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Indiana graduate Cohen voice of the Iowa Cubs

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When Alex Cohen went to college, he was surrounded by Chicago Cubs fans.

Growing up a baseball-loving kid in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cohen pulled for that city’s team and he let his friends at Indiana University know about it.

“I was an obnoxious Phillies fan,” says Cohen.

His first memories of the game surrounded the 1993 National League champions featuring Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling.

The first foul ball he ever gathered and first autograph he ever got was from Mickey Morandini, who had played at IU.

Some non-Phillies that got Cohen’s attention were Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez.

Cohen played at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pa. When not on the diamond himself, he was rooting for Phils stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels.

It was also at Upper Dublin that Cohen and friends formed a sports broadcasting club.

Josh Getzoff went on to become pre- and post-game host and play-by-play announcer for the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Stephen Watson would go on to be a sports anchor for WISN News in Milwaukee.

Flash forward more than a decade after his high school days and Cohen is the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s affiliate in the  Triple-A Pacific Coast League. The 2020 season is to be his third in Des Moines.

“This is Cubs country,” says Cohen. “Being the voice of a Chicago Cubs affiliate, it comes with a lot of responsibility.

“There’s just so many Cubs fans who come out in full force. You can tell that the Cubs fans are just a little bit different.”

And not just at Principal Park in Iowa.

Cohen recalls a game during a steamy 2018 day in Fresno, Calif.

“I’m getting to the ballpark a little bit late and I see a line out the door with Cubs fans,” says Cohen. “It was essentially a Chicago Cubs home game.”

That’s when he really began to recognize the national appeal of the Cubs.

Cohen was a Journalism major with a Sports Marketing & Management minor at Indiana, a school that was talked up by a friend who went there. The deal was sealed after a visit to Bloomington.

His freshmen year, Cohen wrote about tennis for the Indiana Daily Student.

He worked four years at the student radio station — WIUX.

There was an internship with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Philadelphia’s Triple-A International League affiliate in Allentown, Pa. He soaked up knowledge from the broadcast team of Matt Robbins and Jon Schaeffer.

Cohen was with the Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, Ill.) of the independent Frontier League in 2011 and mentored by Adam Young.

The first job in affiliated baseball came for Cohen with the Milwaukee Brewers organization and the Double-A Southern League’s Huntsville (Ala.) Stars in 2012 and 2013.

Former major leaguer Darnell Coles was a first-time professional manager in Huntsville. Cohen and Coles experienced highs and lows together.

“He’s probably the best guy I’ve ever met in professional baseball,” says Cohen of Coles.

One high moment came when Coles summoned Cohen to the locker room before a game in Jackson, Tenn.

Coles had acted mad on the phone, so Cohen thought he was in trouble.

Instead, Coles introduced Cohen to former Seattle Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. The broadcaster — the one who had imitated a right-handed version of Junior during backyard wiffleball games — and the ballplayer talked for an hour.

Cohen also came to respect and gleaned adjectives and pace of play-by-play voices in the Southern League at the time — Birmingham’s Curt Bloom, Montgomery’s Joe Davis, Pensacola’s Tommy Thrall and Tennessee’s Mick Gillespie.

Bloom’s “approach to the life of working in baseball and embracing the grind” is what Cohen appreciates about the veteran broadcaster.

Davis is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Thrall the Cincinnati Reds.

Cohen says baseball play-by-play requires proper pace and tempo.

“Basketball and football are melodically so quick,” says Cohen. “You’re just following the action.

“Baseball is more of an art form. In a three-hour game, maybe 30 to 40 percent is action.

“You’re filling in all the background between pitches.”

Cohen was not behind the mike in 2014, but was learning as a media relations and broadcast assistant for the Oakland Athletics. He was exposed daily to the on-air styles of Vince Cotroneo and Ken Korach.

The 2015 season saw Cohen back in the booth with the Idaho Falls Chukars, a Kansas City Royals farms club in the short-season Pioneer League.

In 2016 and 2017, Cohen was in the Low Class-A Midwest League as play-by-play man for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods, a member of the Tampa Bay Rays system.

Working in Bowling Green, Cohen learned to see the game from a unique perspective.

