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High school assistants make impact around Indiana

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Head coaches of high school baseball programs across Indiana have enjoyed help from some longtime assistants.

Here are some of their stories:

Rhett Welliever (Crawfordsville)

Going into his 36th season in 2021, Rhett Welliever has been the pitching coach at Crawfordsville (Ind.) High School for his whole run.

“I’m a humongous believer in owning that inside part of the plate with the fastball,” says Welliever. “It seems to have worked.

“If you can throw the inside fastball, every other pitch is available to you.”

Welliever wants his hurlers to employ solid mechanics. But he is also unique in today’s deviating from today’s prevelant approach.

“My pitchers are always working on stuff, stuff, stuff,” says Welliever, who knows his players enjoy throwing hard. “Most people work on location, location, location.”

Welliever has his catchers set up on the inside black for bullpens about 60-70 percent of the time. Many of his hurlers go hard in and soft away though some have done the opposite.

“It’s OK if once in awhile you hit a batter,” says Welliever. “Don’t get upset.”

Breaking balls are also thrown hard.

“We’re trying to create as much spin on that ball so it breaks as late as possible and the hitter has the least amount of time to react to it,” says Welliever. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

Welliever has his pitchers build arm strength with long toss and with burnouts aka pulldowns.

The 2008 Crawfordsville pitching staff racked up 397 (No. 3 in the IHSBCA Record Book; No. 1 Lafayette Jeff fanned 450 in 43 games in 1971).

Steven Rice fanned 198 batters in 2009 and finished his Athenians career (2007-10) with 521 K’s.

Welliever worked alongside brother-in-law and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Froedge through 2020. 

“One of John’s strengths teaching the fundamentals of fielding,” says Welliever. “(Strong defense) helps pitchers.

“It gives them confidence to attack the hitters and throw strikes.”

Brett Motz, a 1995 Crawfordsville graduate, is now Athenians head coach. Motz played at the University of Evansville, served as a graduate assistant at Purdue University and was head coach at North Putnam High School before returning to his alma mater, where he is also the strength & conditioning coach.

The Athenians won Class 3A state championships in 2008 (32-4) and 2011 (29-6).

What keeps Welliever coming back?

“It’s working with the kids and getting them to the point where they’re confident about themselves,” says Welliever. “It’s seeing them succeed in baseball and in life.”

He has witnessed many former players giving back to the community as coaches at the youth and high school levels.

“It is the most satisfying thing,” says Welliever, who grew up around New Market, Ind., and is a 1980 graduate of Southmont High School in Crawfordsville, where he played baseball for Mounties head coach George Davis and counted Froedge and the Taylor twins — Dave and Dan — as teammates. Dave Taylor went on to help found the Indiana Bulls travel organization.

“We played a lot of baseball together,” says Welliever. “It was a really special group of guys.”

Dan Welliever, Rhett’s father, taught junior high and was a wrestling head coach and an assistant in baseball, football and softball at Crawfordsville.

Jamie Welliever, Rhett’s brother, is retired from teaching and has spent two tenures each as head baseball and head wrestling coach at Southmont.

Landon McBride (New Palestine)

A middle school coach for five years (seventh and eighth grade teams often play up to 20 games while feeding the high school program), Landon McBride joined the New Palestine High School staff for the 2007 season. He is the Dragons infield coach and helps with hitters on a staff led since 2012 by Shawn Lyons

“The thing that jumps out at me the most about Coach Lyons is his absolute passion for his kids,” says McBride. “If you’re not in the inner circle you may not see that. But he does a great job of having his finger no the pulse of where our team is at and where each individual is at.”

McBride sees Lyons as steady.

“He doesn’t get too high; He doesn’t get too low,” says McBride. “He tries to keep our players on that even-keel, knowing there’s going to be ups and downs everyday.”

On game days, McBride serves as Lyons’ right-hand man, bouncing lineups off one another and trading ideas about strategy while also coaching first base.

McBride emphasizes fundamentals when it comes to his infielders fielding ground balls.

“We’re getting reps in every day — the way we think is the right way,” says McBride. “With hitting, we believe in going the other way. We’re utilizing our speed, bunt and steal bases when we can.”

McBride regularly throws batting practice.

“I’m 59 but I’m still chucking it in there,” says McBride. “I try to give them a little sense of velocity (by moving the L screen closer to the plate.”

When the varsity field is not available, New Pal baseball has been able to use the turf football field for long toss, tracking fly balls and taking grounders.

A 1980 graduate of Marshall High School in Indianapolis where he played three seasons for Bob Tremain and one for Brad Goffinet, McBride was a four-year player for Lynn Morrell at Marian University in Indianapolis — at the time an independent NAIA program.

McBride says he appreciates the discipline, structure and attention to detail that Tremain and Goffinet brought to Redskins baseball. 

“(Coach Morrell) liked getting the ball into play and swinging away,” says McBride. “It was the pure joy of being around the game.”

Landon, a partner in Indiana Property Services which gives him the schedule freedom to coach baseball, and wife Shari McBride have three children — Ryan (30), Angela (28) and Wes (24). The boys played baseball and Angela was also an athlete at New Palestine.

Mike Zeilinga (New Palestine)

A 1976 New Palestine graduate, Mike Zeilinga coaches Dragons outfielders and leads the junior varsity. 

Zeilinga began coaching boys basketball at New Pal in 1996 and led the freshmen for two seasons and the JV for four. He joined Al Cooper’s baseball staff in 2003. Cooper was a Dragons senior when Zeilinga was a freshman.

