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Gary SouthShore RailCats embrace independent baseball

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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

Creating opportunities, building character among goals of Michiana Scrappers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

With its focus on competition, instruction and development, the Michiana Scrappers travel organization is in its 14th season in 2017.

Began in 2004 with one 15/16 squad — the School of Hard Knocks Scrappers — the Michiana Scrappers now have 17 baseball teams in age groups 9U through 17U (the organization is also involved in softball, basketball and hockey).

There are 260 baseball players and 38 softball players currently playing in tournaments around the Midwest — put on by Baseball Player’s Association, Pastime, United States Speciality Sports Association, Bullpen and others — and training out of The Scrap Yard in Elkhart.

Teams practice twice a week January to April and one to two times a week during the season, which concludes in late July or early August. Tryouts for 2018 are slated for July 29-30 and Aug. 5-6.

Players 9U to 14U are often invited back for the next season. All players 15U and above are asked to try out.

Scrappers founder Brian Blondell reports a low turnover rate of 8 percent.

“Most kids in our organization are not leaving,” says Blondell. “We’re usually filling 1-2 spot max per team.”

Once players try out, coaching staffs will have a chance to offer their sales pitch to the families of players they want. Trying to find the best fit is a priority.

About the time the Scrappers came along, summer high school programs were decreasing and travel ball was growing so then-South Bend St. Joseph assistant Blondell found a place for Indians head coach John Gumpf to send his players in the summer.

“We learned a lot,” says Blondell, who is also director of player operation and a 14U head coach in 2017. In 2005, the organization had swelled seven teams and with interest the growth continued.

Softball was added to the mix in 2014.

While Blondell and his coaches, including Greg Fozo and Buddy Tupper with the current 14U squad, are just as competitive as anyone and the Scrappers have won their share of tournaments, win-at-all-costs is not the driving force.

“Nobody is gaining anything by winning a trophy,” says Blondell. “We’re trying to be as competitive as we possibly can be. The era we’re in — with a lot of parents — everything is driven by awards, placement and trophies.

“We focus on development. If we develop correctly, we’re going to win a lot of championships.”

With a few exceptions, Scrappers players come from the counties surrounding South Bend and Elkhart.

While players are working to make themselves better and — for the older players — get college exposure for themselves, the Scrappers emphasize that baseball is a team game.

“It’s not an individual sport,” says Blondell, the pitching coach at Elkhart Memorial High School (Crimson Chargers head coach Scott Rost and assistant Bruce Baer are Scrappers head coaches) and former head coach at Indiana University South Bend, Holy Cross College and South Bend Riley High School. “We’re about growing and developing a team environment.”

The implied daily question to players: How are you helping our team get better?

After all, high school and college coaches want good teammates and not selfish players.

Distinguished Scrapper alums include Evan Miller (LaPorte H.S.; IPFW; San Diego Padres system), Chad Whitmer (Penn H.S.; Southern Illinois U.; New York Yankees system), Nathan Thomas (Mishawaka Marian H.S.; Northern Illinois U.), Brock Logan (Northrdge H.S.; IPFW), Blake Cleveland (NorthWood H.S.; Central Michigan U.), Shannon Baker (Northridge H.S.; IPFW), Brett Carlson (South Bend Riley H.S.; Austin Peay U.; Purdue U.) and Pat Borlik (South Bend Washington H.S.; Western Michigan U.).

Just like Sam Riggleman — his coach at Bethel College — said to Blondell, Scrappers are expected to “check their ego at the door.”

“We do everything as a team,” says Blondell, whose son Bryce Blondell plays on his squad. “I also want it to feel like family. We allow them to be kids and really enjoy it.”

Mike Logan, head coach of a 16U team in 2017, is in his 11th season with the Scrappers.

The former Northridge High School head coach sees his job as getting college exposure, building up their baseball skills and teaching them life lessons.

Logan tells players and their parents about college opportunities and stresses the academic side of the equation.

“A lot of times schools might not have much athletic money to give,” says Logan. But there is bound to be funds for good students.

Logan points players toward showcases and sends out weekly emails to college coaches giving them the Scrappers schedules, roster, contact numbers and more.

With players coming from so many different backgrounds, Logan and his assistants — Brian Bishop and Chad Sherwood — stay with the fundamentals and build on their foundation of skills.

Most importantly to Logan is developing “young men of character.”

“This game can teach you about failure,” says Logan. “You get to learn to handle adversity at a young aage. When they become adults, it’s for real.”

Logan, which coached older son Brock with the Scrappers and now is with younger son Nick, sees a group of players that it is talented enough to be successful on the diamond and is also tight off the field.

One group text message and the boys are off the movies together.

It’s this kind of philosophy which drew the former Indiana Dirt Devils from the Fremont area to join the organization in 2017 as the 13U Black Scrappers.

