An Indiana team earned baseball hardware last weekend in the Sunshine State. The Indy Heat reigned in the 35-and-over division at the 2021 National Adult Baseball Association Lou Palmer Memorial Florida World Series Nov. 11-14 in Cocoa and Melbourne. The team made up of Hoosier Townball Association and Indiana Baseball League players from around the central part of the state went 6-1 – 4-1 as the No. 1 seed in pool play – to take the title in the wood bat event. Formed early in 2021 and playing in exhibitions against the Jasper (Ind.) Reds and IBL 18-and-over Rays at new Loeb Stadium in Lafayette, Ind., and in a Labor Day tournament at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., the Indy Heat is co-managed by catcher Paul Staten (46), center fielder/pitcher Chad Justice (38) and pitcher Gabe Cuevas (41). Staten was the oldest in Florida. The youngest was catcher Trevor Nielsen (34). Rules allowed two players no younger than 33 who were not used as pitchers. Most Indy Heat players have experience in high school and beyond. Some play in both the HTA and IBL. Staten played at North Forrest High School in Hattiesburg, Miss., and one year at Jones College in Ellisville, Miss. Justice played at New Castle (Ind.) High School, graduated from Shenandoah High School in Middletown, Ind., ran track on scholarship and also played baseball for Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Jerry Blemker at Vincennes (Ind.) University. Cuevas played at South Bend (Ind.) Washington High School and Triton College in River Grove, Ill. “Playing against the Jasper Reds gives us a good dose of baseball early in the season,” says Staten, whose team was competitive in four losses to the long-established organization. “We gave them a ball game. “We’re going to continue exhibition with those guys.” Adult baseball players tends swing wood. “Some of these guys can still create quite a bit of exit velocity with aluminum and composite bats,” says Staten. “The (Men’s Senior Baseball League) tries to adhere to MLB rules as much as possible,” says Justice. Sixteen Indy Heat players were able to make the Florida trip. About half of the team entry fee was picked up by sponsors. Players arranged hotels or airbnb accommodations. The Indy Heat beat the Angels 16-0 in Game 1. John Zangrilli pitched a complete-game shutout. Game 7 was a 15-7 loss to the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Phillies. That’s when the Indiana team opted to scrap their gale blue jerseys for black ones accented by gale blue and laser fuchsia and wore those the rest of the tournament. “We’re not superstitious,” says Staten. “Dirty or not, we were wearing our black jerseys.” The Heat concluded pool games by topping the Dallas (Texas) Redbirds 8-3, Northwest Indiana Royals 6-1 and the Dade City (Fla.) Brewers with Mitch Brock tossing a shutout in the latter contest. The field of eight was cut to four after pool play with overall record being the top criteria for semifinals seeding. Runs against was the first tiebreaker followed by runs scored. The Heat outscored pool play opponents 48-16. The Indy Heat bested the Chattanooga Phillies 14-6 in the semifinals. Yasidro Matos came on in long relief of Zangrilli for the Indiana winners. A rematch with the Dallas Redbirds — a team with players who’ve been together for years — in the championship game resulted in a 4-3 Indy Heat win Cuevas pitching a nine-inning shutout. The tournament started with games having a three-hour time limit, but rains caused that to be cut to two hours in games leading up to the final one. “Hats off to the pitching staff,” says Staten. Indy Heat managers employed a bullpen strategy in Florida. By holding pitchers to about 60 pitches they had fresher arms at the end of the tournament. “Other teams were dying out and we had three good arms going into the finals,” says Justice. “I didn’t guys want to throw more than 60 pitches and seeing (the opposing) lineup more than two or three times.” Restrictions were lifted later in the event. “That’s the time you leave it on the line,” says Staten. “There’s nothing going on after that.” What’s next for the Indy Heat? ‘I don’t foresee us playing in anything competitive between now and spring,” says Staten, who notes that players will keep sharp in batting cages and keep sharp with a few practices before that time. “We’ve got guys that are ready to go now. They’re pumped coming off a championship.”
Matt Kinzer has an eye for baseball talent. The former Norwell High School (Ossian, Ind.) and Purdue University athlete who played in the majors and the National Football League was living in Fort Wayne, Ind., when he became an amateur scout in 1995 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Kinzer was responsible for assessing amateur players in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Ontario and Quebec. After five years with Tampa Bay, Kinzer spent a decade as a baseball agent for Reynolds Sports Management, whose owner and CEO is Larry Reynolds (older brother of big league second baseman Harold Reynolds). “I was his recruiting coordinator for the whole country,” says Kinzer. “We hoped these amateurs are going to make the big leagues and get paid.” Among others, Kinzer got the Upton brothers — B.J. and Justin — to commit to the company. LaTroy Hawkins, a Gary, Ind., native who pitched in 1,042 games over 21 MLB seasons, was also a Kinzer client and later went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. At the 2010 Winter Meetings, Dan Jennings (who had been with the Devil Rays) hired Kinzer as a pro scout for the Miami Marlins. Kinzer went to minor league games and an occasional major league contest to evaluate players and file reports for potential trade opportunities. The first year he scouted the entire Midwest League out of Fort Wayne. During his five years with the Marlins, he also did international scouting in the Dominican Republic. While Kinzer was still with the Marlins, the Atlanta Braves called for permission to interview him to scout on the major league side and take on special assignments. He talked with general manager John Coppolella and accepted the deal. “That gave me a seat at the big table,” says Kinzer, who worked with top executives including president John Hart and senior advisor John Schuerholz in giving opinions and developing a preferential list of who could be traded and who was hands-off in the Braves minor league system. “It took us a couple of years to turn that club around.” Kinzer also did advanced scouting to check out possible playoff opponents for Atlanta. He had the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League and Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the American League. Because of COVID-19 and budgetary reasons, the Braves dismissed the entire major league scouting staff toward the end of the 2020 season. Leading up to the Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed from 2020 to 2021), Kinzer selected by his peers to sit on the committee that chose Team USA. They started with a big pool and narrowed it down to the final roster. “It was hard assignment because you could only get guys not on a 40-man roster or had get permission from a club for them to play,” says Kinzer. “It was an honor to be part of the decision-making for our country.” When Kinzer joined the process, Joe Girardi was Team USA manager. When Girardi