New Palestine earned a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2003 and state title in 2004.

“The kids keep me young,” says Zeilinga. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching.”

Most Dragons practices begin with stretching and throwing followed by individual defensive position work and team drills (cuts, double cuts and knowing situations).

“Coach McBride is excellent about working with our infielders,” says Zeilinga. “He makes sure they are moving with every pitch.

“Coach Lyons trusts the coaches that he has. He and Coach McBride have coached together that they can read each other’s mind. They have that kind of chemistry.”

During the fall IHSAA Limited Contract Period (twice a week for two hours), 73 players were at workouts while participation was around 65 for recent winter sessions.

“All coaches at New Pal work very well with sharing athletes,” says Zeilinga. “That’s straight from the mentality of Coach (Al) Cooper (athletic director and former head baseball coach).

Zeilinga often works with New Pal outfielders and JV players.

Since varsity and JV teams tend to play on the same night, Zeilinga rarely sees the varsity once the regular season starts.

After each JV game, Zeilinga sends an overview of what his players did well or areas where they need improvement and share that with head coach Shawn Lyons and varsity assistant Landon McBride.

Like McBride, Zeilinga has noticed the head coach’s temperament.

“Coach Lyons doesn’t get real high or real low after a big win or a hard loss,” says Zeilinga. “He’s just a real gentleman of the game.”

Mike, who worked at Eli Lily & Company 35 years before retiring, and wife Susan Zeilinga have two children — Stephanie (a teacher at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis) and Michael (who was the starting center fielder on New Palestine’s 2004 state championship team).

Kevin Hall (New Albany)

Kevin Hall is a 1986 New Albany High School graduate who was a scrappy middle infielder and lead-off hitter for John Buerger, but his association with Bulldogs baseball goes back to before he started school.

Hall, who credits his work ethic for being the youngest of 11, was a batboy for teams featuring older brother David and coached by Stan Sajko in the early 1970’s. Hall still has the tiny pinstriped uniform from those days.

“(Coach Berger) had an attention to detail,” says Hall. “John was very big on pitching and defense. He believed in the bunting game.”

With a few years off here and there, Hall has been on the New Albany baseball coaching staff since 1990. He has been Bulldogs head coach and IHSBCA Hall of Famer Chris McIntyre’s top assistant for more than two decades.

“We both have the same philosophy on winning and we’re teaching these kids how to be young men,” says Hall, who leads infielders while also helping with outfielders, hitters and catchers. “When kids get out of school they’re probably not going to be their own boss. They need to learn to take direction.

“We understand that this is the game of failure. If you give us effort, we’ll never get on you about that.”

Hall coaches first base with McIntyre in the third base box.

“Coach McIntyre has a mind like nobody I’ve ever met,” says Hall. “He can process things. He’s analytical. He’s a math teacher. He loves the numbers.”

One day, Hall brought a stop watch to time runners without McIntyre knowing it and — counting in his head — the head coach was only off the actual number by about 1/10th of a second.

“Our program wouldn’t be near where it would be without Chris McIntyre.”

Hall calls baseball “the fairest game ever.”

“Each team gets the same number of outs, same number of opportunities and deals with the same conditions,” says Hall. “There’s no clock. 

“You just have to go play.”

Hall throws a good deal of batting practice to the Bulldogs.

“Our kids get a lot of live arms,” says Hall. “I just use aspirin and ice and go back and do it again the next day.”

When McIntyre was approaching New Albany’s all-time win mark, Hall helped organize a special night for him.

After the celebration, Mac pulled Hall aside and said, “Don’t ever do that again” and then thanked him the next day.

“He’s very humble,” says Hall of McIntyre. “He wants the kids to have that limelight and not him.”

With the loss of the 2020 season because of COVID-19, New Albany had time to upgrade its baseball field while also putting in a new softball diamond next door. 

Kevin, a plant operator at Grant Line Elementary School in New Albany, and wife Melia Hall have a daughter together — eighth grader Anderson (named for Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson). Kevin’s two older daughters are Samantha and Stephanie. Melia’s son is Aidan.

Steve Ford (Lewis Cass)

IHSBCA Hall of Famer Greg Marschand has had Steve Ford on his staff for three-quarters of his tenure leading Lewis Cass High School in Walton, Ind.

The 2021 season will mark Ford’s 31st with the Kings. He has always led the infield defense and helped with hitting instruction at Cass, which finished as Class 2A state runners-up in 2009 (20-9).

“It’s pretty collaborative in our program,” says Ford, who coaches first base and sits next to Marschand when the coaches are in the dugout. “We get a sense of the style of play we’re going to use and we coach each of the areas based on what we’re trying to do for that season.

“We we like to put pressure on the defense (on offense). You can do that a lot of different ways. If we have plodders (on the base paths), we can bunt them over. If we have rabbits, we can have more stolen bases, double steals and taking of extra bases.”

Kings coaches like players to play to their strengths and learn to do things like hit behind the runner and put the ball on the ground up the middle.

“We want them to be well-versed in the approach they are going to be taking at the plate based on the situation,” says Ford. “We would really like our players to learn the strategies and the options.

“In practice, we put runners in position and they decide how they are going to score the run.

“Once they have a broader knowledge of how to play, they are going to enjoy it more and be more successful.”

A big part of the Cass offensive blueprint is to get accumulate freebies with dirt-ball reads etc.

“Our approach at the plate has to be to hit hittable strikes,” says Ford. “Early in the count we’re not going to hit his pitch. We’re going to hit our pitch.”

A goal in batting practice is for each player to figure out which pitch he hits best.