“It’s a really different angle when you’re calling from (the) third base (press box),” says Cohen. “Your depth perception is a little off on balls hit to the outfield (You learn to watch the umpire or look at the monitor).

“It’s fun with your strike zone because you can tell pitches up and down a little bit better. In and out is a little more difficult.”

The radio booth at Tacoma of the PCL is also on the third base side.

Cohen encountered communicators like Chris Vosters in Great Lakes, Ball State University graduate Tom Nichols in Dayton and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler in Lansing.

“The world’s most-interesting broadcaster,” says Cohen of Goldberg-Strassler. “He’s focused on finding that small detail.”

Along the way, Cohen’s baseball fandom has become tied to his employer.

“As a broadcaster in Minor League Baseball you are a fan of the organization you work for and the affiliate they are with,” says Cohen. “You see these guys work so hard to get to the big leagues.

“You root for them to do well and by proxy you root for the big league team to do well.”

While he tends to work solo on the road, Cohen has a color commentator for home games. Deene Ehlis has been a I-Cubs broadcaster in some capacity for three decades and can tap into that treasure trove of memories.

Ehlis, who for years was paired with Randy Wehofer (who is now Iowa’s assistant general manager), does play-by-play in the middle innings and Cohen moves over to color.

Cohen and Ehlis have developed a rhythm over more than 150 games together.

“It’s more a conversation with baseball intertwined,” says Cohen. “That’s our main job is to paint the picture for the fans.”

Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas will always have a warm spot in Cohen’s heart.

His current favorite is the Cubs’ Pat Hughes. With Chicago playing so many day games and Iowa so many night contests, Cohen gets to listen to Hughes while prepping for his game.

“The reason Pat is so good on radio is balance,” says Cohen. “Pat paints the picture. It makes sure the fan doesn’t get distracted from the game, but they also get background information.

“He’s just so even-keeled. There’s no bad games. He goes 2-for-4 or 3-for-4 every game as a broadcaster.”

In the PCL, Cohen is in the company of mike men like Nashville’s Jeff Hem, Las Vegas’ Russ Langer, Reno’s Ryan Radtke, Salt Lake’s Steve Klauke, Memphis’ Steve Selby and Oklahoma City’s Alex Freedman.

“They are tremendous guys,” says Cohen.

All have learned about the grind in a 16-team league that is so geographically spread out that it leads to lots to commercial air travel.

“From a travel standpoint, there’s no other minor league league like the PCL,” says Cohen, who notes that getting to airports in the wee hours, arriving in the next city at mid-day and then being ready for a night game is common.

“I’ve been through a lot,” says Cohen. “I’ve lived in a lot of different time zones. I’ve gone paycheck-to-paycheck up until Iowa job.

‘It’s both rewarding and time-consuming. We spend a lot of time away from your family and friends. This is the industry we chose. I don’t view it as paying your dues.”

During the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic that has live baseball on hold, Cohen stays sharp by contributing to Iowa Cubs social media and calling simulated games for MLB The Show.

“It scratches that itch,” says Cohen, who was supposed to go out to spring training in Arizona March 20 (pandemic hit March 13). “I definitely have fun with that.”

He’s also been doing media interviews and online chat sessions such as the one he did with the Society for American Baseball Research’s Chicago chapter on Sunday, April 26 as part of the #StayHomeWithSABR initiative.

Asked about his home run call, Cohen told the virtual gathering about his rule.

“My rule when I got into broadcasting was I don’t want to have a home run call until I make it to the big leagues,” says Cohen. “If I make it to the big leagues then I’ll have my own home run call.”

Cohen, who has also called baseball games for the Australian Baseball League as well as in Taiwan, Japan and Colombia and the World Baseball Softball Confederation, has visited or worked at three Indiana ballparks — Victory Field in Indianapolis, Parkview Field in Fort Wayne and Four Winds Field in South Bend.

“I love it,” says Cohen of Victory Field, the home of the Indianapolis Indians and a place about 45 minutes from the IU campus. “I love urban ballparks.”

For this reason, he counts parks in Nashville, Charlotte, Baltimore, Denver and — of course — Chicago among his favorites.

