players come through Irvington Sports Association and various travel ball organizations.

DAVEGANDOLPH

Dave Gandolph, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, is heading into his fifth season at Indianapolis Scecina Memorial — his alma mater — in 2017-18. It will be his 40th overall as a high school head coach, including two seasons at Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter and 33 at Center Grove.

Alter has 1A Indianapolis Lutheran hanging with the big schools

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dick Alter has coached baseball in central Indiana for nearly four decades.

He has been around some talented players and coaches and helped mold young minds in dugouts and classrooms.

Since 2005, the former North Central player and assistant coach and former Manual head coach has made an impact at Indianapolis Lutheran High School, an IHSAA Class 1A member on the city’s southeast side.

The Saints won the eighth sectional title during Alter’s tenure and extended their streak of sectional championships to six in 2017. Lutheran went on to take the first regional crown in program history.

After beating Bethesda Christian 16-0 and University 5-1 to win the Sheridan Sectional, the Saints topped Edinburgh 10-1 and Rising Sun 6-1 in the Morristown Regional before losing 6-2 to eventual 1A state champion Lanesville in the Jasper Semistate.

What propelled Lutheran in ’17?

“Chemistry,” says Alter, who is also chairman of the school’s social studies department. “It was certainly not the best team we’ve ever had here. But those boys put it together better than the other teams did when it counted. We had unified players that played together and wanted to win.”

There are not that many 1A schools in the Indianapolis area. The smallest school in the Indiana Crossroads Conference (which also includes Beech Grove, Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter, Indianapolis Scecina, Indianapolis Park Tudor, Monrovia, Speedway and Triton Central), Lutheran benefits from its strong regular-season schedule come postseason time.

ICC games are played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and there’s the test of the Marion County Tournament.

Ritter won the 2017 Class 2A state title. The Saints also squared off with 4A’s Lafayette Jeff and Perry Meridian (three times) and 1A powerhouse Hauser. In recent seasons, 4A’s Columbus North and 3A’s Bishop Chatard and Guerin Catholic have been on the slate.

“We play a very competitive schedule,” says Alter. “We go out of our way to play good schools. We don’t have the depth these 4A schools have, but on any given day we can play with them.”

Sophomores Matthew Alter (Dick and Karen Alter’s only child) and Noah Wood and freshman Bradbury Aiden — all right-handers — did the bulk of the mound work for last season’s Saints. It was the first campaign of the IHSAA’s new pitch count rule (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).

The coach is not a fan of the new rule.

“It severely limits a 1A program,” says Alter. “We really have to plan and be judicious with our pitchers. I like the old rule — 10 innings every three days. That made a lot of sense to me. It worked for me. If you are an experienced coach, you’re not going to hurt your kids’ arms by overthrowing them.”

Alter has heard the response of those like him who oppose the new rule.

“You can say ‘go develop more pitchers.’ But that’s easier said than done,” says Alter, who notes that many schools have players who grew learning to be pitchers. “We’re developing kids who can throw and hopefully they throw strikes. I understand the concept, but in practicality you’re not going to get a lot of good pitchers out of it.”

The Saints play games on their Arlington Avenue campus. Land-locked in a residential area, the field has relatively short dimensions.

“There’s one house we regularly hit in left field,” says Alter. “Any home run to the right side is going into somebody’s yard.”

Since Alter’s arrival, the field located in a residential area has received upgrades like a new backstop and dugouts and netting instead of a fence. Windscreens have been added and the home plate area and mound have been re-done.

Alter graduated from North Central in 1973. His coach was Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Tom Bradley, who was the original host of the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series. Alter played one year on baseball scholarship to Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., Alter transferred to Indiana University, earned a degree and began his professional life in marketing research.

In 1979, he began running the summer baseball program at North Central and later served as an assistant to Bradley.

He decided to change his profession to teacher and wound up coaching baseball and basketball at Manual. For a short time, he was head coach for both sports.

Alter led the Redskins on the diamond 1994-2004 then went to Lutheran when Matthew was 5.

Nephew Jared Broughton was a freshman on the 2005 Lutheran team. He went on to be a Junior College All-American at Vincennes University, a starter at the University of Dayton and is now associate head coach at Piedmont College, an NCAA Division III school in Demorest, Ga.

Alter coached Caleb Hougesen, a third baseman who was selected in the 46th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the San Francisco Giants.

“He was a great player,” says Alter.

What feeds the Saints program?

The high school typically gets most of its students from four Lutheran K-8 schools on the southeast side of Indy. Almost all of the Saints have a travel baseball background.