BP goal – each player to learn to figure out which pitch he hits best

“Hitting a pitcher’s pitch is giving him a freebie,” says Ford. “Hitting our pitch is somewhat of a freebie for us.”

As part of its SAFE-T offensive plan, Cass wants to score the game’s first run.

Going for the long ball is not a priority, especially at home games where it’s 330 feet down the foul lines and 408 to center field.

“There’s a lot of outfield grass and we’re going to try to pepper it rather than try to hit it out of the park,” says Ford.

Kings defenders focus a lot of on momentum changers.

“One of he biggest on defense is the double play,” says Ford. “We work a lot on turns, feeds and throws to first base while trying to help our pitcher.

“At the high school level, pitching can be a huge variable. Defensive positioning os based on the speed of our pitcher. 

“I can’t tell (infielders) every pitch where to align so they have to be cognizant of signals between the pitchers and catcher and know what pitch is coming.”

The Kings also look to prevent opponents from taking the extra base by being in the proper position for cut-offs and double-cuts.

“We’re making sure to be in a good back-up position in case the throw isn’t perfect,” says Ford. “There are a lot of nuances in defense like where the first baseman takes the throw or where the third baseman goes based on the count. At the high school level, the drag bunt is a big strategy.”

Taking nothing for granted, Ford wants his infielders to back up throws from the catcher to the pitcher.

Ford, a 1970 Kokomo Haworth graduate played for for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Keith Slaughter. The 1970 Haworth Huskies were state finalists.

Bill Bright was middle infielder Ford’s coach at Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis).

Steve and wife Julia Ford have been married since 1974 and have two daughters — Amanda (a local farm wife with a son and two daughters) and Melanie (who played four years of basketball at the University of Charleston and is now associate athletic director, senior women’s administrator and NCAA compliance officer at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.). Amanda was a manager and Melanie a player for their father as a basketball coach.

Steve Ford was the girls basketball coach at Cass for 18 seasons, concluding in 2007-08.

Jim Kominkiewicz (Penn)

IHSBCA Hall of Famer Greg Dikos has been head coach at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., for four Class 4A state titles (1994, 1998, 2001 and 2015) and a state runner-up finish (2017). 

Jim Kominiewicz has been there as an assistant for all of them. The 2021 season will be Komo’s 31st on the Kingsmen coaching staff. He has been in education for 38 years — eight in South Bend and 30 in the Penn system.

The current staff has Dikos leading the catcher, Kominkiewicz the infielders, Tom Stanton the pitchers and John Westra the outfielders.

“Greg is one of the best catching coaches in the state,” says Kominkiewicz, noting that Penn has produced its share of college backstops. “Catching is one of the hardest things to do. You’re involved in every play.

“When have pitchers like Skylar Szynski or Ryan Lynch, you better make sure your catcher can catch the ball.”

Kominkiewicz applauds Dikos for his willingness to keep learning and incorporating them into the Kingsmen program.

“Every year we try to do something better,” says Kominkiewicz. “We never stay the same. We try to change things up and keep the kids excited about it. 

“Greg is always going to clinics. He’s the best.”

Kominkiewicz has noticed that many clinic speakers reinforce concepts already being taught by Penn coaches.

“It shows we’re doing things right,” says Kominkiewicz. 

As an infield coach, Komo stresses getting the palm to the baseball and fielding through it. Time is spent on back-handing and picking up short hops.

Kominkiewicz graduated from South Bend John Adams High School in 1972, where he played baseball for IHSBCA Hall of Famer Len Buczkowski.

Komo’s first baseball coaching post was at South Bend Washington High School on the staff of IHSBCA Hall of Famer Ric Tomaszewski that also included pitching coach Larry Jackowiak.

“Rick was very intense,” says Kominkiewicz. “He’s a book. We spent a lot of time together. We’d come in on Saturday morning and leave at 4 or 5 in the afternoon. 

“I learned a lot of baseball from those guys. Both of them were great coaches.”

A popular drill during the indoor portion of the preseason was a game called “27 Outs.”

As fielders got closer to making it to the finish, balls off fungo bats got harder.

“That’s why (Tomaszewski’s) team were good,” says Kominkiewicz. “They competed every practice.

“We do the same things at Penn. We compete. We test for sit-ups, push-ups and longest throws. We rate their at-bats (4 points for a line drive, 3 for a hard ground ball etc.). Pitchers try to throw the most strikes — things like that.”

Ground balls and double plays are often timed.

Splitting the team into three groups, the Kingsmen go nine outs per round. Losers do extra running or clean up the field.

“A lot of times our practices are harder than the games,” says Kominkiewicz. “But it’s got to be good practice — not just practice. We want to do it right.

“Our theory is we want to good game of catch, put the ball in play (on offense) and pitchers have to throw strikes. That’s what we stress.”

After Washington, Kominkiewicz went to Adams to coach football, wrestling, baseball and and weightlifting then went back to Washington to coach baseball.

Then came the move to Penn, where he also coached football for two years. He has taught and coaches football and wrestling and served as athletic director at Grissom Middle School.

Jim and wife Beth Kominkiewicz have four children — Ryan (38), Brandon (32), Jill (29) and Matt (21) — and seven grandchildren ages six months to 9 years. 

Ryan, an engineer with Caterpillar, played baseball at Penn. 

Brandon played football at Penn and the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and coaches football at Fort Wayne North Side High School.

Jill is a dental assistant.

Matt played baseball and football at Penn and is on the football team at Saint Francis.