“I really like Wrigley Field because even though it’s not in ‘The Loop’ or anything, you can still see what Wrigleyville has to offer,” says Cohen. “(The Fort Wayne TinCaps‘ Parkview Field is) probably one of my top five parks I’ve ever been to in Minor League Baseball. They just did it right. They have enough berm area. They have enough suite level. It’s so open. You have a panoramic view of the city.”

Cohen says he was unimpressed on his first visit to South Bend in 2011 then he came back after owner Andrew Berlin made many upgrades to the place.

“That ballpark has taken on a life of its own,” says Cohen of the South Bend Cubs‘ stadium. “It’s Wrigleyville Jr. It’s so cool.”

Combining the park, fans, proximity to Notre Dame and downtown amenities, Cohen says, “I’m not sure if there’s any better full scene in the Midwest League.”

Cohen was there the day Eloy Jimenez socked a home run against Bowling Green’s Diego Castillo (who is now with the Rays).

“It was a cold winter night in April,” says Cohen. “It was a 96 mph fastball running up and in.

“I’m not sure that ball has landed yet.”

Count Cohen a fan of Howard Kellman, who has been calling Indianapolis Indians games for more than four decades.

“Howard’s one of those classic voices,” says Cohen. “He’s so steady. You just know that he knows what he’s talking about. You know he’s done his research.

“In terms of pacing and verbiage and pausing, I really do try to emulate Howard.”

As a young broadcaster, Cohen does use advanced stats into his call. But he doesn’t force them.

“I’m not just reading them off a sheet for no reason,” says Cohen. “If Donnie Dewees is batting at the top of the order, you want to talk about his OBP (On-Base Percentage), OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play).

“That’s important to a 1- or a 2-hole hitter or someone who needs to get on-base. I don’t want to randomly read out sabermetrics.”

Any advice for anyone thinking of baseball broadcasting as a profession?

“With the contraction of Minor League Baseball, it’s tough,” says Cohen. “You don’t know how many gigs are going to be available at any given time.”

To hone their craft, Cohen prescribes repetition.

“Try to broadcast college or high school games,” says Cohen. “If you can’t, take tape recorder to a professional game.

“Email every single major league media relations director and director of broadcasting and say, ‘Hey, I have my own equipment. I want to get into broadcasting. Can I take one of your empty booths at a random game in May?’”

That gives the aspiring play-by-play man the chance to record a demo that can be sent to other broadcasters and directors for critiques.

“That’s how I got my experience early on,” says Cohen, who says he is open to the idea of being shadowed and then providing access to an open booth at Principal Park.

“You go through that process over and over and over again until you see jobs you want to apply for,” says Cohen.

JOEBIDENALEXCOHENAlex Cohen (right), the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, gets a visit in the booth on July 4, 2019 from Joe Biden. Cohen is a Philadelphia area native and graduate of Indiana University. (Iowa Cubs Photo)

Teachers Scott, Curtis make history come alive for students through baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Educators who value history and baseball have combined the two and stirred excitement about both subjects in their students.

Matt Scott is teaching a baseball history course this spring at Clinton Prairie Junior/Senior High School in Frankfort, Ind. He got the inspiration for the class a few years ago while attending a social studies technology conference in Lafayette. There he learned Shawn Curtis was teaching baseball history at North White Midde/High School in Monon, Ind.

Curtis has led a similar course at Connersville (Ind.) High School and now incorporates the diamond game into his social studies classes at Carmel (Ind.) High School.

“We go over time period and see how baseball is interwoven,” says Scott. “Some students may have a general knowledge, but don’t know history.

“We see what baseball has brought to the history of the United States.”

Using the Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series — now streaming free online by PBS during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has schools doing eLearning rather than in-person classes — Scott leads a semester-long project-based elective course.

Right now, his students are on “Inning 4 — A National Heirloom (1920-1930).”

Using MySimpleShow, pupils will create short videos about one of the World Series during the period when the “U.S. was coming out of World War I and getting back on its feet.”

Many have asked for 1927 with “Murderer’s Row” lineup that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and hot dogs started to be a staple at the ballpark.

“It will be interesting to see how different kids perceive (the Series),” says Scott. “Kids know Babe Ruth, but don’t know Christy Mathewson or Honus Wagner.

“It brings me joy to put a name with a face and how that person is important.”

Some of Scott’s students have used Book Creator to craft a flip book that comes from their research. Other tools include Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Publisher. Students have produced newscasts, podcasts and more.

