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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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LaVille, Grace graduate Herbster’s baseball odyssey takes him to Czech Republic

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Quentin Herbster has bachelor’s degrees in Business Administration and Management as well as Marketing and a Masters of Business Administration degree and could pursue many biz-world or other opportunities.

But he’s not done with his baseball journey.

And what a journey’s it has been.

As father Dave Herbster says: “It’s a story of perseverance.”

Herbster, a graduate of LaVille Junior/Senior High School in Lakeville, Ind., and Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., is in the Czech Republic, where the outfielder hit a blistering .613 in the first half of the split season with Hluboka Baseball Club.

Before going to the central European nation through Baseball Jobs Overseas networking, the 6-foot, 210-pounder played at LaVille, Grace and independent pro ball in the U.S.

Herbster, who was born in Goshen, Ind., was a four-year varsity player and two-time all-conference performer at LaVille, where his coaches were Gene Baker at the beginning and Dan Jones for the last two seasons.

He hit .333 as a freshman, broke his ankle a week into his sophomore year then .395 as a junior and .450 as a senior.

“(Jones) was perfect for me because his thing was personal fitness,” says Herbster. “This kind of lit the first spark in value of personal health and it helped me rehab back from a broken ankle.”

At Grace, Herbster was part of a program led by head coach Bill Barr. After being on the junior varsity his first two seasons, Q hit .320 as a junior and kept on working to get better.

“I literally treated it like a full-time job in college,” says Herbster. “It was over 40 hours a week in the off-season (fall). My senior year, the game felt easy that fall in scrimmages so I graduated early to find better competition.”

After graduating early, he went to the Pecos League and played in the spring league with the 2016 Houston Apollos. After pulling his hamstring three times, he came back to Indiana to rehab and get a job.

“I didn’t want to be done playing because I knew why I had failed and knew I could fix it,” says Herbster. “But it meant I had to wait a whole year before playing and I had to get a job because I was newly-married (to Katrina).

“Looking back, I’m not sure how I got through that summer because I worked each weekday at the Menards in Warsaw from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., had physical therapy in Mishawaka on Tuesdays and Thursdays, played in South Bend for the South Bend Cardinals on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (I was only cleared to jog, but it was still live at-bats), cleaned medical buildings at night for two hours, lifted (weights) on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and all while finishing up my masters work online.

“That summer I lived on four hours of sleep and Rockstar Energy. But I had to because we were poor. I had therapy to pay for and a dream so couldn’t give up.:

Herbster went back to the Pecos League in 2017, hit .360 in the spring league with the Bisbee Sea Lions and was signed for the summer league by the Hollywood Stars. After a 1-for-7 start a a pinch hitter for the expansion team that played all its games on the road and Herbster was cut.

“I began the 28-hour drive back to my wife with the same problem again: workout for another year and wait for another opportunity,” says Herbster. “I couldn’t quit because I didn’t feel I had failed. After 10 months of lifting, working delivery, going to a speed guy and taking at-bats against my buddy that pitched with me in college, I got an email from (the Czech Republic) for this opportunity and I took it.”

Not only has Herbster been productive on the field, he enjoys the treatment he’s getting from his team.

“The thing that I like most is that for the first time in a long time I’m wanted and being taken care of,” says Herbster. “It’s not like I’m being paid well, but they are taking care of my housing and most my food, transportation, gym membership and then paying me a little bit on the side which covers supplements, food and a little bit left to help with student loans.

“They even forced me to take a nice litter two day vacation to Prague.”

When he’s not playing, working out or seeing the sights, Herbster is often giving lessons.

“It’s the same game and kids are the same everywhere, but the emphasis is different here then in the States,” says Herbster. “These differences promote different flaws.

“For example, the emphasis in pitching is to throw strikes so most kids do not let the arm ride up the kinetic chain and have an arm -irst approach that cuts down on velocity.

Emphasis on hitting was power so most kids dipped, stayed connected well, but pulled off. In the U.S., we emphasize — for the most part — to put it in play and play defense so we play much better defense and make better contact but rarely do you see people get connected and get true power out of themselves.”

