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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)

 

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Right-hander Ruxer doing his baseball homework

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a finance and accounting double major at the University of Louisville, Jared Ruxer studied figures as they relate to business.

“I’ve always liked numbers,” says Ruxer, a 2011 graduate of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis.

Now that his business is baseball — he is a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization — Ruxer is examining concepts like Spin Rate and Extension that are a part of TrackMan or Statcast technology.

According to MLB.com, a pitcher’s Spin Rate (SR) “represents the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released. It is measured in revolutions per minute. The amount of spin on a pitch changes its trajectory.”

For Extension (EXT), “a pitcher must begin his throwing motion while standing on the pitching rubber — which is 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. This does not mean pitches are actually thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate.

“The point at which a pitcher releases the ball is actually a few feet closer to home plate than the pitching rubber itself. Extension quantifies exactly how much closer a pitcher’s release point is to home plate.”

The higher EXT the better and the less time the hitter has to react to the pitch.

“I’ve been looking at the TrackMan data and getting an understanding of that and how to apply it,” says Ruxer, 25. “I’m getting more into the biomechanics of pitching. I’m also learning to manage the running game better and getting really good at PFP’s (Pitcher Fielding Practice) and things like that.”

Ruxer was chosen in the 29th round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and did not sign, opting to go to Louisville. He pitched for the Cardinals 2012-14.

He was named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-America, Big East Conference Rookie of the Year and third-team all-Big East while making 16 mound appearances (14 starts) and going 8-3 with a 3.38 earned run average, 32 strikeouts and 15 walks in 77 1/3 innings.

As a sophomore in 2013, he made 19 appearances (seven starts) with a 0-1 mark and a 5.63 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 21 walks in 38 1/3 innings. Louisville went 51-14 and played in the 2013 College World Series.

Ruxer’s junior campaign in 2014 saw him make 13 starts and go 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings before an elbow injury ended his season. He named second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cardinals (51-15) returned to Omaha for the 2014 College World Series.

Two days before the 2014 MLB draft, Ruxer underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and did not pitch that summer. In the fall, he went back to Louisville and complete his degree.

The righty made his first professional pitch until 2015 with the rookie-level Orem Owlz. That initial season back, he worked 29 2/3 innings over 14 appearances (11 starts) and was 0-3 with a 4.85 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 11 walks.

“That first short season was tough,” says Ruxer. “It definitely took awhile (to bounce back from surgery). I didn’t feel like I was a 100 percent and back to myself until 18 months later. I had to pitch through it.

“I had to learn how to pitch a little more because I didn’t have all my velocity back yet.”

Ruxer split the 2016 season between the Low Class-A Burlington Bees and High Class-A Inland Empire 66ers, combining for a 4-8 record, 3.08 ERA and 29 appearances (19 starts) with 99 strikeouts and 31 walks over 111 innings.

The first full pro season was also when he was introduced to the TrackMan data.

Knowing the Angels were using it as an evaluation tool, Ruxer began doing his homework and studied ways to improve his numbers and performance.

He found that change could be made through grip, arm action and some minor mechanical cues.

“Some days the ball has a little more carry. Some days it has a little more sink on it,” says Ruxer. “You make adjustments based on that.”

On Dec. 1, 2016, the Angels traded Ruxer to the Royals. He spent most of the 2017 season with the High Class-A Wilmington Rocks, going 5-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 24 appearances (17) starts with 84 strikeouts and 29 walks in 109 2/3 innings.

In three games (one start) and six innings with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, he was 0-0 with a 16.50 ERA, one strikeout and seven walks.

Ruxer says the differences in the way he was handled by the two organizations is very slight.

“The Angels were very hands-off,” says Ruxer. “It was on me.

“The Royals were a little more proactive.”

While player development staff are there to help, Ruxer has learned that how players progress in pro baseball is largely up to them.

“It’s going on our stat sheet,” says Ruxer.

The Royals sent Ruxer to the 2017 Arizona Fall League to work on a breaking ball and he relieved in nine contests with the Surprise Saguaros. He went 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA. In 12 innings, he had 12 strikeouts and nine walks.

More than three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Ruxer is back to letting it rip on the mound.

“I’m pretty high-effort now,” says Ruxer. “I’m not holding anything back. I get a lot more results when I do that.

“There’s no reason to leave anything in the tank. There’s not too much thinking ahead. You’ve got to get the guy out standing in the box and the rest is secondary.”

Looking to his diamond past, Ruxer played in the Fall Creek Little League, where he was a teammate of current Texas Rangers minor league pitcher David Ledbetter.

