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Purdue Fort Wayne’s Birely helps pitchers navigate a world of knowledge

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Blending various talents into a cohesive unit, helping them navigate a world of knowledge and encouraging a flow of ideas.

This is what Grant Birely gets to do as pitching coach at NCAA Division I Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne).

Birely, 36, has been on the job since the 2009 season. The Mastodons are scheduled to open the 2019 campaign Feb. 15-17 with four games at Alabama A&M.

The Purdue Fort Wayne roster features 14 active pitchers with two who will likely be medical redshirts.

“I make an individual plan with each of them to become the best they can,” says Birely. “As they get older and go through the program, they take a lot of ownership of their own development and I become a consultant for them. With the young guys, it’s about teaching them what it takes to pitch at this level.”

Birely says the cornerstone of Mastodons pitching is throwing and learning to spin pitches.

“In some form or fashion, there is throwing each day,” says Birely. “It might be 60 feet one day just to get loose. It might be 350 feet if they’re going to long toss that day. I don’t put a distance restriction on them. We tell them to listen to their arm and see how it feels each day.”

The point is, collegiate pitchers are asked to throw a lot.

“There’s no better way to learn to throw than to throw,” says Birely. “We’re working on their craft every single day.”

Playing baseball at the college level, especially Division I, is a major commitment between school work and hours spend getting ready for and playing games.

“We spend everyday with them and they spend so much time on it, they have to love baseball and showing up everyday and working on it,” says Birely. “One thing they’ll leave with is time management when they head into the real world.”

Purdue Fort Wayne pitchers do a hybrid training program that includes band work, stretching and some weighted-ball movements.

“We don’t dive straight into a full weight-ball program because these guys are competing the minute they get on-campus,” says Birely. “They never really have that down time to solely focus on velocity or anything like that. We’re always trying to work on command (of the strike zone) and commanding a second pitch.”

When the weather keeps the Mastodons off the frozen tundra, they do their throwing in a spacious fieldhouse large enough to make tosses of up to 250 or 260 feet.

“We’re very lucky to have that,” says Birely. “It’s just high enough so they can get a little bit of air under the baseball.”

The top two pitchers from 2018 in terms of innings pitched and victories are gone. Right-hander Brandon Phelps, a Fort Wayne Snider High School graduate, pitched 83 innings and won five games as a redshirt senior. Left-hander Damian Helm worked 73 1/3 innings with four victories in his senior season.

As the Mastodons head into the only four-game series of 2019, Birely says junior right-hander Chase Phelps (Brandon’s brother and also a Fort Wayne Snider graduate), junior right-hander Cameron Boyd (Fishers) and redshirt senior right-hander Shane Odzark will get the first opportunity to be starting pitchers.

The bullpen is being built with establishing strength in the late innings as a priority.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are excited to try to go and finish games,” says Birely, who counts freshman left-hander Justin Miller (Homestead), sophomore right-hander Sean Ferguson (New Haven) and freshman right-hander Jarrett Miller in the closer mix.

Other right-handers include sophomore Trevor Armstrong (Fort Wayne Snider), sophomore Nathan Hefle, freshman Garrett Hill (University), junior Tyler Kissinger, junior Duane Miller, sophomore Brian Skelton (Westfield) and redshirt freshman Cade Willard (Eastside).

Another lefty is sophomore Spencer Strobel (Avon).

Birely says two freshmen right-hander — Grant Johnston (Hamilton Southeastern) and Drew Pyle (Hagerstown) — have had injuries that will likely make them redshirts.

The pitching coach has learned that he is dealing with players who have different ways of learning. They might be visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.

“We have some guys who like to see themselves on video and they can make adjustments based off that,” says Birely. “Some guys I have to put in a position kind of in a kinesthetic way so they can feel it.

“It’s definitely a challenge to figure out each guy.”

And figuring it out is key.

“Anyone who is teaching might be the smartest person in the world but if they can’t get that information to the players, it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t help,” says Birely. “It’s been fun finding different ways to teach and different ways to convey information that I have to them.”

Birely notes that the current generation — Generation Z — gets a bad rap for asking so many questions.

“They have all this information at their finger tips,” says Birely. “Some of it is good and some of it is not good.

“I’d rather have them ask me a question or to try to figure something out than to just go and do it on their own.”

Group chats are a way that information is exchanged.

A pitcher will see a video in social media and ask, “what do you think of this, Coach?.”

Birely asks his hurlers to identify their favorite major league pitcher.

“That gives me some insight of who they’re going to watch,” says Birely. “My favorite pitcher to watch growing up was Greg Maddux. I was never the big velocity guy. Watching him throw a baseball looked like watching a wiffleball.”

