Tag Archives: Southern League

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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Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

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Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)

Former LaPorte, Indiana standout DeMuth heading into fifth pro baseball season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dustin DeMuth’s fourth professional baseball season gave him the chance to see what it means when you move up the ladder.

DeMuth, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Indiana University by the Milwaukee Brewers, played 96 games at High-A Brevard County, Fla., and 34 contests at Double-A Biloxi, Miss., in 2016 then 116 more at Biloxi in 2017.

“It was definitely an up-and-down season,” says DeMuth, who hit .244 with nine home runs, 20 doubles and 40 runs batted in from the left-handed batter’s box and also honed his skills at first base in ’17. “There is a separator from High-A to Double-A ball. It was a grind. It was fun though. I learned a lot.”

DeMuth, a 2010 LaPorte High School graduate, saw the pace of play speed up in the Double-A Southern League. He also faced pitchers who have better command of their stuff.

“You see velocity all through the minor leagues,” says DeMuth. “(Double-A pitchers) have velocity and can put it where they want it. They can locate off-speed pitches. You have to be ready for any pitch in any count.

“They’ll attack you differently every time you go up there. You have to keep making adjustments.”

Defensively, DeMuth continued to pick up on the cues needed to play well at first base.

“I’ve always been a pretty good hitter,” says DeMuth. “But I always thought my defense was lacking.”

DeMuth has picked up a number of things from Brewers coaches on hitting, fielding and footwork.

“A lot of people have different ways of teaching things,” says DeMuth. “You find something that clicks in your head,you understand it and you go with it.”

DeMuth’s off-season has been eventful. He got engaged to girlfriend of more than four years — Caitlin Hansen — last November and the couple plans to wed this November.

Dustin and Caitlin met through mutual friends. The Roncalli High School graduate is a former defensive specialist on the IU volleyball team.

DeMuth has also been in Bloomington working out with the Hoosiers baseball team as he gets ready for 2018 spring training in Arizona. The Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate is at Colorado Springs, Colo.

Indiana’s program is now headed by Chris Lemonis. Tracy Smith was the Hoosiers head coach when DeMuth played in Cream and Crimson.

DeMuth credits Smith for instilling mental toughness in his players.

“He helped us move on from the rough spots and mistakes and continue to grind,” says DeMuth of Smith, who is now head coach at Arizona State University. “He was a great mentor for all of us.”

It was a talented and close-knit group that played in the College World Series in 2013 and the NCAA Regional in 2014 and won back-to-back Big Ten Conference titles. DeMuth’s teammates included several players on their way to pro baseball, including Kyle Schwarber (who made his MLB debut in 2015 with the Chicago Cubs), Aaron Slegers (2017 with the Minnesota Twins), Sam Travis (2017 with the Boston Red Sox) and Jake Kelzer (a Bloomington native now pitching in the Philadelphia Phillies system).

“It was like a family to be honest,” says DeMuth. “Most of those guys are still good friends.”

DeMuth was drafted in the eighth round by the Twins in 2013, but opted to go back to IU. After being chosen as a third-team All-American as a junior, he was a first-team All-American while hitting .374 with five homers and 40 RBIs as a senior. His career average was .344 in 236 games (all starts) and left the program ranked No. 1 all-time in doubles (63) and No. 2 in hits (316).

Born in Merrillville, DeMuth went to school in Highland, Ind., through sixth grade, went to Edgewood Middle School in Ellettsville, Ind., then moved to LaPorte during his seventh grade year. He played four seasons for the LaPorte High School Slicers and is grateful for the chance head coach Scott Upp gave him to be a varsity regular in left field as a freshman.

“That was a big deal back then,” says DeMuth. “(Upp) is one of the reasons I went on to play baseball in college.”

A three-sport athlete at LaPorte, there was a time early in his prep career where DeMuth ranked basketball and football ahead of baseball.

But he saw 6-foot-2 point guards becoming a rarity at the big-time college level and began seeing the opportunities on the diamond.

“I always wanted to go to college and play D-I and baseball was definitely the best route to go,” says DeMuth, who is featured in the book Slicer Baseball, A Cut Above: The History of LaPorte Baseball.

While in high school, DeMuth played a few summers of travel baseball for the Indiana Chargers.

At IU, he followed up his freshman year with the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs of the Florida Collegiate Summer League and his sophomore year with the Wareham Gatemen of Cape Cod Baseball League.

Dustin, 26, is the youngest Dave and Judy DeMuth’s four children, coming after David, Jenny and Julie. Dave, a former Merrillville High School assistant principal, is retired. Judy DeMuth is superintendent of Monroe County School Corporation. The girls both played college basketball — two-time all-Big Ten performer Jenny at Indiana and Julie at Ball State University.

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Dustin DeMuth, a former LaPorte High School and Indiana University baseball standout, is going into his fifth season in the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2018. (Biloxi Shuckers Photo)

 

Versatile VanMeter seeking opportunties in Reds organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Versatility is valued by the Cincinnati Reds.