Herbster’s team of 22 players was one of top squads in the lower tier and will play against the lower teams in the top division in the second half of the season.

“It’s like the bottom 4 MLB teams playing the top 4 AAA teams to earn their way back or to the majors,” says Herbster. “We’re the best of the second level so some games some players won’t show.”

Herbster is the only actual import on his team, but there is one player from the Ukraine and another from Cuba. The top four teams in the upper division have about four imports each.

There is a language barrier, but it isn’t awful.

“Most speak some English,” says Herbster. “Fortunately, a couple players speak it well. The struggle is in lessons. There’s three ways to learn: auditorial, visual and aesthetically. I can usually work with two-and-a-half.”

It also helps that Katrina has joined Quentin. He left for the Czech Republic in early April but she had a stay behind to finish her duties as a teacher at LaVille Elementary.

The language barrier was more frustrating during those two months,” says Herbster. “She really enjoys fitness and is currently studying through (the National Academy of Sports Medicine) to be a certified personal trainer, so she studies when I’m preoccupied.”

Herbster says his best qualities as an athlete probably also helped him as a student (he carried a 3.47 GPA as an undergrad and 3.62 while earning his masters).

I work hard and learn quickly,” says Herbster. “You work out six days a week and work at your game, you’ll get better.

“It’s all about stacking days. In high school, I was barely 6-foot, benched 135 (pounds), squatted 225. Now, I Bench 325, squat 575 and deadlift 555.

“I’m a good gap-to-gap hitter (from the right side).

“The rest of my game plays pretty average. I run a 6.8 to 6.7 60-yard dash time and top out at 88 (mph) from the outfield. I’m hoping to be able to do some of the Top Velocity program to gain some real arm strength this fall.”

What are Herbster’s long-term baseball goals?

“I’m hoping to find my ceiling,” says Herbster. “I want to see at what level I can play. I’m hoping to get to Australia or Japan to keep playing but have no idea how to get there yet.

“I just want to see how far I can push this.”

Herbster can see a job as an athletic director or coach in his future.

“I want to help kids reach there potential,” says Herbster. “Looking back, I really didn’t know what to do or how to do it. A lot of kids work hard but they just don’t know or have plans to help them improve. They don’t know the best way to do it.

“I’d also love to start a nutrition company that focuses on customizable, workout-goal based nutrition. I feel like these companies are inefficient and structurally backward.”

Quentin (24) is the oldest of Dave and Shawn Herbster’s five children. There’s also Hannah Herbster (22), Isaiah Herbster (16), Chloe Herbster (12) and Naomi Herbster (11).

Hannah graduated in the spring from Grace, where she played softball and finished her career as the Lancers’ all-time leader in stolen bases. The 6-foot-4 baseball-playing Isaiah is heading into his junior year at LaVille.

The first baseball camp Quentin ever attended was at 10 with Mark Haley, who was then manager of the South Bend Silver Hawks and now runs the South Bend Cubs Performance Center. Herbster has been an instructor at the facility located at Four Winds Field.

“(Haley) also worked with me between my junior and senior season in college, fixing a fundamental flaw to give me more power involving staying connected longer. He was like my swing mechanic in that I started to go to him when I needed a tune-up.”

Herbster also practiced year-around with Jeff Rinard at Chasing A Dream in Lakeville and later with Jeff Jackowiak.

From 13U to 18U, he played travel ball with the Elkhart Titans.

“(Titans coach) John Drew definitely cares about his players and that atmosphere was nice for me,” says Herbster. “He also game me the freedom to work on aspects of my game during games as well and even allowed me to continue to use their facilities in college and beyond.”

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Quentin Herbster, a LaVille High School and Grace College graduate, is playing baseball in the Czech Republic. (Hluboka Baseball Club Photo)

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Quentin Herbster hit .613 in the first half of the split baseball season with Hluboka in the Czech Republic. (Hluboka Baseball Club Photo)

Siler recognized for excellence as baseball umpire

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Four decades of making calls for high school games was saluted just before 11 a.m. Saturday, June 16, prior to the IHSAA Class 1A championship game at Victory Field in Indianapolis.