He also followed the fortunes of another future Hall of Famer. Roy Halladay went to high school just a few years before Birely in nearby Denver suburb of Arvada.

Birley is a graduate of Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo. He played for current Purdue Fort Wayne head coach Bobby Pierce at Central Arizona College (the Vaqueros won the 2002 National Junior College Division I World Series) then finished his collegiate career at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met his future wife, Bonnie. The two were living in the Big Easy when Hurricane Katrina hit and they moved closer to Grant’s family in Denver.

Retired as a player after one season of independent baseball with the Mesa Miners, Birley went into the business world when a friend asked him to help with freshmen tryouts at Regis Jesuit High School, figuring it would just be for a few hours on a Saturday.

“From the moment I walked out there, I was hooked,” says Birely, who spent two seasons at Regis Jesuit in Aurora, Colo. When Pierce became head coach at Metropolitan State University of Denver, he invited Birely to become Roadrunners pitching coach. When Pierce moved to Indiana to lead the IPFW Mastodons, he asked Birely to come with him.

“I wouldn’t have this opportunity without him,” says Birely of Pierce. “He’s been a mentor and a great person to learn from.

“The best thing about him is that he lets everybody in the organization from players to staff go do their job

he gives them the freedom and creativity to make the program better.”

Pierce promotes a spirit of working together for a common goal.

“He’s very positive,” says Birley. “He’s great to work for. He’s awesome to play for. He allows the players the freedom to exchange ideas.

“Let’s figure it out together.”

Grant and Bonnie Birely have figured out how to balance baseball and family life. The couple has two children — Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tyler (who is active in theater and show choir) and sixth grader Kaylee.

“Like everyday says you’ve got to have a very understand wife,” says Grant. “She’s on this journey with me. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this.

“She keeps the fort going at home.”

Purdue Fort Wayne plays in the Summit League (with North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, South Dakota State and Western Illinois). That makes for a good deal of travel. When the Mastodons go to the Dakotas, they often leave campus on Wednesday night and return at noon Monday.

“(Players) do a great job of doing their schoolwork on the road,” says Birely. “It’s not uncommon to walk through a hotel lobby and there’s 25 or 30 guys doing their homework.

It’s not uncommon for players to ask for the movies to be turned off on the bus to study for an upcoming test.

“We’ve had guys who understand what it means to be a true student-athlete,” says Birely. “It goes back to time management. They have to rely on themselves a lot to make sure they’re getting their work done.”

Coaches will proctor tests for professors, who email the exam and set the time limit and have the coaches sent it back. Other take online classes to allow flexibility and no requirement to be in a classroom.

Christine Kuznar is Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics and meets with players each semester to them on-track toward getting their degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“She’s the rock star behind the whole thing,” says Birely.

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Purdue Fort Wayne was formerly known as Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne. In its new branding, the Mastodons have adopted black and gold as school colors with a hint of blue as homage to the IPFW brand. (Purdue Fort Wayne Image)

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Grant Birely, the baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne, is a native of Colorado who played and coached for Mastodons head coach Bobby Pierce before following him to Indiana. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

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Grant Birely has been baseball pitching coach at Purdue Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne) since the 2009 season. (Purdue Fort Wayne Photo)

 

 

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Segal’s baseball path lands him with Otters, Brittton’s Bullpen in southern Indiana

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

The baseball journey of Bobby Segal has taken the Indianapolis native all over the Midwest and beyond and he has gained something at each stop.

The hitting coach for the Evansville Otters of the independent professional Frontier League and an instructor at Britton’s Bullpen in Boonville, Ind., credits father Elliott Segal and grandfather Al Segal for his “love of the game.”

“My dad and grandpa instilled it in me at a young age,” says Bobby, who started out at Westlane Trails Little League and played on an Indiana state Babe Ruth championship team at age 13 before playing travel baseball for the Chris Estep-coached Indiana Mustangs. “They were never overbearing about it. I got constructive criticism at a young age.”

Bobby’s grandfather had played at Indiana University and his father played at Broad Ripple High School, where he later coached, taught and served as assistant athletic director.

Elliott Segal, husband to Carol, is a long-time scoreboard operator for the Indiana Pacers and Bobby spent his childhood at Market Square Arena (since replaced by Bankers Life Fieldhouse).

Bobby played baseball at North Central High School in Indianapolis for coach Rick Shadiow and served his last three prep years (2000, 2001 and 2002) as batboy and then two years on the grounds crew for the Indianapolis Indians.

“I enjoyed the relationship of running the balls to the umpires and going to their locker room before the game,” says Segal of his batboy duties. “I did whatever I could to make their jobs easier. I enjoyed being around the game and getting to know some of the players. I got see those guys move up (to the big leagues).

