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Purdue grad Isom embraces independent pro baseball manager role, wins title with Joliet Slammers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Isom got to do something for the first time in nearly two decades as a professional baseball manager in 2018.

Isom got to hoist the championship trophy as the decision maker for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers — his first title as a pro skipper.

“It only took me 18 years, but I finally got one,” says Isom, a 1990 Lafayette Jefferson High School and 1998 Purdue University graduate who still resides in West Lafayette, Ind. “A lot of teams made the finals and just came up short for one reason or another. Our pitching staff (at Joliet) was outstanding and did not lose guys to major league clubs like some teams did.”

Without Major League Baseball feeding them players, Isom and other independent ball managers go out and found their own players. The Slammers championship squad featured 14 that came from tryout camps.

“I love getting guys that have been overlooked by the draft for one reason or another,” says Isom of his attraction to independent baseball. “Scouting is not an exact science. We work with them and try to continue to make them better players.

“In independent baseball, most teams rely on the manager. I like it that way. I have the ultimate say in who is going to be on our club.

“I value those tryouts. I know the players are hungry if they’re going to a tryout camp.”

The Frontier League is considered a developmental circuit and the maximum age is 27. A couple of top pitchers from 2018 — Nate Antone and Liam O’Sullivan — will age out and Isom intends to help them make connections so they can keep playing either at the independent or affiliated level.

“Indy ball has been a great time for me,” says Isom, a three-time Frontier League Manager of the Year (2002, 2016 and 2018) who turned 46 on Sept. 22. “I loved every minute of it when I was a player and I’ve loved every minute of it as a manager.

“I’ve been fortunate to make a career out of this.”

Isom doesn’t see it as a job. He sees it as an opportunity to pass along what he knows about the game. He soaked up information from the folks in affiliated baseball and he has done the same thing in independent ball.

Besides his current job with the Slammers, Isom’s managing stops have taken him to the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles, Washington (Pa.) Wild Things, Joliet JackHammers, Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums and Lake Erie (Ohio) Crushers.

In six seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers system, he managed the West Virginia Power, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees and Helena (Mont.) Brewers.

As a left-handed pitcher, Isom played for Tony Primavera at Lafayette Jeff then three seasons at Purdue (1991-93) — one for head coach Dave Alexander and two from Steve Green. Isom went 16-4 with five saves and a 3.72 earned run average over his last two Boiler seasons. In 149 1 /3 innings, he struck out 119 and walked 55.

Isom was born in Pullman, Wash., and wound up in West Lafayette when his father was hired at Purdue (Gary Isom is Professor Emeritus of Toxicology in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology).

The southpaw was an all-Big Ten Conference honoree in 1993 along with teammate and future major league Jermaine Allensworth. The Boilermakers were the only college to recruit Isom.

“As a player, (Alexander) instilled discipline in me,” says Isom of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He taught time management skills and how to hold yourself accountable.

“I had to grow up quick.”

Green imparted wisdom and inspiration.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Coach Green,” says Isom. “He’s probably the most influential person I’ve had in my baseball career.”

At age 14, Isom played for a Green-managed Pony League team.

“He taught me how to throw a split-finger fastball (forkball) and my career took off from there,” says Isom. “As a pitching coach/head coach, (Green) instilled a lot of confidence in me. He wanted me to have the baseball in my hand.

“I got drafted because of what he taught me.”

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 18th round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Isom pitched three seasons in the Pirates and San Diego Padres organizations and then four more in indy ball.

While playing in indy ball, he met two managers — Doug Simunic and Andy McCauley — that helped him on what would lead to a career as a manager.

Isom played for Simunic with the independent Northern League’s Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.) RedHawks and was allowed to pick the skipper’s brain.

“I was just trying to learn and he took me under his wing,” says Isom of Simunic, who went on to become the first independent baseball manager to reach 1,000 wins. “I took best from all the managers I had.

“I’m learning everyday.”

MacCauley coached in Fargo-Moorhead and met up with Isom again with the Frontier League’s Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kodiaks.

Isom was released eight times during his pro playing career. After three starts and three losses for Kalamazoo, he cut himself from the team and headed home only to be called back by MacCauley to be pitching coach. The two men have bounced baseball ideas off each other ever since.

MacCauley has been the manager of the Frontier League’s Evansville (Ind.) Otters since 2010.

Isom’s best friend in baseball, MacCauley was in his wedding (Jeff and former Purdue volleyball player/current Klondike Middle School physical education/health teacher Lisa Isom have two children at Harrison High School in West Lafayette — senior volleyballer Samantha and freshman baseballer Will) and trades between Joliet and Evansville are common.

When school is out, Will travels with the Slammers and sees the effort that goes into being a pro player.

“In independent baseball, you’ve got to put up numbers or there’s going to be changes,” says Isom. “Hard work will pay off.”

When he’s not away managing professionals, Isom can be found back in West Lafayette spending time with his family and teaching private lessons at On Deck Baseball, a business owned by former pro player Josh Loggins.

“I want to see kids get quality coaching,” says Isom, who coached two seasons at Lafayette Central Catholic High School in the 1990s.

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Jeff Isom, a graduate of Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., managed the Joliet (Ill.) Slammers to the championship of the independent Frontier League in 2018. (Joliet Slammers Photo)

 

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Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)