That’s why they have Josh VanMeter playing multiple positions for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.

“I take more than one glove to the park everyday,” says VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate who has played third base, left field and first base in his last 10 games and is listed on his MiLB.com profile as a second baseman. “It’s good for my career to play many different spots. I’ve definitely enjoyed it.”

Dick Schofield, a former major league shortstop, is Pensacola’s defensive and third base coach and has helped VanMeter with positioning and attacking the ball.

While guiding Pensacola into a Southern League playoff berth, Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly has continued to get at-bats for lefty-swinging VanMeter.

“(Kelly) likes the way I go about my business,” says VanMeter, a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder. “I’m a guy who plays the game the right way. I give you competitive at-bats day in and day out.

“Show up and compete. That’s a big thing in the game of baseball.”

In his first 125 games and 451 at-bats at Double-A, VanMeter was hitting .264 with five home runs, one triple, 29 doubles, 52 runs batted in, 45 runs scored and 15 stolen bases.

With Gookie Dawkins as his hitting coach, VanMeter says he is improving his knowledge of the strike zone.

“You learn to lay off the tough pitches, especially with two strikes,” says VanMeter, 22. “It’s about not missing good pitches to hit.”

VanMeter was traded by the San Diego Padres to the Reds organization Dec. 9, 2016 and was told by agent Joe Speed how that would increase his opportunities. He was selected by San Diego in the fifth round of the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

He had committed to play at Illinois State University, but decided to go pro and signed with area scout Mark Conner (now director of scouting for the Padres).

“The opportunity to go straight into pro baseball was something I couldn’t pass up,” says VanMeter. “I thought I was mentally ready to play baseball everyday

“I promised my mom after I got drafted I would someday get my degree.”

Josh is the middle child of Greg and Amy VanMeter. Older brother Tyler played high school soccer. Younger sister Carlie was a cheerleader at Norwell and is now on the cheer squad at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne.

After closing his record-setting Norwell career with a Class 3A Indiana state championship, Josh VanMeter played for the Arizona League Padres that summer before spending all of 2014 with the Low Class-A Fort Wayne TinCaps.

In April 2015, VanMeter suffered a leg injury while turning a double play at second base. Playing at Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field, he collided with Lansing Lugnuts runner Rowdy Tellez. The result was a broken left fibula and months of grueling physical rehabilitation.

VanMeter walked on an aqua treadmill with the water level lowered every two days. He underwent painful deep tissue massage stop the build-up scar tissue. He did end up playing 25 games in Fort Wayne in 2015 before moving on to High Class-A Lake Elsinore then Double-A San Antonio as well as the Arizona Fall League in 2016.

He split his time between second base and shortstop in 2013 and 2014, played second base in 2015 and was a third baseman in 2016.

So popular was VanMeter — the first player from northeast Indiana to play for the TinCaps — that president Mike Nutter decided to honor the player with his own bobblehead.

“It was pretty special,” says VanMeter. “Pat Kelly made a big deal about it in spring training. Getting to play in Fort Wayne was special that year and a half.”

VanMeter played travel baseball from 2007-12 with the Fort Wayne-based Summit City Sluggers, playing for father Greg (now Sluggers president) and diamond veteran Mark Delalarza.

“That was a great experience,” says Josh VanMeter. “(Delagarza) had a huge impact on me. He taught me to be a man and made me the player I am today. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the world.”

Josh’s profile in the baseball universe raised with his MVP performance while playing fall ball for the Andy Slack-coached Reds Midwest Scout Team at the Perfect Game Kernels Foundation tournament in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2012.

Playing for coach Andy McClain at Norwell, three-time all-stater VanMeter set school records for career doubles (44) and single-season pitching wins (14) and walks (41) while tying for single-season home runs (9) in 2013 and single-season hits (53) and doubles (20) in 2011. The win record had been held by Jarrod Parker, who went on to pitch in the big leagues.

“(McClain) is always there for me,” says VanMeter. “He’s just a great person. He has held me accountable.”

During the state title run, VanMeter saw how McClain handled a team featuring 10 seniors.

“We knew what we had to do to win a state championship,” says VanMeter, who scored both runs on hits by Jonah Patten in a 2-1 win against Jasper. “He gave us a lot of freedom and that was good for us.”

With VanMeter at point guard, Norwell was a 3A basketball state runner-up in 2012. He went on to become a school record holder for 3-pointers, No. 2 in all-time scoring and third in assists.

“High school with him was a lot of fun,” says Greg VanMeter, who was calling much of action on the internet for www.wellscountyvoice.com. The site covers Knights football, boys basketball, girls basketball and baseball games.

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Josh VanMeter, a 2013 Norwell High School graduate, is in his first season in the Cincinnati Reds organization with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in 2017. (Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos Photo)