Ruxer played travel ball for the Indiana Prospects at age 12 and for the Indiana Bulls at 13 and 17. From 14 to 16, he was with the Indiana Braves, a team father Jim helped organize.

At 18, Ruxer was with the Midland Redskins in Ohio. The summers after his freshmen and sophomore seasons at Louisville, he hurled for the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League.

In his three seasons at Louisville, Ruxer learned from head coach Dan McDonnell and pitching coach Roger Williams.

“(McDonnell) taught me about managing the running game, PFP’s and was a stickler for bunt defense,” says Ruxer. “(Williams) called all the (pitches). I liked that. We could just go out there and pitch and just worry about our stuff. He did all his homework on the hitters. I trusted him. I didn’t shake off too much.”

While catchers in the minor leagues are allowed to develop their pitch-calling abilities, Ruxer notes that almost all pitches in major college baseball are called by coaches.

“Their job’s on the line. They want to control the game,” says Ruxer. “I get it. They have time to read up on the hitters. You are a student-athlete. There a lot of things going on. We can’t afford to lose games.”

Ruxer played three varsity seasons at Lawrence Central. He went 5-2 as a sophomore, 6-1 as a junior and 6-1 as a senior with a total of 155 strikeouts. His final high school season saw him earned all-state, all-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference and all-Marion County honors.

Dan Roman (who is now head coach at Brownsburg High School) led the program when Ruxer was with the LC Bears.

“That was a blast,” says Ruxer. “Dan was awesome. “When it came to pitching, he showed me how to pitch to certain hitters and about reading the hitters’ swings. I learned how to attract hitters and started learning how to manage the running game.”

After an extended 2017 season, Ruxer managed to get away for some vacation and quality time with family — father Jim in a Certified Public Accountant, mother Lisa is a recently-retired as a physical education teacher at Carmel High School and younger sister Addie is life science recruiter in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University.

Ruxer will spend the rest of the off-season working out in Indianapolis. He has trained at both St. Vincent Sports Performance and the new Pro X Athlete Development. Former MLB pitcher Joe Thatcher is involved with Pro X.

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Jared Ruxer, a Lawrence Central High School and University of Louisville graduate, is a right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization. (Wilmington Blue Rocks Photo)

 

David Ledbetter talks about baseball and life so far

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

David Ledbetter is coming off a 2017 baseball season — his fifth in pro ball —  another in which he continues to rack up experiences on and off the diamond, something he has been doing since he and twin brother Ryan roamed diamonds around central Indiana. The Ledbetters first attended Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers then transferred to Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and helped the Eagles win IHSAA Class 2A state championships in football in 2008 and in baseball in 2009 and 2010, attended the same college (Cedarville University in Ohio) and were both selected in the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers (David in the third round and Ryan in the 19th).

Both are married — David to Elizabeth Dec. 28, 2012 and Ryan to Maddie Dec. 28, 2013 — and are right-handed pitchers. The sons of Ron and Sherrie Ledbetter are set to turn 26 on Feb. 13.

Recently, David agreed to an IndianaRBI Q&A session.

Q: Did you and your brother grow up in Hamilton County?

A: We grew up in Lawrence for quite a few years and then moved to Hamilton County during middle school and into high school. Gotta love the Indianapolis area!

Q: What Little League or travel teams did you play on before you turned pro?

A: Haha! We usually played on teams that weren’t exactly national powerhouses, but where we valued the relationships and could actually have a lot of fun playing a game. I may leave a couple names out on this list, but I can remember playing for the Carmel Stix, Indiana Wolverines, Indiana Cubs (B-team mind you. Always chase your dreams), the Fishers Mudsox, and then the Indiana Mustangs for a couple years.

Most importantly, we played with the Fall Creek Little League All-Stars when we were 11 and 12 – the greatest little league team ever!!

Q: I know your high school coach Dan Ambrose went to Cedarville. Is that how you ended up there? Is there another reason?

A: No, we went to Cedarville because it was an opportunity to be educated on our faith, make impact as freshmen on the team, play both ways, and receive a little discount to help out our parents on tuition. We went on a visit sometime during our junior senior year and I literally just knew that was where I was supposed to go. The Holy Spirit was prodding me!

Q: What did you learn from Coach Ambrose which has stuck with you?

A: The little things matter! He said this all. The. Time. I’m not lying! He may have said this like at least once every practice. And I hope he still talks about it like he did back then because it holds true no matter what’s going on. Baseball, basketball, relationships, marriage, whatever! The little things always matter.

