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Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

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With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

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Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

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From first-time fatherhood to Gold Glove, life has been full for Reds catcher Barnhart

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s been an eventful last six months or so for Tucker Barnhart.

In August, the Cincinnati Reds catcher and Indiana native and wife Sierra welcomed first child Tatum into the world. Before you knew it Tucker was buying a tiny catcher’s mitt he found on Amazon.com.

“I was bored one day and I was trying to find a glove,” says Barnhart. “It just so happened there was a (miniature) black and red catcher’s glove. It made a ton of sense to grab it.”

In September, the switch-hitting backstop signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him with the Reds through at least the 2021 season. The deal also includes a club option for 2022.

In October, the 2009 Brownsburg High School graduate rapped his fourth Major League Baseball season with career-high totals for batting average (.270), on-base percentage (.347), slugging percentage (.403) and games played (121).

Reds manager Bryan Price told MLB.com in December that Barnhart will be Cincy’s primary in 2018 with Devin Mesoraco backing up.

“Tucker’s going to get the lion’s share of the playing time now; he’s earned that,” said Price.

“He has stamped himself — without a doubt — as a day-to-day big league catcher,” says Marty Brenneman, the Reds radio play-by-play voice since 1974. “He’s a guy who’s wonderful at handling a pitching staff, a guy who proved he could hit big league pitching before than the Average Joe. And above all that, he won the Gold Glove for defensive excellence in the National League.”

In November, Barnhart became the first Reds catcher since 10-time recipient Johnny Bench in 1977 to be awarded a Rawling Gold Glove in the Senior Circuit.

Brenneman calls Barnhart beating out St. Louis Cardinals receiver Yadier Molina — eight times a Gold Glove winner and NL All-Star — “a big, big deal.”

November was also a time celebrate his second wedding anniversary. Tucker is married to the former Sierra Thompson.

While adapting to fatherhood and recovering from the grind of the long season, the Zionsville resident has found the time to take in Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers games.

“I’m a big-time Pacers fan,” says Barnhart. “Basketball is my favorite sport. It’s in my blood.”

He is childhood friend of Boston Celtics small forward Gordon Hayward and Reds relief pitcher Drew Storen — both Brownsburg graduates.

Barnhart was a freshman and sophomore when he caught during Storen’s junior and senior Brownsburg seasons.

Years later, Barnhart looks into the stands at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati and sees a lot of Bulldogs purple and white.

Barnhart has also consulted this fall and winter with long-time personal hitting instructor Mike Shirley near Lapel and Reds catching coordinator Mike Stefanski in Cincinnati.

“Mike’s a great guy,” Barnhart says of Shirley, a national cross-checker scout for the Chicago White Sox. “I’ve worked with Mike since I was I would say 11 years old. Other than my dad (Kevin Barnhart), Mike has seen my swing more than any other person around. I trust Mike a lot. He’s cutting edge. He looks at all the numbers and all that stuff. I really appreciate the work he’s done for me.

“We look at video of other hitters and things that they do that I can do or things that I do that are similar to what they do. We do a lot more talking than hitting, which is good in my opinion.”

Barnhart said his offense has picked up as he has gotten more familiar with National League pitching.

“It’s facing the same guys over and over again seeing how they pitch you and how to attack them as a hitter,” says Barnhart. “Obviously, I’d like to grow as a hitter. I think I could drive some more balls. I don’t know if that’s going result in more home runs (than the seven he hit in both 2016 and 2017) or more doubles or what have you, but I’m getting more out of my swing.

“I’m getting stronger and more explosive.”

There continues to be an education — in baseball and in life — from his father.

“What haven’t I learned from Kevin Barnhart?,” says Tucker, who turned 27 on Jan. 7. “My dad has been so instrumental in my career.”

Kevin Barnhart is an instructor at Samp’s Hack Shack in Brownsburg, a facility owned by former big league pitcher Bill Sampen.

Tucker also offers a shout-out to mother Pam Barnhart, sister Paige Barnhart and the rest of his relatives.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without (my family),” says Tucker. “I am extremely thankful.

“Being a dad (myself) puts that all into perspective.”

Tucker went on paternity leave Aug. 31-Sept. 3 to be with Sierra and Tatum.

“It’s difficult and it’s the best thing ever,” says Barnhart of fatherhood. “No matter what kind of day I’m having when I see him smile, that’s all that matters.”

Barnhart also found the time to make western swing of the Reds Caravan.

One fan at the Muncie stop gave Barnhart her own nickname, “Johnny Bench Jr.”

“That’s pretty humbling,” says Barnhart, who was selected in the 10th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Reds and won an MiLB Gold Glove in 2011 and the Reds Joe Nuxhall Good Guy Award in voting of the Cincinnati chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 2016.

Barnhart is slated to address the Indiana Bulls travel baseball organization at their player/parent meeting Sunday, Jan. 28 at Westfield High School.

Barnhart played six seasons with the Bulls He made the 13U team at 11, but was not allowed to play for the fear of getting hurt. At 12, he played for the 13U squad then played 13U, 14U, 15,U 16U and 17U.

“It’s going to be a message of hard work, dedication and having fun,” says Barnhart of his remarks to Bulls players and parents. “You have to be able to have fun to get the most out of yourself. To achieve all the things you want to achieve in your life — whether it’s in baseball or in anything.”

The Barnharts plan to leave Thursday, Feb. 1 for spring training camp in Goodyear, Ariz. Pitchers and catchers are to report Feb. 13 (position players Feb. 18).

Cincinnati’s first Cactus League spring game is scheduled for Feb. 23. The season opener is slated for March 29.

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Tucker Barnhart, a Brownsburg (Ind.) High School graduate, goes into spring training 2018 as the primary catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. (MLB Photo)