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Crown Point’s Plesac in Indians system making up for lost time

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Zach Plesac’s true introduction to professional baseball was delayed.

The Crown Point native spent the spring and summer of 2017 making up for time lost.

Plesac, a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher, was selected out of Ball State University in the 12th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Two months before that life-altering June event, he underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his pitching arm, ending his college mound days and making the rest of the year about rehabilitation rather than facing batters.

At Ball State, Plesac had been splitting his time between pitcher, outfielder and designated hitter as a junior.

Head coach Rich Maloney brought Plesac to Muncie.

“He believed in me,” says Plesac. “I thought I was going to play a position and maybe pitch a little.”

When Plesac set a school single-season record for victories while going 12-2 with a 2.11 earned run average, 67 strikeouts and 33 walks in 85 1/3 innings and 25 appearances (six starts) as a freshman in 2014, his mound profile increased.

In 2015, he went 5-5 with 3.27 ERA, 77 strikeouts and 38 walks in 107 1/3 innings and 16 appearances (all starts). Since he could swing the bat, he was also used as an outfielder, DH and first baseman.

The came his junior season in 2016.

Mostly from the No. 5 hole in the order, he hit .304 with 15 runs batted in. As the Cardinals’ Friday night starter, he pitched in 11 games (eight as a starter) and was 3-2 with a 4.25 ERA and a nine-inning shutout against Miami University of Ohio.

“The next morning, I could not throw a baseball,” says Plesac. “I knew something was wrong.”

His next start came against Central Michigan and Plesac was still not feeling normal. A check of his arm revealed a partial tear.

Now he was faced with the decision of getting the surgery right away or staying in the lineup as a hitter.

“As much as I wanted to play, I didn’t want to be hurt,” says Plesac. “I had to do what was best for my career.”

While he was working his way back post-surgery in Arizona, he began taking online classes. He kept it up all season and has earned a general studies major with three minors (communication, psychology of human development and sociology).

“Now I can go into 2018 season and  focus on playing ball with no nervousness (about school),” says Plesac, who is scheduled to walk in BSU winter commencement ceremonies Dec. 16.

Plesac finally walked up on a pro mound in game action in 2017 extended spring training action against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

A witness to the event was Chris Fetter. He had been Ball State’s pitching coach and had become a pitching coordinator for the Dodgers.

“That’s my boy. He’s the man to me. He’s a mentor,” says Plesac of Fetter, who is now pitching coach at the University of Michigan. “He was there on the last pitch of my college career and first pitch of my professional career.”

Plesac was first assigned to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the short-season New York-Penn League. He went 0-1 with a 1.38 ERA for the Niles, Ohio-based club and made eight appearances (seven as a starter), starting with limitation of three innings.

After Mahoning Valley came a stint with six starts for the Low Class-A Midwest League with the Lake County Captains. He went 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA for the team in Eastlake, Ohio. By season’s end, he was up to five innings or 60 pitches. He wound up the season with 50 strikeouts and 14 walks in 51 total innings.

“Finding the (strike) zone was a big key for me,” says Plesac. “That’s what I wanted to work on. If I can find the zone, it doesn’t matter how hard I’m throwing. I could be effective.”

Plesac used his fastball most in 2017, followed by his change-up (which became his most-effective pitch), slider and curve. He saw his velocity return and he was regularly hitting the gun at 91 to 94 mph with his fast one.

“I had so much confidence,” says Plesac. “I felt ready. I didn’t feel like I was a year behind.

“I’m coming out max effort. You have to be smart with how you pitch. Max effort doesn’t mean you lose control. I’m so comfortable. I’m just trusting in God.”

The righty is happy to say he goes into 2018 with no innings restrictions.

“I’ve put in the work,” says Plesac. “I’ve got good routine to help me keep moving forward.

“Daily, I’m growing and becoming wiser about the game.”

Plesac views his time since starting in pro ball as a period of personal growth.

In college, he was on a schedule based on practices and what the coaches dictated. As a pro, he has been able to take the reigns of his schedule.

“It’s really fun,” says Plesac. “The people I’ve met have changed my life.”

He is pleased to be going through the journey with the Indians.

“I fell into best organization,” says Plesac. “They know how to treat people. This (delayed start) has been a blessing — to be honest.”

Plesac is in the same organization with Elkhart Central High School graduate and left-handed hurler Tanner Tully. The two were roommates for the 2013 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series and both play in the Area Code Games.

Since the 2017 season wrapped, Plesac has been able to spend time in Los Angeles where girlfriend and former BSU diver Quinn Bixler is in graduate school at Loyola Marymount University and working out with Jordan Smolar at NWI Performance in Crown Point.

A a Crown Point High School athlete, Plesac earned three letters in baseball and helped the Steve Strayer-coached Bulldogs to a 27-4 record in his senior season of 2013 and to sectional and regional titles in 2011. He also claimed two letters each in football and basketball.

Strayer made an impact on Plesac then and still does.

“He groomed me into who I am as a baseball player and a man,” says Plesac. “I can remember when I was freshman practicing with the other kids. I was at third base. I made a bad throw to first and I said, ‘it slipped.’ He told me, ‘don’t make excuses ever.’

“Now I don’t make excuses for anything happens. You can’t get caught up in that. I’ve been able to go to Coach Strayer for all types of things. He’s been a good person in my life. He’s always helped me out.”

Plesac who turns 23 Jan. 21, is also taking the time to catch up with family.

