Tag Archives: The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy

Gayday sharing homegrown baseball know-how at Saint Francis

BY STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Kristian Gayday was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., and that’s where he learned about baseball and where he continues to share his knowledge.
Gayday, who turns 30 on Dec. 20, is heading into his fourth season as an assistant coach at the University of Saint Francis, located on the Summit City’s west side.
Growing up near Waynedale on the south end of town, Gayday played at Don Ayres Little League, travel ball for the Aboit Braves and Fort Wayne Cubs (coached by Cisco Morales) then played on the last four teams at Elmhurst High School (it ceased to be a high school after 2009-10) and four years at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne (now Purdue Fort Wayne). He has coached in the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks travel organization (formerly Fort Wayne Cubs).
Gayday played three seasons for Eddie Fields and his senior year for Zac Pace at Elmhurst, helping the Trojans go 18-7 and win the program’s first sectional title in eight years. A power-hitting shortstop, he was named all-Summit City Athletic Conference and all-area as a senior.
“(Pace) did a good team with a senior-laden team,” says Gayday.
Bobby Pierce was the coach of the IPFW Mastodons and Gayday played shortstop or third base from 2011-14. A righty swinger, he hit .274 (183-of-667) with 16 home runs, two triples, 31 doubles and 104 runs batted in 201 games.
“He’s such a cool person,” says Gayday of Pierce. “He’s figure out a way to develop guys. He’d break down the swing and show different perspectives.
“He taught me most of what I know today and was such a good mentor.”
In 2015, Gayday played mostly as a corner infielder for the Sonoma (Calif.) Stompers of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. That team was managed by Japan native Takashi Miyoshi.
Gayday, who has worked at The Diamond Baseball & Softball Academy in Fort Wayne, was called away from coaching a Fort Wayne Diamondbacks team to play for Sonoma. He anticipates coaching for the Manny Lopez-led D-backs in 2022.
At Saint Francis, Gayday is on the staff of Cougars head coach Dustin Butcher.
“He’s such a likable guy,” says Gayday of Butcher. “You know he has your back.
“I’m grateful to have him around and being a mentor to me.”
Primary duties for Gayday include working with USF hitters and infielders while also aiding in the running game.
One of the keys for Gayday’s hitters is “being athletic.”
To Gayday, swinging a bat requires attention to pitcher’s tendencies and the mental side.
“We want them to stay back instead of trying to force their body to do something,” says Gayday. “We do not want them having a good approach and not being pull happy.
“Instead of pulling, they can hit a curveball to right field and see what happens.”
Gayday stresses a “prep step” for his infielders.
“It’s a nice hop down into our legs so we can stay low,” says Gayday. “We want to set our feet and make a good throw.
“Everyone is progressing the right way.”
It also helps that the hops at Cougar Field are getting smoother.
“We’ve put a lot of time in that field to make it better,” says Gayday.
Saint Francis, a member of the NAIA-affiliated Crossroads League, went 34-22 and stole 73 bases in 86 attempts.
Keys to success include reading the pitcher’s delivery (slide step, leg kick etc.) and his pick-off move.
“We want to put momentum into our steal,” says Gayday. “Being a half step quicker is what we’re looking for.”
While its currently a period where athletes are away from the coaching staff, there can be communication through calls and social media.
When the team comes back from break in early January, the Cougars will hit the ground running in preparation for the 2022 season opener Feb. 4 at Bethel (Tenn.) University.
Besides coaching, Gayday runs the shipping and receiving department for McMahon Best-One Tire & Auto Care in Fort Wayne and answers directly to Pat “Bubba” McMahon, who is also head baseball coach at Canterbury School in Fort Wayne.
Kristian lost both parents — Elmhurst graduates Johnny and Christine — in 2020. He has two older siblings — John Gayday and Natasha Nestleroad.