“The kids in that organization are amazing,” says 13U pitching coach Geoff Gilbert. “They support each other. (Younger players) know who the better older kids in our organization are they talk about them all the time. They look up to them.

“I brag on my team all the time and they are pretty good, but our kids are even better young men than they are baseball players.”

The Dirt Devils won two BPA World Series titles, finished second in another and high in yet another before hooking up with Blondell and company.

“The Scrappers have a great reputation,” says Gilbert, who counts son and left-hander Carter Gilbert among his pitchers. “They have big-name recognition. We were a little tiny team in a little tiny pond and couldn’t get kids to try out with us. We’ll be drawing from a much bigger talent pool.”

As a single-team organization, the Dirt Devils dictated everything. With the Scrappers, where Blondell handles all the administrative matters, Gilbert, head coach Brian Jordan and assistant Michael Hogan retain control over their roster and some say in their schedule while also benefitting from the bulk buying power of a larger organization which is sponsored by DeMarini and Wilson.

“With everything they had to offer in the winter, it was a great opportunity,” says Gilbert, who works a few nights a week at the Scrap Yard and has daughter Ava Gilbert playing for the 10U Lady Scrappers team. “We decided to make the switch.”

With players spread out, 13U Black practices one day a week in Ashley (near Fremont and Kendallville) and once at either Pierre Moran or Riverview parks in Elkhart or Newton Park in Lakeville. The older teams practice at Elkhart Memorial, Elkhart Central or South Bend Washington high schools. Scrappers softball practices are conducted at Penn High School.

While players 15U and above tend to play after the high school season is over, the younger teams like 13U Black play 10 to 12 tournaments in the spring and summer.

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MICHIANASCRAPPERS13UBLACK17

The Michiana Scrappers 13U Black players and families celebrate the Fourth of July. in 2017 (Michiana Scrappers Photo)

 

Hoosiers at Lexington Regional; Indiana’s 34 other college teams wrap up 2017 season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana University found out Monday, May 29 that they will be a part of the NCAA Division I baseball tournament in 2017.

The Hoosiers (33-22-2) have been assigned to the Lexington Regional as the No. 2 seed (along with host and top-seeded Kentucky, No. 3 North Carolina State and No. 4 Ohio University).

The 64-team D-I tournament includes 16 four-team regionals.

For 34 other collegiate baseball programs in Indiana (eight in NCAA Division I, four in NCAA Division II, nine in NCAA Division III, 13 in NAIA and two in NJCAA) have already concluded their seasons.

Due to the closing of the school in Rensselaer, Saint Joseph’s College (NCAA Division II) played its 122nd and final season this spring.

Indiana University Kokomo (NAIA) is gearing up for its first season in 2018.

Here is a wrap-up for 2017 squads:

INDIANA COLLEGE BASEBALL

2017

NCAA Division I

Ball State Cardinals (30-28, 14-10 Mid-American Conference): Rich Maloney, in his 12th overall season in two stints in Muncie, saw Sean Kennedy (first team), Matt Eppers (second team) and Caleb Stayton (second team) make all-MAC. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Butler Bulldogs (31-20, 7-10 Big East Conference): In his first season in Indianapolis, coach Dave Schrage had three all-conference performers in Tyler Houston (first team), Jordan Lucio (second team) and Jeff Schank (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Evansville Purple Aces (18-39, 8-12 Missouri Valley Conference): Ninth-year coach Wes Carroll had Connor Strain (first team), Trey Hair (second team) and Travis Tokarek (second team) make the all- MVC tournament team.

Fort Wayne Mastodons (9-43, 4-26 Summit League): Jackson Boyd was a second-team all-league player for ninth-year coach Bobby Pierce.

Indiana Hoosiers (33-22-2, 14-9-1 Big Ten): Matt Lloyd (second team), Logan Sowers (second team), Craig Dedelow (third team) and Paul Milto (third team) were all-conference honorees during third season at the helm in Bloomington for head coach Chris Lemonis.

Indiana State Sycamores (29-26, 12-9 Missouri Valley Conference): Tony Rosselli (first team), Austin Conway (second team), Dane Giesler (second team) and Will Kincanon (second team) were all-MVC selections in head coach Mitch Hannahs’ fourth season in charge in Terre Haute.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (26-32, 10-20 Atlantic Coast Conference): Seventh-year head coach Mik Aoki had an all-ACC player in Matt Vierling (third team).

Purdue Boilermakers (29-27, 12-12 Big Ten): Gareth Stroh made all-Big Ten in head coach Mark Wasikowski’s first season in West Lafayette. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Valparaiso Crusaders (24-29, 13-15 Horizon League): Before leaving for the Missouri Valley in 2018, James Stea (second team) and Jake Hanson (second team) made the all-Horizon squad for fourth-year head coach Brian Schmack. SEE Indiana RBI story.