Kevin Fitzgerald (Noblesville)

A 1987 graduate of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis where he played two seasons each for former big league pitcher Russ Kemmerer and Richard Bender, Noblesville High School assistant Kevin Fitzgerald served in the U.S. Marine Corps 1989-94 then was an assistant to Duke Burns at Park Tudor School in Indianapolis (2000-02), Dave Mundy at Sheridan (Ind.) High School (2003 and 2004) and head coach at Sheridan (2005 and 2006).

“He was fantastic,” says Fitzgerald of Kemmerer. “There were so many lessons I learned that I didn’t realize I was learning at the time.

“For him, it was really teaching about life and baseball was just the tool. He said baseball is played on a six-inch field — the six inches between your ears. There are no such things as physical errors — they’re all mental. You weren’t prepared.”

Bender, who had big shoes to fill replacing the popular Kemmerer, is credited by Fitzgerald for the opportunity to explore leadership.

Fitzgerald joined Justin Keever’s staff at Noblesville in 2007.

The Millers won a Class 4A state championship in 2014.

Involved in all aspects of the program, Fitzgerald’s primary focuses is on hitters and outfielders. He also coaches third base and runs the Millers’ analytics.

“I take a lot of stuff off Justin’s plate,” says Fitzgerald. “Being an assistant coach at Noblesville High School is a better gig than a lot of head coaching jobs around the state.

“(Assistants are) all given specific areas (by Keever). Having that kind of trust and autonomy is one of the keys to the program

“He’s built an unbelievable culture in the program that was evident from Day 1.

“We have pretty intense discussions as a staff on direction. One of Justin’s gifts is to pull that together. When we walk out the door, it’s one voice. It’s a purely collaborative process.

“Justin Keever, to me, is the quintessential baseball coach. It’s truly a joy to be on his staff.”

Fitzgerald says Millers hitters are approach-driven.

“Two strikes and less than two strikes are the only two counts that matter,” says Fitzgerald. “With less then two strikes we’re looking to do damage.

“We want to grind pitchers up so we’re aggressively patient. We’ll give up a pitcher’s strike early in the count because it’s not one we can do damage with. But we’ll wait for a mistake.

“The best way to hit a breaking ball is to don’t miss the fastball.”

Points of emphasis for outfielders include trying not to let balls hit the ground and throwing the ball to the right place so runners don’t move up.

Fitzgerald keeps a freebies chart that tracks trail-runner advances.

“We look to win the freebie war every game,” says Fitzgerald. “We want to score plus-5 or more.”

Tools like FlightScope and Rapsodo are used to gather analytic metrics that can be studied and adapted to what Noblesville seeks to accomplish in individual player development.

“It’s not about maintenance,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s about being progressive and moving to the next level.”

Fitzgerald’s resume also includes a stint as executive director and coach for the Indiana Mustangs and working at RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield, Ind.

Fitzgerald has gained an appreciation for where the Hoosier State stands in the diamond world.

“I don’t think Indiana high school baseball gets enough credit from the public for being as good as it is,” says Fitzgerald. “big-time college programs are always recruiting in Indiana. They know.”

When talking with a coach from a Southeastern Conference school, Fitzgerald asked the difference between players from warm-weather states and places like Indiana.

“He said that northern players are academy players,” says Fitzgerald. “They lack some of that instruct. They don’t play (as much as warm-weather players). 

“That’s our biggest challenge during the off-season (at Noblesville High). We try to be game-like with game speed and tempo indoors. We do anything we can to create instinct.”

Kevin works for Amazon and holds a Business Management degree and is working toward at Quantitative Economics degree from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

Brett Windmiller (Fort Wayne Carroll)

A 1991 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Dwenger High School, Brett Windmiller has been on the staff of head coach Dave Ginder at Carroll High School in Allen County since the 2003 season.

The Chargers were Class 3A state runners-up in 1999 and Class 4A state champions in 2010 and 2011.

“(Coach Ginder) understands the things to be good at,” says Windmiller. “His practice organization great and he’s very aware of time.

“If we’re not doing something right, we move on. We’re not going to beat a dead horse.

“As an assistant coach he’s great to work for. You truly feel like you have a say in things. He asks our opinion.”

Windmiller guides the Chargers’ catchers and infielders.

He expects catchers to learn how to run a game (Ginder and Windmiller do not call pitches).

“We teach our kids this is what we want in certain counts,” says Windmiller. “Practice is where we teach. Kids are freed up to play at game time.”

The Chargers talk about the mental game and preparing for each pitch as taught by Brian Cain.

“Players on our 2011 team were masters of the mental game before we emphasized it,” says Windmiller. “They flat out knew they were going to win. 

“It was an amazing group.”

Ginder played at Carroll (Class of 1991) for Chris Adams and at Anderson University for IHSBCA, Anderson U., and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Don Brandon.

Windmiller played his freshmen year for IHSBCA/Northeast Indiana Baseball Association Hall of Famer Lance Hershberger and sophomore through senior seasons for his father and NEIBA Hall of Famer Larry Windmiller.

Brett played four seasons at Huntington (Ind.) College (now Huntington University) for IHSBCA/NEIBA Hall of Famer Mike Frame, graduating in December 1995.

Before landing at Carroll, Brett was on his father’s Dwenger staff from 1996-2002.

Hershberger, who was an elementary physical education teacher for Windmiller, taught his players about focus and intensity.

“It started with him from the time you started playing catch until you got on the bus and went home,” says Windmiller. “All those things in between mattered. Not that you’re going to dwell on it afterward but this current pitch or at-bat is important.

“If you weren’t ready, you were going to hear about it from Lance.”