Q: Why did you choose Heritage Christian?

A: We went on a missions trip with many of the guys from that team our sophomore year in high school. Through that, we got to meet D.A and some of our future teammates and we LOVED them. It wasn’t like (Hamilton Southeastern) was rough, we absolutely loved HSE too! But it came down to being around people of faith and growing ourselves in a culture that focused activities (like baseball) around Christ first.

Q: What did you get from Cedarville coach Mike Manes that carries on?

A: Manes was a great baseball coach, but a better life coach. He has a lot of wisdom that transcends the baseball field and I believe what I most learned from him was the importance of staying consistent in your work. Don’t miss workouts, don’t be late.

Everyone says that kind of stuff. But Manes stressed the importance of bringing consistency into everything you do. If you’re going to bring the energy, you’d better be bringing it all the time. Every piece of practice is an opportunity to get better, so don’t waste those moments. Bring the same conviction and focus every time. Be someone that your team can depend on no matter the situation.

Q: What are your best memories of your time at HC?

A: Best memories. Whoof … There’s a lot of those. But I’ll try and just keep it to baseball. Winning back-to- back state championships with a team of brothers is definitely up there. Becoming part of a senior core that you could truly believe in is probably the coolest thing I can remember … Let me explain. I can remember our junior year that we had a senior core of incredible men. They brought fun to the field every single day.

But you know you were going to GET AFTER IT just the same. And that made us very hard to beat. It’s hard to beat teams that just plain have a lot of fun (because having fun does require some success too). Being apart of that culture and seeing what it took to be the best, then putting that on our backs as seniors was incredible.

Because that’s more than just a single game or moment, that’s a year of decisions that led to a fruitful year. Cam McWilliams, Scott Kreeger, Sterling Harpst, and my brother Ryan were can’t-miss players who cared more about being great men than we cared about winning a few games. But you could bet your butt we’d be bringing everything we had to every game.

Q: What do you consider your strengths as an athlete?

A: I am consistent in my work. I bring positive energy and do my best to show my teammates that I value them for being them, not just for what they can do on the field. I try to be as genuine as possible with everyone, having an interest in why they are the way they are and why they do what they do. I also like to work, I don’t want to leave myself a doubt that I gave it everything I had when my time is done.

Q: Can you describe your pitch repertoire? How often do you throw a fastball vs. a breaking pitch?

A: I try to throw strikes and then balls that look like strikes. Simple as that. And throwing one versus the other is largely dependent on what hitter I’m facing. It’s like reading a book. The hitter will tell you their story in each swing. My job is to read that short story and go from there.

Q: How competitive are you and your twin?

A: Very. But there is a lot of self-control developed from years and years of competing together. We bring our compete no matter what, but you leave satisfied that you’ve done absolutely everything you could to prepare. When you just have a lot of competitiveness, but no discipline it can lead to a number of problems.

Q: Isn’t it funny you both landed in the Rangers organization? Were you signed by the same scout?

A: It’s truly unbelievable – an act of God, I do not doubt. Roger Coryell signed us both!

Q: What did you learn in the 2017 Arizona Fall League (playing for the Surprise Saguaros), which included Lawrence Central High School graduate and Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Jared Ruxer)?

A: I learned about my teammates, how to throw a better change-up, that hitters hit ball sometimes and others they don’t, and that you can make a living pitching if you throw strikes consistently where you want.

Q: Generally, what does your off-season look like from now until you go to spring training?

A: Each year has brought new experiences and memories. The first few years I was able to stay around Cedarville, get a couple jobs and do my preparation there because my wife was still in school pursuing a pharmacy degree. This year we are in Columbus (Ohio) as she is fulfilling a PGY-1 at Riverside Methodist Hospital, and I’m working to complete a Master’s degree in Business Administration as well as continuing to do workouts.

Side note from David … If you are reading this and you know any pharmacists – Reach out to them and tell them you love them and you appreciate the work they do. #pharmsohard

DAVIDLEDBETTER2017

David Ledbetter, a product of Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis and Cedarville (Ohio) University, pitched in his fifth professional baseball season with the Texas Rangers organization in 2017. (Round Rock Express Photo)

 

Hall of Famer Gandolph back at home at Scecina with high hopes

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis has won six IHSAA football sectional titles since the Crusaders last won a sectional baseball championship.

The Crusaders reigned on the gridiron in 2001 in Class 2A, 2002 in 2A, 2012 in 1A and 2015 in 2A. Scecina last hoisted a sectional trophy on the diamond in 1992.