NCAA Division II

Indianapolis Greyhounds (27-23, 11-17 Great Lakes Valley Conference): Kyle Orloff (first team), Dylan Stutsman (first team) and Storm Joop (second team) all earned all-conference recognition for 23rd-year head coach Gary Vaught. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Oakland City Oaks (18-29): Head coach T-Ray Fletcher’s team saw its season end with four losses at the National Christian College Athletic Association World Series in Mason, Ohio.

Saint Joseph’s Pumas (35-22, 14-14 Great Lakes Valley Conference): The end of the line came in the Midwest Regional in Midland, Mich. In Rick O’Dette’s 17th season as head coach, he was named GLVC Coach of the Year. All-conference players were Josh Handzik (first team), Riley Benner (second team) and Tasker Strobel (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles (32-21, 22-6 Great Lakes Valley Conference): Tracy Archuleta, in his 11th season as head coach in Evansville, also saw his squad qualify for the Midwest Regional in Midland. All-conference performers were Lucas Barnett (first team and GLVC Pitcher of the Year), Jacob Fleming (first team), Drake McNamara (first team), Kyle Griffin (first team), Justin Watts (second team), Sam Griggs (second team) and Logan Brown (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

NCAA Division III

Anderson Ravens (14-23, 8-16 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): With Drew Brantley and Mark Calder as co-interim head coaches, Brandon Sanders (second team), Augdan Wilson (honorable mention) and Austin Cain (honorable mention) all received all-conference honors.

DePauw Tigers (33-13, 12-5 North Coast Athletic Conference): First-year head coach Blake Allen saw his squad go 2-2 at the Mideast Regional in Washington, Pa., and put Jack Thompson (first team), Mike Hammel (first team), Ryan Grippo (second team), Tate Stewart (second team), Reid Pittard (second team), Collin Einerston (second team) and Andrew Quinn (honorable mention) on the all-conference squad. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Earlham Quakers (30-14, 21-6 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): It was an historic season in Richmond for seventh-year head coach Steve Sakosits. While the program achieved its first-ever 30-win season, it also won regular-season and conference tournament titles and concluded the year at the Mideast Regional in Washington, Pa. All-Conference players were Nate Lynch (first team and HCAC MVP), Howie Smith (first team and HCAC Most Outstanding Pitcher), Eric Elkus (first team), Matt Barger (first team), Cody Krumlauf (first team), Brennan Laird (first team) and Kyle Gorman (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Franklin Grizzlies (21-17, 13-12 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): All HCAC players for 20th-year head coach Lance Marshall were Jordan Clark (first team), Sam Claycamp (first team), Frank Podkul (second team), Jackson Freed (second team), Nick Wright (second team) and Jacob McMain (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Hanover Panthers (18-20, 9-17 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Jack Shine (honorable mention) and Tyler Fitch (honorable mention) were recognized as all-conference players in Shayne Stock’s fifth season as head coach.

Manchester Spartans (22-21, 18-9 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Joe Gallatin (HCAC Freshman of the Year and first team), Chad Schultz (first team), Tyler LaFollette (second team), Eric Knepper (second team), Brandon Eck (second team), Christian Smith (second team) and Cory Ferguson (honorable mention) were HCAC for head coach Rick Espeset during his 19th season lead the way in North Manchester. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Rose-Hulman Fightin’ Engineers (18-24, 16-11 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference): In his 28th season as head coach at the Terre Haute school, Jeff Jenkins saw Zach Trusk (first team), David Burnside (first team), Conner Shipley (first team) and Drew Schnitz (honorable mention) make all-HCAC. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Trine Thunder (19-18, 13-15 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association): All-MIAA recognition came to Jacob Heller (first team) and Drew Palmer (second team) during head coach Greg Perschke’s 16th season running the show in Angola. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Wabash Little Giants (22-16, 7-10 North Shore Athletic Conference): Former player Jake Martin came back to Crawfordsville for his first season as head coach and put Michael Hermann (first team) and Andrew Roginski (second team) on the all-conference team. SEE Indiana RBI story.

NAIA

Bethel Pilots (22-22, 10-17 Crossroads League): In Seth Zartman’s 14th season leading the program in Mishawaka, his team had all-conference selections in Brandon Diss (gold glove), Austin Branock (honorable mention), Heath Brooksher (honorable mention) and Jared Laurent (honorable mention).

Calumet College of Saint Joseph Crimson Tide (7-44-1, 2-25 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference):  Fifth-year head coach Brian Nowakowski fielded a 2017 team with players from 10 different states as well as the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.