Ron and Jeannie Plesac have three children — twins Zach and Ronnie (Zach is 10 minutes older) and Frankie (15).

Ronnie Plesac pitched at Parkland College in Illinois and State College of Florida. Frankie Plesac is a Crown Point sophomore ballplayer.

Uncle Dan Plesac pitched 18 years in the majors and is now an on-air regular with MLB Network.

“He’s there for me whenever I need him,” says Zach of man who in the IHSBCA Hall of Fame and won 65 games and saved 158 for the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies.

The pitcher plans to attend a strength camp in January before heading back to Arizona for spring training.

“I’ve caught myself up ability-wise,” says Plesac. “I’m ready to rock.”

ZACHPLEASCINDIANS17

Zach Plesac, a 2013 Crown Point High School graduate, made his pro baseball debut in 2017 with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. The right-handed pitcher was drafted in 2016 by the Cleveland Indians and spent the season rehabbing from Tommy John reconstructive surgery. He pitched three seasons at Ball State University (2014-16). (Mahoning Valley Scrappers Photo)

 

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Baseball odyssey takes many twists, turns for Vincennes native Ashley

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nevin Ashley always wanted to be in charge on a baseball field.

Coach Bill Cary let him play different positions on the North Knox High School team.

But Ashley was always drawn back to catcher.

“He was great because he knew at that age I had a future in baseball,” says Ashley. “He challenged to think about the game in a little bit more of an in-depth way. That really helped me, especially as a catcher.”

Cary, who was on the South staff for the 2006 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches All-Star Series when Terre Haute North Vigo catcher Josh Phegley was MVP, encouraged Ashley to call pitches and manage the game on the field.

“I began taking extra time to read batters and see any adjustments they might make,” says Ashley. “That helped me have the long career that I had.”

The 2003 North Knox graduate went on to play three seasons at Indiana State University (2004-06) and 11 in professional baseball.

At ISU, he learned much from head coach Bob Warn and pitching coach C.J. Keating.

Warn’s last season with the Sycamores was also Ashley’s last in Terre Haute.

“He was definitely an old school baseball coach,” says Ashley of American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Warn. “He was a good influence on my career. I learned his will to win and how important it was.”

Keating and Ashley went over scouting reports so the receiver would know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. He would study the starters and potential pinch-hitters the night before games.

“I met a lot of good people at Indiana State that I stay in contact with,” says Ashley. “I was fortunate for those years of my life.”

Ashley was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and set out on a long minor league journey.

From team to team and organization to organization, he just kept going.

“I had a lot of perseverance and a lot of people in my corner,” says Ashley, the son of Dan and Jamie Ashley, younger brother of Natalie and Nathan, the grandson of Robert and Patricia Ashley and Jim and the late Shirley Cardinal, the husband of Ashley (yes, she’s Ashley Ashley) and father of two boys — Gaige (5) and Aiden (1).

His parents rarely missed a home game while Nevin was in college and came to see him whenever possible when he became a professional.

Not able to travel much, his paternal grandparents followed on the Internet. If the feed went bad or something about their Nevin on-air was incorrect, they were sure to get a phone call.

“She knows best, so you better listen to her,” says Nevin of Grammy Ashley.

Nevin, who was born in Vincennes, began his baseball players tagging along with Nathan at the Vincennes Cub League. Heading into his freshmen year at North Knox, Nevin played American Legion Baseball in Vincennes. His next three summers were spent with the Indiana Bulls. He went back to Legion ball for the summer prior to Indiana State.

Ashley played for the Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2004, Solano Thunderbirds in the Sierra Baseball League and Horizon Air Summer Series in California in 2005 and briefly with the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express in the Northwoods League in 2006 before signing with the Devil Rays.

Ashley strapped on the catching gear day after day, year after year.

Things he began learning back as a youngster were being reinforced and he was getting acquainted with analytics as part of the scouting report.

“It’s good and a bad thing,” says Ashley. “I’m kind of old school. But (analytics) is very crucial. Stats show that a guy might pull the ball on the ground so we make a shift.”

To stay on the same page, there would be a constant dialogue between innings involving Ashley and his pitching coach and — if he had a catching background — his manager.

“All that being said, it’s still up to the pitcher,” says Ashley. “Those stats go on his baseball card.

“As a good catcher you have to build a relationships with each and every pitcher and build their trust. Some guys you need to coddle a little more. Some you have to push — and maybe even make them a little mad — to get the best out of them.”

In 2007, Ashley smashed 12 of his 66 career minor league home runs for the Columbus (Ga.) Catfish. He played in the 2009 Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

For all his hard work, he finally got called up to the big leagues in as a reserve for the Rays (by this time they had dropped the Devil) during the 2010 playoffs. He did not play.

In 2011 (and again for a short time in 2015), Nevin, Ashley and Gaige went to learn another way of living and about baseball in the Dominican Winter League.

“It was a great experience,” says Nevin, who was with Gigantes de Cibao in 2011 Toros del Este in 2015. “I wanted to submerge myself into their culture. Now I have a better understanding of why Latin players they play the will they do. All that showmanship, fans thrive on it. It’s good for baseball.”

A seven-year run with the Tampa Bay organization ended when Ashley declared free agency and signed with the Cincinnati Reds before the 2013 season. That year, he played not far from where he grew up with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

He was again granted free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was assigned to the Indianapolis Indians in 2014. He got called up to the majors again with Pittsburgh in New York. The catcher he was going to replace decided to play through injury and Ashley was sent back to Triple-A.