Dave Gandolph, a football, wrestling and baseball standout for the Crusaders in the 1960’s, would like to give that ’92 trophy some company in the case.

“We are kind of on the verge,” says Gandolph, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer who became head baseball coach at his alma mater prior to the 2014 season after 33 years leading Center Grove in Greenwood and two guiding Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter (with an assistant stint at Carmel in-between). He has a varsity record of 766-352-4 in 39 total seasons. “We’ve lost twice in the sectional by one run.”

Scecina bowed out of the tournament by losing 2-1 to Heritage Christian in the 2014 Heritage Christian Sectional final, 12-9 to Park Tudor in the 2015 Park Tudor Sectional semifinals, 8-7 to Ritter in the 2016 Speedway Sectional semifinals, 11-5 to eventual 2A state champion Ritter in the 2017 Park Tudor Sectional semifinals.

The Crusaders compete in the Indiana Crossroads Conference (along with Ritter, Park Tudor, Beech Grove, Indianapolis Lutheran, Monrovia, Speedway and Triton Central) and then there’s the Indianapolis city tournament.

Athletic director and former Crusaders head baseball coach Jason Kehrer and Gandolph craft Scecina’s non-conference slate.

“We play a pretty tough schedule,” says Gandolph.

To get ready for the postseason, Scecina has faced a buzzsaw of a regular season. The 2017 campaign, which carried the team-picked motto “Trust the Process,” opened with losses to traditional powers Indianapolis Cathedral (4A), Indianapolis Bishop Chatard (3A), Guerin Catholic (3A), Lafayette Central Catholic (2A) and Evansville Memorial (3A). Cathedral went on to win that program’s third state championship and seven-time state champion Lafayette Central Catholic was a regional finalist.

Gandolph has enjoyed plenty of success in his career by stressing the importance of hitters putting the ball in play and since he does not have many players who promise to mash the baseball out of Neidlinger Field or other parks, that is still his approach.

“I teach a lot about ‘small ball’ and moving runners over,” says Gandolph. “(The opposing defenders) have to catch it, throw it and catch it again.

“But you have to have good pitching. That’s where it starts.”

The 2017 season was first for the IHSAA’s new pitch count rules (1 to 35 pitches requires 0 days rest; 36 to 60 requires 1 day; 61 to 80 requires 2 days; 81 to 100 requires 3 days; and 101 to 120 requires 4 days).

“The rule was put in because pitchers were getting used too much, but that was more in the summer and fall and all that,” says Gandolph. “High school coaches — for the most part — were not abusing anybody’s arms. This (new rule) creates a little more paperwork, basically.”

At state tournament time, coaching staffs must plan and strategize with the pitch count in mind.

“Everybody puts the best pitcher out there they can and go with them as long as they can,” says Gandolph. “You get a complete game or near-complete game and you’re in pretty good shape. If you get a big lead, you may want to get your (top) pitcher out of there.”

One change Gandolph would favor is seeding the sectionals.

“Seeding the sectional might alleviate some of that imbalance that might happen with a blind draw,” says Gandolph. “The city tournament is seeded and has 16 or 17 teams. We’re only talking about five, six or seven teams in the sectionals. In most cases, it’s fairly obvious (how to seed the field). You don’t want a championship game that is a blowout. That is not good for our game.

“The IHSAA has seeded wrestling for a long time and that’s a lot harder than seeding baseball teams.”

While most athletes play a fall sport, Gandolph has been working with about 10 who are not once a week this fall while sharing part of the baseball field with the Crusaders’ soccer programs. His assistants are Ted Clements, Tim Anderson, Pat Gedig and Jim Maslar. Clements and Gedig are Scecina graduates and Maslar teaches at the school. Anderson graduated from Lawrence North.

Gandolph, a 1968 Scecina graduate, was in football for coach Dave Oberting, wrestling for coach Jeff Lazo and baseball for coach Larry Neidlinger when Scecina had about 1,000 students, encourages multi-sport participation at a school of school that now has about 450.

“At smaller schools, you have to share athletes,” says Gandolph. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to compete.

“I was in football, wrestling and baseball both at Scecina and Saint Joseph’s College (in Rensselaer). I’m a firm believer in a multi-sport athlete.

“For those who specialize, there are limits what they might be able to do in some other sport. They might get get burned out mentally and it’s good to use other muscles. It keeps you more balanced.”

Participating in wrestling kept Randolph in shape for baseball and football, where he was invited to training camp at SJC with the Abe Gibron-coached Chicago Bears in 1973. He played many years of minor league football around Indianapolis and was an assistant at Center Grove for two decades, retiring after a Class 5A state runner-up finish in 2000.