South Bend’s Scott Siler, 58, is to be recognized as the 2018 Interscholastic Athletic Official Association Award for excellence in the sport of baseball.

It’s a nice honor,” says Siler, who became an IHSAA-licensed official in the spring of 1979 as a college freshman and has worked 25 sec􏰀tionals, 16 regionals, 11 semistates and seven State Finals — the latter the 1A championship game in 2016.

That one was memorable.

Working behind the plate — a few steps from where he will accept his award — an errant fourth-inning fastball struck the big toe on Siler’s right foot.

“The ball hit my foot and went back to the screen,” says Siler. “It hurt a lot. I didn’t realize it was broken until after the game.

“Nobody can believe I actually broke my foot wearing steel-toed shoes. I had a suspicion that was probably going to be my last (State Finals). I didn’t want to come out.”

Thankful it was a four-man crew so he would not have to move as much as in a two- or three-man rotation, Siler gutted it out the rest of the Daleville-Lanesville game.

He went to urgent care the day after the game and had an orthopedist confirm the break Monday.

Siler came back to work a full schedule in 2017 and a few games this spring and plans to retire.

Growing up in Elkhart the oldest child of Dick and Marjorie Siler, Scott would occasionally umpire games for younger kids. He played baseball for his father — an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Famer — and graduated from Elkhart Memorial High School in 1978. He played four seasons, mostly as a second baseman, at the University of Notre Dame and earned letters in 1980 and 1982.

While in college, he umpired during the summers to earn some money.

After graduation, Siler went into education and coaching. He was an assistant baseball coach to Myron Dickerson at Wawasee High School for two seasons then was head coach for the Warriors for three before serving three as an assistant to Brian Eldridge at Goshen High School.

As he transitioned to his job at Notre Dame, Siler wanted to stay connected to baseball began taking on a larger high school umpiring schedule and also made calls for South Bend Silver Hawks/South Bend Cubs professional games and worked the National Christian College Athletic Association championships.

What makes a good umpire?

“It has to be somebody who enjoys the sport,” says Siler. “You also have to understand the sport well enough to be able to make judgements. You need to know how to anticipate plays and adjust to the different levels.

“You have to have a good knowledge of the rules and be able to apply them well. I always tried to be somebody that would enforce the rules but also use common sense when it needed to be applied.”

Maintaining a good relationship with the people on the field, particularly the catcher, coaches and his fellow umpires, was a big part of his success.

Siler also called on his coaching background.

“I understood the coach’s perspective and how much a coach wants to win and some of the things they’re trying to accomplish on the field,” says Siler. “There’s a time to talk to a coach and a time to leave a coach alone. There are times conversations can stir things up and make a situation worse. You have to be very careful in how you handle those things.”

Many of Siler’s games were worked with either Scott LaPlace or Jon Thompson as a partner. LaPlace will be one of the umpires for Saturday’s 1A, which makes the timing of his award even more special.

Siler has been affiliated with the St. Joseph Valley and North Indiana officials associations during his career, which has also included working football and basketball.

If Siler has his choice, he would like to the home plate umpire.

“The general feeling among umpires is you can get in a lot more trouble on the bases than on the plate,” says Siler. “We were a team. If necessary, we would always get the crew together and discuss it. I wanted to hear from everybody. We’d have a group conversation and a group decision.

“It’s true with every game, but especially in tournament play, you want to make sure you get it right. That’s the only thing that matters.”

An employee of the University of Notre Dame for 27 years, he concurrent instructor in the Mendoza College of Business.

Holder of a mathematics degree from Notre Dame and a masters of art in math education from Ball State University, he has taught project management classes at the undergraduate and MBA levels and change management at the executive MBA level and is currently managing a team in the IT department. Most seasons since 1993, he has helped keep statistics at Notre Dame home football games and has also helped with basketball.

“I’ve always enjoyed numbers and stats,” says Siler. “I’ve always been a rules-based person. I don’t know if that comes from being the first-born (his sisters are Laurie and Julie).”