became Philadelphia Phillies manager the job was passed to Scott Brosius and it wound up with Mike Scioscia. “I got to listen to Joe Girardi on how he likes to design a team and I said to myself, ‘this is pretty cool,’” says Kinzer. “It was a very humbling experience. You put all those years into working the game of baseball and someone has recognized your ability to evaluate.” More recently, Kinzer has lent his appraisal skills as a consultant for Program 15 — a part of New Balance Future Stars baseball tournaments. He lives in Lakeland, Fla., and writes player reports on weekends. Kinzer is also a special events coordinator and fundraising director for Major League Fishing — a circuit that features the world’s top bass anglers. He is helping prepare for a charity fishing event featuring current and former major leaguers Nov. 19-21 in Guntersville, Ala. “I’ve spent three decades in the game professionally building trust with current and former guys and their second love is fishing,” says Kinzer. “I grew up on a pond and I liked fishing.” Participants have baseball and angling in common. “There’s a connection there,” says Kinzer. “They have a tight fraternity. They’re good old boys.” Kinzer played youth baseball for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Colin Lister and graduated from Norwell in 1981. As a sophomore, it was discovered how well he did in booting a football and he led Indiana high schoolers in punting as a junior and senior. He went to Purdue on a full ride in football and also played baseball. He was selected in the second round of the 1984 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cardinals and made his MLB debut in 1989 at age 25 and went on to pitch nine games for the 1989 Cardinals and 1990 Detroit Tigers. He punted seven times in his one NFL game with the Detroit Lions with a long of 42 yards in Week 5 of 1987 against the Green Bay Packers. Kinzer, 58, has three sons who all played baseball and graduated from Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. Taylor Kinzer (33) was drafted twice as a right-handed pitcher — once at the end of his high school career in 2006 in the 34th round by the Washington Nationals and then out of Taylor University (Upland, Ind.) in the 24th round in 2009 by the Los Angeles Angels and competed three seasons in the minors. Derek Kinzer (31) was an outfielder for IHSAA Class 4A state runner Homestead in 2008, graduated in 2009 and also played at Taylor. Jordan Kinzer (29) played junior college baseball and now serves in the U.S. Navy. Matt Kinzer, a Northeast Indiana Baseball Association Hall of Famer, was head baseball coach at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne in 1993 and 1994 and a volunteer assistant coach at Taylor 2011-14 and got to work with Trojans head coach Kyle Gould and assistant and IHSBCA Hall of Famer Rick Atkinson. ‘Kyle is one of the best non-Division I coaches around,” says Kinzer. “It was an honor to share a bench with Coach A. “The game itself creates a fraternity and a bond that lasts forever.”
It was on this date 10 years ago that Andrew T. Berlin purchased the South Bend (Ind.) Cubs from former Governor of Indiana and U.S. Navy veteran Joe Kernan. Wanting to make the occasion memorable, the transaction came on Veterans Day 2011 – 11-11-11 — at 11:11 a.m. In the last decade, Berlin and the Minor League Baseball franchise affiliated with the Chicago Cubs have helped make many memories for visitors to Four Winds Field. “When I think about the last 10 years so much has happened – not just when it comes to baseball or even South Bend but the world at large,” said Berlin to a media gathering at the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Life-changing events have affected all of us as we go through the years. “It all puts everything into perspective. What’s marvelous about baseball is that it provides a foundation for the gathering of friends and family and loved ones. And I take that job very seriously. It’s not just baseball. It’s about the community. It’s about the people. It’s about having fun and celebrating life. And if there was ever a time to do that, it’s probably now as the world struggles to re-open (from the COVID-19 pandemic).” Berlin looks at the area near the ballpark and sees a rebirth in the past decade — not only commercial but from a population standpoint. “Downtown South Bend continues to grow the development and continues to enjoy investments,” said Berlin. “It feels safer. It feels more vibrant. And the stadium – I’m happy to say — continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the community as well.” According to AECOM, the South Bend Cubs provide $24 million annual economic impact to the region (based on information provided by the team). Through various charitable efforts, the club has donated nearly $1.6 million and invested over $32 million into facilities that would improve not only the ballpark, but the community as a whole. Plans are in the works to expand Four Winds Field (capacity 5,000 permanent seats), adding an upper deck and more suites. “There’s tremendous investment that’s going to be done in our ballpark over the next several years,” said Berlin, who put millions of his own dollars into keeping the team in South Bend and upgrading the park. “We’re going to be enlarging the stadium and offering more amenities. And making it a place that is comfortable.” The park – then known as Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium aka “The Cove” — was built in 1987 it cost a little under $4 million. He has been told that to built the same stadium that now exists it would run in the neighborhood of $85 million. At the time Berlin bought the team from Kernan, Berlin was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Chicago-based Berlin Packaging (he is now part of defense firm Shield AI) and the South Bend Silver Hawks were an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate. Near the end of 2014 came the opportunity to be tied to the Chicago Cubs. “That was an extraordinary event for the team,” said Berlin. “But I also have to say it was a fantastic vote of confidence in South Bend and the Michiana region. “The Chicago Cubs — one of the most-celebrated and oldest brands in all of baseball made the decision to come here rather than going anywhere else.” Renowned third-generation Chicago White Sox groundskeeper Roger Bossard was brought in to install the field surface and a performance center modeled on the one used by the Cubs in Mesa, Ariz., was built at Four Winds Field. The 1st Source Bank Performance Center is used not only by the pros but by the community. The stadium is also ringed by four apartment buildings – The Ivy at Berlin Place. It is currently 98 percent occupied with two commercial spaces — one 6,000-square feet and one 4,000-square feet available for lease. In 2021 — with the restructuring of Minor League Baseball under the oversight of Major League Baseball — Player Development Contracts were moved from two- or four-year arrangements to 10. South Bend is in the High-A Central League. The South Bend Cubs’ lease with the city has 20 more years on it. After having no games in 2020, South Bend drew 217,066 in 2021. In 2019, that number was 319,616. The Indiana General Assembly passed the Professional Sports Development Act, which benefits the baseball team and other downtown places and