Gandolph notes that his top Scecina pitcher — 6-foot-3 junior right-hander Mac Ayres — is also the starting quarterback for the Crusaders’ 7-1 football team. To keep his pitching arm in shape, Ayres gets in workouts on Sundays.

A teacher for 40 years, Gandolph retired from the classroom Jan. 1, 2014. But he welcomed the opportunity to come back to the east side of town where so many memories were made and so many friends still live and keep coaching baseball.

“I’m glad I went back to Scecina,” says Gandolph. “It’s like going back home. There are still a lot of people around from my era. It’s where I met my wife (Ann). At the time, my mom (Pat and brother Ron) were were practically living across the street in the house where I grew up.”

Dave, the oldest of Eugene and Pat Gandolph’s seven children, lost Ron in November 2016 then his mother, Pat, in December.

“It was a tough winter and spring,” says Gandolph.

Dave and Ann Gandolph still reside near Center Grove. Their four children — Dave Jr. (47), Dan (42), Tom (40) and Jennifer (34) — and eight grandchildren are all on the south side.

Dave Jr. averaged more than two strikeouts per inning during his Center Grove career, which concluded in 1988.

“Those were some boring games,” says his father.

After playing at Indiana University, 6-foot-4 left-handed Dave Jr. was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 26th round of the 1991 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and logged five minor league seasons. He is one of seven draft picks developed by Dave Gandolph Sr.

Among the others is 1996 Mr. Indiana Baseball A.J. Zapp, who hit .524 with 16 home runs and 50 runs batted in and was taken in the first round of that year’s MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves and got as far as Triple-A.

Dan Gandolph played football and Tom Gandolph baseball at SJC. Dave Jr. and Dan are now in financial services and Tom is an Indianapolis firefighter.

Jennifer Gandolph was a senior member of Center Grove’s 2000 4A state championship team which featured her mother as an assistant coach and went on to play volleyball at the University of Michigan. Now known as Jennifer Hawk, she is now head volleyball coach at Perry Meridian High School and manages Orangtheory Fitness, owned by retired WNBA All-Star Katie Douglas, in Greenwood.

Dave and Ann Gandolph (she is an IU graduate but “Puma at Heart”) have remained close with St. Joe alumni even through the closing of the school at the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

Embracing the idea of #PumasForever, the couple attended an off-campus homecoming event a few weeks ago.

“It’s such a strong bond that everybody has,” says Gandolph, who is hopeful SJC will be able to rise from the ashes like a Phoenix. “It’s a big part of our lives.”

More than 80 players have gone on to college baseball during Gandolph’s coaching career, including Scecina graduates Bradley Meade at Anderson University, Aaron Leming at Franklin College, Genero Angeles at the University of Saint Francis.

“We have had a lot of football players go on to college from Scecina,” says Randolph. “We are trying to make them think about playing baseball in college.”

Catholic grade schools that feed into the school have not had baseball programs in recent years. Many players come through Irvington Sports Association and various travel ball organizations.

DAVEGANDOLPH

Dave Gandolph, an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, is heading into his fifth season at Indianapolis Scecina Memorial — his alma mater — in 2017-18. It will be his 40th overall as a high school head coach, including two seasons at Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter and 33 at Center Grove.

Wynegar wants Indianapolis hitters to know the mental side

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Butch Wynegar is not a meteorologist.

The former big league catcher and longtime hitting coach just likes to use weather terminology to describe the experience of a batter stepping into the box at the highest levels of baseball.

“I call it the Eye of the Hurricane,” says Wynegar, who is in his third season with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians. “You’re trying to find a way to stay in the calmness of the hurricane and out of the surrounding winds — the fans, the score, the big league stadium, facing big league guys you idolized. When you get caught up in the moment, it’s hard to slow down.

“It’s you and the baseball.”

Wynegar was a switch-hitting catcher and played Major League Baseball for 13 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees and California Angels, retiring in 1988.

Butch began his coaching career in 1992. Among his jobs have been roving hitting instructor for the Texas Rangers’ organization, big league hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and Triple-A hitting coach in the Yankees system.

Wynegar helps hitters with the mechanics of their swing, but wants them to understand the thinking side of their craft.

“Something the common fan doesn’t understand unless you’ve played this game is how much of hitting is mental,” says Wynegar. “I might have done it (as a player), but I didn’t do it to the degree I know how to do it now.”