In high school, Siler played tennis in the fall and helped keep football stats on Friday nights.

Siler is also busy with family, community volunteering and at church. Scott􏰁 and wife Carla reside in South Bend and have four children — Angela (31), Justin (29), Rebecca (22) and Matt􏰁hew (14). Scott coaches his son’s Little League team. Siler led the Stakeholder Committee for South Bend Community Schools Technology Initiative.

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Scott Siler (left) accepts his 2018 Interscholastic Athletic Official Association Award for excellence in the sport of baseball from IHSAA assistant commissioner Robert Faulkens Saturday, June 18 at Victory Field in Indianapolis. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

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South Bend’s Scott Siler, 58, is to be recognized as the 2018 Interscholastic Athletic Official Association Award for excellence in the sport of baseball. (Notre Dame Photo)

Closser heeds call of baseball coaching

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

J.D. Closser played professional baseball for 14 seasons.

After two campaigns away from the diamond, the former Indiana Mr. Baseball decided it was time to return to the game that has been so good to him.

“I wanted to give back what I’ve learned and make a career out of it,” says Closser, the bullpen coach for the Trenton Thunder, Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. “(Baseball is) what I’ve done my whole life.”

His goal is to make it back to the majors in some capacity.

Closser was 18 when he began his pro playing career in 1998 after being selected in the fifth round of that year’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of Alexandria-Monroe High School. The Monte Sprague-coached Tigers won the 1998 IHSAA Class 2A state title.

Closser played for the South Bend Silver Hawks for parts of the 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons and made his MLB debut with the Colorado Rockies in 2004 and logged 160 MLB games over three seasons.

He also played in the Oakland Athletics, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers systems through 2011.

Closser was 34 when he started coaching in 2014 with the High Class-A Tampa Yankees.

The former left-handed-swinging catcher spent two seasons in Tampa (working for managers Al Pedrique and Dave Bialas) and is now 37 and in his second year with Trenton.

Closser, who serves on the staff of 2017 Eastern League Manager of the Year Bobby Mitchell, carries the official title of defensive coach. Mitchell was also Trenton manager in 2016.

Coaching duties for Closser in 2017 include throwing batting practice and hitting fungos during batting practice while concentrating on the team’s catchers before, during and after contests.

“I make sure they get their work in,” says Closser. “I also get advance reports together for coaches and catchers and set up a gameplan for opposing teams. (In the bullpen), I give (relievers) a brief rundown on who is coming into the game.”

Closser says there is more game planning done and in-game adjustments made in Double-A than at lower levels of MLB-affiliated baseball.

“They’re executing pitches and working off their strengths (in A-ball),” says Closser catchers and pitchers. “You begin to spot a hitter’s weaknesses (in Double-A).”

There is also plenty of work on blocking and receiving pitches and talk of Pop times (time elapsed from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the intended fielder receives his throw.).

Like all organizations, the Yankees have a way they like to develop their players. But they do allow their coaches some freedom to use their own experiences to help players.

“You can incorporate our own ideas, things that have worked for you,” says Closser.

A few years ago, he helped one of his catchers by passing on a lesson he had learned about speeding up his throws to second base.

“I wanted him to get the ball in his throwing hand and in the air as fast as possible,” says Closser. “It is a thought process.”

Growing up, Closser’s thoughts were filled with baseball, fueled by men like Sprague and his father, Jeff (who is now head baseball coach at Alex).

Young J.D. gained a foundation based on work ethic.

“It was about going out and practicing,” says Closser. “So much of today’s player is showcasing and playing games. My dad instilled in me that you practice everyday. If you want to be good at something, you have to practice. It’s the Rule of 10,000. If you want to be good at anything, you have to do it 10,000 times.”

J.D. also learned about accountability.

“Your teammates and coaching staff are counting on you to show up and do your game everyday,” says Closser.

What he misses most about his playing days is the unity.

“I remember the clubhouse atmosphere being part of a team,” says Closser. “There was that competing everyday day and learning how to attack hitters.”