businesses. “Taxes collected in this area – rather than going down to Indianapolis — can stay here in South Bend and can help pay for some of the renovations for Four Winds Field without increasing taxes across the board. In fact, the PSDA wouldn’t even exist if the South Bend Cubs weren’t here. Berlin notes that the expansion will help the team better cater its fans food and drink needs. “Currently we are able to feed everyone in the ballpark with just one small kitchen,” said Berlin. “We’ve been able to make do with this, but in increasing crowds and increasing capacity we’ll have to add more back-of-the-house improvements like kitchens and storage.” Berlin said light construction will begin before 2023 and then building in-earnest will happen after the 2023 season. In the past, smaller projects have been accomplished during the fall and winter months. Berlin said he is hopeful that current supply chain and transportation issues that can affect construction will smooth out. “Since we’re not going to be breaking ground for a little while, I have to think that there will be stabilization of the cost of those materials over time,” said Berlin. What will the new capacity be? “I hesitate to give you a percentage of increase, but it will be substantial,” said Berlin. “Of the 70 (home) games were have in the season right now, we’re selling out around 55 to 60 games a season.” Those numbers are dependent largely upon whether and students being in or out of school for the summer. Going back to 2011, Berlin was not sure he wanted to buy the South Bend team. He was convinced by Kernan and set about putting together his off-the-field team. “Joe convinced me that this was a diamond in the rough and so we went forward,” said Berlin. “Once I was in, I was all-in. I learned in hard because I wasn’t going to get into a business and not try to be successful. “And so I brought all the resources I could possibly muster. I was able to recruit some really amazing talent.” Ever the optimist, Berlin sees his place in the community as a facilitator of memories. Married with five children and living in the Chicago area, Berlin tries to spend at least one game per homestand in South Bend. Sometimes when his family is with him and the crowds have gone home, the family has a pick-up game under the Four Winds Field lights.
Robbie Coursel has learned a few things on his baseball journey and he’s sharing those lessons with others. Born in Michigan City, Ind., Coursel is a right-handed pitcher who has played at the college and professional levels. Through his business – Robbie Coursel Baseball — he provides instruction and helps players go after their goals. Coursel played three baseball seasons at Michigan City High School for Wolves head coach David Ortiz and campaigns for football head coach Craig Buzea and finished his diamond prep career at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., graduating in 2012. His head coach with the Vikings was Rob Stanifer, who pitched for the 1997-98 Florida Marlins and 2000 Boston Red Sox. In October of his senior year, Coursel was given the opportunity to move to Florida with longtime scout and roving instructor Ralph Bufano, who has worked with Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and many others. “He saw that I had a strong arm and was a good athlete and that I had the chance to play pro ball,” says Coursel of Bufano. “He changed the trajectory of my whole life. “Getting into player development has given me a greater reach than playing alone. I’m able to serve others. As a player I can entertain others and profit myself like Ralph impacted myself. “They carve a path for themselves using baseball as a vehicle. (Helping others is) where my passion is. The more I’m able to learn from my abilities, the more I’m able to teach. I love what I do.” Moving away from loved ones at 17 was not easy. “I did not know anybody, but I met people through the game,” says Coursel, who is now 27 (he turns 28 in December). “It was definitely challenging. But they had courage to let me go.” Coursel impressed enough at Northeast High to land a scholarship with St. Petersburg College and played two seasons for the Clearwater-based Titans, head coach Ryan Beckman and pitching coach T.J. Large, who hurled in the Red Sox and is now in player development for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “(SPC) has such a history of producing professional players,” says Coursel, who lived with Bufano during his first year in Florida. After his junior college experience, Coursel moved on to NCAA Division I Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. John McCormack was — and still is — the Owls head coach. Pitching coach Jason Jackson is now at the University of Alabama. “I loved playing for him,” says Coursel of McCormack. “I still stay in-touch with him to this day.” During Coursel’s time there, FAU was ranked as high as No. 8 in the country and had six players selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft both seasons. Coursel was taken in the 26th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates and went to the Appalachian League that summer followed by fall instructional league where he got to compete with players from all levels. The righty spent two seasons in the Pirates system then signed with the independent American Association’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats and pitched for a team he rooted for when he was young. He was with the Greg Tagert-managed club 2018, 2019 and 2021. There was no AA season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Coursel was released by the RailCats in July, he is hopeful to earn a chance to toe the rubber for Gary in 2022 and — perhaps — make his way back to an MLB organization. He has nothing but praise for longtime baseball man Tagert. “He is very intelligent, very hard-working, very professional,” says Coursel. “He knows what it takes to win. He believes in his methods to accomplishing that. I’m behind him 100 percent. “I respect that wisdom and Baseball I.Q.” Coursel addresses what he perceives as the differences between indy and affiliated pro ball. “The players are more refined in the American Association,” says Coursel. “Most of these guys are fully-developed. They’re more experienced. “But it’s ‘perform now.’ They want to win. “(Affiliated ball) has raw talent and younger players and is very developmental-based.” Both brands of baseball seek folks who bring more than just ball-playing abilities. “They have players who are so valuable that they want good people around them — high-character individuals. That alone — along with ability — can get you a career in independent ball. “Ability is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s not the main thing we focus on (at Robbie Coursel Baseball). It’s championship mentality in everything you apply yourself to. You can be successful in whatever they put their mind to.” Coursel conducts his lessons at various locations around northwest Indiana. A training facility with indoor and outdoor areas is in the works. He has several places around the country to see what he wants for his place. He is also looking for instructors with hitting, pitching and strength training knowledge to add to his staff. Robbie and high school sweetheart were married a little over a year ago in Florida and welcomed daughter Layla into the world Oct. 28.