Wynegar wants his hitters to know what to expect from a pitcher and how each team is going to pitch to him. He also wants them to be able to see what they did well and where they need improvement and take that into the next at-bat.

“I told guys a number of times, your swing here (in Triple-A) will probably work in the big leagues,” says Wynegar. “The difference between here and the big leagues is the mental side of hitting.”

Wynegar’s aim is the get his hitters ready to step right in and perform for the Pirates.

“When they go to Pittsburgh, hopefully the adjustment period is a little shorter,” says Wynegar, who regularly corresponds with Pirates hitting coaches Jeff Branson and Jeff Livesey. “They understand how to slow the mind down, slow the game down.

“When they get up there, the game tends to get a little fast for them. It’s the major leagues. You face guys you grew up watching. It was the same thing with me. There was Catfish Hunter or Jim Palmer, who I grew up watching, and I go, ‘Holy Cow!’ and the game starts spinning fast for me.”

A fan of a book written by former big leaguer Shawn Green, “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph,” Wynegar has turned Indianapolis infielders Erich Weiss and Eric Wood on to it.

The book tells how Green broke into the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays and the transformation he made mentally and physically.

“There was a lot of mechanical stuff, but their was a lot of mental stuff,” says Wynegar. “He got into meditation and relaxation and all that.

“That’s a big part of hitting.”

Wynegar looks at Weiss and his swing reminds him of Green’s.

“I wasn’t making the comparison that you’re going be Shawn Green one day and go 6-for-6 and hit four home runs in a game (like Green did with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002) — he might,” says Wynegar. “Somebody pops into your mind and this guy reminds me of so-and-so. I might bring that up, but I tell them this is why you remind of him. It might be a confidence booster.”

What is Wynegar’s prescription for a slump buster?

“Go back to the basics,” says Wynegar. “Back in my era, we were not afraid to move around in the box — move closer; move back; move front; choke up. Guys today will just not choke up.

“For me it was spreading my stance out a little bit to reduce my body movement. I really trusted my hands and I’d choke up on the bat a little bit. I was all about contact anyway … That was from Pitch 1.”

When Wynegar sees a hitter who is in a rut — maybe a little tired from the grind of the long season — he asks them a simple question: “Are you going to make an adjustment to overcome what you’re doing?”

He cites an example from his time with the Brewers (2003-06).

“When I was the big league hitting coach in Milwaukee, every year Geoff Jenkins came to me somewhere in August and said, ‘Butchie, I can’t find my home run swing.’ Four years in a row, he’d tell me that,” says Wynegar. “I told him, you can still help us with singles and doubles.

“Calm your swing for about 10 days and you’ll get a second wind.”

Wynegar came through in the Eye of the Hurricane with the Yankees on June 30, 1983. He was reminded of that this week by former New York teammate and current Buffalo Bisons manager Bobby Meacham, who made his MLB debut on the afformentioned date.

Meacham came into he game as a defensive replacement, but didn’t get to hit that day because of Wynegar’s two-out home run in the 12th inning against East Chicago native Tim Stoddard as the Yankees beat the visiting Baltimore Orioles 4-3.

“You think I’d remember a walk-off home run,” says Wynegar. “I remember Tim Stoddard. I remember getting an extra-inning base hit that won a game. I don’t remember a home run.

Wynegar joked to Meacham, “I hit so many walk-off home runs, I couldn’t remember them all.’”

Of his 65 career long balls, the lone game-winner was the one described above.

“I wasn’t a home run hitter,” says Wynegar. “I was a line drive/contact-type hitter.”

In all his time in baseball, Wynegar has come into contact with many talented men. Another teammate in New York was Don Baylor, who died Monday, Aug. 7, of cancer at 68. They were also opponents.

“I’ve got a photo at home where there’s a play at the plate and Donnie’s shoulder in embedded in my chest and I have my mouth wide open,” says Wynegar. “I held onto the ball. I do remember that.”

Famed for his toughness, Baylor was hit by a pitch 267 times during his MLB career.

“He stood right on top of the plate and dared you to throw a fastball in,” says Wynegar. “I never saw him rub somebody when he got hit. He’d just drop the bat and go to first base.”

While they wore the same uniform, Wynegar really gained an appreciation for Baylor.

“What a great man he was,” says Wynegar. “He and Dave Winfield were very similar, but Dave was more boisterous and not afraid to tell you how good he was. Donnie was the opposite. He was kind of quiet. He led by example.

“He was gentle giant in the clubhouse. He just had the respect of everybody with the way he played the game and by his leadership.”