Once again, he became a free agent after the season and caught on with the Milwaukee Brewers and went to their Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

That summer, Ashley was called up to the bigs late in the season. After 870 minor league appearances, he made his MLB debut on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. He was 31 years old. Batting eighth in the Milwaukee order, he collected his first big-league hit — an RBI double in his first at-bat — off Tom Koehler.

Ashley would finish the season with one more hit — an infield single off Carlos Contreras on Sunday, Sept. 20 in Cincinnati — and a .100 batting average. He got into 12 games and drove in one run and scored two.

After the 2015 season, Ashley declared free agency and signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and played with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s in 2016 until being traded to the Texas Rangers organization in June and putting on the colors of the Triple-A Round Rock Express.

Once again a free agent, he joined the Seattle Mariners organization for 2017.

In Arizona for spring training, Ashley suffered a pretty severe concussion that kept him off out of games for the whole season.

“When I first started playing, concussions were not looked as thoroughly as they are now,” says Ashley, who turned 33 in August. “As a catcher, I had my bell rang plenty of times. I shook it off, took a few aspirin and kept going.

“This was different. I had two little ones at home. I started looking at my priorities in life.”

Ashley opted to retire as a player and come home to Evansville to sort out his future.

The tagline on his Twitter profile at @nevin_ashley reads: Baseball is what I do, not who I am.

It is followed by a Bible verse — Philippians 4:13. That passage — “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.”

“I’m trying to mend,” says Ashley. “I still having constant migraine headaches.

“I’ll move on from there. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in the baseball world. I have a few opportunities. Right now, I’m going to catch up with all the family time I missed.”

Nevin and Ashley grew up together. They were wed early in his professional baseball career and she and the couple’s oldest son have put in plenty of miles together.

“We decided that we were going do this baseball thing together — no matter what,” says Nevin. “We signed up for it. It doesn’t make it any easier. We have had to deal with a lot of ambiguity.

“But she’s independent. I don’t know how any of the baseball moms do it. They go through a lot out there that not a lot of people see. They think it’s glitz and glamour and it’s not.”

While baby Aiden imitates a bowling ball.

“He runs into everything,” says Nevin. “My 5-year-old, he loves baseball.”

Gaige was eight days old when he attended the first of many baseball games.

“I don’t push it at all, but if he wants to play baseball that will be special for me,” says Nevin. “He’s a lefty. He’s going to have to find a different position.”

NEVINASHLEYFIRSTMLBHIT2015

After 10 years in the minors, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Nevin Ashley hits a double in his first Major League Baseball at-bat Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. The Vincennes, Ind., native began his professional career in 2006 and retired in 2017. (MLB Photo)

 

Time away from baseball coaching changes Adams Central’s Neuenschwander

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dave Neuenschwander pushed the pause button on his high school baseball coaching career.

While away from the diamond, he gained a different perspective and came back refreshed with a changed outlook.

Neuenschwander, who has also a football assistant for 22 years, led the Adams Central Flying Jets baseball program from 1991-98 then took 1999 through 2002 off. During that time, he read a book by Tony Dungy — “Quiet Strength.”

“It was very positive for me and my coaching,” says Neuenschwander, who altered his style when he returned to the dugout at the school in Monroe, Ind., in 2003. “I’ve learned to enjoy it more and more. I don’t take the winning and losing as personal as I used to. I used to be a screamer and yeller. But there’s other ways of doing this. I have more of a relationship with my players. It doesn’t mean I can’t push them when they’e not putting out.”

Neuenschwander, who has been teaching for 27 years, has come to really appreciate the relationships with current players and those that have graduated and gone on to make their way in the world as husbands and fathers.

“We can fellowship,” says Neuenschwander. “I know that each player is different. Each player’s home life is different. Their expectations are different.”

If they are on the team long enough, youth athletes are also bound to change during their careers.

Take the case of Dalton Combs (Class of 2013), who is now an outfielder in the San Francisco Giants organization after a standout career at Huntington University.

“(Combs) was part of one of most successful senior classes here,” says Neuenschander of a 2013 AC club that won 26 games and lost to Northfield in the IHSAA Class 2A Kokomo Semistate. “He started as freshman. He matured physically, mentally and athletically in four years.”

Five of AC’s eight sectional titles have come on Neuenschwander’s watch — the latest in 2016.

The coach has also come to embrace that no two teams are the same.

“The beauty of coaching high school baseball, each year is a new puzzle and it’s my job to put that puzzle together,” says Neuenschwander. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Neuenschwander is grateful that he got to play baseball for two Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famers — Dean Stahly at South Adams High School and Mike Frame at Huntington College (now Huntington University). Dave graduated high school in 1983 and college in 1987.

“He was there a long time,” says Neuenschwander of former Starfires coach Stahly. “He loved the game of baseball. He taught me how to throw a curveball and still use his old-fashioned drills when I want to teach the curve.”

Neuenschwander was a junior on the 1982 South Adams team that lost to Roncalli in the semifinals of the single-class State Finals. Mike Dull was on that ’82 team and went on to play at the University of South Alabama where he was a roommate of Luis Gonzalez, the man who drove in the winning run in the 2001 World Series.

Many lessons were learned in four seasons the Frame-led Foresters.

“He taught us about discipline,” says Neuenschwander. “Becoming a teacher in general, I was given the fundamentals. There was also integrity. Mike’s a man of faith and his integrity was well taught to us.