Skype video conferencing allows for guest speakers. The Athletic senior writer C. Trent Rosecrans told about his baseball experiences, including those in Japan.

“It’s a big party over there,” says Scott of the atmosphere at a baseball game in the Land of the Rising Sun. “The way it is during the playoffs here is an average game in Japan.”

Attendees of Scott’s baseball history class have studied the contributions of people of color from Native Americans to Cubans to Latinos to the Negro Leagues.

Indianapolis native Oscar Charleston was one of the stars of the Negro Leagues, which celebrates its 100th year in 2020. Rube Foster helped establish the Negro National League in 1920 in Kansas City and that city is now the sight of the Negro League Baseball Museum.

The study goes from the Civil War to the civil rights movement.

“Some people don’t understand how far back it goes,” says Scott.

Zoom has been the way Scott — and so many other teachers including Curtis — have simultaneously communicated with students.

In Scott’s class, students have learned about common misconception that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday was the inventor of baseball.

Alexander Cartwright, who came up with the scorecard and help formalize a set of rules, is considered something of a modern-day inventor.

“But there’s no one person who should get the ‘Father of Baseball’ label,” says Scott.

A few years ago, Scott and his class took a field trip to see the Indianapolis Indians where they gained more knowledge about the heritage of that franchise plus baseball in Indiana’s capitol.

Scott is also head baseball coach at Clinton Prairie. With in-person classes ending because of COVID-19, the Indiana High School Athletic Association also put an end to spring sports.

“I’m bummed,” says Scott. “Not being able to play this year kind of breaks my heart.”

With three seniors and nine juniors back from a 2019 team that went 2019, the Gophers were looking to “do some damage” in 2020.

Curtis grew up in Wyoming, but rooted for the New York Yankees since his grandfather — Edwin Curtis — had been offered a chance to play in their system as well as that of the St. Louis Cardinals back in the 1930’s. When the expansion Colorado Rockies came along, Robert Curtis — Shawn’s father — purchased season tickets.

“I’m a huge baseball fan,” says Curtis. “(Baseball) is really the history of America.

“Baseball is the constant theme of things. I will find ways to tie baseball in.”

Curtis, who also used the Ken Burns documentary to frame some of his teaching, says that as cities grew, people needed recreation and baseball parks offered an escape.

“We see how baseball plays into World War II,” says Curtis. “We see how baseball plays into the Spanish Flu (1918 Pandemic).”

Over the years, Curtis has taken students to Anderson, Ind., to meet Carl Erskine, a Brooklyn Dodgers teammate of Jackie Robinson and a baseball ambassador.

Skype or in-person class guests have included civil rights leader John Lewis, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy and Harrison High School graduate and former minor leaguer Josh Loggins and many more.

“(Speakers) really bring history alive,” says Curtis. “Hearing from the people who made news in more impactful than a book.”

As a way of making history come alive for his students, Curtis launched The 1988 Project.

While teaching about that year, he contacted former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who was more than willing to talk electronically with his class.

“We planned for 40 minutes and he went on for probably two hours,” says Curtis. “The kids had a blast.”

The teacher’s aim was for his students to become historians and use 1988 as the focal point.

“We would take a year in the life of America and just pull it apart,” says Curtis. “It was transitional year between the old world and the new world.

“There were so many human interest. Tom Hanks made ‘Big.’ ‘Batman’ was filmed that year. There were magazine covers talking about the Internet coming.”

Students would critique movies and got to chat with online guests like pop star Debbie Gibson, actor Lou Diamond Phillips, The Cosby Show kid Malcom-Jamal Warner, Saturday Night Live cast member Joe Piscopo and “Miracle on Ice” hockey hero Mike Eruzione.

Of course, 1988 is also known for Kirk Gibson hobbling to the plate at Dodger Stadium and homering off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series.

Independent of his teaching, Curtis has been working with the Negro League Baseball Museum — where Bob Kendrick is the president — and highlighting the history of black baseball in Indianapolis.

The best ballplayer of all-time?

“It’s definitely (Negro Leaguer) Josh Gibson,” says Curtis, who notes that old Bush Stadium in Indianapolis was site of a Negro League World Series game featuring Baseball Hall of Famer Gibson and the Homestead Grays in 1943.