Goshen Maple Leafs (26-30-1, 11-16 Crossroads League): Fifth-year head coach Alex Childers watched Clinton Stroble II (first team), Quinlan Armstrong (gold glove), Blake Collins (gold glove), Brad Stoltzfus (gold glove), Preston Carr (honorable mention) and Michael Walter (honorable mention) all receive a Crossroads salute. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Grace Lancers (15-31-1, 7-20 Crossroads League): At the end of the season, the Winona Lake school took the interim tag off interim head coach Cam Screeton for 2018. This spring, he led all-conference picks Austin Baker (honorable mention), Gavin Bussard (honorable mention) and Xavier Harris (honorable mention).

Huntington Foresters (35-13, 22-5 Crossroads League): Crossroads Coach of the Year Mike Frame’s 33rd season as HU head coach brought a regular-season and conference tournament title and a NAIA Opening Round appearance plus the 800th win of his career. All-league players were Shea Beauchamp (first team), Dalton Combs (first team), D.J. Moore (first team), Adam Roser (first team), Mason Shinabery (first team), Tanner Wyse (first team), Michael Crowley (gold glove and honorable mention), Dylan Henricks (gold glove and honorable mention) and Andy Roser (gold glove and honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana Tech Warriors (44-14, 25-6 Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference): After finishing third in the tough WHAC, there was seventh NAIA Opening Round trip for 10th-year head coach Kip McWilliams and his Fort Wayne-based squad. All-WHAC players were Matt Bandor (first team), Cody Kellar (first team), Glen McClain (first team and gold glove), Charlie Sipe (first team), Keith Tatum (first team), Tighe Koehring (second team), Peyton Newsom (second team), David Barksdale (Champions of Character) and Dante Biagini (gold glove). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats (27-30, 12-15 Crossroads League): Head coach Rich Benjamin, in his second season of calling the shots in Marion, had all-conference selections in Brady West (CL Newcomer of the Year and first team), Brandon Shaffer (first team), Andrew Breytenbach (honorable mention), Kyle Hall (honorable mention) and Jon Young (honorable mention).

Indiana University Kokomo Cougars (Coming in 2018): Matt Howard is the head coach in the City of Firsts. Former big leaguer and Kokomo native Joe Thatcher is IUK’s associate head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana University South Bend Titans (24-26, 13-14 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Chris Mangus was CCAC Player of the Year. All-conference mention also went to Spencer McCool (second team) and Tanner Wesp (second team). Mike Huling was head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Indiana University Southeast Grenadiers (48-15, 25-7 River States Conference): Ranked No. 21 in the country, ninth-year head coach Ben Reel’s squad fell in the championship of the NAIA Opening Round in Kingsport, Tenn. All-RSC selections were Tanner Leenknecht (first team), Logan Barnes (first team), Richard Rodriguez (first team), Ryne Underwood (second team), Gage Rogers (second team), Hector Marmol (Champions of Character and second team), Julian Flannery (second team) and Cody Maloon (second team). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Marian Knights (30-23, 19-8 Crossroads League): Featuring Crossroads Pitcher of the Year Matt Burleton, fourth-year head coach Todd Bacon’s club went to the NAIA Opening Round in Taladega, Ala. Besides Burleton, all-conference choices at the Indianapolis school were Cody Earl (first team), Jordan Jackson (first team), Leo Lopez (honorable mention), John O’Malley (honorable mention) and Brenden Smith (honorable mention). SEE Indiana RBI story.

Purdue Northwest Pride (30-18, 20-7 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference): Purdue Calumet and Purdue North Central merged to form PNW, which played its home games at Dowling Park in Hammond. Dave Griffin served as head coach. SEE Indiana RBI story.

Saint Francis Cougars (13-41-1, 6-21 Crossroads League): In his 13th season as head coach at the Fort Wayne school, Greg Roberts directed all-conference players Noah Freimuth (honorable mention), Tanner Gaff (honorable mention) and Kansas Varner (honorable mention).

Taylor Trojans (35-21, 20-7 Crossroads League): Crossroads Player of the Year Jared Adkins helped 13th-year head coach Kyle Gould get his 400th career victory and more. Besides Adkins, all-conference players were TU were Austin Mettica (first team), Matt Patton (first team), Nathan Taggart (first team), Tanner Watson (first team), Sam Wiese (first team), Andrew Kennedy (honorable mention) and Wyatt Whitman (honorable mention).

Junior College

Ancilla Chargers (5-28, 1-21 Michigan Community College Athletic Association): Head coach Joe Yonto’s two-year program in Donaldson featured a 2017 roster with all but one player from Indiana hometowns.

Vincennes Trailblazers (14-32): Ninth-year coach Chris Barney’s team was made up mostly of Indiana players. VU is also a two-year school.

