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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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International baseball expert, Indiana resident Bjarkman to receive SABR’S Chadwick Award

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

One of the most prestigious baseball awards will be presented to a longtime Indiana resident this summer.

Lafayette’s Peter Bjarkman — aka “Dr. Baseball” — will get the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award at the group’s national convention June 28-July 2 in New York.

According to the SABR website, the “Henry Chadwick Award was established in November 2009 to honor baseball’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past.”

Bjarkman, a Hartford, Conn., native, has authored more than 40 books on sports history. His latest work in “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story.”

A former professor, he has taught at multiple places including Butler University, Ball State University and Purdue University. Wife Ronnie B. Wilbur, a leading researcher and authority on deaf sign languages, is a Purdue linguistics professor. The couple spends portions of each each in Europe.

At a recent gathering of the Oscar Charleston SABR chapter prior to an Indianapolis Indians game, Bjarkman shared his vast knowledge on the World Baseball Classic (he writes extensively about the subject in “Defectors”) and other diamond topics.

Bjarkman has been to all four WBC’s (2006, 2009, 2013, 2017) as part of the media contingent wherever Cuba was playing. He witnessed the finals in 2006 in San Diego, where Cuba was runner-up to Japan, and 2009 in Los Angeles, where Japan took gold by topping South Korea.

A fan of the old International Baseball Federation World Cup (which breathed its last because of financial reasons), Bjarkman was skeptical when Major League Baseball came along with plans for the WBC. MLB was attempting to take ownership of baseball on a global scale with an Olympic-style event.

“What the original IBAF World Cup did was foster interest in baseball in a lot of countries throughout the world

Sweden would go and lose three games but it would inspire young people in Sweden to try to be on the national team,” Bjarkman said. “You knew from the beginning MLB’s version was designed to showcase international players in the major leagues.

“It did not emphasize and foster international baseball. These guys may be playing for the Dominican now, but they’ll be playing at a ballpark near you soon in April.”

Bjarkman said MLB was hoping to gain financially in the same way FIFA has done with soccer’s World Cup. Of course, the scope could never be the same because not nearly as many countries play baseball and soccer.

IBAF trademarked the term Baseball World Cup in international courts so MLB went with World Baseball Classic.

“There’s a lot of things I love about MLB,” Bjarkman said. “It’s really not about globalizing and internationalizing the game as much as it is about creating international markets for major league products and Major League Baseball — the same way the NFL is doing by having its games in London and the NBA having games at locations outside the United States like China.”

When the WBC came along, Bjarkman enjoyed the event in-person.

“It was really a lot of fun,” Bjarkman said. “There was that element of seeing these players play for their own country.”

That sense of national pride differs from country to country. Bjarkman said players and fans outside the U.S. identify with their national flag. Here, fans tend to be a part of Red Sox Nation, Yankees Nation or wherever their team loyalties lie.

As Bjarkman sees it, the WBC was not marketed probably when the tournament began.

“The first couple tournaments they should have given tickets away,” Bjarkman said. First-round games in Miami in the first few years of the WBC and maybe 1,500 would be there for USA vs. Puerto Rico. “People see these games on TV and there’s nobody there, they say ‘this can’t be worth watching.’”

WBC eventually became a recognized brand and began getting a foothold, but it still has issues.

There’s the timing. Coming during spring training, many players (especially pitchers) are not a full-go yet and team owners don’t like having their expensive talent leaving camp for extended periods.

With the size of the field, Bjarkman there are now eight countries with legitimate national teams with others using mostly players with ethnic ties rather than natives.

Take Team Israel in 2017.

“It was a team full of American players with ethnic Jewish family backgrounds,” Bjarkman said. “This is not an Israeli team.

“This is what MLB has been stuck with by expanding this thing out. You’d probably want to have a six- or eight-team tournament. But that’s going to be a problem because how many games can you market on television?”

Bjarkman also pointed out that countries like the Dominican and Venezuela have much of their baseball talent drained by Major League Baseball.

Two countries who run baseball independent of MLB are Japan with its posting system and Cuba for political reasons.

What happens if Puerto Rico becomes a state, a realistic possibility in the near future?

Bjarkman ask that if there is a Puerto Rican team in the WBC after P.R. becomes a U.S. state, why can’t there be a Miami Cuban team?

A faction in the U.S. would like to put united Cuban team together with players such as Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu.

Cuba is opposed to the idea.

“They are still trying to maintain their own national baseball league,” Bjarkman said. “There has been a tremendous loss of players (to defection).”

Team Cuba at the 2013 WBC had seven of eight everyday players go on to the play in the MLB. Bjarkman’s research shows that 200 Cuba-born players since 1871 have played in the majors as of Opening Day 2017. He classifies 66 of those as “defectors.” The first in the post-revolution period (1961 to the present) Barbaro Garbey, who debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. The next one is Rene Arocha, who first pitched in the bigs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993.

Discussion in Indianapolis also turned to the international tiebreaker rule used in the 2017 WBC and first adopted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The “Schiller Rule” allows that the team at bat began the 11th inning with runners on first and second base.

“It’s not baseball as we knew baseball, but tournament baseball isn’t either,” Bjarkman said. “In the context in which it’s used, it’s really exciting.”

The rule, which has been used during regular-season games in Cuba in the past, was adopted for expediency. Tournament directors are trying to avoid extra-long contests.

“How long is it going to be before we see this in Major League Baseball?,” Bjarkman said. “Why are we going to see it in Major League Baseball? Because of the commercial aspect. You don’t want games going past a certain time.

“They do all these things to try to shorten games. If you want to shorten games, don’t have so many commercials between innings.”

Other factors that lengthen games are the way pitchers are now. There are lefty and righty specialists and so many visits to the mound. It was once rare to have a pitching change before the seventh inning unless a pitcher was getting shelled in the early going.

“They’e trying to shorten games on one hand, but there are all these breaks for video reviews,” Bjarkman said.

PETERBJARKMAN1

Lafayette’s Peter Bjarkman — aka “Dr. Baseball” — will get the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award at the group’s national convention June 28-July 2 in New York.