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IHSBCA All-Star alum Fox speaks from the heart

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Fox knows the honor of being chosen as an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant.

Before he went on to play at the University of Michigan and 14 seasons in professional baseball — making his big league debut in 2007 with the Chicago Cubs — Fox played for the South in 2000 in Fort Wayne.

Fox, who is now retired as a player and living in Michigan, accepted an invitation from former Wolverines and current Ball State University head coach Rich Maloney to address the 2017 All-Stars and their families at a recognition banquet Friday, July 14.

A 1 p.m. doubleheader is slated for Saturday, July 15 with one wood-bat game at noon Sunday, July 16 at Ball State in Muncie.

Outlining the passion, persistence, perseverance and patience it took him to make it to baseball’s pinnacle and play five different positions with seven different MLB organizations plus stints in independent ball and in Mexico and Korea, the Indianapolis Cathedral High School graduate told his story.

Fox, 34, first congratulated the Class of 2017 All-Stars.

“This is a great honor,” said Fox. “You may not know it now. But looking back on my career, these are some of the memories that I hold dear. It is a testament to your talent and a dedication to your craft. It’s awesome.”

Why did Maloney choose Fox to speak when the coach has had so many players with what many would call better resumes?

“I asked him why me?,” said Fox. “He chuckled like the answer was obvious — ‘You played. You were there.’ Who else was going to stand up here and talk about getting from here to where I am now?”

Deciding against a prepared speech, Fox spoke from the heart.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t a superstar player,” said Fox, who was selected in the third round of the 2003 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs and signed by scout Stan Zielinski. “I was a role player my whole time in the big leagues (through 193 games, 489 at-bats, 20 home runs, 73 runs batted in with the Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles). These kids don’t want to be a role player. They want to be the best.”

Fox asked the people who know him best to list his best qualities and he compared them with his own self assessment and came up with those four P’s.

Playing with passion, persistence, perseverance and patience, Fox found a way to stay on the field. He related a story of playing in Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs. He came up as a catcher and was working out before a game as a third baseman when his manager came to him.

“‘Of all the players I ever managed or coached, you’ve got the most out of your ability,’” said Fox of the words he heard that day. “That’s probably the biggest compliment I ever got.”

The manager went on to say that Fox did not have the physical ability of some of his teammates, but he possessed something special and said: “You come out here and find ways to compete. You’re trying a different position not because you have to but because you want to. You’re trying to get better.”

Fox said he was not equipped to talk about being a superstar, but he could speak to the effort it takes to get the most out of his God-given talent.

“My nose was to the grindstone,” said Fox. “I was so concentrated on where I wanted to go that I never actually sat down and thought about what got me there.”

Fox and his closest friends and family agree that he has passion.

“I loved to play baseball and if you don’t love it, it’s not going to last long,” said Fox. “This game can chew you up and spit you out.”

The IHSBCA All-Star alum also encouraged the current All-Stars to enjoy baseball as a team game — something that often goes away when professionals are competing for jobs and playing time and looking out more for themselves than chasing victories.

“That’s why I enjoyed playing in Mexico and playing independent ball,” said Fox. “Guys were just out there playing games.

“There was a time in Triple-A that I hated the most. It didn’t even matter what team was on the other side of the field. It was a competition in your own dugout. That’s not baseball.

For Fox it was about enjoying the competition and seizing the opportunities.

“At the end of the day — even with all the business things — you go out and play,” said Fox. “No matter where it is. No matter what country you’re in. No matter what level you’re at. We get too caught up in where you play and not how you play.”

How about persistence and perseverance?

“Everyday in the major leagues, I was overmatched physically,” said Fox. “These guys were 5-star athletes. I had to find a way to compete. You’ve got to be persistent. Coach Maloney said to me, ‘You know what the second-most favorite thing about you was: You never took ‘no’ for an answer.’”

Fox got much of his MLB playing time on the days when a regular would ask off with a particularly tough pitcher going that day for the other team?

