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At all his coaching stops, Ratcliffe emphasizes hard work, character

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brett Ratcliffe helped change the mindset in his return to the Trine University baseball coaching staff.

Ratcliffe had helped Thunder head coach Greg Perschke during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and assisted in school-record 25-win seasons then went back to the high school ranks before coming back on board in Angola, Ind., for 2020.

Trine, an NCAA Division III school with a 40-game regular-season limit, averaged 17 wins per year from 2014-19 with high-water marks of 19 in 2017 and 2018.

That was not considered good enough.

So the Thunder went to work in the fall.

“We have our limits when we can and can’t be with them,” says Ratcliffe referring to NCAA D-III contact rules. “But there are expectations from Coach Perschke. His passion for the kids is electric. It just gets everybody.

“There’s an off-season weight program. Kids work around their academics to get a workout in.”

The message is clear: If you want the team to get better, this is what has to happen. Here’s how you do it. Do you want to be a part of that?

At a school full of engineering students and others with rigorous majors, the find a way to get the job done.

“We give them a lot of instruction during our weeks,” says Ratcliffe. “They take this and work hard in the off-season.”

Brought in to help with catchers, infielders and hitters and be a bench coach during games, Ratcliffe says there’s a difference between high school and college that has do with more than age.

“Kids at the college level want to be there instead of doing something in high school,” says Ratcliffe. “Development is extremely different. In high school, you’re developing their skills. In college, you’re fine-tuning their skills.”

Through conversations and short videos, Perschke (Trine head coach since 2002 and the Thunder’s pitching coach) and assistants Ratcliffe and Nick Pfafman provided instruction for a month and then the team’s veterans led a few more weeks of workouts heading into the winter.

“We developed a mindset of how to react and respond to things,” says Ratcliffe. “It’s one of the things I was brought in for.”

When the team came back from Christmas break it had less than a month before its first games. 

Trine went 1-2 Feb. 22-23 in Kentucky then 8-0 March 1-6 in Florida.

Then — suddenly — the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Thunder gathered for an impromptu team photo after a practice and said their goodbyes.

“It was a huge gut punch,” says Ratcliffe. “We had eight seniors (Tony Bottone, Caleb Deiter, Jacob Douglass, Chase Hall, Shawn Ligocki, Nick Ricci, Thomas Rivet and Jake Roddy) that took to this year’s culture. No longer was 18 wins a good year.”

Trine was chosen to finish seventh in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association preseason poll, but seemed to be a on a path that would put them in the MIAA’s top four and a playoff berth.

This summer, Ratcliffe is head coach for the 17U DeKalb County Thunder travel team. His assistant is Cody Krumlauf, a graduate of DeKalb High School and Earlham College who has been a player and coach for the Quakers.

The program was started a few years ago when the players were at the 15U level. The Thunder now also fields 15U and 13U teams.

To be eligible to play for the Thunder, players must play in community baseball organizations in Auburn, Butler, Garrett or St. Joe.

The 17U Thunder is a showcase team for college exposure and plays in events put on by Pastime Tournaments, Crossroads Baseball Series and at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., and the World Baseball Academy in Fort Wayne.

Ratcliffe was head baseball coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School for two stints totaling 13 seasons (2000-06 and 2014-19).

He served as an assistant to DeKalb High head coach Chris Rhodes 2007-11 and was on the staff of Keith Potter at Fort Wayne’s Homestead High School 1997-99.

While with the Spartans, Ratcliffe got to work with future big league catcher Rob Bowen.

“I remember he was a starter working on being a switch hitter,” says Ratcliffe. “If he hit 50 balls off the tee right-handed, he had to hit 50 left-handed. Balance had to be there if h was serious about being a switch hitter.”

Ratcliffe recalls that Bowen hit homers from both sides of the plate early in his minor league days and went on to play in the majors with the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.

Caleb Kimmel, who went on to play at Valparaiso University and is now CEO of the World Baseball Academy, was also at Homestead when Ratcliffe was on staff.