IUHOOSIERSBASEBALL

Kraemer coaches Terre Haute South with passion

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kyle Kraemer is passionate about the way he coaches baseball at his alma mater — Terre Haute South Vigo High School.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” says Kraemer, a 1986 graduate who is in his 23rd season as Braves head coach. “I learned at a very young age (from a youth coach named Mike Kennedy): ‘When I tell you something, don’t take it personally.’ When I stop talking to you, I don’t care about you and when I don’t care about you, you’re not at a very good place in the program.

“There are kids you can get on and they can take it. There are kids you can get on and they can’t take it, but they learn quickly by watching how others act and respond to what’s going on.”

Kraemer played at South for Ken Martin, learned more about the game while at Purdue University from head coach and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Alexander and pitching coach Steve Green (Kraemer was a Boilermaker team captain and bashed a team-high 10 home runs in 1990), served one season as an assistant at Harrison High School in West Lafayette, returned to Terre Haute as a volunteer assistant to Martin (1993 and 1994) and took over as head coach for the 1995 season.

As a football coach, Kraemer was on the Braves staff from 2007-15. Former South baseball player Mark Raetz was head gridiron coach 2007-12.

The Kraemer-led baseball Braves have won nine sectional titles and four regional crowns — the last of each coming in 2011.

Since his second season as head coach, Kraemer has been assisted by 1981 South graduate and U.S. Marines veteran Brian Pickens.

Kraemer and Pickens share hitting coach duties.

A.J. Reed, who made his Major League Baseball debut with the Houston Astros in 2016 and is currently at Triple-A Fresno, socked 41 homers and drove in 150 runs during his South career, which concluded in 2011. The next year, the bats were changed and it made it harder for teams to score runs with extra-base hits.

“He was a quiet kid,” says Kraemer, who also saw Reed go 26-10 with 390 strikeouts in 260 innings and a 1.88 earned run average on the mound for the Braves (he once threw 143 pitches in a 10-inning semistate outing). “He had the most natural ability I’ve ever seen.”

Another of Kraemer’s top products is Matt Samuels, who pitched at the University of Tennesee and Indiana State University and briefly in the Minnesota Twins organization.

Kyle’s son, Koby, played for him and at ISU and in the Toronto Blue Jays system.

With less-explosive bats a few years ago, Kraemer and Pickens began to change the way they teach hitting.

“Small ball became more important,” says Kraemer. “The bats we use are just dead.”

To generate more power in the hips — not necessarily via home runs — hitters are loading up by raising their knee and creating some momentum in the lower half of the swing and uncoiling to drive the baseball.

All but one of seven 2017 Braves coaches are South graduates. Besides Kraemer and Pickens, there’s Chad Chrisman (23rd year and charged with infield positioning) and three who played for Kraemer — Daniel Tanoos, Scott Flack and T.C. Clary. Pitching coach Adam Lindsay is a graduate of West Vigo High School, where he played for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Steve DeGroote.

Todd Miles is a former longtime South coach. After returning from the Indiana State Police, Miles (who played on ISU’s College World Series team in 1986) took a job at Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute that does not allow him the time to coach with the Braves.

South, who is preparing for the Class 4A Mooresville Sectional, fielded two teams this spring — one varsity and one JV.

The new pitch count rules adopted by the IHSAA (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) “forced us to cut back on one (JV) team because we’ve had to limit pitches and we’re short on pitchers.”

“Personally, I don’t think (the pitch count rule) was needed,” says Kraemer. “Most (coaches) did it right.”

As of May 18, none of Kraemer’s moundsmen had thrown more than 103 pitches in a game.

Conference Indiana, which South joined in 2013 after holding membership in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference, tends to play league doubleheaders on Saturdays (against Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Columbus North, Franklin Central, Perry Meridian and Southport). Braves starters generally work once a week.

“If you use common sense, you’re OK,” says Kraemer. “It will be interesting to get feedback from smaller schools, where can walk and chew gum, they’re going to be a pitcher until they prove they’re not.”

Baseball players learn the game in Cal Ripken Leagues at Riley and Terre Town, Little Leagues at Terre Haute North and West Terre Haute and through various travel baseball organization, including Junior Rex, Indiana Havoc, Redbirds, Junior Sycamores and Mad Dogs plus senior and junior American Legion teams for Wayne Newton Post 346. That program was ran by John Hayes for years and is now headed by his brother Tim.

“Travel ball has really taken off,” says Kraemer. “You might as well embrace it. It’s here to stay. (Post 346) now has more of a travel feel (playing in tournaments with travel ball teams).”

KYLEKRAEMER

Kyle Kraemer is in his 23rd season as head  baseball coach at his alma mater — Terre Haute South Vigo High School. (TH South Photo)

International baseball expert, Indiana resident Bjarkman to receive SABR’S Chadwick Award

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

One of the most prestigious baseball awards will be presented to a longtime Indiana resident this summer.