As Lutheran plans for 2018, Tom Riensche (former Warren Central head coach) and Ryan Baglow are back as varsity assistants. Zach Akers has been a junior varsity coach.

The Saints normally have a JV team, but low numbers in some years and one available diamond mean they only field a varsity squad.

DICKALTER2

A veteran of nearly 40 years as a high school baseball coach, Dick Alter has been head coach at Indianapolis Lutheran since 2005. The Saints won their sixth straight sectional and advanced all the way to the semistate in 2017. (Indianapolis Lutheran Photo)

 

Turnock wants his Marian Knights to push themselves as far as they can

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When baseball players are pushed past the comfort zone, that’s when progress is made.

That’s the way Joe Turnock, sixth-year head coach at Marian High School in Mishawaka, goes about his job of developing young athletes.

“It’s about developing and being pushed beyond his experience,” says Turnock. “We want to stretch them, challenge them.

“I don’t care what year you graduate If you can play and have the mental maturity.”

That may mean a freshman standing in against a gas-throwing senior. But if they can handle it, their age and grade is not factored in.

Turnock, a graduate of Marian (1982) and Indiana University (1986), knows that being mentally strong is important in a game not always filled with moments of success.

“Baseball resembles life,” says Turnock. “There’s a lot of failure in the game. What do you do to respond after something negative happens — something that might not be within your control?

“The most important muscle is between the ears. It’s your mental make-up.”

Learning to cope in these situations while in high school will help in the future.

“Not everything works according to plan,” says Turnock. “You’ve got to able to bounce back.

“Control what you can control and compete.”

Even in games that may have resulted in losses, the positives are added up.

“Did you scrap back and win the last few innings?,” says Turnock. “There are things you can build on in your next game or practice.”

Turnock joined a Marian coaching staff led by Tim Prister after spending time in the showcase/travel baseball world. Turnock was a coach with the Michiana Scrappers and continues to be affiliated with the Crossroads Baseball Series.

Youngest son Josh (Joe and Amy Turnock also have 24-year-old Joe) was a catcher for the Scrappers and a battery mate of Evan Miller.

Now 22, Josh Turnock was a freshman on Marian’s IHSAA Class 3A state runner-up team in 2011.

The young Turnock and Miller went on to play for the North in the 2014 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All/Star Series.

While Josh Turnock is at Eastern Illinois University, LaPorte graduate Miller is now pitching in the San Diego Padres organization.

At EIU, Josh got to catch Michael McCormick. The right-hander who played at Speedway High School for father Marcus McCormick is now in the Chicago White Sox system.

Riley Tirotta, a 2017 Marian graduate, was a standout at shortstop and also played in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series before heading to the University of Dayton.

Turnock has helped Tirotta, who has trained with Mike Marks at the Hitters Edge in Sturgis, Mich., and others get the attention of college coaches.

“A lot of the recruiting process had changed,” says Turnock. “You have to proactive and market yourself.”

Some of the recruiting tools including sending out videos and attending the showcases appropriate for the player.

For instance, a player suited for the NAIA or NCAA Division III will not be best-served at a showcase with mostly D-I coaches.

“There’s enough college baseball out there,” says Turnock. “Find where you’re going to fit. It’s not the glamor and glitz that people think it is. There’s a lot of work.”

With Tirotta’s athleticism, his coach was able to use him at various places in the infield and on the mound.

When Turnock had exit interviews with his players at the season of the ’17 season, he advised the returnees to work on versatility.

“If your name is on the lineup card, that’s a good day,” says Turnock. Players should not be concerned about where they are on the field or in the batting order. Just compete and contribute.

Roles can change. It happens at the high school level and it happens in the big leagues.

Take Chicago Cubs left-hander Mike Montgomery as an example.

“He might start then be used in middle relief then close then start again,” says Turnock.

Marian is a Roman Catholic secondary school, operated by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, and is a college preparatory institution.

The Knights are also in Class 3A-sized school.

“We have to share athletes,” says Turnock. “We know that not all players will make it to open gyms (or fields) when they are in-season (with another sport). But I want a kid who had to stand on the foul line and had to knock down two free throws with no time on the clock.

“Kids know who should be taking those shots or who should be at the plate in a key situation. Most kids’ self-awareness is a lot higher than people give them credit for.”

Turnock believes everyone should take part in a team sport — something that prepares them for the work world. There is teamwork and the discovery that sometimes not everyone pulls their weight.