At home in Raleigh, N.C., Closser’s home team features wife Holley and daughters Belle (14), Callie (12) and Maebry (1). Belle is a freshmen in high school and Callie a seventh grader. Holley is from the area. She met J.D. when he played in Zebulon for the 2002 Carolina Mudcats.

Closser will have to wait to see what off-season assignments the Yankees might send his way. Trenton was to close out the regular season Monday, Sept. 4, and open the Eastern League playoffs Wednesday, Sept. 6.

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J.D. Closser, a 1998 Alexandria-Monroe High School graduate, is a bullpen coach with the Trenton Thunder in the New York Yankees organization. He played 14 professional baseball seasons and 2017 is his fourth as a coach. (Trenton Thunder Photo)

 

Mental, physical toughness important to Concord’s Lehmann

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Walter Lehmann developed a philosophy about baseball as a player and it has followed him into coaching.

Effort does not have to take a day off.

“I’d rather have a kid that is going to give that max effort all the time than the kid next to him who may be a little bit more talented,” says Lehmann, who was recently hired as head baseball coach at Concord High School. “When I was a player, I never hit the ball the best or was the fastest or had the best arm.”

And yet Lehmann excelled at Mishawaka Marian High School (graduating at in 2007) and played at Bethel College in Mishawaka (graduating in 2001). He was primarily a catcher.

Lehmann had his competitive fire stoked while playing at Marian for former Notre Dame player Tim Prister.

“He taught you confidence in yourself and your team,” says Lehmann, who knew Prister beginning in first grade thanks to being a youth sports teammate of Tim’s son, Eric. “(Tim taught us about) being mentally and physically tough. If you have that physical edge, it brings that mental edge.”

Lehmann, who went to St. Jude Catholic School in South Bend for grades K-8, learned which teammates he could trust based on how they responded during grueling workouts.

Who’s going to show up on time?

Who’s going to put in that extra effort?

Who’s going lead the pack?

Those shared experiences can built chemistry, which comes in hand with the team down a run in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Lehmann picked up more passion and baseball knowledge at Bethel from head coach Seth Zartman and assistants Dick Siler and Javier Jimenez.

“(Siler) cared about us as people and not just as baseball players,” says Lehmann of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “The same is true with Coach Zartman. His biggest concern was what life was going to be for us after baseball.

“(Jimenez) had a passion for the game and was there for you each day.”

Lehmann went into business for a few years while coaching baseball at Marian and in the summer with the South Bend Silver Hawks/South Bend Cubs Youth Baseball Club teams and officiating hockey in the winter (he played two high school seasons in that sport).

Working with the youth teams and at the South Bend Cubs Performance Center, Lehmann lapped up the advice being handed out by veteran pro baseball men Mark Haley and Curt Hasler.

He also decided to enter Bethel’s transition-to-teaching program. After a year at Mishawaka Catholic School, Lehmann now leads social studies students at Concord High School.

“I’ve been excited to come into work each day,” says Lehmann, who turns 29 in September.

The coach is also emphasize his message of extra effort and essential skills to the Minutemen.

“I want to make sure we do the fundamentals well,” says Lehmann. “A lot of teams try to do too much and they don’t execute the basics well.

“You can win a lot of high school baseball games by throwing strikes, (correctly) running the bases and playing defense. If we lose a game, I want it to be because we got beat and not because we gave them the win. If our pitchers are throwing strikes and they beat us, it happens.”

One of Lehmann’s favorite practice drills is called “21 Outs” and involves a coach with a fungo bat and a defense trying to record all the outs without an error.

“We want to have that defensive mentality,” says Lehmann. “We’re not giving more than 21 outs. This is what they get.”

Lehmann follows Eric Nielsen, who resigned to go into private business. The new coach is in the process of assembling his assistants for 2017-18.

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Walter Lehmann, a graduate of Mishawaka Marian High School and Bethel College, is now head baseball coach at Concord High School. (Concord High School Photo)

 

Sidearm Nation helps hurlers get hitters out by changing arm angles

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

So you pitch and you come over the top or at three-quarter overhand and you’re not getting the results you want. How about changing arm angles and tossing the baseball as a sidearmer or submariner?