Lafayette’s Peter Bjarkman — aka “Dr. Baseball” — will get the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award at the group’s national convention June 28-July 2 in New York.

According to the SABR website, the “Henry Chadwick Award was established in November 2009 to honor baseball’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past.”

Bjarkman, a Hartford, Conn., native, has authored more than 40 books on sports history. His latest work in “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story.”

A former professor, he has taught at multiple places including Butler University, Ball State University and Purdue University. Wife Ronnie B. Wilbur, a leading researcher and authority on deaf sign languages, is a Purdue linguistics professor. The couple spends portions of each each in Europe.

At a recent gathering of the Oscar Charleston SABR chapter prior to an Indianapolis Indians game, Bjarkman shared his vast knowledge on the World Baseball Classic (he writes extensively about the subject in “Defectors”) and other diamond topics.

Bjarkman has been to all four WBC’s (2006, 2009, 2013, 2017) as part of the media contingent wherever Cuba was playing. He witnessed the finals in 2006 in San Diego, where Cuba was runner-up to Japan, and 2009 in Los Angeles, where Japan took gold by topping South Korea.

A fan of the old International Baseball Federation World Cup (which breathed its last because of financial reasons), Bjarkman was skeptical when Major League Baseball came along with plans for the WBC. MLB was attempting to take ownership of baseball on a global scale with an Olympic-style event.

“What the original IBAF World Cup did was foster interest in baseball in a lot of countries throughout the world

Sweden would go and lose three games but it would inspire young people in Sweden to try to be on the national team,” Bjarkman said. “You knew from the beginning MLB’s version was designed to showcase international players in the major leagues.

“It did not emphasize and foster international baseball. These guys may be playing for the Dominican now, but they’ll be playing at a ballpark near you soon in April.”

Bjarkman said MLB was hoping to gain financially in the same way FIFA has done with soccer’s World Cup. Of course, the scope could never be the same because not nearly as many countries play baseball and soccer.

IBAF trademarked the term Baseball World Cup in international courts so MLB went with World Baseball Classic.

“There’s a lot of things I love about MLB,” Bjarkman said. “It’s really not about globalizing and internationalizing the game as much as it is about creating international markets for major league products and Major League Baseball — the same way the NFL is doing by having its games in London and the NBA having games at locations outside the United States like China.”

When the WBC came along, Bjarkman enjoyed the event in-person.

“It was really a lot of fun,” Bjarkman said. “There was that element of seeing these players play for their own country.”

That sense of national pride differs from country to country. Bjarkman said players and fans outside the U.S. identify with their national flag. Here, fans tend to be a part of Red Sox Nation, Yankees Nation or wherever their team loyalties lie.

As Bjarkman sees it, the WBC was not marketed probably when the tournament began.

“The first couple tournaments they should have given tickets away,” Bjarkman said. First-round games in Miami in the first few years of the WBC and maybe 1,500 would be there for USA vs. Puerto Rico. “People see these games on TV and there’s nobody there, they say ‘this can’t be worth watching.’”

WBC eventually became a recognized brand and began getting a foothold, but it still has issues.

There’s the timing. Coming during spring training, many players (especially pitchers) are not a full-go yet and team owners don’t like having their expensive talent leaving camp for extended periods.

With the size of the field, Bjarkman there are now eight countries with legitimate national teams with others using mostly players with ethnic ties rather than natives.

Take Team Israel in 2017.

“It was a team full of American players with ethnic Jewish family backgrounds,” Bjarkman said. “This is not an Israeli team.

“This is what MLB has been stuck with by expanding this thing out. You’d probably want to have a six- or eight-team tournament. But that’s going to be a problem because how many games can you market on television?”

Bjarkman also pointed out that countries like the Dominican and Venezuela have much of their baseball talent drained by Major League Baseball.

Two countries who run baseball independent of MLB are Japan with its posting system and Cuba for political reasons.

What happens if Puerto Rico becomes a state, a realistic possibility in the near future?

Bjarkman ask that if there is a Puerto Rican team in the WBC after P.R. becomes a U.S. state, why can’t there be a Miami Cuban team?

A faction in the U.S. would like to put united Cuban team together with players such as Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu.

Cuba is opposed to the idea.

“They are still trying to maintain their own national baseball league,” Bjarkman said. “There has been a tremendous loss of players (to defection).”

Team Cuba at the 2013 WBC had seven of eight everyday players go on to the play in the MLB. Bjarkman’s research shows that 200 Cuba-born players since 1871 have played in the majors as of Opening Day 2017. He classifies 66 of those as “defectors.” The first in the post-revolution period (1961 to the present) Barbaro Garbey, who debuted with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. The next one is Rene Arocha, who first pitched in the bigs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993.