A pair of coaches at the beginning of their professional baseball coaching careers with Indiana ties are together in the New York Yankees organization. Former Ball State University assistant Dustin Glant is the pitching coach and one-time Indiana University assistant Casey Dykes the hitting coach for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre (Pa.) Railriders of Triple-A East (formerly the International League). Both were hired by the Yankees in the summer of 2019. After getting their bearings in the system, they went to instructional league that fall and their first big league spring training in 2020. Glant and Dykes both reside in the Tampa, Fla., area near the organization’s training headquarters during the offseason — Glant with wife Ashley, daughter Evelyn (4) and son David (who turns 2 in December); Dykes with wife Chaney (a former Western Kentucky University basketball player), sons Jett (4) and Kash (2) and daughter Lainey (going on 3 months). At Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Glant and Dykes serve on a staff that features manager Doug Davis, outfield/baserunning coach Raul Dominguez, infield coach Caonabo Cosme, athletic trainer Darren London and strength and conditioning coach Larry Adegoke. With their busy daily schedules, Glant and Dykes don’t spend much time together during the day. They say hello in the morning and then wind down together after games. Glant, 39 (he turns 40 July 20), guided pitchers at BSU from 2017-19 for Cardinals head coach Rich Maloney. As a player, Glant pitched for Generals head coach Dave Fireoved at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wayne High School and Boilermakers head coach Doug Schreiber at Purdue University and had pro stints in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and independent ball. Glant coached at Marathon (Fla.) and Mount Vernon (Fortville, Ind.) high schools, was a volunteer at Ball State then head coach at Lapel (Ind.) High School and Anderson (Ind.) University before returning to BSU late in 2016 as pitching coach. Dykes, 31, was the hitting coach at Indiana under head coach Jeff Mercer. Dykes played at Western Kentucky for Hilltoppers head coach Chris Finwood and was a graduate assistant to head coach Matt Myers when Mercer was a WKU volunteer. A 2008 Franklin (Tenn.) High School graduate, who played for Admirals head coach Brent Alumbaugh, Dykes spent four seasons at Western Kentucky (2009-12) and served two seasons as an assistant, becoming volunteer when Mercer left for Wright State University. Before Indiana, Dykes was hitting coach and recruiting coordinator on Keydets head coach Jonathan Hadra’s staff at Virginia Military Institute (2015-18). Glant says his gameday at the pro level is similar to what it was in college. “I try to get as much one-on-one and small-group time as possible,” says Glant. “If I don’t I feel I miss things.” The difference is that in college, Glant spent a lot of time in front of a computer reviewing video on how to attack hitters. The process is more streamlined at the pro level. “It’s more development focused here,” says Glant, who might focus on a pitcher’s need to improve at holding runners or locating his fastball in a certain count. “We want to win, but we work on the big picture (getting players ready for the big leagues).” Dykes says there more a sense of urgency in pro ball, especially at the Triple-A level where players have more experience. “You don’t have the background with them (like college players who have been recruited and are usually around for years to build a relationship and go through a fall development season),” says Dykes. “In the pros, you’re playing so many games and you don’t have an offseason with them. “Things are changing constantly.” Glant’s gameday starts with preparing for the day and looking at video of the previous night’s game. In the afternoon, he reviews that with pitchers and finds the positives. Then he oversees staggered bullpen sessions for starters and — just before batting practice — relievers, who might go through a full bullpen or just “touch and feel” to stay sharp. BP is also the time he sits down with that night’s starter, both catchers and analyst Shea Wingate to map out a attack plan. Glant says Wingate’s insight is helpful. “He may find that a pitcher needs to throw more sliders,” says Glant. “We look for places where there are good spots to throw more sliders.” Once the game starts, Glant is right by Davis to make pitching-related decisions. Dykes watches his hitters and offers suggestions if necessary. At Triple-A, there are a mix of veteran players with MLB service time and younger ones trying to earn their first big league call-up. “It’s almost all like assistant coaches,” says Glant of having vets around. “They educate guys in the bullpen. It happens naturally. Guys get together and they start start talking. “They’re kind of mentors to the young guys. It’s been great.” Dykes, who starts his gameday with a workout and video study followed by plenty of batting cage time, sees his job as providing the last piece of the puzzle for players trying to return and debut at the big league level. “I want to help these guys maximize who they are as a player,” says Dykes. “It’s good to work with guys who have experienced it. “This is what they do for a living. They’re all-in.” Like the rest of the world, Glant and Dykes learned a different way of doing things thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that caused cancellation of the 2020 minor league season and separated coaches and players from in-person interaction. “It went from being the worst thing ever to — honestly — the best thing ever,” says Glant. “We learned how to train our guys remotely via Zoom and video-conferencing. We were good at it. “We had a lot of people get better without being at the complex during that time.” Led by director of pitching Sam Briend, manager of pitch development Desi Druschel and Director of Performance John Kremer (an Indianapolis native who pitched of the University of Evansville and in the Yankees system), the organization devised a plan and found a way to develop during COVID. “It was mind-blowing,” says Glant. “We had pitchers buys in.” When Glant got a call in the fall of 2020, he went back to training face-to-face with a few 40-man roster players in Tampa and that rolled into 2021 big league camp. Being away from the clubhouse and the dugout, Dykes missed the relationships. “It made me appreciate that even more,” says Dykes. “It also taught me that you didn’t have to be hands-on and in-person with a player to help them develop. “It was a unique challenge, but made me a better coach. It got me after my comfort zone.” Using technology and video tools became part of Dykes’ coaching world and that will continue. “The world we knew has completely changed,” says Dykes. “It’s definitely more efficient. There’s no arguing that.” Dykes expresses thanks to the men who helped him along his baseball, path including Alumbaugh, Finwood, Myers, Hadra and Mercer as well as former Western Kentucky assistant and current DePauw University head coach Blake Allen and current Indiana assistants Justin Parker and Dan Held. “(Alumbaugh) had a ton of influence,” says Dykes.”He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. He saw the potential in me. But he wasn’t going to tell me. He was going to make me work for it. “He had high expectations for me. He really challenged me during some important times in my life.” Dykes, who was a catcher that turned into a third baseman, played three summers during college for Alumbaugh for the Texas Collegiate League’s Brazos Valley Bombers (College Station, Texas). “(Myers, Finwood and Allen) taught me a lot about the work and mentality it takes to be successful,” says Dykes. “They knew that as soon as my playing days were over I wanted to coach.” Dykes learned from Hadra about the importance of being detailed and fine-tuning the process to be able to communicate the message to players. “He’s incredible at that,” says Dykes of Hadra. “He was still a fairly young head coach at that time, but you would never know it. He clings to that process.” With Mercer, Parker and Held at Indiana, Dykes was part of a Hoosiers team that went 37-23 and won the Big Ten title in 2019. IU lost to Texas in the final round of the NCAA Austin Regional.