As Marian looks toward the 2018 season, Keith Schreiber and Ryan Dainty are returnees to Turnock’s coaching staff.

“(Schreiber) is a phenomenal addition,” says Turnock of the former Glen Oaks Community College head coach and youngest son of the late Ken Schreiber. A 13-time Hall of Famer who won 1,010 games and seven state titles at LaPorte, Ken died Sept. 8 at age 83.

Dainty, Dean of Student Formation at Marian, is the head junior varsity coach.

Turnock tends to carry a large number of JV players in order to give them opportunities and a chance to get better so they can help at the varsity level.

“You never know how kids are going to develop,” says Turnock.

Walter Lehmann, a Marian graduate who was on Turnock’s staff, has become head coach at Concord High School.

Turnock says he is looking to add to his staff.

“We look at the coaches the same as the players,” says Turnock. “I don’t have an ego. The goal is to be successful as a team. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit for it.”

The Knights play in the Northern Indiana Conference. In 2017, the NIC produced a 3A state champion (South Bend St. Joseph) and 4A state runner-up (Penn).

“I’ve got a lot of respect for both of those guys,” says Turnock of St. Joe coach John Gumpf and Penn coach Greg Dikos, an IHSBCA Hall of Famer. “It’s a strong conference from top to bottom. On any given day, anyone can beat anyone.”

The NIC has 13 teams (Marian, Penn, St. Joseph, Bremen, Elkhart Central, Jimtown, John Glenn, Mishawaka, New Prairie, South Bend Adams, South Bend Clay, South Bend Riley and South Bend Washington) and is broken into divisions.

Marian plays home-and-home games with NIC teams St. Joseph, Mishawaka and Elkhart Central and a round robin with traditionally-strong programs Fort Wayne Carroll and Northridge.

“We want to have to grind through the season,” says Turnock. “When we get into the sectional, it’s not something we haven’t seen before.”

JOETURNOCK

Joe Turnock. a 1982 graduate of Marian High School in Mishawaka, is in his sixth season as Knights head baseball coach in 2017-18. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

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

Northwest Indiana Oilmen strike it rich in baseball fun, development

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

After another season of diamond progress, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen are again in the Midwest Collegiate League title hunt.

The summer collegiate wood bat baseball club that calls Whiting’s Oil City Stadium home has qualified for the playoffs in each of its six seasons.

The Oilmen went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed (Bloomington, Ill., beat Northwest Indiana 3-1 Tuesday, Aug. 1 in Game 1 of a best-of-3 semifinals series). Game 2 was slated for Wednesday, Aug. 2 at Bloomington with Game 3 (if necessary) Thursday, Aug. 3 at Oil City. Home games have been broadcast live on the team’s Facebook page.

Don Popravak and Adam Enright have been with the Oilmen for each campaign. Popravak is president and owner while Enright is in his third season as head coach after three summers as an assistant.

A veteran of more than three decades in marketing, Popravak conceived the idea of the team, negotiated with the City of Whiting for the use of the stadium and has built the Oilmen brand.

Enright is a Munster High School graduate who played at South Suburban College and then helped the University of Southern Indiana to an NCAA Division II national championship (2010). After one year each at Chicago State University and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, he is entering his fifth season as an assistant at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill.

TCC Trolls head coach Justin Huisman is a former Oilmen head coach. Huisman played at the University of Mississippi and pitched briefly with the 2004 Kansas City Royals.

Popravak, a Chicago native who grew up minutes from Whiting and played baseball and football at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., has watched the Midwest Collegiate League (founded in 2010) grow and greatly improve its ability to attract top-notch talent. Dozens of former MCL players have been drafted by Major League Baseball clubs, including six in 2017. Others have gone on to independent professional baseball.

Left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani, recently traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Los Angeles Dodgers, played for the Illinois Jayhawks in the MCL’s first season.

Third baseman Paul DeJong played in the MCL with the Will County CrackerJacks (2012) and DuPage County Hounds (2013).

Former Oilmen player and Munster High graduate Craig Dedelow played at Indiana University and is now an outfielder the minors with the Chicago White Sox.

Hammond Bishop Noll Institute graduate Matt Pobereyko was a player and pitching coach with the Oilmen before going to independent baseball. He was with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and, after another indy stint, is now a New York Mets farmhand.

John Ely, who pitched for the Dodgers in 2010, 2011 and 2012, managed the Southland Vikings and is now a coach in the White Sox system.

“He credits his experience of coaching at this level,” says Popravak. “We have quality guys working with players and developing their careers.”