Joe Posnanski, who wrote “The Soul of Baseball: A Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America,” is another former guest in a Curtis-taught class. Former Negro Leaguer player and Kansas City Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil was a central figure on the Ken Burns “Baseball” series.

This summer, the Curtis family is planning a visit to Fenway Park in Boston.

The Curtis family has also spent vacations going to historic baseball sites, including League Park in Cleveland, the former site of the Polo Grounds in New York and the boyhood home of Mickey Mantle in Oklahoma (Mantle is the favorite player of Robert Curtis) and many graves.

Curtis has produced short videos through 1945 for the World Series, Negro League World Series and All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

A Shawn Curtis video on the 1903 World Series.

A Shawn Curtis video on the 1945 World Series.

A Shawn Curtis video on the 1943 Negro League World Series.

A Shawn Curtis video on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

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Carl Erskine came to visit the baseball history class taught by Shawn Curtis when Curtis was at North White High School in Monon, Ind.

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Author Joe Posnanski talks via Skype to a class taught by history teacher Shawn Curtis. Posnanski has written on many topics, including baseball.

CURTISGIBSONHistory teacher Shawn Curtis poses with the statue of his favorite player, Josh Gibson, at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

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The Curtis family enjoys spending time at the Negro League Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

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Among historical baseball sites visited by the Curtis family is League Park in Cleveland, Ohio.

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History teacher Shawn Curtis was able to get on the field at historic League Park in Cleveland, Ohio, during a family trip.

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Buck O’Neil is buried in Kansas City, Mo. The former Negro League player and manager’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Billy Martin is buried in Hawthorne, N.Y. The big league player and manager’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Babe Ruth is buried in Hawthorne, N.Y. The baseball legend’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Lou Gehrig is buried in Valhalla, N.Y. The baseball legend’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Mel Ott is buried in New Orleans. The Hall of Famer’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Mickey Mantle is buried in Dallas, Texas. The Hall of Famer’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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Josh Gibson is buried in Pittsburgh, Pa. The Negro League legend’s grave is one of several baseball sites visited by Shawn Curtis and family.

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The Clinton Prairie High School baseball history class of Matt Scott visits via Skype with baseball writer C. Trent Rosecrans. Scott is also head baseball coach at the school.

 

Lefty Thompson keeps on collecting K’s for Kentucky

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Zachary David Thompson goes by Zack.

Perhaps, it’s fitting that the last letter in this standout baseball pitcher’s shortened name is a K.

Zack Thompson, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior left-hander at the University of Kentucky, sure has made short work of opposing hitters by putting up strikeout after strikeout.

“I love the punch-out,” says the graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is fanning opposing hitters at a rate of 12.81 per nine innings for the 2019 season (102 K’s and 24 walks in 71 2/3 innings) and 12.09 for his collegiate career (240 whiffs and 82 freebies in 178 1/3 innings). “I’ve got pretty good breaking balls. I can expand the zone on them.”

Thompson, who employs a four-seam fastball that he can sometimes get up to 97 mph that he mixes with a cutter, change-up, curveball and slider, says he goes to the mound with two keys in his mind: Get a first-pitch strike and after that win the 1-1 battle.

“There’s such a big difference between 2-1 and 1-2,” says Thompson.

Currently the Saturday starter during weekend series for the Wildcats, the southpaw is 4-1 with a 1.88 earned run a 1.88 earned run average. Opponents are hitting .179 against him in 11 games (11 starts).

Since coming to UK, Thompson is 14-3 with one save, a 2.57 ERA and .188 opponent’s batting mark in 40 appearances (31 as a starter).

Thompson is on a team with Nick Mingione as head coach and Jim Belanger as pitching coach.

Why did Thompson choose Kentucky?

“It was just the right fit and has a very blue collar feel,” says Thompson. “My family (which includes father Bill, mother Jan and older brother Nick) can see games. They’re usually down here every weekend. And it’s in the (Southeastern Conference).

“The SEC has the best competition and best environment to improve.”

Thompson describes the atmosphere at conference road games as “incredible.”

He has gotten to stand on the bump on a circuit that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.

