By STEVE KRAH
Having Rick Atkinson around has given the baseball program at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., “second eyes” for the better part of the last two decades.
“I’m the Don Zimmer of the outfit,” says Atkinson, who has seen plenty on a diamond in his 73 years and has lent his insights to the Trojans for 18 years — the past 16 on a coaching staff headed by Kyle Gould.
Bone cancer has not allowed the former Taylor player and longtime Gas City, Ind., resident to travel with the team on its 2021 trips to Arizona and Tennessee.
“I was looking forward to going,” says Atkinson, who tracks the 7-3 Trojans on the internet.
While COVID-19 precautions have also kept him away recently, Atkinson has shared plenty of diamond wisdom over the years.
“On the road, Kyle and I would be together and talk about baseball, the team and what-not,” says Atkinson. “We would not always agree. But when we left our room we were on the same page.”
Atkinson’s health no longer allows him, but he used to coach first base for the Trojans.
“I can’t move too quick,” says Atkinson. The cancer has eaten away his second vertebrae. “It’s good medicine to go over there when I don’t feel good.”
It had once been Atkinson’s responsibility to mow and water the grass and paint the lines at Winterholter Field.
“All of the sudden we can’t do that,” says Atkinson.
With the advent of artificial turf, those staples of baseball coaching are no longer necessary.
Rick and Sondra Atkinson have three children who all live nearby — Molly and Abby in Gas City and Adam in Muncie. There are eight grandchildren.
“They love to come over to Taylor and hit in the barn or get in the new press box,” says Atkinson.
A three-time Hall of Famer — Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and Grant County (Ind.) as an individual and Taylor University as part of a team — Atkinson was a standout third baseman for Jack King-coached Taylor teams from 1966-68 and played one season at Greenville (Ill.) College before playing in the Atlanta Braves organization.
Playing for NAIA Coach of the Year Bob Smith at Greenville in 1969, righty-swinging corner infielder Atkinson hit 12 home runs in 22 games and lead NAIA in homers per game (.55). He was also third in runs batted in per contest (1.55) while hitting .428. Greenville lost in the regional that year and Taylor went on to the NAIA World Series. Smith was also president of the International Baseball Federation that helped get the sport in the Olympics.
As a fast-pitch player, Atkinson helped the Plymouth Club Bombers to three Amateur Softball Association state titles and two runner-up finishes.
Atkinson was in secondary education for 38 years (physical education and health) — eight at Eastbrook High In Marion, Ind., and 30 at Mississinewa High in Gas City.
At Eastbrook, he was on the football staff with Terry Hoeppner (who went on to be head coach at Miami University in Ohio and Indiana University) at Eastbrook.
Before returning in 2005, Atkinson served Mississinewa for 24 years as the athletic director and 20 years as the Indians’ baseball coach. He was the North head coach in the IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series in 1990.
It was while dining at Cracker Barrel that Atkinson ran into Larry Winterholter who asked him to join his coaching staff at Taylor.
“Will you come back and help me?” Atkinson says of Winterholter’s question. “I’ve been there ever since.”
Gould was a freshman during Atkinson’s first season as as Trojans coach.
“We developed a good relationship,” says Atkinson. “A lot of people think I’m Kyle’s dad.”
Many relationships were formed through baseball over the decades. Atkinson got to know Dick Siler when they were both high school coaches.
“They had the ugliest uniforms I’ve ever seen,” says Atkinson of the bright red and yellow donned by Siler’s Elkhart Memorial High School teams, which included all-star pitcher Matt Ruess in 1990.
The friendship continued when they both began college coaching at Crossroads League schools — Atkinson at Taylor and Siler at Bethel.
Atkinson invited Siler to stay with him whenever he was in the area. IHSBCA Hall of Famer Siler died in 2020.
A 1965 graduate of Mississinewa, Atkinson earned 11 varsity letters playing baseball and basketball for coach Junior Mannis and football for coach Charlie Fisher. Nine of those teams won conference championships.
One of his fondest memories is playing five games in three different places in the same day.
“When I was 15 we had a high school doubleheader,” says Atkinson. “My mom took me to Kokomo for an American Legion doubleheader (featuring Jonesboro Post 95) then to Indianapolis for semipro tournament (with the Twin City Bankers).
“We won all five games that day.”
A rivalry with the Gas City-based Twin City Bankers and Portland Rockets is well-chronicled in Bill Lightle’s book “My Mother’s Dream.”
Atkinson played against one of former major league pitcher and Anderson, Ind., native Carl Erskine’s sons.
Erskine doesn’t address Atkinson by name. It’s “Hey, Gas City!”
He was 14 when Atkinson started playing for the Bankers. His father, John, was the team’s manager.
John Atkinson helped build a diamond that is still used today.
There were days when young Rick sold Cokes while sitting on the back part of a station wagon.
At 15, the Bankers placed third in the state tournament and all-stater Atkinson hit .454.
Atkinson recalls when amateur baseball went from wood to metal bats.
“I didn’t like it,” says Atkinson. “I collect fungos. None of them are aluminum.
“I do not remember breaking a bat. I’m sure I did.”
He does remember mending some clubs.
To keep wood bats in circulation, Atkinson used to use small black brad nails to hold them together.
For a few years, Atkinson was in charge of Taylor hitters.
He’d study the players’ swing to see what suited him best. It was easy to identify the best ones.
“A blind man can come into this barn and tell who the good hitters are just by the sound,” says Atkinson. “It’s a different sound.”
Leading a Taylor-based team in a collegiate wood bat league, Atkinson counted future big league center fielder Kevin Kiermaier as one of his players.
Atkinson encouraged the Fort Wayne Bishop Luers graduate to cash in on his speed.
“I know Coach, bunt the ball,” says Atkinson of Kiermaier’s echoing what the coach often told him. “They don’t teach the bunt anymore.”
The coach also lent his know-how with the independent professional Dubois County Dragons in Huntingburg, Ind., and the Anderson (Ind.) Lawmen. The latter team was managed by Texas Rangers bird dog scout Jay Welker and featured Brian Cruz who also played for Atkinson at Mississinewa.
For a few years, Atkinson was a camp director for Little League Central Region Headquarters in Indianapolis.
“I really loved it,” says Atkinson. “Kids from all over the country would come in.”
Campers and counselors affectionately referred to Atkinson as “Papa Bear.”