“He’s a good friend.”

Tom Roy, founder Unlimited Potential Inc., and is now an assistant coach and chaplain at Grace College was a Frame assistant when Neuenschwander’s time at Huntington.

Neuenschwander has sent Combs and others to play for Frame and currently has a couple players on college rosters — Conner Lengerich at Spring Arbor University and Andrew Hammond at Indiana Tech.

“At a small school (enrollment under 400), we have to be really proactive in letting schools know if our kids are interested,” says Neuenschwander. “I see it as a major part of my job. It’s something I want to do. If a student-athlete wants to go to college, I will assist in any way I can. I will show them how to get on-line and do things.”

AC players attend showcases in order to be seen by college coaches. Younger players in the area play travel baseball for the Bluffton Bandits while others have gone to the Summit City Sluggers and Berne Bears among others.

The three-sport athlete is alive and well at Adams Central.

“We encourage them to do everything,” says Neuenschwander. “One of the biggest challenge high school baseball players have is that they’ve been on the go all year and the seniors getting ready to graduate and ready for school to end. Some kids need to get jobs to pay for college so we have to be flexible with practices during the state tournament.”

Being married to an educator has also helped Neuenschwander. Wife Christy teaches third grade at Salamonie School in Huntington County.

“She is definitely a coach’s wife,” says Dave. “She’s very supportive in what I do. She is very level-headed. We weigh out issues and work through them.”

The couple have a married daughter (Whitney teaches at Speedway) and son in eighth grade (Nick).

The Jets are members of the Allen County Athletic Conference (along with Bluffton, Heritage, Jay County, South Adams, Southern Wells and Woodlan).

“It’s pretty competitive,” says Neuenschwander of the ACAC. “Schools are fairly close to each other. We know the players and coaches very well.”

Neuenschwander was a teammate of current Jay County head baseball coach Lea Selvey back in the early 1980’s with the Portland Rockets.

Winter workouts are starting with about 10 players participating and the others in a winter sport. Neuenschwander’s assistants are Josh Foster (varsity) and Joel Reinhard (junior varsity). Fall open fields were run by Reinhard with Neuenschwander coaching football. Other volunteers are expected to help the Jets on the diamond in the spring.

In 2017, the IHSAA adopted pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“It didn’t bother me at all,” says Neuenschwander. “It really makes the game a little more strategic in a sense.”

He and his assistants had to really plan when they would use a pitcher and for how long.

“You need to develop more pitchers — not just throwers,” says Neuenschwander. “At the JV level, it’s really positive. There are more opportunities for players to play.”

JV limits are tighter than varsity and there has been discussions about making it the same as varsity.

We’re still here to protect you because you are a child,” says Neuenschwander. “Some summer coaches may not protect them as much as they should so they put it in the hands of the educators. It became the coach’s responsibility to document (pitcher use). I become liable if he didn’t have the proper rest.”

Dave is the youngest of six children born to Delmar and Dessi Neuenschwander. His father was a butcher. Berne Locker Meats has been in the family for about 70 years.

Brothers Don and Doug also played at Huntington. Doug went on to pitch at Triple-A in the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates systems. The three girls are Dana, Danita Jo and Dian. Doug and Dana are both in the Huntington University Athletics Hall of Fame.

DAVENEUENSCHWANDER

Dave Neuenschwander is the long-time baseball coach at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind.

 

Well-traveled Roy returning to Grace staff as chaplain, coach

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Tom Roy did not get to play baseball for as long as he wanted.

But he’s OK with that because by using faith as a fastener, the former pitcher has attached himself to the game all over the globe and his base of operations has been northern Indiana.

“It’s a God thing,” says Roy. “It’s not about me.”

Roy, who founded Unlimited Potential, Inc. — an organization that ministers to baseball programs around the world serving Christ through baseball —  in Winona Lake in 1980.

An autobiography — “Released” — tells about how he eventually started UPI after a career-ending injury. He was signed by the San Francisco Giants as a pitcher at 17.

Fast forward decades and Roy can say he has taught and coached baseball in 67 countries.

“I’m the father of baseball in Uganda,” says Roy, who introduced the sport to a nation who had been playing the bat-and-ball sport of cricket. As part of the lessons, there was prayer, Bible study and baseball instruction. That’s still the way some there still do it.

“That is baseball to them,” says Roy. “It’s part of the baseball culture.”

Roy returns to the baseball coaching staff at Grace College (also in Kosciusko town next to Warsaw) as both assistant coach and team chaplain for head coach Cam Screeton’s team in 2017-18. Roy worked as Lancers pitching coach 1970-73 (earning a bachelor’s degree at Grace in 1974), head coach 1980-83 and was an assistant in 2015.

Roy remembers that spring that at almost every stop around the Crossroads League, he was greeted by hugs from opposing coaches.

“Our players wondered why we were hugging the other team,” says Roy. “I was back, coaching against friends.”

He served as head baseball coach and assistant football coach to Charlie Smith when Tippecanoe Valley High School opened it doors in 1974-75 and has the distinction of leading sectional winners — the first in any sport in school history — that first spring in baseball (1975).

The ace of the Vikings pitching staff was left-hander Keith Hardesty. The team also featured Chris Smalley and Doug Miller.

Roy was an associate scout for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1976-79, pitching coach at Huntington College (now Huntington University) 1987-89 and was an associate international scout for the Atlanta Braves from 1993-99 and for the San Diego Padres from 2000-05.