In the summer of 2018, Thompson played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, making three appearances with one start. He was 1.0 with a 0.00 ERA, eight strikeout, five walks and three hits allowed in 8 2/3 innings. Opponents, including Chinese Taipei, Japan and Cuba, hit .107 against the left-hander.

“That was just an awesome experience,” says Thompson. “I was representing my country and playing with the some of the best players and for some of the best coaches.

“I got to see how other people do it.”

Louisiana State University head coach Paul Mainieri was the USA CNT head coach. The pitching coach was University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor.

“Coach O is great,” says Thompson of O’Connor. “We worked on things in bullpen that translated to the game really well like his philosophies and pitch calling.”

Mainieri is a former head coach at Notre Dame, where O’Connor was his pitching coach.

Baseball America made the 21-year-old Thompson the No. 1 SEC prospect in the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft (which is slated for June 3-5). D1 Baseball has him No. 2 on their list. He is also high in prospect rankings for MLBPipeline.com and Perfect Game.

“I try not to worry about it,” says Thompson of the MLB Draft. “It won’t matter if I don’t do my job on the mound.”

Thompson was born in Anderson, Ind., and grew up in Selma near Muncie. Playing for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Brian Dudley at Wapahani.

“Brian was awesome and a great mentor,” says Thompson of Dudley. “He’s a great leader in the community.

“He sets his players up for success in the class room and on the field.”

Thompson was a National Honor Society student that led him to study business management in college. On the diamond, he put up eye-popping numbers.

On the mound, he went 23-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 405 strikeouts for 183 2/3 innings (15.43 per seven innings). As a sophomore, he helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 2A state championship in 2014 while going 13-0 with a 0.64 ERA over 87 innings as a pitcher and also hit .500 with eight home runs and 36 runs batted in.

High school summers were spent traveling with the Indiana White Sox or Indiana Bulls.

Thompson was selected in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, but opted not to sign and went to Kentucky.

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Zack Thompson, a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is a junior left-handed pitcher at the University of Kentucky. (University of Kentucky Photo)

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Zack Thompson is among the nation’s top pitching prospects for the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The left-hander is a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., and has been racking up strikeouts in droves as a University of Kentucky junior. (University of Kentucky)

 

Armstrong, Madison welcoming IHSBCA all-stars this summer

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A baseball-mad town and surrounding area will be the focus of the Indiana high school diamond community this summer.

The 2019 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North-South All-Star Series are scheduled for the week of June 17.

“We’re going to make it a week-long event,” says Tim Armstrong, head baseball coach at Madison Consolidated High School. “We’re exciting about having an opportunity to host. We want to do it up right.

“We’re going to make the all-stars feel like all-stars.”

Festivities are to be held at Madison Consolidated, nearby Hanover College as well as on and along the Ohio River.

Madison boasts the “largest contiguous national historic district in the United States” with sites, landmarks and tours plus speciality shopping, restaurants and cafes and the lure of Clifty Falls State Park.

Madison Consolidated will be the site of three all-star games for seniors (25 each representing the North and South) on the weekend. Hanover will house the players and be the site of the Futures Games (replaces the Junior Showcase) and all-star banquet.

Armstrong says Armstrong says Governor Eric Holcomb has agreed to throw out a first pitch. Indiana University head coach Jeff Mercer has been tapped to be the keynote speaker at the all-star banquet.

The plan is to get local youth leaguers and Boys & Girls Club members involved in the fun.

Madison has long considered making a bid for the North-South Series. When Armstrong returned to the Madison Consolidated program for his second stint as head coach, he and former assistant Mike Modesitt (who now tends to all of Madison’s outdoor athletic facilities) began planning and got the mayor’s office and tourism folks involved.

Armstrong served as Madison’s mayor (Jan. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2011) and was a city police officer for many years. He is currently certified through the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office and a resource officer at Madison Consolidated.

Basketball is also dear to Armstrong. He was varsity assistant in boys basketball at Madison two different times and was a lay head boys hoops coach at Shawe Memorial Memorial High School in Madison for two seasons.

The baseball-playing Madison Cubs call Gary O’Neal Field home.

Former Madison head coach Gary O’Neal, who retired for the second time after the 2002 season with 601 career victories, is a member of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Armstrong graduated from Shawe Memorial in 1979. He became an assistant to O’Neal at Madison in 1982.