Geoff Freeborn, who pitched from the left side at Northern Kentucky University, North Idaho College as well as independent professional baseball and for Team Canada, has created Sidearm Nation to help hurlers with dropping down.

An Illinois Sidearm Nation Camp open to all ages and featuring former pro sidearmers/submariners Peter Sikaras, Kenny Long and Ken Raines is scheduled for noon to 5 p.m. CST Aug. 19-20 at Pro Player Consultants, 5112 Prime Parkway, McHenry, Ill. All pitchers are welcome. Specialized coaching will be provided for sidearmers and submariners. Cost is $290 for both days and $150 for one. The camp will be limited to 40 participants.

For more information, email info@sidearmnation or visit http://www.sidearmnation.com.

Recently, Freeborn participated in an IndianaRBI Q&A session.

Q: Why do pitchers change their arm angle?

A: I guess most pitchers change their arm angle out of necessity. Either struggling with current arm angle and something needs to change or down on the depth chart, not pitching that much. Dropping down isn’t for everyone, if you’re pitching well, why change what’s working? But if you’re getting hit around pretty consistently then why not? You have nothing to lose. If you do drop down or are asked to drop down, you have to fully commit to it for it to work.

Q: What are the advantages of an arm angle change?

A: Overall it’s about deception from a lower angle. For the most part it’s not going to be about lighting up the radar gun. Movement is going to be the key from there.

Q: Is it about changing eye levels?

A: Hitters overall get used to seeing the same angle all the time from coaches in batting practice etc. Sidearm/submarine pitchers can mess that up.

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: I think one of the disadvantages is that you can get pigeon-holed a little bit, that you can only get same-side hitters out. In pro ball for example I tended to just be a lefty-specialist. Would have been a fun job in the MLB but not necessarily for Indy ball. Guess you also tend to just be a reliever, but at same time that can be a pretty good change for some.

Q: Can anyone change their arm angle?

A: I think overall anyone can change their arm angle or at least give it a shot. It tends to be the pitchers that are tall and lanky that pick up on it quicker. Multi-sport athletes or multi-position players tend to pick up on it quicker than say someone that is just a pitcher only.

Q: Do you have favorite sidearmers?

A: I’d have to say current Blue Jays RHP Joe Smith. Also being a LHP I’d have to say Randy Johnson. I used to love watching him.

Q: What about favorite submariners?

A: I never really got to see him pitch but love watching highlights of Dan Quisenberry. Also enjoyed watching Japanese pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe.

Q: How many sidearmers/submariners would you say are in pro ball?

A: That’s a good question. I’d say pretty much at least every time in each level in the minors usually has 1-2 in their bullpen. I think more and more sidewinders are getting drafted now and MLB teams are realizing how important they are.

Q: What about in college baseball?

A: College baseball-wise almost every program probably has 1-2 also in their pen. More colleges are recruiting high school sidewinders instead of having to drop someone down that’s struggling in college.

Q: Do these players tend to be starters or relievers?

A: Most sidewinders do tend to be relievers, do tend to be more successful one time through the order.

Q: I’m guessing there aren’t that many coaches that are familiar with the mechanics of a submariner?

A: I think were there can be some problems is when a pitching coach suggest to a pitcher to drop down but then doesn’t know what to do. Sometimes they get left in the corner to figure it out on their own, which I guess can be a good and bad thing. That’s where hopefully Sidearm Nation can be of help. We have over 200 interviews with current/former pros, basically a free e-book and then we run 5-6 camps per year.

Q: Are the number of sidearmers/submariners on the rise, the decline or steady?

A: Like I mentioned previously I think they are definitely on the rise. More pitchers are realizing by dropping down that can be there ticket to say playing college baseball. Majority of the pitchers I’ve interviewed if didn’t drop down the weren’t going to make their high school or college team then after dropping down, ended up making it to AAA/MLB.

PETERSIKARAS

Peter Sikaras, who pitched with the South Bend Silver Hawks, Gary SouthShore RailCats, Team Greece and others, is to be an instructor at a SidearmNation camp Aug. 19-20 in McHenry, Ill.