In his connection with the Seattle Mariners, Roy gained a large audience and began working with Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Alvin Davis and others. He took Reynolds on a missionary trip to Thailand and the others on similar trips.

Through the game and sharing of faith, trust relationships were developed and he was introduced to many current players.

“One of the biggest issues for these guys is trust,” says Roy of major league players who have people constantly approaching them. “They would ask me, ‘why do you want to be a my friend?’

“The answer: Jesus.”

Through Sam Bender, Roy began to speak to home and visiting teams around the Midwest.

“I got to know hundreds of players because of Baseball Chapel,” says Roy, who worked with current BC president Vince Nauss and former president Dave Swanson. He also received encouragement from Jack King of Athletes In Action.

Roy became chaplain for the Chicago White Sox organization when Jerry Manuel was manager. He stayed in touch with chaplains for all the White Sox affiliates and filed reports.

“I’ve had all these pivotal moments in my life,” says Roy. “It’s fun when you finally let go.”

By building relationships, Roy has been able to build a library of instructional videos for coaches and players at http://www.upi.org featuring MLB pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Ian Kennedy and Luke Hochevar.

While coach at Huntington, Roy helped then-head coach Jim Wilson build Forest Glen Park, helped send hurlers Tim Dell, Jim Lawson, Doug Neuenschwander and Mark Parker into professional baseball and recruited Mike Frame, who is heading into his 34th season as HU’s head coach in 2018.

It was also while at Huntington that Roy got a chance to meet his baseball hero — Hank Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank accepted an invitation to speak at a preseason event and the two got a chance to talk about the game and faith during their drive from the airport.

Roy served 27 years in that role at the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series. Since 1990, the UPI-sponsored Hank Burbridge Award honors the NCCAA’s Outstanding Christian Baseball Player of the Year with potential to Christian service through baseball. The award is named for the long-time baseball coach at Spring Arbor (Mich.) University.

Roy hails from Grafton, Wis. When his playing career to an abrupt halt and he found himself looking for another career, he decided to go into radio. He sent his resumes to other Graftons in the U.S. and wound up at a station in West Virginia — WVVW.

It was also in Wisconsin that he met the woman he would married. Tom and Carin were wed in 1970 and soon found themselves moving to the Hoosier State, where they would welcome two daughters — Amy in 1975 and Lindsay in 1979.

At 6-foot-5, Roy was a strong basketball player and it was through the hardwood that he met a Grace Brethren pastor that suggested he go to Indiana to study and play basketball at Grace.

“It was the spiritual that brought me here,” says Roy. The couple became engaged when Carin visited Tom in West Virginia. They were wed in 1970 and soon found themselves moving to Winona Lake. He became a full-time student with several part-time jobs and she worked full-time.

In his basketball tryout at Grace, he went against Jim Kessler (who is now in his 36th season as Lancers head men’s basketball coach).

Roy was going to be offered a place on the squad when it was learned that he had played some minor league baseball. At the time, NAIA rules did not allow for someone to be a pro in one sport and an amateur in another so he became as assistant coach in basketball and baseball.

Before UPI got off the ground, Tom and Carin welcomed two daughters — Amy in 1975 and Lindsay in 1979.

The only UPI staff member for the first few years, Tom went full-time with the organization in 1983. At first, he made connections in the U.S., and then went international. As a part of the admissions office at Grace, he was in charge of international students and had a stipend for international recruiting.

Besides founder Roy, the UPI team now features former pro players in executive director Mickey Weston (current White Sox chaplain) as well as Brian Hommel (Arizona Diamondbacks chaplain), Tony Graffanino (White Sox spring training and Arizona League affiliate chaplain), Terry Evans (Braves chaplain) and Simon Goehring (missions coordinator based in Germany).

Bryan Hickerson made his MLB debut in 1991 and pitched for Giants, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies. He began attending UPI Bible studies in 1997 and in 1999 moved to Warsaw and joined the UPI lineup. He was able to forge relationships with both baseball players and military around the world. He moved from there to a minor league pitching coach in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Tom Roy and Jerry Price have co-authored  “Beyond Betrayal” as well as three volumes in the Chadwick Bay Series — “Sandusky Bay,” “Ellison Bay” and “Lake of Bays.” The last three are novels on manhood.

“Our model of manhood is Jesus,” says Roy.

TOMROY

Tom Roy, a former minor league pitcher and founder of Unlimited Potential, Inc., has returned to the baseball staff at Grace College in Winona Lake as team chaplain and assistant coach.

 

Pirates approach attracts Hickerson back to coaching

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball is about pitching, hitting and fielding.

But it goes deeper than that for Bryan Hickerson.

When Hickerson finished his last assignment in an 18-year stint in baseball-related ministry, he went looking for a job in professional or college baseball.

Through his work with Unlimited Potential Inc. — based in Winona Lake, Ind. — Hickerson had gotten to know folks in the Pirates organization through former Personal Development Coordinator Anthony Telford and spent as much time as he could the Bucs at various levels.

Hickerson, a former University of Minnesota left-hander who pitched for nine pro seasons and went 21-21 with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies from 1991-95, and moved to the Warsaw area in 2001 to begin his work with UPI, helped coach during the 2015 season at Winona Lake-based Grace College.

He last coached professionals in 1997 with Bakersfield and 1998 with San Jose in the Giants system.