“If you name a tough left-handed pitchers between 2007 and 2011, I probably faced them,” said Fox. “(The regular) would come in and say, ‘CC Sabathia’s pitching today? I don’t feel so good.’”

“When I stepped in that box, I feel I had nothing to lose. They could be a Hall of Famer. What did I care? That’s what made me as good as I was. I just wanted to play.”

Fox also learned to be patient.

“It doesn’t happen on your time,” said Fox. “You can feel like you’re ready. You can feel like you deserve it and you see other people take your place. But you keep playing and you will get your chance.

“They pass guys over because they are too busy complaining (about being slighted).”

Fox reflected on his career and said it was not the numbers he put up but the times he spent with teammates and families and the places he got to see along the way.

“I encourage you to enjoy the journey,” said Fox to the All-Stars. “You don’t know where it’s going to take you. You don’t. You show up everyday, you play hard and you have fun doing it and the rest will take care of itself.

“I once had a friend tell me, ‘You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’ He’s right. You have no idea where this game is going to take you. You have no idea where life is going to take you.”

To illustrate his point, Fox talked about being invited to big league spring training with the Cubs in 2007 and where it led him.

It was Lou Piniella’s first season as manager and Chicago’s top two catchers — Henry Blanco and Michael Barrett — were called away to the World Baseball Classic. Fox was with the big club, but spent his sweaty afternoons warming up pitchers in the bullpen.

“I knew I was getting sent back down. I knew I wasn’t making the team. But I got the experience. I knew what the scouting report was about me: Good hitter. Can’t play defense. It bothered me. I wanted (Pineilla) to see what I was or wasn’t capable of doing before he read it in a report that I didn’t agree with.”

When Barrett came back from the WBC, Fox was the lone player on the roster who had not logged an at-bat or a defensive inning.

Barrett encouraged Fox to say something to the coaching staff.

The Hoosier finally worked up the courage ask for a chance to show what he could do before going to minor league camp.

Fox got his wish. He would play at the end of an away game against the Royals.

Called to hurry from the bullpen, Fox scrambled to the dugout and to the plate and socked the second pitch he saw — a slider — for a double off the wall.

In the ninth, Fox belts a first-pitch home run to plate the decisive run in a Cubs victory.

The next day, the Milwaukee Brewers came to visit the Cubs. Fox started the game on bullpen duty. When called upon to hit late in the game, he pops another first-pitch homer.

“I’ve seen four pitches (in big league camp) and have two homers and a couple,” said Fox.

The next day, Cubs bench coach Alan Trammel told the team to “keep it close until Fox can hit.”

Fox again homers that day.

“I thought I was going to black out,” said Fox.

The next day against the San Francisco Giants, Fox was called in from he bullpen to play left field — for the first time in his life.

Sent back to the minors, Fox opened the season by playing in the outfield and made his debut July 19 in right field at Wrigley Field.

“It just goes to show you that you never know where this game is going to take you,” said Fox. “I played five different positions in the big leagues (right field, left field, catcher, first base, third base). For a guy who couldn’t use a glove, I thought that was pretty good.

“So don’t ever put yourself in a box or limit yourself. Somebody else may see a capability in you that you don’t see yourself.”

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Jake Fox, shown with the independent Somerset Patriots, played 14 professional seasons and was a 2000 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant. (Somerset Patriots Photo)

IHSBCA South All-Stars head coach McKeon sports diamond pedigree

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

B-A-S-E-B-A-L-L demands R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

So says Jeff McKeon, who has been chosen as South head coach for this weekend’s 2017 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series. Practices, junior showcase and banquet are slated for Friday, July 14, with two games Saturday, July 15, and one game Sunday, July 16, at Ball State University in Muncie.