Summers from 2002-14 for Ratcliffe meant coaching and evaluating young players for USA Baseball through Tournament of Stars and National Team Identification Series programs. Working in Joplin, Mo., and later Cary, N.C., he got to be around rising diamond stars as teenagers, including Mike Moustakas, Freddie Freeman, Mike Trout, Trevor Bauer, the Upton boys (Justin and B.J.) and Jarrod Parker.

“(Moustakas) had the same kind of energy as a 17-year-old that he did (with the Kansas City Royals) in the World Series. 

“That guy has not changed one bit. He’s such a team player.”

Freeman became of Ratcliffe’s favorites.

“His character in the dugout was unbelievable,” says Ratcliffe of the future Atlanta Braves first baseman. “He was very coachable. Freddie wanted to get better. 

“I’ve told my players this is what you need to be like. It’s not all about baseball. Character is very crucial.”

Trout and Bauer are superstars now. But they didn’t make the national team back then. They didn’t sulk. They put in the work to get better.

The Uptons also failed, but learned from those around them and rebounded. Justin’s path to The Show included 113 games with the 2006 Mark Haley-managed South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks during his 18-year-old season.

While they were nearly two decades apart, Ratcliffe (Class of 1990) and Parker (2007) were both graduates of Norwell High School in Ossian, Ind.

Ratcliffe had coached against right-handed pitcher Parker in high school and saw him help Norwell to an IHSAA 3A state championship in 2007.

When it came time for Parker to take the mound that summer Joplin, Ratcliffe offered a little advice: “Go be yourself.”

Parker went on to work out with the Top 40 players in Atlanta and was selected in the first round (No.9 overall) of the 2007 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and pitched in the bigs for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics. David Price and Moustakas went 1-2 in the ’07 draft.

Ratcliffe’s head coach at Norwell was Stan Reed.

“He had compassion for the players,” says Ratcliffe. “He really cared about us. It showed whether we won or lost.”

A catcher, Ratcliffe went to Purdue University and was redshirted his first season and played sparingly for Boilermakers coach Dave Alexander in his second, though he did get to catch Sherard Clinkscales, a right-handed pitcher who was selected in the first round of the 1992 MLB Draft, later scouted for Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Kansas City and coached at Notre Dame before going into athletic administration. 

Clinkscales was associate then senior associate athletic director at North Carolina State and is now AD at Indiana State University.

When Alexander left Purdue to become a scout and pitching coach Steve Green was promoted to head coach, he had a chat with Ratcliffe. It was apparent he was not going to get to play much for the Boilers.

“I was a kid who needed to play,” says Ratcliffe, who was released and allowed to sign at Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, where Matt Kinzer was the Mastodons head coach.

What did Ratcliffe learn from Norwell grad Kinzer during the 1993 and 1994 seasons?

“It takes a lot of hard work to get to that level,” says Ratcliffe. “If you want to get there you’ve got to put some time in. 

“Talent doesn’t get you to the next level. It takes things like working hard and having good character.”

By the time Tom Muth took over at IPFW in 1995, Ratcliffe knew he wanted to be a coach so he took the opportunity to play multiple positions and learn their nuances. Since the Dons were in need of a second baseman, Ratcliffe moved there and still took time to catch bullpens.

Ratcliffe played independent professional ball as a middle infielder for the Frontier League’s Richmond (Ind.) Roosters in their inaugural season of 1995. Larry Nowlin was the manger and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer John Cate part owner.

One of his teammates was future major league switch-hitting first baseman/designated hitter Morgan Burkhart. When he came to Fort Wayne as a member of the San Diego Padres coaching staff, Ratcliffe made sure he found a good fishing hole.

After finishing his degree at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ratcliffe became a teacher. 

Besides coaching baseball, he instructs special education classes at Garrett Middle School. His wife of 19 years — Stacy — is a kindergarten teacher at J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett. The couple have two sons — GHS senior-to-be Blake (17) and GMS eighth grader-to-be Easton (13).