“There are more analytics now then when I coached then,” says Hickerson, 54. “But the biggest difference is in me and not the game itself. In my perspective, it’s about people and developing trust and relationships with the people you work with. The Pirates are big on that. That’s what attracted me to the organization.

“Baseball is baseball. Who you get to do it with makes all the difference.”

Hickerson served the Pirates in 2017 as the pitching coach with the Double-A Eastern League champion Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

After the EL season, he spent time with players in the Florida Instructional League and Arizona Fall League. Three pitchers who were with Altoona — Mitch Keller, Brandon Waddell and J.T. Brubaker — were sent to the AFL’s Glendale Desert Dogs.

“I went there to touch base,” says Hickerson. “I went to see how they were doing mentally (after a season which began with spring training in Bradenton, Fla., in February) and to see if they were growing or just going through the motions.”

The Pirates’ purpose statement — Changing the world through baseball — appeals to Hickerson.

“It’s a process of developing men — the staff and the players,” says Hickerson. “We invest all this time. Are they going to be difference makers?”

That goes for those on a path toward the big leagues and those that will fall short — which is the vast majority.

“It’s not just about developing a baseball player,” says Hickerson. “It’s the heart, mind, soul and body. It’s refreshing to see in professional athletics.”

Players in the Pirates system are asked to take stock of themselves.

“We make them understand who they are,” says Hickerson. “We get them to answer the question: ‘Why do you play professional baseball?’ The answer is what motivates you day in and day out.

“We peel back the layers until they come to grips with why they’re there.”

For some it might be about being rich and famous. For others, the goal may be very different. Players fill out a comprehensive “blueprint.” The plan is likely to change as the player grows and matures.

“You have to commit to a process of growth and understand your strengths and weaknesses,” says Hickerson.

It is the duty of coaches to help players through the process toward reaching their maximum potential while also buying into the team culture. The latter is not always easy in a game where individual statistics are valued so highly.

“It’s easy for a player to care about their own stats and not the team,” says Hickerson. “We want them to care about the whole.

“Once sports becomes a business how do you compel men to pull together and do something special?”

Double-A baseball is unique.

By that point, many players have achieved a high level of on-field skill. While the 30 Major League Baseball organizations have multiple rookie level and Class-A teams, there is just one Double-A team for each. That means it is very competitive.

“Competing in baseball is non-stop,” says Hickerson. In each organization, there are 150 players competing for 25 big league jobs. The Indianapolis Indians are the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate.

Even though the competition can be cut throat, it does no good to root for a teammates’ downfall.

“You still have to get better,” says Hickerson. “Hoping for someone else fails never makes you a better baseball player.”

By the time they reach Double-A, many players have wives or are engaged.

“We don’t disregard that,” says Hickerson. “We help them in that area. I could have the attitude that as long as you can compete on the field, I don’t care what your life is like. I don’t think that ever builds a team.”

It’s the idea of “people and process over program and product.”

This kind of people-first approach will only work if all adhere to it.

“I have to be all-in,” says Hickerson. “(Players) know if I’m just giving lip service. You have to get to know the person. What kind of man is he? That takes time.”

Hickerson expects to find out where the Pirates will send him 2018 sometime in December and then will start getting ready for spring training.

A native of Bemidji, Minn., Hickerson was drafted in the seventh round of the 1986 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Minnesota.

After his first full season (1987), he hurt his arm while lifting weights and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and missed the entire 1988 campaign.

“I went from the prospect to a suspect real fast,” says Hickerson.

While at Minnesota, he met future wife Jo (a member of the Gophers track and field program). With her support, he and “shear stubborness” he kept working and got back on the field.

“I was not willing to give up when things got tough,” says Hickerson. “It seemed like it was a really, really long shot for me to make it at all.”

He stuck with it, made his MLB debut with San Francisco in the miiddle of the 1991 season and played for as long as he could.

Bryan and Jo have four children — Emily, Joey, Claire and Tommy. The youngest is a college sophomore. Essentially empty nesters, this gave him a push to re-join the world of baseball coaching.

And he is enjoying it — one relationship at a time.

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Bryan Hickerson (left) and wife Jo share a moment during a break in his duties as a minor league coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 18 years in ministry with Unlimited Potential Inc., former big leaguer Hickerson went back into coaching with the Pirates because he likes their relationship-based approach.

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Bryan and Jo Hickerson on the field at an Altoona (Pa.) Curve game. Bryan served as pitching coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A affiliate in 2017.

 

Wynegar wants Indianapolis hitters to know the mental side

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Butch Wynegar is not a meteorologist.

The former big league catcher and longtime hitting coach just likes to use weather terminology to describe the experience of a batter stepping into the box at the highest levels of baseball.

“I call it the Eye of the Hurricane,” says Wynegar, who is in his third season with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians. “You’re trying to find a way to stay in the calmness of the hurricane and out of the surrounding winds — the fans, the score, the big league stadium, facing big league guys you idolized. When you get caught up in the moment, it’s hard to slow down.

“It’s you and the baseball.”

Wynegar was a switch-hitting catcher and played Major League Baseball for 13 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees and California Angels, retiring in 1988.

Butch began his coaching career in 1992. Among his jobs have been roving hitting instructor for the Texas Rangers’ organization, big league hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and Triple-A hitting coach in the Yankees system.

Wynegar helps hitters with the mechanics of their swing, but wants them to understand the thinking side of their craft.