Ray Dix III is using baseball and education to help youngsters in northwest Indiana. A 2001 Merrillville High School graduate and former East Chicago American Legion Post 369 player, Dix guides to diamond programs for the Region Legion Expos (E.C. Post 369/Lake Station Post 100) and Calumet New Tech High School in Gary. “Post 369 is near and dear to my heart,” says Dix. “Bob Castillo, (father) Alonzo Olvera and (son) Juan Olvera kept it going for a long time.” Dix expresses his gratitude to the late Joe Kusiak. “My organization does not exist without Joe,” says Dix of the man who died in 2019. “He made it his personal mission to make sure some inner city kids got the same opportunities as suburban kids.” The Region Legion Expos are a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization. Each player is charged $200, but can sell $1 raffle tickets throughout the season to off-set the cost. “We don’t turn kids away because of money,” says Dix. “I accept anything they come up with.” Dix notes that there was an Chamber of Commerce event with Gary native and former big leaguer and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer LaTroy Hawkins. Initiatives by the Gary SouthShore RailCats, Home Field Advantage and MLB’s Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities (RBI) were gaining traction before the pandemic. The Region Legion Expos are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Each player is charged $200, but can sell $1 raffle tickets throughout the season to off-set the cost. “We don’t turn kids away because of money,” says Dix. “I accept anything they come up with.” The 2021 season marks the fifth for the Region Legion Expos and there are senior (19U) and junior (17U) squads. While recent rains have taken games away, both teams scheduled around 20 regular-season games. Most senior games have been played at the Kenny Lofton Baseball Complex in East Chicago with junior games at the former Lake Station Little League. In the future, Dix expects that the Region Legion Expos will play home games at Calumet New Tech (the field was built on the campus just a few years ago) and renovated E.J. Block Stadium in East Chicago. Tim Stoddard played for Post 369 and East Chicago Washington High School (later consolidated into East Chicago Central) at Block on his way to the majors. RLE are in the Michiana League along with Bristol Post 143, Highland Post 80, South Bend Post 151 and Valparaiso Post 94 in Indiana, Stevensville Post 568 and Three Oaks Post 204 in Michigan and Palos Park Post 1993 in Illinois. “We hope to grow the league,” says Dix, who is assisted by East Chicago Central High School head coach Jimmy Flores. “We stay away from days that Babe Ruth games are scheduled to give kids more chances to play baseball.” The plan is for league coaches to meet this fall to map out an even larger schedule for next season. “We hope to get more Legion teams,” says Dix. “We’re growing every year. We have more junior teams. “When I played 20 years ago almost everybody had a Legion team. It’s great competition. We don’t see a bad team all summer. Nobody’s bad. That’s what I love about it.” The 2021 junior sectional (Post 369/100 Region Legion Expos, Post 100 Region Riptide, South Bend Post 151, South Haven Post 502 Blaze and Valparaiso Post 94) is scheduled for July 8-11 at Hobart. The senior sectional (Post 369/100 Region Legion Expos, Highland Post 80, South Haven Post 502 Blaze and Valparaiso Post 94) is slated for July 15-18 at Highland. While the COVID-19 pandemic took away what was going to be Dix’s first season at Calumet in the spring of 2020, the Legion team had an abbreviated season without a state tournament last summer. “We were wiping down everything,” says Dix. “We had no (COVID) cases.” The ’21 Calumet New Tech Warriors had 15 players on the roster. Dix was assisted by former Gary Roosevelt and Bowman Academy head coach Kevin Bradley (who had Dix as an assistant at Bowman) plus Daniel Wendrickx and scorekeeper Steve Heck. This week after the Region Legion Expos played Palos Heights the two sides went through an actual handshake line — something not allowed during the high school season in the spring though teams tipped their caps at the end of games. “I didn’t know how much I missed the handshake line,” says Dix. “We show each other respect for what you just went through. “Even at the MLB level, guys shake hands with (their teammates).” The Region Legion Expos have sent Gary West graduates Antonio Reed (Clark Atlanta University) and Zamare Vincent (Calumet College of Saint Joseph), Merrillville alums Thomas Butler (Ancilla College and University of Indianapolis), Darius Kendall (Purdue University Northwest) and Thomas Smith (Bethel University) and Portage grads Shayne Devine (Trine University) and Kody McGuire (Goshen College) on to college baseball while Christian Ayala (Hammond Bishop Noll) and Dylan Coty (Merrillville baseball and basketball) have received offers. “I’ve been very fortunate to have some talented players,” says Dix, who has watched others stay out of trouble, go on to trade schools and become productive citizens. Dix, son of former Gary and current Fort Wayne minister Ray Dix Jr., and retired secretary Jewel Cody and grandson of former steelworker and court bailiff Ray Dix Sr., makes sure players are making their grades and get SAT preparation assistance. He is three semesters from his education degree, which he will likely complete at Purdue University Northwest. “If I get to teach high school and coach baseball I will not work for the rest of my life,” says Dix. “I will be walking in my purpose and be forever grateful.” Dix says area youth coaches and organizers at all levels try to stick to together for the good of the kids. “The goal to always have a safe space,” says Dix. “We all see the writing on the wall. “We don’t want to see it die.” It’s people like Bentley Ellis at Glenn Park Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken in Gary and Tracy Brough, president of Calumet Region Little League, which in 2021 included Duneland Park, Lake Station and Roosevelt Park and had about 150 players at all ages. Bradley, Ellis and Brough are on the CRLL board. “We’re a feeder group for