Hershberger reminded his players that there was a difference between baseball during the high school and summer seasons. There’s a finality to the high school season while the summer — though very important for development and exposure — is a series of games and unattached tournaments.

Brett did not feel the stigma of being a coach’s son.

“It may have just been the guys I played with,” says Brett. “In hindsight, it may be that dad handled it real well.

“I enjoyed playing for him. There were expectations with the way he wanted you to play. He was good at detecting an issue by watching you swing or throw.”

In his son’s eyes, Larry Windmiller was pretty even-keeled.

“He never got upset,” says Brett. “He was kind of in the middle all the time.

“He really let us play. We had a lot of kids with talent. We played loose and had a lot of success.”

The Dwenger Saints bowed out to Highland in the 1991 South Bend Semistate championship game.

At Huntington, Windmiller learned to play with intensity but not to let a mistake or a perceived bad call fester.

“The intensity of a baseball game is there,” says Windmiller. “It has to be. You learn the moments of the game where that’s appropriate. It cannot drive you into making a second mistake. You can’t carry your at-bat into the field. My red light was strike calls I didn’t agree with.

“Coach Frame was great as far as getting me to try to understand that I’m killing myself when I’m doing that. He helped me lose a little bit of the football mentality.”

Windmiller says he and his fellow coaches have matured over the years and tries set a good example for the players.

“When something bad happens, they are going to look at us,” says Windmiller. “We want to be cheering them on and saying let’s go to the next pitch.”

His first spring at Carroll, Windmiller coached junior varsity players with Mike Klopfenstein.

“JV’s great,” says Windmiller. “There’s no all-conference. There’s no media. It’s just young kids learning how to play baseball the correct way.”

At the JV level, win-loss record is irrelevant. It’s about developing. Between the spring and summer ball and getting in the weight room, a player can make big jumps from one season to the next.

Windmiller is a public address announcer for many Carroll sports, including football, boys basketball, girls basketball and wrestling. He has coached eighth grade football and seventh grade girls basketball in the system.

He is also an NEIBA board member and president of the Fort Wayne Baseball Federation, running the Red Carrington League with Richard Brown. 

Brett took over the FWBF post after the passing of NEIBA Hall of Famer Dick Crumback in 2019. 

The NEIBA presents the Dick Crumback Player of the Year annually to an area ballplayer. The honor comes with a $1,000 donation ($500 from the Crumback family and $500 for the FWBF) to the program of the recipient.

“It’s a pretty tight-knit baseball community in Fort Wayne,” says Windmiller, who has also been a Wildcat League coach.

Brett, a sixth grade science teacher at Carroll Middle School, and wife Kara Windmiller (secretary to Chargers athletic director Dan Ginder) live in the Carroll school district and have two daughters — high school sophomore Ryli and seventh grader Hannah.

Brett’s sister Kari played volleyball and basketball at Dwenger.

Rhett Welliever is an assistant baseball coach at Crawfordsville (Ind.) High School. (Susan Ehrlich Photo)
Landon McBride is an assistant baseball coach at New Palestine (Ind.) High School.
Mike Zeilinga is an assistant baseball coach at New Palestine (Ind.) High School.
Kevin (right), with wife Melia, is an assistant baseball coach at New Albany (Ind.) High School.
Steve Ford is an assistant baseball coach at Lewis Cass High School in Walton, Ind.
Jim Kominkiewicz is an assistant baseball coach at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind. (The Pennant Photo)
Kevin Fitzgerald is an assistant baseball coach at Noblesville (Ind.) High School.
Brett Windmiller is an assistant baseball coach at Carroll High School in Allen County, Ind.

Indianapolis native McClain helped change athletic training in baseball

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ron McClain was on the forefront of change in athletic training for baseball. The Indianapolis native worked with some of the best players of all-time in a career that went from 1973-2004. He plied his trade with the Indianapolis Indians, Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos. He was the National League trainer for the All-Star Game in 1982 (Montreal), 1989 (Anaheim) and 1997 (Cleveland).

A National Athletic Trainers Association member beginning with his college days, McClain helped found the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society.

McClain’s accomplishments will be recognized Friday, Jan. 18 at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame and awards dinner. It will be held during the IHSBCA State Clinic at Sheraton at the Crossing in Indianapolis. Contributor McClain will be inducted along with player Fred “Cy” Williams, coach Pat O’Neil, contributor Bob Schellinger and player Scott Rolen.

McClain grew up on the south side of Indianapolis near the Silver Hills Riding Stables and took an early appreciation of horses. He was also into sports of all kinds. He played varsity football and was a reserve for basketball and baseball at Warren Central High School, where he graduated in 1968.

Combining an interest in athletics and medicine, McClain studied physical education and training at Indiana University and graduated in 1975.

While he was still in college, he was driving a truck as a summer job in 1973 when he learned of the Indians’ need for a trainer and served a few months as a volunteer then turned to IU for the fall semester.

McClain impressed enough that he was invited to serve with the parent Reds in spring training and the Indians during the season in 1974 before again returning to IU in the fall.

From 1975-79, McClain trained for the Reds in spring training and Indians during the season then returned to Cincinnati each September to assist head trainer Larry Starr.

“That was quite a thrill,” says McClain. “It was the Big Red Machine era and I was a fan.”

Johnny Bench and Pete Rose were among his favorite players.

“I really came to admire Joe Morgan,” says McClain.

In his first season in Indianapolis, the team featured Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster and Dan Driessen. Ray Knight came along the next year.