“I believe you must respect the game,” says McKeon, who resigned as head coach at Plainfield High School after the 2017 season (Shane Abrell has been named as his successor). “Once you cross that line, you have to give 100 percent every single time. The game will humble you in a second. If you ever think you are bigger than the game, it will strike back at you in a second.”

McKeon, who led the Quakers to a 94-75 record in his six seasons, was an assistant at three schools prior to Plainfield — one season for Jason Engelbrecht at Evansville Central, two for Steve Johnston at Evansville Reitz and six for Pat O’Neil at Brownsburg.

At Plainfield, McKeon got to be the host coach for the IHSAA’s South semistate games. The field has two berms for spectators and a scoreboard in center field.

Coming from Evansville, where iconic Bosse Field and other parks all have unique features, McKeon likes that the facility is not a “cookie-cutter.”

“I’m a big baseball purist,” says McKeon. “The ballpark should be part of the experience.

“Plainfield has some uniqueness to it.”

A 1993 Evansville North High School graduate, his high school coach was Dan Sparrow. He was a catcher and then a middle infielder at Ashford University in Iowa, graduating in 1997. He also worked two years for the Clinton LumberKings as an intern, grounds crew worker and clubhouse assistant and one for the Birmingham Barons as assistant GM for concessions and in sales.

Jeff comes from a baseball family. He is the son of former minor league catcher and scout and current Evansville Otters radio analyst Bill McKeon. In 2010, Bill was briefly the Otters manager with Jeff as a coach.

Bill McKeon and Joe Unfried, Jeff’s uncle, were teammates on the 1956 Evansville Braves of the Class B Three-I League and founded the non-profit Tri-State Hot Stove League in 1993.

The ’55 Evansville Braves were owned and managed by Bob Coleman. The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inducted Coleman in 1980.

Coleman, Engelbrecht, Johnston, Sparrow and Unfried, are all members of the Greater Evansville Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted its first class in 2016.

Bill’s older brother and Jeff’s uncle is Jack McKeon, the manager for the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins. Jack also served as skipper for the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds.

In his first off-season as general manager of the Padres, he began to rebuild the club with a series of deals and became known as “Trader Jack.”

Jack’s sons have also been involved in professional baseball. Kasey McKeon was a catcher in the Detroit Tigers system and is now director of player procurement for the Washington Nationals.

Kelly McKeon has scouted for the Padres, where he signed Greg Booker, son-in-law to Jack, brother-in-law to Kasey and Kelly father of former Baltimore Orioles minor leaguer Zach Booker. Greg Booker is now a pro scout with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I’ve had some good mentors,” says McKeon, who is a business teacher at Plainfield and IHSBCA vice president on a leadership team that has included Brian Abbott as executive director, Shane Edwards (Oak Hill), Kevin Hannon (Knox), Scott Hughes (Shelbyville), Ben McDaniel (Columbus North), Phil McIntyre (Indianapolis North Central) and Ricky Romans (Charlestown).

“Those are awesome guys,” says McKeon. “They are great coaches and even better men. Being with those guys has been life-altering for me.”

Fundamentals and instruction are important to McKeon, who has thrown countless hours of batting practice trying to turn weaknesses into strengths.

“I’ve worked with a lot of very good players,” says McKeon. “But you win not with best players, you win with the role player that has to step up.”

McKeon, who is in charge of vendors at the IHSBCA State Clinic in January, will serve as a vice president in 2017-18 and is due to be president the following year.

This year marked his third as South representative and coach for the Crossroads Series, held the past two season at Ball State.

With Rich Andriole as head coach, the South swept the North in three games at Whiting in 2016.

“I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” says McKeon, who will be assisted by Brad Catey (Hagerstown), Justin Tucker (Batesville), John Major (Columbus East) and have a Plainfield Quaker on the roster for the third straight year. It’s first baseman Daylan Nanny (bound for Arizona Western College) in 2017. Outfielder/first baseman Jackson Blevins was selected in 2016 and went on to Saint Joseph’s College. He is playing for the Dubois County Bombers this summer. After the closing of SJC, Blevins is slated to play at Wabash College in 2017-18.