“Something the common fan doesn’t understand unless you’ve played this game is how much of hitting is mental,” says Wynegar. “I might have done it (as a player), but I didn’t do it to the degree I know how to do it now.”

Wynegar wants his hitters to know what to expect from a pitcher and how each team is going to pitch to him. He also wants them to be able to see what they did well and where they need improvement and take that into the next at-bat.

“I told guys a number of times, your swing here (in Triple-A) will probably work in the big leagues,” says Wynegar. “The difference between here and the big leagues is the mental side of hitting.”

Wynegar’s aim is the get his hitters ready to step right in and perform for the Pirates.

“When they go to Pittsburgh, hopefully the adjustment period is a little shorter,” says Wynegar, who regularly corresponds with Pirates hitting coaches Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey. “They understand how to slow the mind down, slow the game down.

“When they get up there, the game tends to get a little fast for them. It’s the major leagues. You face guys you grew up watching. It was the same thing with me. There was Catfish Hunter or Jim Palmer, who I grew up watching, and I go, ‘Holy Cow!’ and the game starts spinning fast for me.”

A fan of a book written by former big leaguer Shawn Green, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph,” Wynegar has turned Indianapolis infielders Erich Weiss and Eric Wood on to it.

The book tells how Green broke into the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays and the transformation he made mentally and physically.

“There was a lot of mechanical stuff, but their was a lot of mental stuff,” says Wynegar. “He got into meditation and relaxation and all that.

“That’s a big part of hitting.”

Wynegar looks at Weiss and his swing reminds him of Green’s.

“I wasn’t making the comparison that you’re going be Shawn Green one day and go 6-for-6 and hit four home runs in a game (like Green did with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002) — he might,” says Wynegar. “Somebody pops into your mind and this guy reminds me of so-and-so. I might bring that up, but I tell them this is why you remind of him. It might be a confidence booster.”

What is Wynegar’s prescription for a slump buster?

“Go back to the basics,” says Wynegar. “Back in my era, we were not afraid to move around in the box — move closer; move back; move front; choke up. Guys today will just not choke up.

“For me it was spreading my stance out a little bit to reduce my body movement. I really trusted my hands and I’d choke up on the bat a little bit. I was all about contact anyway … That was from Pitch 1.”

When Wynegar sees a hitter who is in a rut — maybe a little tired from the grind of the long season — he asks them a simple question: “Are you going to make an adjustment to overcome what you’re doing?”

He cites an example from his time with the Brewers (2003-06).

“When I was the big league hitting coach in Milwaukee, every year Geoff Jenkins came to me somewhere in August and said, ‘Butchie, I can’t find my home run swing.’ Four years in a row, he’d tell me that,” says Wynegar. “I told him, you can still help us with singles and doubles.

“Calm your swing for about 10 days and you’ll get a second wind.”

Wynegar came through in the Eye of the Hurricane with the Yankees on June 30, 1983. He was reminded of that this week by former New York teammate and current Buffalo Bisons manager Bobby Meacham, who made his MLB debut on the afformentioned date.

Meacham came into he game as a defensive replacement, but didn’t get to hit that day because of Wynegar’s two-out home run in the 12th inning against East Chicago native Tim Stoddard as the Yankees beat the visiting Baltimore Orioles 4-3.

“You think I’d remember a walk-off home run,” says Wynegar. “I remember Tim Stoddard. I remember getting an extra-inning base hit that won a game. I don’t remember a home run.

Wynegar joked to Meacham, “I hit so many walk-off home runs, I couldn’t remember them all.’”

Of his 65 career long balls, the lone game-winner was the one described above.

“I wasn’t a home run hitter,” says Wynegar. “I was a line drive/contact-type hitter.”

In all his time in baseball, Wynegar has come into contact with many talented men. Another teammate in New York was Don Baylor, who died Monday, Aug. 7, of cancer at 68. They were also opponents.

“I’ve got a photo at home where there’s a play at the plate and Donnie’s shoulder in embedded in my chest and I have my mouth wide open,” says Wynegar. “I held onto the ball. I do remember that.”

Famed for his toughness, Baylor was hit by a pitch 267 times during his MLB career.

“He stood right on top of the plate and dared you to throw a fastball in,” says Wynegar. “I never saw him rub somebody when he got hit. He’d just drop the bat and go to first base.”

While they wore the same uniform, Wynegar really gained an appreciation for Baylor.

“What a great man he was,” says Wynegar. “He and Dave Winfield were very similar, but Dave was more boisterous and not afraid to tell you how good he was. Donnie was the opposite. He was kind of quiet. He led by example.

“He was gentle giant in the clubhouse. He just had the respect of everybody with the way he played the game and by his leadership.”

BUTCHWYNEGAR

Butch Wynegar is in his 24th season as a professional baseball coach and his third as hitting coach with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. (Indianapolis Indians Photo)

 

Gary SouthShore RailCats embrace independent baseball

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Outside the lines, professional baseball in Gary, Indiana, is very much like it is in many places.

Affordable family-friendly entertainment is the goal. Fans are invited to have a good time at the ballpark. The experience at U.S. Steel Yard includes food, giveaways and other forms of fun.

As a member of the independent American Association, the Gary SouthShore RailCats operate differently than Major League Baseball-affiliated clubs.

“It is not a developmental league, but it is an opportunity league — an opportunity for everyone from the radio broadcasters looking to break into professional baseball to groundkeepers to general managers and managers,” says 13th-year Gary manager Greg Tagert. “And, most importantly, it’s an opportunity for players who may have never gotten the opportunity to continue their careers or extend their careers.