Kristian Gayday (University of Saint Francis Photo)

Mannan out to change lives with Fort Wayne North Side Legends

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Austin Mannan has found his “why” and he pursues it on a daily basis as an educator and coach.

“I felt like I’ve had so many people pour their time and effort into me,” says Mannan, a special education teacher at Lane Middle School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the head baseball coach at Fort Wayne North Side High School. “I have a duty to give that back to kids.

“I want to change somebody’s life. At the end of the day I don’t care what kind of baseball player you are, I want you to be a better person than when you got to me.

“I want them to look back and say he really cared about me. He really went the extra mile.”

Mannan has embraced his mindset and takes a cue from motivational speaker Eric Thomas, who asks “What’s Your Why?”

“Everybody has a reason to get out of bed everyday,” says Mannan. “You have to decide what that motivation is and what you can do to get there.

“(North Side) is an inner-city school. These kids have challenging backgrounds. We want to help them to be a better person.”

North Side (enrollment around 1,600) is a member of the Summit Athletic Conference (with Fort Wayne Carroll, Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, Fort Wayne Bishop Luers, Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran, Fort Wayne Northrop, Fort Wayne Snider, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne and Homestead).

The Legends are part of an IHSAA Class 4A sectional grouping with Columbia City, Fort Wayne South Side, Fort Wayne Wayne, Homestead and Huntington North. North Side is seeking its first sectional title.

Zach McKinstry is a 2014 North Side graduate. The middle infielder made his Major League Baseball debut for the eventual World Series-winning Los Angeles Dodgers Sept. 16, 2020.

North Side plays its home games at Carrington Field, located in Daryl B. Cobin Memorial Park on Coliseum Boulevard and about five miles from the school. 

With high schools in Fort Wayne Community Schools going from 9:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m., games generally do not start before 5. 

Also the home of the Fort Wayne Baseball Federation‘s Jackers, Carrington Field underwent renovations that the Legends did not get to enjoy in 2020 with the prep season being wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s pretty nice,” says Mannan, who notes that many previous games at Carrington were wiped out when it rained. 

Eight seniors were on the 2020 roster, including college recruits in left-handed pitcher Max Meisner (Huntington University), shortstop Cameron Woehnker (Grace College) and hurler Taegan Armey (Indiana Tech).

Mannan’s 2021 assistants are Jordan Young, Toni Georgi and Armey, who developed an arm injury that caused him to shut it down rather than play college ball.

North Side junior right-hander Nate Spurlock has been getting attention from college programs.

Mannan, who was born and raised in Putnam County, Ind., and played at Cloverdale (Ind.) High School before Lincoln Trail College (Robinson, Ill.), Spoon River College (Canton, Ill.) and the University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne). Until middle school, he split his time between third base and catcher. From high school on, he was a catcher.

Bryan Archer was Mannan’s high school head coach.

“I owe a lot to the person and player I am to him,” says Mannan, a 2013 Cloverdale graduate. “He never let feel sorry for myself. He just pushed, pushed, pushed.”

Spoon River head coach Ron Clark, who died in 2016, was an old school coach who embraced the fundamentals.

“By doing the little things right all the time that would lead to big things,” says Mannan. “My coaches were all fundamental guys. You can’t over-due fundamentals.

“I’ve broken down every aspect to try to give (North Side players) a solid foundation.”

A relationship built with Manny Lopez, owner of The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy in Fort Wayne, Mannan has been able to get indoor reps for his North Side players.

“We made huge strides,” says Mannan. “Last year was going to be a our ‘back on the map year.’”

Mannan appreciates the way Lopez deals with the North Side kids.

“Manny tells them you can thank me when you make it,” says Mannan. “He understands what my kids go through on a day-to-day basis.

“I’ve never forgotten that.”

Besides being an assistant at Woodlan Junior/Senior High School (Woodburn, Ind.) while doing his student teaching, Mannan has coached the Northern Indiana Elite, Chicago 29ers and Fort Wayne Diamondbacks in summer ball. He is currently a 16U coach for the Diamondbacks.

