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Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

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With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

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Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

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Return to college swing helps Mets catcher Plawecki

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Six seasons into his professional baseball career, Kevin Plawecki went back to his college days and it helped him finish strong at the plate in 2017.

For the year, the former Purdue University catcher hit .328 in 64 games at Triple-A Las Vegas and .260 in 37 games (.348 in his last 10 appearances) with the big-league New York Mets.

Plawecki wore a Boilermakers uniform for three seasons (2010-12) and credits assistant coach Jeff Duncan (now head coach at Kent State University) for guiding his offensive game.

“(Duncan) got my swing where it needed to be in college,” says Plawecki, a right-hander. “He’s one of the best hitting coaches I’ve ever worked with. “He’s very relatable and very good at explaining what he believes in. He had been hitting to the middle of the field and the right side. He had me staying under my legs (with a wide stance). I drifted quite a bit in college and got away with it (even in the minors) because my hands worked so well.

“In the majors, I got exposed. Over the years, my stance got narrow and my hands were moving a lot.”

So with the help of Mets hitting coach Kevin Long (who moved on after the 2017 season), Plawecki studied films of his Purdue at-bats.

He again spread out his stance and his swing became shorter and more compact.

“It really allowed me to use my whole body, especially my legs,” says Plawecki, who turns 27 Feb. 26. “I had been getting more and more upright and it was causing more movement in my head, legs and hands. I was trying to be too perfect.”

It’s that swing he polished at Purdue that helped the 2009 Westfield High School graduate have a super 2012 campaign. That spring, he hit .359 with 47 runs batted in was second team All-America by Baseball America, Perfect Game USA and College Baseball Insider, finished as a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top collegiate catcher, semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy and became the Boilers’ first Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. He was also chosen as Most Outstanding Player in the Big Ten tournament and Purdue’s Male Athlete of the Year.

Plawecki struck out 29 times in 638 career at-bats with the Boilers.

The Mets made Plawecki a compensation pick in the first round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He was the third-highest Purdue player selected in program history. Only right-handed pitcher and Brebeuf Jesuit graduate Sherard Clinkscales (31st in 1992) and outfielder and Anderson Madison Heights graduate Jermaine Allensworth (34th in 1993) were picked earlier.

Plawecki was also Purdue’s highest draftee since 6-foot-6 right-hander and Mishawaka High School graduate Chadd Blasko was picked 36th overall in 2002.

The catcher made his MLB debut on April 21, 2015. He split time between the Mets and Triple-A in 2015, 2016 and 2017, playing a total of 158 games in the big leagues. He was on the Mets postseason roster for the National League Division Series, National League Championship Series and World Series, but did not see any game action.

In 2011 at Purdue, Plawecki hit .341 and drove in 39. He started 55 games — 45 at catcher, six at designated hitter and four at first base. The first-team all-Big Ten selection was a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist. That summer, played for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks of the Cape Cod League

His first collegiate season (2010), Plawecki led the the Boilers in batting average (.343) and established a Purdue freshman record for RBIs (53). He played 54 games and started 52 times, primarily at catcher. He was named a Freshman All-American by both Collegiate Baseball and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. His summer team was the Richmond (Ind.) RiverRats of the Prospect League.

Doug Schreiber was head coach at Purdue during Plawecki’s stay in West Lafayette.

“He was a hard-nosed guy,” says Plawecki of Schreiber (now head coach at McCutcheon High School). “He didn’t take a whole lot of crap from anybody. People respected him. He was always at the morning workouts with us. That goes a long way. He may not have been lifting, but he was up there grinding with us. He fought for us. He had our backs. That’s why we were so successful at Purdue.”

Plawecki grew up a Bolier fan. Several family members, including father Jeff (who was a member of the golf team), mother Lynne and brother Aaron, are Purdue graduates. Aaron is scheduled to complete graduate school at Northwestern University in December.

During Kevin’s freshmen year at Purdue, he met soccer player Tayler Francel and they married in 2015. The Plaweckis are spending their off-season in Arizona, where they are closer to her family in San Diego. He lifts weights four days a week and plans to begin throwing and hitting again in early January before heading to spring training with the Mets in Florida.

Plawecki, who was born in Hinsdale, Ill., and moved to central Indiana about the time he was beginning school, played travel baseball for the Westfield Indians in his early years then the Indiana Bulls and Indiana Dirt Bags before heading to Purdue.

He played many positions growing up, but settled in at catcher as a Westfield sophomore and got pointers from former Purdue backstop Mike Hansen, who is now on the Shamrocks coaching staff led by Ryan Bunnell.

“He helped me with drill work and set the foundation,” says Plawecki, who was part of Westfield’s IHSAA Class 4A state runner-up team in 2009. He was a two-time all-Indy North, all-Hoosiers Crossroads Conference and all-Hamilton County selection and earned four varsity letters in baseball at Westfield and was a team captain as a junior and senior. “I got bored everywhere else. I was not being very good anywhere else and a pretty good catcher. I like the involvement and challenge it brings.”

He gives many propers to his high school head coach.

“Burnell taught me ab out accountability,” says Plawecki. “I was just a young kid at the time, trying to find my way and stay out of trouble. That’s where my work ethic started. It started with those early-morning workouts. We were working hard and letting the results take care of themselves. I learned a lot from him — on and off the field.”

Now, Plawecki not only shares the field but catches some of the best pitchers in baseball. There’s Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo in the starting mix.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Plawecki of receiving the collection of aces. “It makes my job a lot easier. It also brings high expectations. Last year, we couldn’t stay healthy.”

Why all the injuries?

“It’s pretty crazy,” says Plawecki. I’ve never seen anything like it. If we could pin-point it as players or as trainers, we would have done it. Good thing is it’s just one year. We’ll learn from last year and be ready to go.”

Travis d’Arnaud, who played 112 games and hit .244 for the Mets in 2017, is ahead of Plawecki for the top spot on the The off-season MLB.com depth chart.

Can Plawecki win the starting job?

“I just try to go out and play and have fun,” says Plawecki. “I want to take advantage of the opportunity that given day. Leave that decision up to (the Mets).”

Mickey Calloway, who was pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians in 2017, is now the Mets manager. He has been quoted as saying he is considering letting starters go through the order twice before going to the bullpen. Some say this approach could tax the bullpen.

“He’s in-tune with pitching and what it takes to stay healthy,” says Plawecki. “If he thinks that’s the route to stay healthy then that’s what we’ll do. I don’t know if there is a perfect pitch count or innings limit. Everyone’s body is different.

“The success he had in Cleveland with those pitchers speaks volumes.”

Sabermetrics and analytics have become a big part of baseball. Data is used to decide where teams are going to position their defense against certain hitters.

“We don’t look at (the analytics) as much,” says Plawecki. “We’ve got a lot on our plates learning the weaknesses of the other players.”

Plawecki says the coaches are the ones who move the defenders. As a catcher, he calls the signals in stealing situations. Bunt coverages are called by the third baseman.

KEVINPLAWECKIMETS

Kevin Plawecki, a 2009 Westfield High School graduate and former Purdue University standout, is a catcher with the New York Mets. (New York Mets 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.

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