American Legion ball,” says Brough. “Players age out of Little League (4 to 16) and can keep playing.” During the offseason, a group called the Gary United Baseball Collaborative was formed to meet in the offseason and discuss options for area youth. “We see how can we increase the opportunities for kids with their skill levels, training and experiences,” says Brough. “We cross-post (on social media) and communicate in the offseason so (players and their families) know what’s going on.” At Merrillville High, Dix played two seasons for Fenton Macke and two for Zac Wells. “Other than with Coach Castillo, I have not learned more on the mental side of baseball than I did in the few conversations I had with Coach Macke,” says Dix. “He had an amazing way of getting young people to think the game. This is how you stay in the lineup. “That is what you want once you get to the high school level and beyond. You find your niche and work it and that trickles to life. That stuck with me as a 14-year-old kid.” Dix admires Macke and current Washington Township head baseball coach Randy Roberts — men who know what its like to each at the middle school level and coach high schoolers. “If you have them from sixth grade on, they already know what you want (in high school),” says Dix, who plans add a middle school baseball at Calumet in the fall. “They know the style. “Everything is about relationship-building.” Wells, who also coached Ray’s little brother Rahdric Dix (Merrillville Class of 2007 who went on to play at Butler University and the University of Southern Indiana), was a three-sport start for the Pirates who had the ability to break down the intricacies of an athletic task. “Absolute tactician,” says Dix of Wells. “He had that Innate ability to show you the technical part of the game. “I use his hitting methods to this day.” Rahdric was Ray III’s first trainee and he’s had many since. Dix indicates that he would like to eventually be able to direct a program that includes players as young as 8. “It’s about being able to create uniformity and consistency,” says Dix.
Austin Mannan has found his “why” and he pursues it on a daily basis as an educator and coach.
“I felt like I’ve had so many people pour their time and effort into me,” says Mannan, a special education teacher at Lane Middle School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the head baseball coach at Fort Wayne North Side High School. “I have a duty to give that back to kids.
“I want to change somebody’s life. At the end of the day I don’t care what kind of baseball player you are, I want you to be a better person than when you got to me.
“I want them to look back and say he really cared about me. He really went the extra mile.”
Mannan has embraced his mindset and takes a cue from motivational speaker Eric Thomas, who asks “What’s Your Why?”
“Everybody has a reason to get out of bed everyday,” says Mannan. “You have to decide what that motivation is and what you can do to get there.
“(North Side) is an inner-city school. These kids have challenging backgrounds. We want to help them to be a better person.”
The Legends are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Columbia City, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne, Homestead and Huntington North. North Side is seeking its first sectional title.
Also the home of the Fort Wayne Baseball Federation‘s Jackers, Carrington Field underwent renovations that the Legends did not get to enjoy in 2020 with the prep season being wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s pretty nice,” says Mannan, who notes that many previous games at Carrington were wiped out when it rained.
Eight seniors were on the 2020 roster, including college recruits in left-handed pitcher Max Meisner (Huntington University), shortstop Cameron Woehnker (Grace College) and hurler Taegan Armey (Indiana Tech).
Mannan’s 2021 assistants are Jordan Young, Toni Georgi and Armey, who developed an arm injury that caused him to shut it down rather than play college ball.
North Side junior right-hander Nate Spurlock has been getting attention from college programs.
As a player, Mannan got to know the junior college baseball grind from two head coaches — Kevin Bowers at Lincoln Trail and Clark at Spoon River.
“As a JuCo Bandit you’re a grinder,” says Mannan. “You’re putting in the work and getting after it.
“The grind of being a junior college player is incredible. You become so tough playing at that level.”
A typical schedule began with conditioning at 5 a.m., followed by classes, practice, study table and more practice with it all winding up about 10 p.m. Then the same thing the next day.
To get in games against top early-season competition, the team would cram 10 players each in three vans and drive 14 hours to Texas. Meal money was capped at $5 a day.
Junior college baseball is full of potential professional players and they are all MLB First Year Player Draft-eligible.
Two of Mannan’s Lincoln Trail teammates — Damon Olds (Kansas City Royals out of Indiana State University) and Justin Watts (Toronto Blue Jays out of the University of Southern Indiana) — were drafted in 2017.
In Mannan’s LTC recruiting class, 10 of 13 went on to NCAA Division I programs. Two went to NCAA Division II.
After a year at Spoon River (2014-15), Mannan landed at NAIA Saint Francis for two years (2015-16 and 2016-17). Greg Roberts was the Cougars head coach and his successor, Dustin Butcher, was an assistant.
Mannan, who also played summer ball for the Danville (Va.) Marlins in 2015 and Laramie (Wyo.) Colts in 2016, was honorable mention all-Crossroads League in the spring of 2016.
At Saint Francis, Mannan earned a Secondary Education degree in 2018 and a Masters in Special Education in 2020.
It was by coming to Fort Wayne that Mannan met an Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne student from Crown Point, Ind., named Adalyn.
Austin and Adalyn Mannan were married in September 2020. She is a manager at Planet Fitness.
“We were supposed to go on our honeymoon during Christmas break,” says Mannan. Instead, the couple had a bout with COVID. Austin spent a week in the hospital. Except for occasional shortness of breath, he says that has recovered.