“I can’t think of a better job for a high school kid.”

He also took pride in taking care of Victory Field.

“That’s a big league playing surface — no doubt about it,” says Segal. “That’s why a lot of people enjoy playing there.”

Segal was a walk-on catcher at Indiana University, playing three seasons for Bob Morgan and one for Tracy Smith.

Many lessons were learned at IU.

“I learned about punctuality, how to present yourself and being unified as a team,” says Segal. “The game speeds up at each level.”

He recalls vividly a defensive drill run by Morgan that employed two fungo bats and had three baseballs in motion at one time

“If you weren’t paying attention, you were bound to get a ball whizzing past your head,” says Segal. “His practices very regimented. (Morgan) is one of the most passionate guys I’ve been around. He loves the game so much. He wanted his players to be disciplined.

“I have a lot of respect for him. He gave me a chance to play college baseball.”

Right out of IU, where he received a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing/management, he joined the Cincinnati Reds organization in baseball operations, spending time at spring training as well as the minors and in Cincinnati.

Segal then became a graduate assistant coach at Union (Ky.) College, where he worked for Bulldogs head coach Bart Osborne.

In Osborne, he found a kindred spirit and mentor.

“Bart and I very similar,” says Segal. “He is a planner. Whether there was a practice or a game, I’ve never been around anybody who was more competitive than he was.

“I learned a lot of great things from him on the baseball side and the planning side.

“Bart has a great baseball mind.”

After two springs at Union, Segal served one season each as a volunteer assistant to Steve Farley at Butler University in Indianapolis, assistant to Marc Rardin at Iowa Western Community College and assistant to Bryan Conger at Tarleton State University in Texas.

The Reivers of Iowa Western won National Junior College Athletic Association Division I World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and qualifying during Segal’s season in Council Bluffs (2011).

Segal was also recruiting director at Tarleton State and left the Texans for a four-season stint as hitting and catching coach/recruiting director to Rob Fournier at Wabash Valley College in Illinois.

During the summers, Segal got more diamond know-how as hitting coach and interim manager for the North Adams (Mass.) SteepleCats of the New England Collegiate Baseball League in 2010, hitting coach for the Brian Dorsett-managed Terre Haute Rex of the summer collegiate Prospect League in 2012, third base/hitting coach for the Greg Tagert-managed Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent professional American Association in 2013 then returned for two seasons as manager of the Terre Haute Rex.

Gary won the AA championship when Segal was on the staff.

“It was a veteran clubhouse,” says Segal. “I was around guys with Double-A and Triple-A time. We had chemistry and experience for the entire summer. It is one of the best experiences I ever had.”

The 2015 Rex won a frachise-record 43 games and the Prospect League title.

“A lot of guys that bought into what we were trying to do,” says Segal. “I was trying to give them a pro experience at the collegiate level.

“They got a taste of it and a lot of team chemistry. We completed the mission at the end of 2015.”

Hired by manager Andy McCauley, Segal spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with Evansville and will be back with the Otters in 2018.

Meanwhile, Segal is teaching the game to younger players. He enjoys working with both amateurs and pros.

“I love to see the light bulbs turn on for the young kids,” says Segal. “I encourage them to do a more athletic movement and then we see the ball jump off their bat or go in their mitt and get a good exchange.”

Looking to give a well-rounded experience, he spends the first half of a lesson on things like base running and defense and the second half on hitting.

“We’re doing all facets of the game in one trip to Britton’s Bullpen,” says Segal.

At the pro level, it’s about batting cage work and developing daily routines.

“I love the uniqueness of the routines and the camaraderie I can build with the professional guys,” says Segal. “It’s all about competing when the lights come on (at game time).”

In his one-hour sessions with younger players, he helps them make small adjustments and keeps the mood light.

He avoids the major overhaul with his pro hitters.

“I see them a little over four months of the year,” says Segal. “Most of them have hitting coaches back home or wherever they’re at. I’m preaching routines and game-time approach

“I’m trying to give them as much information from a mental approach side of things.”

Matt Segal, Bobby’s older brother, is a former media relations worker for the Indianapolis Indians and sports information director at Morehead State University. He was with the National Football League’s Rams before they moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles and is now digital content manager for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

Matt’s wife, Jenifer Langosch, covers the St. Louis Cardinals for MLB.com.

Bobby and Rachel (Harvey) Segal reside in Fort Branch with their two children — son Asher (2 1/2) and daughter Lillian (almost 6 months).

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Bobby Segal, an Indianapolis native, is entering his third season as hitting coach of the Evansville Otters in 2018. He is also an instructor at Britton’s Bullpen in Boonville, Ind. (Evansville Otters Photo)