“What it’s done for the industry cannot be underrated.”

But the emphasis is on the pennant race (Gary went into play Monday, Aug. 7, at 40-33 and seven games behind first-place Lincoln in the AA Central Division; the RailCats were two games out of the wild card lead in a 100-game season) and not getting a player ready for the next level.

“We make no apology to the players,” says Tagert. “We tell them from the beginning, we are all about winning.

“When a player steps through the door, it’s not about: Is he going to get his at-bats? Is he going to bat third? Is he going to pitch the sixth inning every night?

“Sometimes the players find that out the hard way. They’re used to a different type of format. They are surprised at the level of competition and the emphasis put on winning … It’s not for every player, just like it’s not for every manager.”

Tagert is a native of Vacaville, Calif. He a pitcher at San Francisco State University. He served as pitching coach at the University of New Mexico in 1988 and an associate scout for the Detroit Tigers in 1993-94.

A manager in independent baseball since 1995, Tagert enjoys the challenge of having the ability and the responsibility of building a team.

Unlike affiliated ball where players and coaching staff are assigned to a franchise and are told how to develop the talent with hopes of one day seeing them in the big leagues, Tagert makes all on-field personnel decisions.

“Player procurement and all the player decisions sit at this desk,” says Tagert. “That’s something I would not give up.

“It is the lure of the job for many of us (independent baseball managers) … The challenge is great. But it’s like anything else in life. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”

League rules limit rosters to 23. An additional one player may be on the disabled list during the regular season. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4.

Tagert says the classifications create a unique kind of parity in the league and also creates opportunity.

The American Association is full of players with MLB experience and others who played at the Triple-A or Double-A level.

Right-handed pitcher Jorge DeLeon, a reliever for Gary, played for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014.

MLB scouts regularly cover the independent leagues.

Notable Gary alums include outfielders Jermaine Allenworth and Nathan Haynes and left-handed pitcher Tim Byrdak.

Allensworth, who played at Madison Heights High School and Purdue University, was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1993 and played in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. He was with the RailCats in 2006 and 2007.

Haynes was a first round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. He played in Gary in 2006 and then with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

Byrdak made his MLB debut with Kansas City in 1998. He played in Gary in 2003 and became the first former RailCats player to play in the big leagues with the 2005 Baltimore Orioles.

Wes Chamberlain, who played six MLB seasons including in the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was a RailCat in 2003.

Some players to see at least a little MLB time that also wore a Gary jersey include first baseman Randall Simon (2010), third basemen Howard Battle (2003) and Jarrod Patterson (2008), outfielders Trey Beamon (2004), and Bubba Carpenter (2002, left-handed pitchers Tony Cogan (2007-09), Jim Crowell (2007), Brad Halsey (2010), Onan Masaoka (2009), right-handed pitchers Zach McClellan (2010) and Brad Voyles (2008).

Crowell played at Valparaiso High School and the University of Indianapolis. McClellan played at Indiana University.

There’s were Australian first baseman Ben Risinger (2005) and Japanese outfielder Masato Fukae (2016).

Texas Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce was a former RailCats outfielder (2004-05).

The team has retired No. 23 for right-handed pitcher Willie Glen (2005-07, 2010) and No. 45 for Gary native and coach Joe Gates. Glen played at Plainfield High School and the University of Evansville. Gates played at Gary Roosevelt High School and briefly with the Chicago White Sox.

The RailCats were part of former Northern League and began as a road team in 2002 while 6,139-seat U.S. Steel Yard was being constructed along U.S. 20, South Shore rail lines and I-90 (Indiana Toll Road) and very close to the steel mills.

The first RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard was May 26, 2003.

Chicagoans Pat and Lindy Salvi bought the team in 2008.

Gary was a member of the Northern League through 2010 and won league titles in 2005 and 2007. In 2010, the RailCats joined the American Association and reigned over it in 2013.

The current AA lineup includes Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.), St. Paul (Minn.), Sioux Falls (S.D.) and Winnipeg (Manitoba) in the North Division, Gary, Kansas City (Kan.), Lincoln (Neb.) and Sioux City (Iowa) in the Central Division and Cleburne (Texas), Salina (Kan.), Texas (Grand Prairie) and Wichita (Kan.) in the South Division. Salina is a partial road team in 2017.

Gary takes a bus to all its games. It’s about 16 hours to both Grand Prairie and Winnipeg. There’s usually days off built into he schedule to allow for that kind of travel.

A commuter trip will be added in 2018 when the Rosemont, Ill.-based Chicago Dogs join the league.

RailCats general manager Brian Lyter is in his fifth year on the job after working four seasons in affiliated baseball with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers.

With Tagert handling most of the baseball side of things, Lyter tends mostly to the business side.

Lyter has watched the community embrace the independent baseball model while embracing the amenities at the park.

In a competitive Chicagoland market that offers the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and many other entertainment options, the RailCats draw well with most fans come from northwest Indiana.

Through it’s first 37 openings, Gary was averaging 3,573. That ranked fourth in the league behind St. Paul (8.293), Winnipeg (4,336) and Kansas City (3,984).

Some of the things Lyter appreciates about the American Association is that players have a “little more staying power” and that the product is top notch.

“Some people underestimate the quality of baseball,” says Lyter, who compares the overall level of play to Double-A.

GARYSOUTHSHORERAILCATS