The lefty-swinging infielder played in 1,298 regular-season games plus the 1993 World Series and got to represent the USA in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He has coached in the Phillies organization and is now in his third year as a team ambassador.
A big part of Morandini’s diamond development came in his four seasons (1985-88) at Indiana University, playing for Bob Morgan who served as Hoosiers head coach 1984-2005.
“It was a tough decision to go back to college,” says Morandini. “I’m from Pittsburgh and grew up a huge Pirates fan. But I had the opportunity to play on the Olympic team.”
Morandini, who was dating Valparaiso (Ind.) High School graduate and future wife Peg, was chosen to go to Korea and helped the USA capture gold at Seoul. First, there was a U.S. tour at minor league parks then games in Italy and Japan.
“It was an awesome experience,” says Morandini. “I was in the Olympic village hanging out with other athletes.”
Morandini was close to an Elementary Education degree at Indiana. He just didn’t do his student teaching.
Mickey and wife Peg have three sons — Jordan, Griffin and Braydon. The two older boys now live in Indianapolis. Mickey enjoys coming back to IU baseball reunions each October. When the 2020 event was canceled, he put together an impromptu gathering of about 18 players who played golf and spent time together at a lake near Bloomington, Ind.
Chosen in the fifth round of the 1988 MLB Draft by the Phillies, Morandini began his professional career in 1989 by hitting .338 in 63 games at Low-A Spartanburg, .302 in 17 games at High-A Clearwater and .351 in 48 games at Double-A Reading.
“I turned a lot of heads,” says Morandini, who hit .260 in 139 games in 1990 at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre and made his MLB debut with Philadelphia on Sept. 1, 1990.
His first big-league hit was a 10th-inning single off San Diego Padres right-hander Greg Harris. He later scored the game-winning run on a single by John Kruk.
Morandini, who played most of his MLB games as a second baseman, collected four hits in the 1993 National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves and one in the 1993 World Series against the Blue Jays.
He was an NL All-Star in 1995, the year he hit .283.
Morandini spent the 1998 and 1999 seasons with the Cubs.
By the time he was dealt to Chicago a few days before Christmas in 1997 Morandini had already lived in northwest Indiana the better part of eight years.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Morandini of his time with the Cubs. “It was a perfect fit. I could drive back and forth to the ballpark. I love Wrigley (Field).”
Mickey Mo was with both the Phillies (91 games) and Blue Jays (35 games) in 2000. He went to spring training with Toronto before a rotator cuff issues essentially ended his playing career.
Morandini posted a .268 batting average (1,222-for-4558) with 597 runs, 209 doubles, 54 triples, 32 home runs, 351 runs batted in, 123 stolen bases, 437 bases on balls, .338 on-base percentage and .359 slugging percentage. He finished his career with a .989 fielding percentage as a second baseman.
With the Blue Jays, Morandini was reunited with Jim Fregosi, who had been the Phillies manager for the end of the 1991 season through 1996.
“He had been in the game a long, long time as a player and a coach,” says Morandini of Fregosi. “He knew base ball. He was he first manager that brought me to the big leagues and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
“For him, as long as you played the game and played it the right way, that’s all he could ask for. He knew when to get on you and knew when to pat you on the back. He was really good with dealing with personalities.”
Back in Indiana, Morandini enjoyed coaching his sons in youth and travel baseball.
“It was intriguing,” says Morandini of the opportunity. “I love coaching kids.
“I jumped on it.”
Morandini led the Vikings program for four seasons (2007-10) while Jordan and Griffin were at neighboring Chesterton High School.
“I was going to continue then minor league opportunity came up,” says Morandini, who spent five years coaching in the minors and two in the big leagues prior to Gabe Kapler becoming manager and hiring his own coaches — all with the Phillies organization — before taking his current position.
As ambassador, the 54-year-old Morandini is the face of the organization and makes many public appearances and attends games at Citizens Bank Ballpark.
“I mingle with fans and season ticket holders, go to hospitals and play in charity golf tournaments,” says Morandini, who spends most of his time in the Philly area with a short trip to Clearwater, Fla., to entertain sponsors at spring training. “I love it. It’s an awesome job. I get to meet and greet people.”
The Blue Jays were on 64 broadcasts during the shortened season — two exhibition games, 60 regular-season contests and two playoff games — and Wagner worked all of them from a studio in downtown Toronto.
With the help of five camera angles and information graphics provided by MLB, Wagner and his broadcast partners were able to present a game complete with the crack of the bat and pop of the glove.
“It’s the greatest recognition when people say we had no idea you weren’t in Buffalo or Philadelphia,” says Wagner. “That was my goal going into this — to make it seamless on the consumer end.
“To our credit, we were able to pull that off pretty easily from the start.”
Wagner’s employer — SportsNet 590 — made a blanket corporate policy that for the safety of all, they would only be allowed to cover home games if they were at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
The Canadian government did not allow the team to play there and they moved all home dates to Buffalo, N.Y. The 2018 season was Wagner’s first with the Blue Jays after 11 with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
During the off-season, Ben and wife Megan live in Dunedin, Fla. — where the Blue Jays stage spring training — and were hunkered down there when the MLB season finally got started in late July.
Declared as essential, Ben was allowed to enter Canada to work following a 14-day quarantine (the Wagners had been in a modified quarantine since mid-March in Florida).
But that essential status only went with him and Megan had to stay at home in the U.S.
“It was a long-distance relationship,” says Ben. “It was a big sacrifice for her. We used technology as much as we could.”
When things opened up in Dunedin, Ben and Megan drove their golf cart for pick-up meals and groceries.
After Ben’s departure, it was mostly deliveries for Megan and there was the loss of human contact and socialization.
“She became kind of a hermit,” says Ben. “Everything was getting delivered to the door step.
“The heavier lift was done by her. Megan did a great job.”
Wagner’s gameday routine was different. For one thing, he did not get to see the sights.
“I love travel,” says Wagner. “I like to experience new things when we go to a city.
