Tag Archives: Randy Miller

Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball a 60-year tradition

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

“Way to get off the bus, Gus. Scoring runs is fun!”

After the Portland (Ind.) Rockets plated three in the first inning at the National Baseball Federation major division (unlimited age) wood bat regional in Fort Wayne, manager Randy Miller shouted his approval from the third base coach’s box.

Miller has brought enthusiasm to the diamond for much of the organization’s long history.

The Rockets — started in 1959 by Dick Runkle and continued by Ray Miller (Randy’s father) — celebrated 60 years of diamond fun and memories in 2019. That makes it one of the longest-running continuous teams in amateur baseball.

“We go back to our 1960’s roots,” says Portland manager Randy Miller, who has seen the Rockets square off against squads from Albany, Geneva, Dunkirk, Elwood, New Castle, Upland, Yorktown and beyond. A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”

When the Rockets began, they were comprised of players from Portland and later fanned out from Jay County.

“We’re still townball,” says Miller”. We just come from a lot of towns.”

The ’19 Rockets (10-13) had four players who claim Portland as their hometown — Peyton Heniser, Chandler Jacks, Max Moser and captain Mitch Waters. They also came from Auburn, Bluffton, Carmel, Ellettsville, Frankton, Indianapolis, LaPorte, Marion, Pendleton, St. Joseph and Thorntown in Indiana and Coldwater, St. Mary’s and Vandalia in Ohio.

The oldest players were Waters (35), Chris Gaines (33), Zeth Tanner (29), Codey Harrison (28) and Craig Martin (28). The rest were under 25 with seven teenagers. Waters is the director of operations at the Jay County Community Center.

A graduate of Jay County High School and Manchester College, Waters played for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kings of the independent Frontier League.

“Our guys are some of the best athletes their high schools have ever had,” says Randy Miller. “They’re gamers.

“I’m just so proud of them.”

Miller, 65, began playing for the Rockets in 1972 and caught a doubleheader at 51. By the 1990’s, he was sharing manager duties with his father and has continued helped continue the tradition.

“I’ve got a motorcycle and a boat,” says Miller, a former teacher at Adams Central High School in Monroe, Ind. “I’m not on them very much in the summer.”

Runkle had the Rockets competing in the old Eastern Indiana Baseball League. Local talent included Steve Takats. His Ball State University teammate, Merv Rettenmund, played for Portland in 1966 and made his big league debut as a player with the Baltimore Orioles in 1968 and was an MLB hitting coach for many years.

The Rockets went 18-1 and won the EIBL in 1968.

With the team in financial trouble, Ray Miller took over in 1972. He doubled the schedule and included games with Fort Wayne teams.

With the support of wife Betty, Ray helped secure a playing facility in Portland that is now known as Runkle-Miller Field.

“Mom was always there with a sandwich and a cold beverage,” says Randy Miller of his mother, who served 16 years as city clerk.

In 1984, the Rockets merged with the Bank of Berne Lancers and went 34-20. The ’85 season was the best to date at 41-14 with Portland’s first-ever American Amateur Baseball Congress state title.

Miller became AABC state secretary in 1991 and the Rockets won AABC state crowns in 1991, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2004, and 2006 and in more than 30 years as manager Portland won more than 900 games.

Ray Miller died in 2017 and was inducted into the National Semi-Pro Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008. Randy Miller was enshrined in 2011.

With Randy Miller, siblings Brad Miller and Mickey Scott and many community members pitching in, the Rockets have survived. Mickey, who was city clerk for 12 years, used to run Runkle-Miller’s “Rocket Lunching Pad” concession stand and now Brad does it.

All three Miller offspring have taken turns watering the field. The baselines are seeded to help with all the excess rain.

For years, the Rockets were purely a family-funded operation.

Since the mid-1990s, the Rockets have swung wood bats. At first, Randy provided those. But that got too expensive and now the players provide their own clubs.

For $100, the team picks up the cost of caps, uniforms and handles insurance.

Randy Miller carries on a tradition by giving the “Rocket Report” on WPGW 100.9 FM on afternoons following games. Samantha Thomas, who once worked for the Fort Wayne TinCaps, is involved with keeping score and other team functions.