Pitcher Antonio Lucciola represented Plainfield in the North/South series in 2015.

“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to be recognized for their accomplishments,” says McKeon.

Jeff and wife Liz have a son and a daughter — Gavin (9) and Katie (5).

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Jeff McKeon, head baseball coach at Plainfield High School 2012-17, will be head coach for the South in the 2017 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series in Muncie.

Indiana baseball ‘dinosaur’ Jim Reinebold passes at 87

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

I can still seem him.

Leaning on a fungo bat on a crisp South Bend day and grinning from the ear to ear.

Jim Reinebold was in his element — on a baseball field.

I asked him more than once over the years, how many grounders and fly balls he had launched with his trusty club.

“A million?”

“Two million?”

He didn’t know the answer, but you were sure each was delivered with a purpose.

Reienbold, who died Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 87, insisted on doing things the way he thought was right.

Very quiet most of the time, but very intense when things were being done incorrectly or he thought the game was being disrespected.

J.R. was not going to stand for that.

Players wore their uniforms just so and they didn’t wear their caps backward — not in Reienbold’s dugout.

Reinebold was one of the first inducted into the first Hall of Fame class of Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association in 1979, an organization he helped found in 1971.

That makes sense because No. 4 was an original.

Generally credited with starting the tradition of presenting a “dinosaur” T-shirt to 20-year veterans of the IHSBCA, Reinebold did not shy away from the prehistoric description when it was attached to him.

A “dinosaur” in Reinebold’s gleaming eyes meant “you’ve been around a long time.”

But that’s not all.

“They believe in discipline and respect for the game,” Reinebold once said of old-schoolers like himself.

Young men who wore the uniform at Greene Township and South Bend Clay high schools when South Bend native was on the bench knew his passion and his drive.

Those “Hot Dog Classic” classes between Reienbold’s Clay Colonials and Ken Schreiber’s LaPorte Slicers were doozies.

Reinebold’s teams won 646 games — at the time of his retirement from high school baseball the most in state history — with an Indiana High School Athletic Association state title in 1970.

Then came a long stint in professional baseball, which included coaching in the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics organizations.

One the stories he liked to tell was set in 1971 when he working for the A’s and managing at short-season Coos Bay-North Bend — the latter a remote seaside town in Oregon. This club was far down the chain and got hand-me-downs from he parent club in Oakland.

“They’d turn the pants inside-out and re-sew them,” recalled Reinebold.

One day, the team ran out of baseballs so J.R. got on the phone to Oakland and who answers the phone but owner Charles O. Finley himself.

When Reinebold told him about his baseball shortage, there was no shipment on the way from Oakland. Charlie O. just told him to go to the local sporting goods store.

Reinebold was a fixture around Coveleski Stadium (now known as Four Winds Field), a place where son Joel has the distinction of clubbing the first home run and being the groundskeeper for many years. Jim was a long-time coach for the South Bend White Sox and South Bend Silver Hawks.

All that wisdom was shared in a new setting when Jim and Joel (who is now the head coach at Clay) started the Jim Reinebold Fall Baseball Camp in 1993. Instruction was — and still is — the hallmark of the annual gathering of players from around northern Indiana and southern Michigan.

Games were often stopped in the middle when J.R. saw something that needed to be addressed on the spot and the there was some yelling involved.

Reinebold was tough. Just ask wife Evelyn and the rest of his family. He was a fighter. Doctors and nurses who attended to him in frequent hospital visits in recent years.

But this is also the guy who could be soft-spoken and talk with you for hours about any subject. Catch him at the ballpark and would insist on getting a hot dog for himself and for you.

Yes, they don’t make them like No. 4 anymore.

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Jim Reinebold works one of his fall baseball camp sessions. The Indiana baseball legend dies Feb. 8 at 87.