Discussion in Indianapolis also turned to the international tiebreaker rule used in the 2017 WBC and first adopted at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The “Schiller Rule” allows that the team at bat began the 11th inning with runners on first and second base.

“It’s not baseball as we knew baseball, but tournament baseball isn’t either,” Bjarkman said. “In the context in which it’s used, it’s really exciting.”

The rule, which has been used during regular-season games in Cuba in the past, was adopted for expediency. Tournament directors are trying to avoid extra-long contests.

“How long is it going to be before we see this in Major League Baseball?,” Bjarkman said. “Why are we going to see it in Major League Baseball? Because of the commercial aspect. You don’t want games going past a certain time.

“They do all these things to try to shorten games. If you want to shorten games, don’t have so many commercials between innings.”

Other factors that lengthen games are the way pitchers are now. There are lefty and righty specialists and so many visits to the mound. It was once rare to have a pitching change before the seventh inning unless a pitcher was getting shelled in the early going.

“They’e trying to shorten games on one hand, but there are all these breaks for video reviews,” Bjarkman said.

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Lafayette’s Peter Bjarkman — aka “Dr. Baseball” — will get the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award at the group’s national convention June 28-July 2 in New York.

Discipline, structure part of Nielsen’s Concord program

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Regimented and respectful.

Those are concepts Eric Nielsen is establishing in his second season as Concord High School head baseball coach.

“I’m very structured,” says Nielsen, who followed the retiring Jim Treadway as leader of the Minutemen. “All our practices are planned out. We have times and we stick to those times. Guys hustle everywhere they go. We’re very disciplined and are going to play the game the right way. I teach them to respect the game. There’s no trash talking at all. I’m big on body language.”

It’s taken some time, but players are starting to come around to Nielsen’s way of doing things.

“You are starting to see people buying into that,” says Nielsen. “They know what’s expected. Seniors will get on guys if they are not doing things the right way. That’s less that I have to do because that expectation is there.”

Nielsen was an all-state catcher at Elkhart Memorial High School, graduating in 2004. He went to be a regular behind the plate at Purdue University. His first high school head coaching stops came at Mt. Vernon (Fortville) and Knightstown before he moved back to north central Indiana.

Along the way, he has learned how to read his young athletes.

“I’ve learned really well how to manage the players,” says Nielsen. “I think that’s why (Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon is so good at what he does. He’s not managing baseball, he’s managing people. In the olden days with (LaPorte coach) Ken Schreiber, it was this is the way it is and if you don’t like it ‘see ya!’ It was hard-nosed and it was tough.”

And while Nielsen considers himself a traditional, hard-nosed guy, he knows he has to motivate in a different way and keep his players engaged.

“If you know the game of baseball and you can build relationships, you’re going to be very successful, pending you have the talent,” says Nielsen. “I’ve seen teams that have the talent but they never go anywhere because they are so done with the season by the time the state tournament comes around. They’re cashed out.”

A syndrome that baseball and other spring sports face is a loss of focus because it’s the end of the school year. For 12th graders, they call it “senioritis.” But other grades — and even coaches — can get it, too.

Nielsen insists on holding out a carrot for his players.

“You’ve got to have them chasing something,” says Nielsen. “If you don’t, they’re going let up.

“How do you intrinisically motivate the player to want to compete? I tell them to get caught up in the process, don’t get caught up in the results.

“If I can get the process important to them then the results will come. If the process is not important to them, they don’t want to compete and there’s no reason for them to put in everything they have, you’re going to get that apathy.”

Nielsen looks at his 2017 team and sees pitching depth. At least nine of 12 varsity players can take the mound.

“The hard part is finding out who is my No. 1 and No. 2, who’s my best reliever,” says Nielsen. “We’re still in the process of finding that out.”

Along with pitching coach Mike McGregor, Nielsen looks at pitchers not only in terms of physical talent but what’s happening between the ears.

“We’re trying to teach mental toughness on the mound,” says Nielsen. “If we can have guys that will compete, saying ‘I’m going to strike this guy out.’ Even if they don’t, they are going to distinguish themselves from the rest of the players.”

What about the new pitch count rule?

“I thought it was going to be a bigger issue than it has been,” says Nielsen. “I traditionally don’t have guys throw that much anyway. I don’t push the 120 spot. As long as they’re under 80, I know how many days they need off.

“I thought I’d be juggling a lot. It hasn’t been too bad.”

Nielsen said the pitch count rule will likely be more of an issue during the IHSAA tournament series than the regular season.

“People are going to watch that really close,” says Nielsen.

Concord spends plenty of time at its regimented practices on “small ball.” The Minutemen work on moving runners with the bunt.

“We don’t have anybody on the team we can rely on to hit the long ball yet,” says Nielsen.