McClain and the elder Griffey shared a birthday (April 10) and were fast friends.

“He was a real genuine guy,” says McClain. “He was just a good guy and a family man.”

Images of Ken Griffey Sr. instructing his tiny son — Ken Griffey Jr. —  are still etched on McClain’s memory.

He also recalls Griffey Sr. and Foster taking him out for ice cream after games.

“It’s hard to find an ice cream shop open at 11 p.m.,” says McClain.

“The best person as a superstar I ever met was Tom Seaver,” says McClain.

Sparky Anderson was the manager for McClain’s first five years he was associated with Cincinnati. John McNamara was Reds skipper in 1979.

Starr and McClain brought strength training into baseball with the addition of Nautilus equipment in 1975.

Players who had gotten where they were within such training were hesitant at first.

McClain says the Reds did not stretch before games in 1974. They did some stretching during spring training then began throwing the baseball.

In 1976, the training staff added long distance running and modified sprints to the spring regimen.

“To a baseball player, long distance means two times around the field (about a half mile),” says McClain. “Everything is so slow to move in baseball. Managers are older ex-players. This is how I did it. Players wanted to conserve their energy.

“Conditioning was at a very low level. By August, a lot of these guys were wilting. They didn’t keep up their strength.”

With Indianapolis, McClain worked with managers Vern Rapp, Jim Snyder and Roy Majtyka.

Rapp after 1975 and joined the coaching staff at Montreal, where they were looking for a trainer with baseball knowledge and experience.

“They were having trouble finding one that wasn’t a hockey trainer,” says McClain. “They were not knowledgeable enough about shoulders and throwing arms in their opinion.

McClain received a referral from Indianapolis general manager Max Schumacher and Reds executive Sheldon “Chief” Bender that helped him land the head trainer position in Montreal and he held that job from 1980 until 2004.

“I aced the interview and got hired,” says McClain. “I spent the next 25 years in the big leagues, which was quite a thrill.”

Expos managers during his tenure were Dick Williams, Jim Fanning, Bill Virdon, Buck Rodgers, Tom Runnells, Felipe Alou, Jeff Torborg and Frank Robinson.

When McClain started in Montreal, the club had just a few pieces of strength equipment.

“I changed all that,” says McClain, who saw 20-by-30 strength training room go in. The Expos did stretches and used free weights as well as Nautilus and Cybex machines for strength training at a time when some teams only had stationary bikes

“Some were slow to get on the bandwagon,” says McClain. “It takes awhile for most teams to abide by good advice. You don’t know if it’s good advice for a few years.”

In June 1980, McClain gave Andre Dawson a simple device which helped his Hall of Fame career.

Dawson had injured his knees in football and had surgery while in high school. They took a beating in baseball, particularly on the hard artificial surface of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

“I was like running on padded cement,” says McClain.

Dawson’s knees really swelled on airplane flights.

“Cabins are pressurized at 10,000 feet,” says McClain. “He would have inflammation (a build up fluid) and it was hard to play the next day.”

McClain gave the outfielder a neoprene compression sleeve and that took care of the swelling and discomfort.

It was also 1980 that the Expos brought in Bill Sellers as a exercise science and nutritional expert.

“It all kind of goes hand-in-hand and now every team has to have a certified chef for the home team and the visiting team,” says McClain. “But it’s a tough thing to get a superior athlete to change their ways. They already think they are the best. They have to fail first.”

It was common for players to insist on being in the lineup even when injuries slowed them down.

“Guys like Dawson and Gary Carter, they will always tell you that they want to play,” says McClain. “They would aggravate things a lot. Especially with soft tissue injuries. They think they can play then the tear in further.”

The Expos had speedsters like Tim Raines, Indianapolis native Rodney Scott and Ron LeFlore.

“They would aggravate injuries and be out an extra week,” says McClain. “You almost have to prove to each guy individually what’s going to happen.

“As a young trainer they didn’t listen to me as much as they did later.”

Players weren’t the only ones to turn a deaf ear to the expert.

“Dick Williams didn’t listen to anybody,” says McClain. “Bill Virdon was a tough one to deal with.”

Later managers like Rodgers and Alou had a better understanding of the role of training in baseball.

McClain says it was the training staff that was dictating to the coaching staff the limits that should be placed on pitchers to keep them healthy.

Bill Sampen, who now lives in central Indiana and runs Samp’s Hack Shack training facilities in Brownsburg and Plainfield where McClain takes 11-year-old grandson Andrew for lessons, pitched for the Expos 1990-92 and was used mostly in long relief.

“You can overwork them pretty easily in that position,” says McClain, noting that attention should be paid to the number of pitches and consecutive days these pitchers throw. (Expos pitching coach) Galen Cisco welcomed stuff like that.

McClain also witnessed the strain put on pitchers’ elbows, wrists and shoulders in throwing the split-finger fastball.

“They snap the elbow really hard,” says McClain. “That’s why there were not throwing it that much now.”

McClain was in the ballpark when history was made July 18, 1999 as David Cone tossed a no-hitter for the Yankees against the visiting Expos on Yogi Berra Day.

“I remember how good he was with a bum shoulder,” says McClain.

It was also in New York that McClain was in the middle of a dust-up that got him suspended for the final seven games in 1997.

McClain, manager Alou and second baseman Mike Lansing were all tossed by plate umpire Larry Vanover after a disputed ninth-inning play at home plate. The Mets beat the Expos 1-0 at Shea Stadium on Sept. 14.

Montreal’s David Segui tried to score on a Darrin Fletcher double. After taking a throw from Rey Ordonez, New York catcher Todd Pratt resulted in an out call. But Expos, including McClain, saw the ball lying on the ground.