BUTCHWYNEGAR

Butch Wynegar is in his 24th season as a professional baseball coach and his third as hitting coach with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. (Indianapolis Indians Photo)

 

Gary SouthShore RailCats embrace independent baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Outside the lines, professional baseball in Gary, Indiana, is very much like it is in many places.

Affordable family-friendly entertainment is the goal. Fans are invited to have a good time at the ballpark. The experience at U.S. Steel Yard includes food, giveaways and other forms of fun.

As a member of the independent American Association, the Gary SouthShore RailCats operate differently than Major League Baseball-affiliated clubs.

“It is not a developmental league, but it is an opportunity league — an opportunity for everyone from the radio broadcasters looking to break into professional baseball to groundkeepers to general managers and managers,” says 13th-year Gary manager Greg Tagert. “And, most importantly, it’s an opportunity for players who may have never gotten the opportunity to continue their careers or extend their careers.

“What it’s done for the industry cannot be underrated.”

But the emphasis is on the pennant race (Gary went into play Monday, Aug. 7, at 40-33 and seven games behind first-place Lincoln in the AA Central Division; the RailCats were two games out of the wild card lead in a 100-game season) and not getting a player ready for the next level.

“We make no apology to the players,” says Tagert. “We tell them from the beginning, we are all about winning.

“When a player steps through the door, it’s not about: Is he going to get his at-bats? Is he going to bat third? Is he going to pitch the sixth inning every night?

“Sometimes the players find that out the hard way. They’re used to a different type of format. They are surprised at the level of competition and the emphasis put on winning … It’s not for every player, just like it’s not for every manager.”

Tagert is a native of Vacaville, Calif. He a pitcher at San Francisco State University. He served as pitching coach at the University of New Mexico in 1988 and an associate scout for the Detroit Tigers in 1993-94.

A manager in independent baseball since 1995, Tagert enjoys the challenge of having the ability and the responsibility of building a team.

Unlike affiliated ball where players and coaching staff are assigned to a franchise and are told how to develop the talent with hopes of one day seeing them in the big leagues, Tagert makes all on-field personnel decisions.

“Player procurement and all the player decisions sit at this desk,” says Tagert. “That’s something I would not give up.

“It is the lure of the job for many of us (independent baseball managers) … The challenge is great. But it’s like anything else in life. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”

League rules limit rosters to 23. An additional one player may be on the disabled list during the regular season. Of those 23 players, a maximum of five may be veterans and minimum of five must be rookies. The remaining players will be designated limited service players and of those LS players only six (6) may be LS-4.

Tagert says the classifications create a unique kind of parity in the league and also creates opportunity.

The American Association is full of players with MLB experience and others who played at the Triple-A or Double-A level.

Right-handed pitcher Jorge DeLeon, a reliever for Gary, played for the Houston Astros in 2013 and 2014.

MLB scouts regularly cover the independent leagues.

Notable Gary alums include outfielders Jermaine Allenworth and Nathan Haynes and left-handed pitcher Tim Byrdak.

Allensworth, who played at Madison Heights High School and Purdue University, was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1993 and played in the big leagues with Pittsburgh, the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. He was with the RailCats in 2006 and 2007.

Haynes was a first round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1997. He played in Gary in 2006 and then with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007 and Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.

Byrdak made his MLB debut with Kansas City in 1998. He played in Gary in 2003 and became the first former RailCats player to play in the big leagues with the 2005 Baltimore Orioles.

Wes Chamberlain, who played six MLB seasons including in the 1993 World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies, was a RailCat in 2003.

Some players to see at least a little MLB time that also wore a Gary jersey include first baseman Randall Simon (2010), third basemen Howard Battle (2003) and Jarrod Patterson (2008), outfielders Trey Beamon (2004), and Bubba Carpenter (2002, left-handed pitchers Tony Cogan (2007-09), Jim Crowell (2007), Brad Halsey (2010), Onan Masaoka (2009), right-handed pitchers Zach McClellan (2010) and Brad Voyles (2008).

Crowell played at Valparaiso High School and the University of Indianapolis. McClellan played at Indiana University.

There’s were Australian first baseman Ben Risinger (2005) and Japanese outfielder Masato Fukae (2016).

Texas Rangers hitting coach Anthony Iapoce was a former RailCats outfielder (2004-05).

The team has retired No. 23 for right-handed pitcher Willie Glen (2005-07, 2010) and No. 45 for Gary native and coach Joe Gates. Glen played at Plainfield High School and the University of Evansville. Gates played at Gary Roosevelt High School and briefly with the Chicago White Sox.