Randy Miller schedules games, recruits players, pays bills and generally keeps the Rockets going.

“That’s my legacy,” says Miller. “I carry the torch.”

The Rockets coaching tree spreads far and wide, especially along the U.S. 27 corridor.

“They want to give back to the game,” says Miller. “We are a baseball town. I really believe that.”

Among former Rockets are Jay County High School head coach Lea Selvey, Adams Central head coach Dave Neuenschwander and Bethel University head coach Seth Zartman.

Portland won 35 or more games a season throughout the 2000’s and went to the NABF World Series in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2012. A few years ago, the Rockets posted a 35-12 mark.

In 2018, an $28,000 scoreboard was installed at Runkle-Miller Field.

A 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of Portland’s Ritz Theatre was painted by Pamela Bliss and dedicated July 28 and many alums and Rocket backers came to celebrate.

Wearing the gold and black, fans were in Fort Wayne to see the Rockets’ latest season come to a close.

But the fun is not over yet for 2019. The annual Rocket Rally golf outing is scheduled for Sept. 22 at Portland Golf Club. For more information, email Randy Miller at ramiller15@embarqmail.com.

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Randy Miller and Mitch Waters share in the spoils of victory for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Dalton Tinsley hits for the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Former players and fans gathered July 28, 2019 for the dedication of a 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural and celebration of 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Artist Pamela Bliss created the 60-foot “Wall of Dreams” mural on the side of the Ritz Theatre in Portland, Ind. On Aug. 28, 2019, there was a

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Siblings Brad Miller (left), Randy Miller and Mickey Scott stand in front of a “Wall of Dreams” mural in Portland, Ind., celebrating 60 years of Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball. The mural behind them depicts Randy and their father, Ray Miller, who were co-managers for years.

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The story of the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team and the “Wall of Dreams.” (Portland Rockets Photo)

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Runkle-Miller Field received a $28,000 scoreboard in 2018. The field is home to the Portland (Ind.) Rockets baseball team, which has been around since 1959. (Portland Rockets Photo)

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On the occasion of his 300th win, Elkhart Central’s Stutsman reflects on his career

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Steve Stutsman had a sweet moment Saturday, May 6.

Elkhart Central beat visiting Angola 5-0 in the second game of a high school baseball doubleheader, giving Stutsman the 300th victory of his coaching career.

Stutsman and his team enjoyed cake and cupcakes to mark the moment then the man reflected on the “program” that brought him this special day.

“I’ve had great players, great coaches and great parents,” says Stutsman. “It’s an honor to get to 300 victories and someone helped in every one of those along the way.”

That includes former assistants like Scott Rost (now head coach at Elkhart Memorial), Andrew Brabender (head coach at Northridge who picked up his 200th career win earlier this season), Jim Treadway (former head coach at Concord and the long-time Bristol American Legion Post 143 manager) plus solid baseball men like Dave Hicks, Jimmy Malcom, Mike Doherty and Pat Doherty and on and on.

“Being part of the program. That’s what it’s all about,” says Stutsman. “It’s not me. Kids come and go. Parents come and go. You’ve got to have one thing and that’s the program. That’s what I’ve tried to build here.”

After serving two years as assistant to Randy Miller as he was ending his second head coaching stint with the Blue Blazers, Stutsman took over in 1996.

“I thought I had a good 20 years in me,” says Stutsman, 64. “I got the job kind of late in life in my late 30’s, early 40’s.

“I’m in my 22nd year and I feel better than when I first started.”

Stutsman, a 1971 Concord High School graduate, leads a 2017 team full of veterans players.

“They’re just a great group of kids,” says Stutsman. “They are young men who really play well together. They listen to you. They try to correct the things we ask them to correct.”

Stutsman sees a collection of young athletes that genuinely like each other and play loose.

“I said to them a couple of weeks ago that I’d rather have a team that has great team chemistry than two or three superstars on the team,” says Stutsman. “I really believe that.”