As a player, Mannan got to know the junior college baseball grind from two head coaches — Kevin Bowers at Lincoln Trail and Clark at Spoon River.

“As a JuCo Bandit you’re a grinder,” says Mannan. “You’re putting in the work and getting after it.

“The grind of being a junior college player is incredible. You become so tough playing at that level.”

A typical schedule began with conditioning at 5 a.m., followed by classes, practice, study table and more practice with it all winding up about 10 p.m. Then the same thing the next day.

To get in games against top early-season competition, the team would cram 10 players each in three vans and drive 14 hours to Texas. Meal money was capped at $5 a day.

Junior college baseball is full of potential professional players and they are all MLB First Year Player Draft-eligible.

Two of Mannan’s Lincoln Trail teammates — Damon Olds (Kansas City Royals out of Indiana State University) and Justin Watts (Toronto Blue Jays out of the University of Southern Indiana) — were drafted in 2017.

In Mannan’s LTC recruiting class, 10 of 13 went on to NCAA Division I programs. Two went to NCAA Division II.

After a year at Spoon River (2014-15), Mannan landed at NAIA Saint Francis for two years (2015-16 and 2016-17). Greg Roberts was the Cougars head coach and his successor, Dustin Butcher, was an assistant.

Mannan, who also played summer ball for the Danville (Va.) Marlins in 2015 and Laramie (Wyo.) Colts in 2016, was honorable mention all-Crossroads League in the spring of 2016. 

At Saint Francis, Mannan earned a Secondary Education degree in 2018 and a Masters in Special Education in 2020. 

It was by coming to Fort Wayne that Mannan met an Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne student from Crown Point, Ind., named Adalyn. 

Austin and Adalyn Mannan were married in September 2020. She is a manager at Planet Fitness.

“We were supposed to go on our honeymoon during Christmas break,” says Mannan. Instead, the couple had a bout with COVID. Austin spent a week in the hospital. Except for occasional shortness of breath, he says that has recovered.

Austin Mannan was catcher with the Laramie (Wyo.) Colts in the summer of 2016.
Austin Mannan, who played at the University of Saint Francis in 2016 and 2017 and hold two degrees from the school in Fort Wayne, Ind., is the head baseball coach at Fort Wayne North Side High School. (University of Saint Francis Photo)

Fort Wayne’s DeJesus recalls amateur, professional roots

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Javier DeJesus was born in Puerto Rico, shined on the high school diamonds of Texas and excelled collegiately in Louisiana.

Drafted by the Minnesota Twins, his professional baseball career put DeJesus in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1994.

The former left-handed pitcher has been around the Summit City most of the time since toeing the rubber for the Fort Wayne Wizards (now known as the Fort Wayne TinCaps).

Javi met a local girl (Deborah), fell in love, got married and had three sons (Damon, Jordan and Evan) while staying close to his favorite game.

DeJesus’ day job as a health care administator keeps him busy, but he still has time to teach lessons at The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy, where Manny Lopez is director of baseball operations.

Javi DeJesus helps coach Fort Wayne Diamondbacks travel teams featuring Jordan (14U DeJesus) and Evan (12U). Damon DeJesus, who played at Indiana University South Bend and in the independent Empire League, is the 14U head coach.

DeJesus and former WOWO radio personality Charly Butcher founded the Fort Wayne Cubs, which later became the Diamondbacks.

Born in Ponce, P.R., DeJesus moved to Moss Bluff, La., as a boy then Beaumont, Texas, where he was one of only two sophomores to play varsity baseball at West Brook Senior High School (catcher Jason Smith, who went on to the University of Texas-Arlington and the Colorado Rockies organization, was the other).

It was as a 10th grader that DeJesus caught the attention of University of Southwestern Louisiana assistant coach Emrick Jagneaux.