At the time, base umpires in the field could not advise the home plate umpire’s call, a rule that changed in 1998. McClain recalls that crew chief Harry Wendelstedt said to Alou within earshot of Vanover: “I can’t tell him if he won’t ask.”

“He still didn’t ask,” says McClain of Vanover. “That wasn’t right.”

Remembering something he saw in a movie, McClain used his finger and thumb to make the shape of an “L” on his forehead and said, “You are a loser and a cheat.”

“My idea was let’s get the call right no matter whose feelings get hurt,” says McClain, who had suspected that the umpires were in a hurry to catch their flight out of town.

McClain enjoyed his time away from the ballpark in Montreal.

“It’s an international city,” says McClain, who lived in a condo there during the season then came back to wife Pamela and daughter Ashley in central Indiana the off-season.

He learned enough French to be passable and also spoke some Spanish, which helped him communicate with Latin players.

McClain got to watch Vladimir Guerrero in the early part of his career.

“He was one great player,” says McClain of the former Expo. “He never did master English. All he wanted to do was to eat, sleep, play baseball and video games.”

McClain notes that Rusty Staub — aka “Le Grande Orange” — already knew French from growing up in New Orleans. Catcher Carter did his best with the language.

He also remembers something of a hometown advantage.

There were many games played in April and September where the temperature was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 Celsius).

“It was always so cold in Montreal,” says McClain. “It hurt the other team. We were more used to it.”

McClain is a classic car enthusiast (he’s owned a 1961 Corvette “Fuelie” and 1934 Ford Victoria). He also enjoys shooting and has taken up golf since retirement. Ron and Pamela McClain reside in Franklin Township on the southeast side of Indianapolis.

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The McClains of Indianapolis — Pamela and Ron — enjoy their travels. Ron McClain is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019.

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The McClains of Indianapolis — Pamela and Ron — see the Grand Canyon. Ron McClain is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain of Indianapolis enjoys Alaska. McClain, who was with the Expos for 25 years, is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain of Indianapolis visits the Grand Canyon. McClain, who was with the Expos for 25 years, is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019.  He also trained for the Indianapolis Indians.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain of Indianapolis enjoys Alaska. McClain, who was with the Expos for 25 years, is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019. He also trained for the Cincinnati Reds.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain of Indianapolis enjoys Alaska. McClain, who was with the Expos for 25 years, is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019. He is an Indiana University graduate.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain of Indianapolis enjoys Alaska. McClain, who was with the Expos for 25 years, is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019. He is a Warren Central High School graduate.

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Two former Montreal Expos — catcher Darrin Fletcher and athletic trainer Ron McClain — meet up. Fletcher played 14 seasons in the big leagues with the Los Angels Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Expos and Toronto Blue Jays. McClain was with the Expos for 25 years.

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Former Montreal Expos athletic trainer Ron McClain (center) shares a moment with Amy and Bill Sampen at Samp’s Hack Shack in Plainfield, Ind. Indianapolis resident McClain is going into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January 2019. Bill Sampen pitched for the Expos 1990-92.

 

Baseball scout Machemer keeps eyes peeled for talent

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dave Machemer’s eyes have seen a great deal of baseball.

A Benton Harbor (Mich.) High School graduate, Machemer played at Central Michigan University and was selected in the fourth round of the 1972 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the California Angels.

Used mostly as a second baseman, Machemer played in 29 MLB games — 10 with the 1978 Angels and 19 with the 1979 Detroit Tigers.

Machmer’s manager in California was Jim Fregosi. His only career home run came in his first big league at-bat — a lead-off shot against Minnesota Twins left-hander Geoff Zahn on June 21, 1978 at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. That was one week after Sparky Anderson took over as Detroit manager.

Over 11 minor league seasons and stints with the Angels, Tigers, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins organizations, Machmer batted .277 with 1,078 hits in 1,126 games played. He spent short stints with the Jim Leyland-managed Evansville Triplets in 1979 and 1980.

Leyland went on to manage in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies and then the Tigers.

Cal Ermer, who won more than 1,900 games in the minors, was Machemer’s manager in Toledo.

Machemer would win nearly 1,700 contests as the main man in the dugout from 1985 to 2013 and also was employed five years as a coordinator.

His managing career began in the Midwest League with the 1985 Beloit Brewers. He went on to manage clubs in Stockton, El Paso and Denver for the Brewers, Delmarva, Rochester, Frederick and Bowie for the Baltimore Orioles, Clinton and Harrisburg for the Montreal Expos and Norwich, Connecticut, Arizona, Augusta and Richmond for the San Francisco Giants.

He took the 1986 Stockton Ports to the California League title, skippered Mexicali to 1989 Mexican Pacific League title and the Caribbean World Series, earned Texas League Manager of the Year with the 1996 El Paso Diablos and guided the 2008 Arizona Giants to the rookie-level Arizona League championship.

Machamer managed a number of future big leaguers, including Gary Sheffield at High Class-A, Double-A and Triple-A, Brian Roberts at High-A and Double-A, Jayson Werth at Low-A and Double-A and B.J. Surhoff at Low-A.

“I loved managing the game and the strategy and competition that I had with other managers,” says Machemer. “I thought I did it well.

“Managing is all about development and winning. Nowadays, the focus is not on winning. It’s about player development.”

Bruce Manno, minor league director when Machemer was with that organization, was liked to win.

“He said, ‘Mac, winning and player development go hand-in-hand because when you win those players get developed,’” says Machemer. “I always believed in that.