He started as Shawe’s head coach in 1989 and took the Hilltoppers the IHSAA Class 1A State Finals in 2001, losing 1-0 to eventual state champion Triton in the semifinals.

After sitting out the 2002 season, he returned as Madison’s head coach from 2003-07, resigned to serve as mayor and then got back into law enforcement. He returned to the program for the 2017 season.

Gary O’Neal Field is getting a new scoreboard and windscreen this spring and plans call for an expansion to permanent seating.

During Armstrong’s first stint with the Cubs, he enlisted the help of Madison American Legion Post 9 and got upgrades to the park like irrigation, a new back stop and fencing and a three-tier press box.

“It’s constant work if you want a nice facility,” says Armstrong. “We’ve got a lot of work to do between now and June. But we’re getting there.”

Madison Consolidated (enrollment around 875) is the smallest school in the Hoosier Hills Conference (which also includes Bedford North Lawrence, Columbus East, Floyd Central, Jeffersonville, Jennings County, New Albany and Seymour).

A tournament determines the HHC champion.

“It’s a great conference,” says Armstrong. “It’s traditionally strong.”

The Cubs are part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Batesville, Franklin County, Greensburg, Lawrenceburg, Rushville and South Dearborn. Madison has won 22 sectionals — the last in 2009. A 3A state championship was earned in 1999 as the Cubs topped Fort Wayne Carroll 10-0.

Bryan Bullington was the winning pitcher in that contest, capping off a 15-0 senior season.

Bullington was selected in the 37th round of the 1999 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals, but opted to go to college. He played three seasons at Ball State University and was chosen No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He made his MLB debut with the Pirates in 2005 and went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and Royals then in Japan.

Armstrong’s 2019 assistants include Joe Jenner, Ryan Mahoney and Drew Frazier with the varsity and Derek Wynn, Peyton Head and James “Doc” Boyd with the junior varsity or C-teams.

Local attorney Jenner and insurance agent Mahoney both played on Madison’s 1999 state championship team. Frazier played for Armstrong during his first stint as head coach.

Wynn also played one season for Armstrong at Madison. Head is a Hanover student. Boyd played at Evansville Memorial.

Armstrong’s core coaching values include taking responsibility for one’s actions.

“I stress accountability,” says Armstrong. “I hold them accountable for what they do on and off the field.”

The coach also looks to build a relationship and a sense of trust with his student-athletes.

“I’m very personable with my players,” says Armstrong. “We’re building the character and the type of person they will be once leave high school.”

Armstrong says he appreciates the drive and camaraderie of his current group.

“These kids work hard and they get along together,” says Armstrong. “That’s a big part of it.”

There are 30 in the Madison Consolidated program in 2019.

“Our middle school program is really strong,” says Armstrong. “They are athletes and baseball players. They’re going bump our numbers back up.”

There are close to 30 for seventh and eighth grade squads that play in the spring. The Madison Junior High School field is inheriting the old scoreboard and batting cage from Gary O’Neal Field.

This year, Madison Baseball Club aka Mudcats will field eight travel teams ranging from 7U to 14U. The 14U team, made up mostly of seventh and eighth graders, goes by the Madison Fusion.

Not strictly a Madison organization, players are welcomed from all over southeastern Indiana.

“We want to give kids an opportunity where they can play and not travel far and play a lot of money,” says Armstrong, who indicates that costs to families are cut through fundraising and sponsorships.

Mudcats and Fusion players are encouraged to participate with the local recreation leagues during the week and their travel teams on the weekend.

Madison American Legion Post 9, which won a state championship in 2000, went on hiatus in 2018. Armstrong and Jenner were coaches and would like to bring the team back in the future.

“(Post 9) pays for it all,” says Armstrong, who saw American Legion Post 9 Field become a reality at Shawe Memorial and games move to Gary O’Neal Field when he landed there. “It doesn’t cost the kids a dime to play.”

Armstrong played Legion ball for Delbert Liter in the ’70s and later coached with him.

MADISONCUBS

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Tim Armstrong is in his second stint at head baseball coach at Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School.

Gary SouthShore RailCats embrace independent baseball

rbilogosmall

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

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

rbilogosmall

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.

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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.