Former big league pitcher Marvin Freeman has been a pitching coach for Southland, where former Oilmen player Kevin Franchetti is now manager. Franchetti played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur at Andrean High School and then at Ball State University.

Popravak said the teams in the MCL — Oilmen in Indiana and Bloomington Bobcats, Crestwood Panthers, DuPage County Hounds, Joliet Admirals and Southland Vikings in Illinois  — are “all on the same page with finding and developing the best talent.”

“We want them go back to their colleges and be an impact player,” says Popravak.

Unique to summer collegiate baseball, the MCL has some players that play in the league before they ever step on a university campus.

“That’s a real advantage for a college coach,” says Popravak. “That young players who’s hungry can get 250 at-bats against college pitching and work their mistakes out early so they can go to a college campus and compete for a job.”

Corey Ray played for Southland before going to the University of Louisville and is now in the Brewers system.

Donivan Williams impressed the Cardinals enough after playing with the Oilmen that they signed him and he by-passed college. The 18-year-old third baseman from Oak Lawn, Ill., is now playing in the Gulf Coast League.

The MCL roster limit is 35 and many are in the mound mix. There are several college underclassmen who have had a low number of innings in the spring.

“The summer gives them an opportunity to shine,” says Popravak. “We don’t want to overuse pitchers.

“Our goal is to always send the player back to college healthy.”

Enright and assistant coach Patrick Antone (who played for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Jack Campbell at Chesterton High School, coached with Pishkur at Andrean and was recently named head coach at Boone Grove High School) have watched the Oilmen consistently perform on the bump in 2017.

“The reason we’ve done so well this year is our pitching,” says Enright. “I don’t think we’ve been deeper. It’s a good mix of guys with a lot of talent.

“We have overall depth with our position players. We mix and match lineups a lot. I make sure each of our guys have at least 100 at-bats if they are with us all season. It’s more about development than winning.”

The six MCL teams play each other 10 times during a 50-game regular season leading into a four-team, two-tier playoff format (both best-of-3).

Using his connections, Enright built the Oilmen roster with most of the players commuting from a radius of about 90 minutes from Whiting.

“I’m starting to build up some pretty good relationships with schools throughout the Midwest at all levels,” says Enright. “We like the local flavor that people in the community and the region are familiar with.”

The longest road trip for the Oilmen is about two hours to Bloomington.

Enright played for two respected baseball men in Munster’s Bob Shinkan and USI’s Tracy Archuleta and took from both in developing his own leadership style.

“Those two guys shaped who I am as a coach,” says Enright. “I bring my own flavor to the game and coaching. But I make sure guys have positive experiences. Happy players are productive players. I want guys getting the most out of each other and play together to win baseball teams.”

Enright says neither Shinkan or Archuleta do much yelling, but are “the type of coach you don’t want to let down.”

Shinkan is also an IHSBCA Hall of Famer.

“He makes you enjoy the process and being out there everyday,” says Enright of his high school coach. “It’s about having fun while doing what you need to do to be the best player you can be.”

Enright appreciates the cerebral side of Archuleta’s coaching.

“He will put the game straight into your brain and make you think of it all levels you’ve never done before,” says Enright.

The fans, who turned out for MCL games and a series this summer against the Serbian National Team, get a chance to enjoy baseball played in a park plotted on 119th Street near homes, oil rigs and not far from the water.

“It’s a special place,” says Enright. “The community really loves it. It’s a premier facility. You can’t ask much more for a summer collegiate team. Good product on the field and really nice atmosphere to watch a game in. When the wind blows you can hear the waves off Lake Michigan.”

NWINDIANAOILMEN

Baseball in Richmond played to the tune of Jazz

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Richmond, Ind., has long appreciated the crack of the baseball bat.

The Rose City fielded professional teams throughout most of the first half of the 20th century and brought pro ball back with the independent Frontier League’s Richmond Roosters (1995-2005).

Charles Weeghman, the man who built what would become known as Wrigley Field, was born in Richmond in 1874.

These days, the crack comes in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League with the Richmond Jazz.

Playing at John Cate Field at Don McBride Stadium (which dates back to 1936), the Jazz came into the league in 2016. The Richmond RiverRats played collegiate wood-bat baseball in the Prospect League. That team sold and moved to Lafayette, Ind. The GLSCL approached Richmond about joining and a new baseball brand came to town.

Richmond native Deanna Beaman has been a part of the Roosters, RiverRats and Jazz.

A 1996 Richmond High School graduate with a sports management and marketing degree from Indiana University, Beaman served as an intern with the Roosters and served in several capacities with the club for eight seasons.