The RailCats were part of former Northern League and began as a road team in 2002 while 6,139-seat U.S. Steel Yard was being constructed along U.S. 20, South Shore rail lines and I-90 (Indiana Toll Road) and very close to the steel mills.

The first RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard was May 26, 2003.

Chicagoans Pat and Lindy Salvi bought the team in 2008.

Gary was a member of the Northern League through 2010 and won league titles in 2005 and 2007. In 2010, the RailCats joined the American Association and reigned over it in 2013.

The current AA lineup includes Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.), St. Paul (Minn.), Sioux Falls (S.D.) and Winnipeg (Manitoba) in the North Division, Gary, Kansas City (Kan.), Lincoln (Neb.) and Sioux City (Iowa) in the Central Division and Cleburne (Texas), Salina (Kan.), Texas (Grand Prairie) and Wichita (Kan.) in the South Division. Salina is a partial road team in 2017.

Gary takes a bus to all its games. It’s about 16 hours to both Grand Prairie and Winnipeg. There’s usually days off built into he schedule to allow for that kind of travel.

A commuter trip will be added in 2018 when the Rosemont, Ill.-based Chicago Dogs join the league.

RailCats general manager Brian Lyter is in his fifth year on the job after working four seasons in affiliated baseball with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers.

With Tagert handling most of the baseball side of things, Lyter tends mostly to the business side.

Lyter has watched the community embrace the independent baseball model while embracing the amenities at the park.

In a competitive Chicagoland market that offers the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and many other entertainment options, the RailCats draw well with most fans come from northwest Indiana.

Through it’s first 37 openings, Gary was averaging 3,573. That ranked fourth in the league behind St. Paul (8.293), Winnipeg (4,336) and Kansas City (3,984).

Some of the things Lyter appreciates about the American Association is that players have a “little more staying power” and that the product is top notch.

“Some people underestimate the quality of baseball,” says Lyter, who compares the overall level of play to Double-A.

GARYSOUTHSHORERAILCATS

South Bend’s Pieters proudly representing island of Curacao

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Baseball in Curacao has really taken off since Andruw Jones became a big league star in the late 1990’s.

Jones aka “The Curacao Kid” played 17 Major League Baseball seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees and paved the way for players from the Caribbean island nation of 150,000.

“Baseball has always been big, but since Andruw Jones got to The League it has gotten even bigger,” says Chris Peters, a pitcher-turned-position player who is working on his diamond future with the Low Class-A Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs. “Scouts started coming over even more looking for talent. I think I can pretty much say baseball is the No. 1 sport (in Curacao) right now.”

The Chicago Cubs signed free agent Pieters to a minor league contract in 2011 and he made his professional pitching debut at 17 in the Dominican Summer League in 2012.

After he went 3-5 with a 7.16 earned run average in 29 games on the mound, Pieters was moved to first base for the 2015 and 2016 seasons and has been used primarily in right field in South Bend.

“As a kid, I always liked hitting,” says Pieters, now 22. “I was very happy when (the Cubs) gave me the chance, the opportunity to become a position player. I’m just going for a dream or a goal which is to get to the big leagues.”

Pieters was a mid-season Northwest League All-Star at Eugene in 2016 while hitting .246 with three home runs, 28 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 66 games.

“Speed is one of the biggest parts of my game,” says Pieters.

Through his first 55 games in 2017 (he has spent two stints on the 7-day disabled list), Pieters was hitting .240 with four homers, 21 RBI and nine steals, including .342-1-5-2 in his last 10 games.

“I’ve progressed a lot this season,” says Pieters. “I’ve learned a lot from my coaches. I’m really grateful for them.”

South Bend’s staff includes manager Jimmy Gonzalez, hitting coach Jeremy Farrell, pitching coach Brian Lawrence and assistant coach Jonathan Mota.

Pieters, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder who bats and throws left-handed, explains his approach at the plate: “Look for my pitch and do damage to it. Don’t get myself out. Go up with a plan, look for a certain pitch and attack it.”

Pieters comes from a place where it is often 90 degrees and humid.  The upper Midwest did not offer that kind of climate in the early part of the season, but it’s been more Curacao-like as the summer has heated up and Pieters is enjoying his time in the River City.

“South Bend is pretty chill,” says Pieters. “Since the cold weather went away, it’s been perfect. I can’t complain.”

CHRISPIETERS

Chris Pieters was signed by the Chicago Cubs as a pitcher in 2011. He is an outfielder with the Low Class-A South Bend Cubs in 2017. (South Bend Cubs Photo)