Something that Nielsen established in his first season at Concord was an Armed Forces Day (Concord Baseball Armed Forces Day on Facebook). It was such a hit, the Minutemen will be pay tribute to those who have served Saturday, May 6 when South Bend Adams visits for a 10 a.m. game.

Father Scott Nielsen (Army during Vietnam era) and grandfather Bob Burns (Air Force during World War II) and assistant coach Jason Paulson (Marines) are all people close to Nielsen with military ties.

As a social studies teacher at CHS, he also gets a chance to tell students about the importance of the military.

“It’s good to show the kids what these guys are doing day in and day out for our country and show them appreciation for the sacrifices that they make and have made for our freedom,” says Nielsen, whose other assistants are Sean Sears and Nic Minder.

The Minutemen compete in the Northern Lakes Conference (along with Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee). The double round robin NLC race began this week.

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Eric Nielsen, a 2004 Elkhart Memorial High School graduate, is in his second season as head baseball coach at Concord High School. He was a catcher at Purdue University.

Sassanella brings passion to Brebeuf baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeremy Sassanella played baseball with zeal.

A sense of intensity and enthusiasm followed the switch-hitting catcher and first baseman from his days at DeKalb High School, where he graduated in 1997, to professional stops in the Detroit Tigers organization and the with independent Frontier League’s Richmond Roosters.

He took that energy into coaching at the high school level as a varsity assistant at Fort Wayne Northrop in 2004 (the Bruins won the sectional) and head coach at Fort Wayne South Side from 2005-07.

Meanwhile, Sassanella was entering the financial services world and his family was growing (Jeremy and Kate count six in their blended bunch).

When he moved from northeast Indiana to Indianapolis, he continued in his daytime work (he’s employed by Horizon Planning Group) but maintained his interest in coaching. He led the Mudsox, a Fishers-based travel team, in 2013.

Sassanella joined the Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School program as an assistant, but was not actively pursuing high school head coaching positions when a friend and president of the Indianapolis Adult Baseball League, John DeCosta, persuaded him to throw his hat in the ring when the top spot on the Braves staff came open.

With his plate full away from the diamond, Sassanella added one more duty to his list.

“I have a very, very gracious and understanding wife,” says Sassanella. “She knows this is a passion, I enjoy it and I’m good at it.”

Good enough that he led the Braves to a 25-8 record and a Bishop Chatard Sectional crown in his first season as head coach in 2016

“We weren’t playing any patty cakes,” says Sassanella. “The first week I took over, I said to (Brebeuf athletic director) Ted (Hampton), I want to build the best schedule I can.

“Like it or not, it will help us be ready fro the 3A tournament.”

Not only do the Braves compete in the new Circle City Conference (with Chatard, Guerin Catholic and defending 4A state champion Roncalli), the 2017 slate includes Carmel, Hamilton Southeastern, Zionsville, Indianapolis Cathedral, Andrean and defending 3A state champion Northview — just to name a few.

As a coach, Sassanella takes his own diamond experiences and relates them to teenager ballplayers.

“I want them to have some opportunities and insights I didn’t have,” says Sassanella. “There are things I wish I could go back and tell my 16- or 17-year-old self.

“Playing pro ball was a blessing. I understand what it is to have success and fail at a high level. I was a talented athlete, but I absolutely had to work my butt off to have the success I had.”

Sassanella insists that his players go all out and they know the sport. He and assistants Joe Perkins, Rob Baker and Chris Vale — the latter two played at Purdue — “keep it really simple” while also talking constantly about situations.

“We do drills over and over and over again,” says Sassanella. When something happens in a game, it’s already been covered in practice.

“I hope when baseball people watch us play, they see that,” says Sassanella. “Our kids play hard and fundamentally sound.

“So much of the game is emotional and mental.”

What about the new pitch count rules for 2017?

“With my background, I’m probably overprotective of arms,” says Sassanella. “My top two pitchers threw just over 40 innings apiece (last year).”

The most pitches thrown by a Brebeuf varsity pitcher in 2016 was 103 and that was in the third week of May.

“With the amount of depth we have, I’m never worried about running into pitch count issues,” says Sassanella.

While the private school does not have a traditional feeder system, Sassanella has established an off-season six-week instructional program with open fields for incoming freshmen.

“Brebeuf is going to sell itself and all it is academically and culturally,” says Sassanella. “Everything goes through admissions. Parents want this education first. They’ll seek out Brebeuf and want to be part of our baseball program.”

The coach is also a strong believer in sportsmanship and would like to see umpires do something about cat calling and the like.

“It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about respect for the game,” says Sassanella. “I’d crack down on some of the nonsense.

“Do it with grace and dignity and go home.”

JEREMYSASSANELLA

Jeremy Sassanella is in his second season as head baseball coach at Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis. The Braves won 25 games and a sectional title in 2016.