When the Roosters sold and moved to Traverse City, Mich., to become the Beach Bums of the Frontier League beginning with the 2006 season, it left a baseball void in Richmond.

The hole was filled with changing from pro to college ball and joining the new Prospect League for the summer of 2009 for what turned out to be a seven-season run.

“The college wood bat model is better in this market,” says Beaman.

Then with expansion, costs began to rise in the collegiate summer league world.

“The Prospect League grew and is became more and more expensive to be in that league,” says Beaman, who estimates the team was spending $40,000 per season on travel, not including hotels. “The Great Lakes League approached us. We found that the business models are different in the two leagues.

“There was an interest to keep baseball in the community. You have to be a 501 (c) 3 (non-profit organization) to be in the (GLSCL).”

Beaman is president and general manager of Hitters Hangout Sports Foundation, which operates as the Richmond Jazz.

Richmond players are charged a participation fee (similar to travel baseball) and the club pays a frranchise fee to the league, which must abide by NCAA regulations.

She identifies the top benefits of Great Lakes membership for Richmond is the short season (the team plays a 42-game regular season) and travel is relatively short with no overnight trips.

Richmond is in the GLSCL’s Southern Division with Ohio teams Cincinnati, Hamilton, Southern Ohio and Xenia.

The Central Division features five Ohio teams — Galion, Grand Lake, Licking County, Lorain County and Lima.

Making up the Northern Division are Grand River, Irish Hills, Lake Erie and Muskegon in Michigan and Saint Clair in Ontario, Canada.

Richmond would not see Northern teams until the playoffs.

There were growing pains with the transition from to the Great Lakes. Richmond got a new mayor and park superintendent and the baseball team got a new lease at McBride Stadium in 2016. On the field, Matt Brankle managed the Jazz to a record of 12-29.

Things were completely revamped on the baseball side for the 2017 season. Floridians Brett “Buster” Schneider (assistant coach at NCAA Division I Florida Atlantic University) and Brian Thomas (coach at Gainesville High School) were recruited to be head coach and pitching coach, respectively, and former RiverRats players Joe Pourier was named as a volunteer assistant.

“We have to get a winning ball club in the community,” says Beaman. “Buster has been a great addition for us — both on and off the field. He’s changed some lives in our community. If you want to play at the D-I level, he can tell you what it takes.”

Schneider came to Richmond through a connection Beaman made with a former player.

Jeremiah Klosterman was a catcher on back-to-back Frontier League championship teams in Richmond in 2001 and 2002. The former Florida State University standout owns Hard Knoxx Baseball Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., and Schneider was one of his instructors.

Schneider is in his first season as a summer collegiate head coach, but he did serve three seasons as an assistant for Green Bay of the Northwoods League.

Hitting the ground running (leaving Florida June 2 and beginning practice June 4), Schneider immediately began working on team chemistry with a roster made up of players with hometowns in eight different states. Some players live close enough to commute for games and workouts while others stay with host families.

“You have to get them to buy into your system and play for a chgampionship,” says Schneider. “You have to have a plan in place and you have to win early (with such a short season).”

Through their connections, Beaman and Schneider helped form a Jazz roster that includes players with hometowns in eight states.

“You reach out and get as many good, quality players as you can,” says Schneider. “I want them to use the summer to get better and go back and be conference players of the year and All-Americans.”

By rule, league members must carry a certain number of Division I players in order to be funded by Major League Baseball for developmental reasons. There are numerous collegiate wood bat leagues across the country.

This summer, Richmond has pitchers James Meyer (Valparaiso), Ben Nelson (Virginia Commonwealth) and R.J. Wagner (Dayton), catchers Chase DeBonis (Bethune-Cookman) and Jordan Stacy (Bethune-Cookman), infielder Jordan Gillerman (St. John’s) and outfielders Jack Holden (Eastern Illinois) and Cole Parks (Bethune-Cookman).

“We can get hitters all day long,” says Beaman. “Pitching is the issue. D-I coaches are protecting their starters (and often shutting them down for the summer).

“Across the league, bullpens are very thin. Sometimes we have to go ‘Mississippi State style 3-3-3’ to finish a game.”

Says Thomas, “We’ve done pretty well with the guys we’ve received … We try to keep their pitch counts down … I try to get to know everyone at a personal level.”

GLSCL rules do not allow for a disabled list and player can’t be released based on talent or performance. That means the roster is pretty steady throughout the season.

RICHMONDJAZZ