“It gives me an excuse not to suck too much hotel air. It’s part of the enjoyment of this job.”
Earlier in the year, the Toronto metropolitan area was at a standstill even though millions reside there.
“It’s city living and so full of various cultures and life,” says Wagner. That city has an incredible vibe about it.
“Toronto was essentially closed down.”
In 2020, instead of exploring in the morning and going to the ballpark, he went to the studio in Toronto each day at 2 or 3 p.m.
Brunke and Marovich grew up as next-door neighbors and have known each other since before they went to elementary school.
Furman and Brunke played baseball through high school. Marovich played until about 16.
Furman played third base for coach Doug Nelson at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake and Brunke second base for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur at Andrean High in Merrillville and graduated in 2014. Brunke helped the 59ers to a IHSAA Class 3A state championship dogpile as a senior.
A year younger than the other two, Marovich did not play baseball at Lake Central High School in St. John, but enjoyed lively conversations with Furman and Brunke about sports.
Like it had for years, this would often go on for hours.
During all those spirited boyhood conversations at one another’s houses, a parent would sometimes say they should their own show.
Now they do.
This week marked the debut of The Yipps Podcast (@theyippspod on Twitter), a weekly baseball conversation featuring Furman in Pennsylvania, Brunke in Arizona, Marovich in Indiana and a guest from their location.
An introductory episode dropped May 24, followed by an interview with Nick Podkul May 27. Brunke was a teammate of both Podkul brothers — Frank Jr. and Nick — at Andrean. Nick played at Notre Dame and is now in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
The plan is to feature players and coaches in professional and college baseball and show their “normal side” and put out one episode a week — usually on Wednesday nights.
“Our goal is to get their story and take the professional athlete out of them to show that they’re just normal guys who love baseball,” says Furman.
The Nick Podkul episode tells about how he lost his father while in high school and used that to motivate him.
“It’s the stories you never hear,” says Furman.
Brunke says the idea is to give the listener a deeper connection with the guest.
“They still have a life off the field,” says Brunke. “We want to be the avenue to personalize these guys for fans.
“We want to make (the podcast) a platform for all levels of baseball to share stories about normal people rather than have them seen just as athletes.”
Marovich explains his role in the project, which came to fruition over the past few weeks.
“Baseball is the first sport that we played,” says Marovich. “We’ve always had a passion for it. Why not try to explore this avenue of the Podcast space?
“I have friends who wanted to start this journey and I compelled to help them start it.”
Marovich has no previous audio editing/mixing skills.
“But I’m a quick learner,” says Marovich. “I’m a quick learner.
“If it’s something I’m passionate about, I can grind on it heavily.”
Marovich dove into YouTube videos and is teaching himself about it through trial and error.
Right now, podcasts are recorded by taking the audio from a Zoom conference call. He expects to find a method for a higher sound quality in the future.
So podcast rookies Furman, Brunke and Marovich chose The Yipps as their handle.
“We’re probably going to have mistakes, especially in the beginning,” says Marovich, the executive producer. “You have to learn. It’s all part of the experience.
“The best is yet to come.”
Furman got started with USI baseball when he learned that he needed 20 internship hours for one of his Sports Management classes. He approached assistant coach Jeremy Kuester and wound up being team manager for his first two years of college.
“At that time I really wanted to get into coaching,” says Furman.
Then came a conversation between Furman and Screaming Eagles head coach Tracy Archuleta just before Christmas break in the fall of 2016.
There were thoughts of purchasing some video scouting equipment for the program.
“I had two weeks to learn the system and then we’re off to Tampa to play our first series,” says Furman. “That’s where my career changed for baseball.”
“Kevin taught me a lot about the mechanical side of baseball,” says Furman, who learned how to recognize things like hand grip and weight shift. “In 2018, I was helping college hitters at a higher level.”
Furman then worked with the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network, which had many MLB organizations as clients. He worked from a list of players near Evansville and evaluated many NCAA Division I and II as well as some high school players.
“It was a really cool experience,” says Furman.
There were several interviews in the baseball industry before the chance came to join Sports Information Solutions.
“I knew this was a great opportunity to take and I didn’t want to pass it up,” says Furman.
During COVID-19 quarantine time, he has been working on small projects.
When spring training was happening, he was at home or in the office watching feeds of games and charting every pitch, running times, ball off bat speed, velocity, defensive shifts, catcher positions and more.
“It takes awhile to get used to,” says Furman. “It’s basically the same thing I did at USI, but probably with 10 times more data.”
As an SIS video scout, Furman can rewind and zoom to get different camera angles. He usually employs three screens per game.
“Once you get into the groove of things, it’s really fun,” says Furman. “Once the season starts I’ll be doing the same thing.”
Scouts work either the morning or night shift. In the mornings, they go over games that have already been charted and make sure the data is inputted and correct. At night, it’s usually about live games.
With this experience, Furman is not the same kind of baseball fan he was growing up, though he still roots for his Chicago White Sox.
“My viewpoint on baseball is completely different,” says Furman. “I can sit and watch a game and I know what pitch they’re going to throw before they throw it based on things like swing patterns.
“I look at baseball differently than I ever thought I would.”
Brunke counts himself fortunate to have been part of Andrean baseball, led by the Hall of Famer.
“(Pishkur) knows how to get the most out of you as a player,” says Brunke. “There was a sense of pride in wearing (Andrean) across your chest. There was competition within the program. Practice was not easy.
“If you’re going to play in the program, you’re going to have to play your tail off and really buy in or it’s not going to work. It was a super-advanced program.”
Brunke recalls tracking things like launch angle and pitch locations and using them to the 59ers’ advantage.
Next up on The Yipps Podcast (available on Spotify): Atlanta Braves prospect Logan Brown.
The Yipps Podcast is presented by (from left): Aaron Furman, Matt Brunke and Brett Marovich. The trio played baseball together as boys in northwest Indiana and now they talk about it. The podcast was launched May 24, 2020.