 

South Bend’s Wawrzyniak helps ballplayers navigate language, cultural gaps

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Building better communication bonds between foreign professional baseball players and the club’s that employ them.

That’s what Linda Wawrzyniak is doing for the game with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. When she started her business it was tied to adult education.

It has morphed into a service for teams who have increased their international investments and built baseball academies in Latin American countries but did not have an effective system to integrate players in ways that include more than balls, strikes and outs.

Based in South Bend and traveling extensively in the U.S. and Latin America, the bilingual Wawrzyniak works to help athletes navigate language and culture gaps.

She teaches English classes and so much more.

Wawrzyniak and HSA had a contract with South Bend Community School Corp., when she was approached about a decade ago by the South Bend Silver Hawks, then a Low Class-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s where she met South Bend field manager Mark Haley and D-backs executives. They wanted her to teach a few language classes.

“My son was in baseball at the time,” says Wawrzyniak. “I thought it would be fun. Then I realized that they didn’t have a great system to do this. Guys didn’t have a lot coming in and when they left, I didn’t know what they were going to. There were a lot of holes.”

Immersing herself into the world of baseball and figuring out how to help these young foreigners pursuing their diamond dreams, Wawrzyniak created a necessary niche.

“There’s just a ton of need,” says Wawrzyniak. “The broad brush stroke of English doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s so much that happens behind the scenes when they’re with us. It’s trust. We’re a different kind of coach, really.

“We’re not just teaching English, we’re teaching a few other things. It’s the heart. It’s the cognitive processes of learning. It’s having another person to lean on emotionally.”

Wawrzyniak notes that it takes 500 hours in a classroom setting to learn conversational English.

“We don’t have 500 hours, so we have to do it faster,” says Wawrzyniak. “You develop some systems and methodologies.”

Many contractors work in-season only. Wawrzyniak trains them and oversees their programs.

“We take a lot of time to find good people,” says Wawrzyniak.

Major League Baseball requires all its teams have an integration program in the Dominican Republic. Some hire teachers and others have someone on staff.

By investing much time and energy, Wawrzyniak has learned how to get the conversation started and how to build relationships.

“With what I do, you’ve got to know those kids,” says Wawrzyniak. “You’re not just supplying paper and pencils. You know lives. You’re directly involved with player development. I know those kids and I know the teachers that know those kids.”

Three of the many players that Wawrzyniak has a connection with and has watched blossom in professional baseball are Venezuelans Ender Inciarte and Wilson Contreras and Dominican Eloy Jimenez.

Inciarte, 26, played in South Bend in 2010 and 2011, broke into the big leagues with Arizona in 2014 and is now with the Atlanta Braves. The center fielder was recognized as one of baseball’s best defenders in 2016.

“To see him win the Gold Glove, I cried,” says Wawrzyniak. “I was overjoyed for him. I knew the struggles he went through. He struggled with losing his father. For awhile, it really slowed him down but it didn’t stop him.”

Contreras, 25, played in the Midwest League in 2013 with Kane County and made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. A versatile player, he has played most of his pro games as a catcher. He played in Game 7 when the team finally snapped its 108-year world championship drought.

“He just learned to temper himself,” says Wawrzyniak. “He’s a neat person. You watch these players figure out who they are. You see them mature. He learned to make the most of who he was.”

Jimenez, 20, is considered the top prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America. The outfielder played in South Bend in 2016 and is now at High Class-A Myrtle Beach.

“He’s just a naturally joyful person who loves to play,” says Wawrzyniak, who has faced the rising star in ping pong and basketball. “That’s neat. You don’t see that very often.

“He’s paying attention to every aspect of his career.”

When the Cubs started expanding into the Dominican Republic a few years ago, they sought out Wawrzyniak to help them smooth the transition.

“By that time, I was already working in the D.R. and the U.S.,” says Wawrzyniak. “I already had that international experience and understood what that required.”

She understands that culture is an all-encompassing concept.