Brett Ratcliffe returned to Trine University in Angola, Ind., for his second stint as assistant baseball coach. He has also been a head coach at Garrett (Ind.) High School and an assistant at DeKalb High School in Watlerloo, Ind., and Homestead High School in Fort Wayne. He has helped coach and evaluate players for USA Baseball. This summer, he is the 17U head coach for the DeKalb County Thunder travel program.

Baseball odyssey takes many twists, turns for Vincennes native Ashley

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Nevin Ashley always wanted to be in charge on a baseball field.

Coach Bill Cary let him play different positions on the North Knox High School team.

But Ashley was always drawn back to catcher.

“He was great because he knew at that age I had a future in baseball,” says Ashley. “He challenged to think about the game in a little bit more of an in-depth way. That really helped me, especially as a catcher.”

Cary, who was on the South staff for the 2006 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches All-Star Series when Terre Haute North Vigo catcher Josh Phegley was MVP, encouraged Ashley to call pitches and manage the game on the field.

“I began taking extra time to read batters and see any adjustments they might make,” says Ashley. “That helped me have the long career that I had.”

The 2003 North Knox graduate went on to play three seasons at Indiana State University (2004-06) and 11 in professional baseball.

At ISU, he learned much from head coach Bob Warn and pitching coach C.J. Keating.

Warn’s last season with the Sycamores was also Ashley’s last in Terre Haute.

“He was definitely an old school baseball coach,” says Ashley of American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Warn. “He was a good influence on my career. I learned his will to win and how important it was.”

Keating and Ashley went over scouting reports so the receiver would know the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. He would study the starters and potential pinch-hitters the night before games.

“I met a lot of good people at Indiana State that I stay in contact with,” says Ashley. “I was fortunate for those years of my life.”

Ashley was selected in the sixth round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and set out on a long minor league journey.

From team to team and organization to organization, he just kept going.

“I had a lot of perseverance and a lot of people in my corner,” says Ashley, the son of Dan and Jamie Ashley, younger brother of Natalie and Nathan, the grandson of Robert and Patricia Ashley and Jim and the late Shirley Cardinal, the husband of Ashley (yes, she’s Ashley Ashley) and father of two boys — Gaige (5) and Aiden (1).

His parents rarely missed a home game while Nevin was in college and came to see him whenever possible when he became a professional.

Not able to travel much, his paternal grandparents followed on the Internet. If the feed went bad or something about their Nevin on-air was incorrect, they were sure to get a phone call.

“She knows best, so you better listen to her,” says Nevin of Grammy Ashley.

Nevin, who was born in Vincennes, began his baseball players tagging along with Nathan at the Vincennes Cub League. Heading into his freshmen year at North Knox, Nevin played American Legion Baseball in Vincennes. His next three summers were spent with the Indiana Bulls. He went back to Legion ball for the summer prior to Indiana State.

Ashley played for the Springfield Rifles in the Central Illinois Collegiate League in 2004, Solano Thunderbirds in the Sierra Baseball League and Horizon Air Summer Series in California in 2005 and briefly with the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express in the Northwoods League in 2006 before signing with the Devil Rays.

Ashley strapped on the catching gear day after day, year after year.

Things he began learning back as a youngster were being reinforced and he was getting acquainted with analytics as part of the scouting report.

“It’s good and a bad thing,” says Ashley. “I’m kind of old school. But (analytics) is very crucial. Stats show that a guy might pull the ball on the ground so we make a shift.”

To stay on the same page, there would be a constant dialogue between innings involving Ashley and his pitching coach and — if he had a catching background — his manager.

“All that being said, it’s still up to the pitcher,” says Ashley. “Those stats go on his baseball card.

“As a good catcher you have to build a relationships with each and every pitcher and build their trust. Some guys you need to coddle a little more. Some you have to push — and maybe even make them a little mad — to get the best out of them.”