In 2013, Stutsman was part of an IHSAA Class 4A state championship celebration with a squad that beat Indianapolis Cathedral 1-0.

Those Blazers featured Indiana Mr. Baseball Tanner Tully (the left-hander homered and fanned 13 batters to the title game and is now at Low Class-A in the Cleveland Indians organization) plus L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner Matt Eppers (now a senior center fielder at Ball State), Cory Malcom (a successful senior right-handed starting pitcher at Arkansas-Little Rock) and Riley Futterknecht (who is wrapping up a strong college career as a left-handed hurler at DePauw).

“That was a great group, too,” says Stutsman. “They liked each other and played well together.

“Championships are awesome and people ask me, ‘why didn’t you retire after you won (in 2013)?’ and I said, “Because I’m still having fun. I still enjoy what I’m doing. I still enjoy watching them go on after high school to college or into a profession and be successful citizens. That — for me — is what coaching is all about.”

Since 1996, Central has won four sectionals (2001, 2011, 2012, 2013) with the one regionals semistate and one state title in 2013.

Stutsman’s “associate head coach” is Steve Asbury, who is in his 14th season on the Blazers staff.

“It’s scary because he knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking,” says Stutsman. “He has his responsibilities and he does them really well. It’s like I don’t have to tell him what to do.”

Lonnie Weatherholt and Chad O’Brien been with Stutsman for a decade. Brandon Squibb joined the cohesive varsity staff a few seasons ago. The junior varsity is led by Bodie Bender and longtime assistant Paul Bates (son Devin Prater played for the ’13 state champions).

“It’s nice to have your friends for your assistant coaches,” says Stutsman. “We really work well together.

“I feel like I’m just the head of the whole program and I let my assistants go and do their own thing.”

Stutsman has accomplished much of what he has without the feeder program that many Indiana schools enjoy. There is no junior high baseball in Elkhart and the local Little League parks send players on to various high schools.

Travel baseball is firmly established in the area and Stutsman knows it and accepts it — with a caveat.

“As long as they’re playing baseball and as long as I can trust the travel ball coach to make sure their arms are taken care of, I have no problem,” says Stutsman. “I think it’s good they play under different coaching philosophies.

“But when they hit high school, they know from January until the end of May they are Central ballplayers. I take great pride in making sure that the boys know that.”

Going back to the split of Elkhart High School into Central and Memorial, beginning in 1972-73, there have only been three head baseball coaches at Central — Miller (twice), Mike Lutz and Stutsman.

“I’m really proud of that,” Stutsman said. “If I could, if there’s a merger (and one is planned in 2020-21), I want to hang on until the merger and be the last Central baseball coach.”

Talk about the split has been on the lips of many Elkhartans for the past 44 years. Stutsman is no different.

“Selfishly, I’d like to see what we could do with one school,” says Stutsman. “There have been numerous years that had Central and Memorial been combined we could have went down to State. I don’t know if we could have won it all, but we could have been down there quite often.

“But that’s not why I coach. I coach for the kids and seeing them improve and making them into young adults.”

Stutsman also takes took him up on his invitation in the ‘90s to resurrect the Bristol American Legion Post 143 baseball program that was dormant for a short time after being originally started by Lutz.

“(Treadway) has done a great job and he’s taken a lot of our Central boys with the Bristol Legion,” says Stutsman.

Post 143 played its home game at Rice Field (the former varsity and current Central JV field) before moving around to various facilities and returns to that diamond in 2017.

A former Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association president, Stutsman sees two highlights of his time in a leadership role.

“There’s better communication with coaches throughout the state (mostly via email and newsletters),” says Stutsman. “The pitch count (rule) that we’re doing now was needed. I know it’s a struggle with the smaller schools to find pitchers, but its good to limit the pitches.

“(The IHSBCA) does a great job. I only joined one union and that’s it.”

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Steve Stutsman celebrates his 300th career coaching victory with his 2017 Elkhart Central High School baseball team after the Blue Blazers beat visiting Angola 5-0 in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday, May 6. Stutsman’s first season as ECHS head coach was 1996. (Steve Krah Photo)