“Let’s break that down,” says Wawrzyniak. “Culture is defined as societal norms. But because America is a melting pot, we don’t have one culture. Navigating that is one thing. There’s also gender cultures and age cultures.

“Culture’s a lot of things. Until you’ve had to teach it, you don’t really realize how big that is.”

College-age people today have a different verbiage and values from those of 30 years ago.

“It’s basically a difference in generations,” says Wawrzyniak. “Slang in the United States changes every five years. The reason it changes is that it’s driven by pop media.”

A typical baseball clubhouse is full of multiple generations. The references that a staffer in his 50’s makes may not connect with a player of 20.

“You might have coach who grew up with The Terminator and this new generation who has never seen The Terminator, and the coach says “I’ll be back!” and the Latin goes are going “What?” The Korean guys are going “Huh?” It doesn’t carry.

“If you haven’t integrated social media and pop media into what you’re doing, you’re behind the times. You have to be able to help kids understand those things.”

Wawrzyniak, featured recently on MLB.com, did her job well enough to receive a big thank you from the Cubs — a World Series ring.

“The Cubs are an amazing organization — world class,” says Wawrzyniak. “They didn’t have to give me a ring. But they did because I think they saw the value in working with all these Latin players, which is such a huge percentage of their minor league system.

“Huge progress was made. They saw that and acknowledged that.”

In the Cubs organization, South Bend represents the first full-season team for its minor leaguers. They play 140 regular-season contests compared with about half that at Eugene, Ore., in the short-season Northwest League.

“It’s hard,” says Wawrzyniak. “It’s more games than they’re used to playing. There’s a little more traveling than before. It’s a higher level of competition.”

It’s also “not their first rodeo.”

By the time they come to South Bend, they’ve usually already been in the U.S. three or four times. First there’s a month in the fall instructional league. They go home and then come back for spring training or extended spring training. They return home and then come back the next year for another spring training or extended spring training session before heading to Eugene.

While the Cubs have a nutritionist and many meals are provided, players usually are responsible for one meal a day and they crave foods from back home. Many grocery stores carry Latin American brands like Goya and there’s some chains that are attractive.

“They love Chipotle,” says Wawrzyniak. “That’s as close to home as they can get.”

Of course, it all comes down to the game.

“I’ve learned more baseball than I ever thought I would know,” says Wawrzyniak. “I now see the game within the game. I ask questions of coaches all the time. We build that into our programs.

“It’s not like what you learn in the first year of high school Spanish — Donde Esta La Biblioteca? (where’s the library?). They don’t want to know that. We have to give them words that make sense in their environment. We create materials that correspond to that.”

Wawrzyniak has made it a point to know what it feels like to throw a pitch, swing a bat, make a slide. She watches baseball on TV each night and breaks it down. She has devoured history and statistics.

“It’s not something you can do without knowing,” says Wawrzyniak. “I’ve spent a lot of my time just learning. You’ve got to know all of it. If you want to be effective, you have to. Any field you’re in, you have to know it.”

HSA teaches players how to interact with reporters. Normal conversation-starting questions revolve around who, what, when, where, how and why. But many times it comes across as very open-ended and sets the player up for failure.

“Speaking to the media, to me, is one of the hardest things and it’s not because they don’t have the words,” says Wawrzyniak. “It often comes down to how the question is formulated. There are a variety of ways reporters ask questions and they’re not always the same. One is ‘tell me about …’ That’s so vague.

“Most men don’t like opened-ended questions. (It’s the difference between) ‘tell me about what you envision for Mother’s Day vs. ‘what do you think we should do for Mother’s Day?’ Most guys struggle with that, regardless of their nationality. It’s kind of a sneak attack on these guys because they don’t really know what you want.

“It’s better, when you’re dealing with an international player, to be more specific.”

Wawrzyniak’s advice: The reporter should know what they want from the interviewee when they pose the question.

It’s all about communication and making a connection.

LINDAWAWRZYNIAK1

Linda Wawrzyniak is helping the baseball community integrate foreign players with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. The Chicago Cubs recently said thank you with a World Series ring.