“You always had more fun when you won and you developed a winning attitude and a good solid player at the next level to eventual help you win in the major leagues.

“If you don’t win, what’s the game all about?”

The baseball lifer is now in his fifth year as a scout for the Orioles — the first on the amateur side tracking the best high school and college players for the MLB Draft and the past two on the pro side for trades and acquisitions.

In 2017, he traveled from coast to coast and in Latin America and racked up 120 nights at the Marriott while seeing players from Low Class-A to the majors.

“It’s not all bad,” says Machemer. “I get a lot of frequent flyer miles.”

Most of that flying is out of South Bend International Airport.

Machemer, who turns 67 in May, spent a month in Arizona for spring training intently watching players — using those eyes.

“(The Orioles) do a lot of sabermetrics and analysis through computers,” says Machemer. “I don’t. I go with my eyes and my heart and my experience.

“(Executive vice president) Dan Duquette believes in that and we’re still doing it a lot that way and I like it.”

Machemer notes that MLB organizations let 60 scouts go at the end of 2017 that do what he does.

“They’re handing the ball off to a lot of people who sit in the office and go over the numbers and watch a lot of it on television,” says Machemer, who worked with Duquette with the Expos and again with the Brewers. “Dan hasn’t done that yet and I hope he doesn’t.”

When Machemer joined the Orioles scouting staff in 2014 and began taking marching orders from scouting director Gary Rajsich, he was made a national cross checker. He spent three years assessing mostly players who wound up being drafted in the first two rounds.

His role changed last year. He recently returned from spring training where he followed key players on five MLB teams, but was also responsible for everyone he saw on the field. Players might have been out of options or would help the O’s with their Triple-A depth.

Machemer, who got his first taste of scouting in 2007 when the Giants sent him on the road for three months with renowned advance scout Ted Uhlaender, was looking for things like athleticism, arm strength and bat speed and submitting reports.

Since teams do their pre-game work on back fields during the spring, Machemer had to rely on just what he saw in games.

“You have to be very, very astute to be able to evaluate a guy on a couple different plays or couple at-bats,” says Machemer. “It’s not an easy job. It’s hard.”

Machemer would watch teams for five or six games in a row and then move on to the next team.

“I’m hoping to see something in that five or six games that excites me a little bit,” says Machemer. “Maybe I don’t see that this guy’s skills play to the level he should?”

The player in question might be heavy or light on his feet, have a weak or strong arm, slow or quick bat.

“All I can tell them is what I see,” says Machemer. “I pull the trigger and that’s what we all do as scouts. You’ve got to pull the trigger.”

Scouts have to have the ability to project what they think a player is going to be and how they fit into the organization’s plans.

“Every player in this game as they come up is going to have a role,” says Machemer. “As a scout, I put a present role on them and a future role.

“That’s what this game is all about. Can he help us in the big leagues?”

That’s what Machemer’s bosses want to know.

Fernando Tatis Jr., who played for the Fort Wayne TinCaps at 18 in 2017, impressed Machemer in Cactus League play and sees him as a talent that could become an everyday big leaguer.

“When you see guys like a Tatis, you know he’s going to be something in the major leagues,” says Machemer. “It’s for you as a scout to determine what he’s going to be

Machemer was also projecting as a minor league manager.

“Those skilled players I knew were eventually going to start in the big leagues,” says of players like Sheffield, Roberts, Werth and Surhoff. “That was going to be their role.

“Not everyone coming up is going to be an everyday player in the major leagues. I had to zero in on what they needed to get better at and what their role was going to be.”

The player’s idea of their role and the team’s is not always the same.

Such was the case with Machemer as a player. He didn’t always see eye to eye with his managers, including Leyland, about his playing time and his role.

“As a I graduated into managing and player development, I understood it a little more,” says Machemer. “When I got into scouting, I really understood it.”

Machemer learned much for many people over the years. His baseball and football coach at Benton Harbor High was Al Ratcliff.

“He taught me so much about the game and about life,” says Machemer. “That man taught me to the believe in myself and to overcome adversity when the trenches got real deep.”

Ratcliff died March 7 at 93.

Machemer also looks back fondly on his time with his minor league majors Ermer, Jimy Williams, Deron Johnson, Doc Edwards and Joe Morgan. Williams (Toronto Blue Jays, Red Sox, Astros), Edwards (Cleveland Indians) and Morgan (Red Sox) all managed the majors. Johnson was an MLB hitting coach.

“Those guys gave me a piece of them,” says Machemer. “I learned a lot from each and every one of those guys. From them, I kind of developed my own style.

“I’ll never forget those guys. I pay tribute to them for my career. They molded me into who I am.”

While he was managing in the Midwest League, he was approached by South Bend coach Jim Reinebold and the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame took him back to the days that he led his South Bend Clay Colonials against Benton Harbor.

“‘Dave, you played the game as hard as any player I ever saw,’” says Machemer in repeating Reinebold’s comments. “That meant a lot to me. That guy’s a legend and those kind of people are hard to impress. They are cut from a different cloth.”

Does Machemer have his eyes on another managing job?

The only jobs that would pique his interest are managing at the Triple-A or the majors and coaching the bigs.

“I like what I’m doing right now,” says Machemer. “I have a good feel for scouting.”

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Dave Machemer’s long baseball career as a player, manager, coordinator and scout includes two brief stops with the old Evansville Triplets in the Detroit Tigers organization. The Benton Harbor, Mich., resident is now a pro scout for the Baltimore Orioles.