In 2007, Ashley smashed 12 of his 66 career minor league home runs for the Columbus (Ga.) Catfish. He played in the 2009 Arizona Fall League with the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

For all his hard work, he finally got called up to the big leagues in as a reserve for the Rays (by this time they had dropped the Devil) during the 2010 playoffs. He did not play.

In 2011 (and again for a short time in 2015), Nevin, Ashley and Gaige went to learn another way of living and about baseball in the Dominican Winter League.

“It was a great experience,” says Nevin, who was with Gigantes de Cibao in 2011 Toros del Este in 2015. “I wanted to submerge myself into their culture. Now I have a better understanding of why Latin players they play the will they do. All that showmanship, fans thrive on it. It’s good for baseball.”

A seven-year run with the Tampa Bay organization ended when Ashley declared free agency and signed with the Cincinnati Reds before the 2013 season. That year, he played not far from where he grew up with the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

He was again granted free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was assigned to the Indianapolis Indians in 2014. He got called up to the majors again with Pittsburgh in New York. The catcher he was going to replace decided to play through injury and Ashley was sent back to Triple-A.

Once again, he became a free agent after the season and caught on with the Milwaukee Brewers and went to their Triple-A affiliate, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.

That summer, Ashley was called up to the bigs late in the season. After 870 minor league appearances, he made his MLB debut on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. He was 31 years old. Batting eighth in the Milwaukee order, he collected his first big-league hit — an RBI double in his first at-bat — off Tom Koehler.

Ashley would finish the season with one more hit — an infield single off Carlos Contreras on Sunday, Sept. 20 in Cincinnati — and a .100 batting average. He got into 12 games and drove in one run and scored two.

After the 2015 season, Ashley declared free agency and signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets and played with the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s in 2016 until being traded to the Texas Rangers organization in June and putting on the colors of the Triple-A Round Rock Express.

Once again a free agent, he joined the Seattle Mariners organization for 2017.

In Arizona for spring training, Ashley suffered a pretty severe concussion that kept him off out of games for the whole season.

“When I first started playing, concussions were not looked as thoroughly as they are now,” says Ashley, who turned 33 in August. “As a catcher, I had my bell rang plenty of times. I shook it off, took a few aspirin and kept going.

“This was different. I had two little ones at home. I started looking at my priorities in life.”

Ashley opted to retire as a player and come home to Evansville to sort out his future.

The tagline on his Twitter profile at @nevin_ashley reads: Baseball is what I do, not who I am.

It is followed by a Bible verse — Philippians 4:13. That passage — “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.”

“I’m trying to mend,” says Ashley. “I still having constant migraine headaches.

“I’ll move on from there. I don’t know if I’m going to stay in the baseball world. I have a few opportunities. Right now, I’m going to catch up with all the family time I missed.”

Nevin and Ashley grew up together. They were wed early in his professional baseball career and she and the couple’s oldest son have put in plenty of miles together.

“We decided that we were going do this baseball thing together — no matter what,” says Nevin. “We signed up for it. It doesn’t make it any easier. We have had to deal with a lot of ambiguity.

“But she’s independent. I don’t know how any of the baseball moms do it. They go through a lot out there that not a lot of people see. They think it’s glitz and glamour and it’s not.”

While baby Aiden imitates a bowling ball.

“He runs into everything,” says Nevin. “My 5-year-old, he loves baseball.”

Gaige was eight days old when he attended the first of many baseball games.

“I don’t push it at all, but if he wants to play baseball that will be special for me,” says Nevin. “He’s a lefty. He’s going to have to find a different position.”

NEVINASHLEYFIRSTMLBHIT2015

After 10 years in the minors, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Nevin Ashley hits a double in his first Major League Baseball at-bat Sept. 9, 2015 in Miami. The Vincennes, Ind., native began his professional career in 2006 and retired in 2017. (MLB Photo)