“He said, ‘once you get this thing figured out with the curveball, I’ll come back and pick you up,’” says DeJesus of Jagneaux. “He was true to his word.”

DeJesus went to USL (now known as the University of Louisiana-Lafayette) and went 23-1 in three seasons (1990-92) for the Mike Boulanger-coached Ragin’ Cajuns. 

One of his signature victories was a complete game at Mississippi State University in 1991. That team was coached by American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Ron Polk and inside rowdy and intimidating Dudy Noble Field.

The lefty was 22-0 as a starter. He came on in relief against Oregon State University and three crucial errors led to his only college setback.

In his three seasons, the Ragin’ Cajuns went 47-18, 49-20 and 38-23 and won two American South Conference titles and a Sun Belt Conference West crown. 

DeJesus won 13 games for Southwest Louisiana in 1992, was an All-American, co-Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year and selected to Team Puerto Rico. An elbow injury suffered during the Olympic Trials kept him from going to the Barcelona Games, where first-time Olympic baseball qualifier Puerto Rico placed fifth.

In the summer of 1990, DeJesus played American Legion Baseball in Louisiana for McNeese State University head coach Tony Robichaux and assistant Todd Butler.

Robichaux was head coach at Louisiana-Lafayette 1995-2019 (he died after the 2019 season) and won more than 1,100 games in his 33-year career.

The Twins selected DeJesus in the 17th round of the 1992 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

He got into just two games in 1992 then went 9-0 at rookie-level Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1993. 

Ray Smith was the Elizabethton manager.

“He’s one of the nicest overall men that has ever graced us with his presence,” says DeJesus of Smith. “His philosophy was very simple: Show us what you can do.”

DeJesus remembers that Smith was very mild-mannered until the morning after an Appalachian League playoff loss at Bluefield, Va., that saw the team get extra-boisterous at the hotel.

Let’s just say the Twins were chewed out before riding back to Tennessee.

Playing at Low Class-A Fort Wayne in 1994, DeJesus encountered manager Jim Dwyer and pitching coach Stew Cliburn.

It was in Fort Wayne that DeJesus, who was in the bullpen at old Memorial Stadium, witnessed the first professional home run for 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez

DeJesus can still see the hanging slider by Shane Bowers, who had a cup of coffee with the 1997 Twins, that A-Rod popped for the Appleton Foxes.

Southpaw DeJesus was 5-2 with two saves, a 0.93 earned run average, 55 strikeouts and 13 walks in 38 2/3 innings at Fort Wayne and was at Double-A Nashville briefly before injury cut his season short.

DeJesus recalls that a Nashville TV station aired a lengthy piece about his injury. Xpress manager Phil Roof and pitching coach Rick Anderson were complimentary, saying how the lefty had the make-up to be a top-flight closer or set-up man. 

“My fastball never came back after surgery,” says DeJesus.

After four games at Double-A New Britain, Conn., in 1995, DeJesus spent parts of that season and all of 1996 in independent pro ball with the Alexandria (La.) Aces and the Rio Grande Valley White Wings in Harlingen, Texas.

DeJesus was with Alexandria again in 1997 and hooked on with the Chicago Cubs system, going 3-1 in eight games in 1997 and 5-5 in 1998 — both for High Class-A Daytona, Fla.

Stan Cliburn, twin brother of Stew and Alexandria manager in 1997, fondly recalls DeJesus.

“Great competitor and a winner when he toed the pitchers mound!,” says Cliburn. “Class act.”

Ricky VanAsselberg, who is now the general manager/field manager of the Acadiana Cane Cutters summer collegiate team in Lafayette, La., was an Alexandria teammate.

“I love Javi,” says VanAsselberg. “What a great guy. Great competitor.

“Warrior on the mound.”

It was Alan Dunn, Daytona pitching coach in 1997, that DeJesus learned the 3-2-1 pitch sequencing method that he employs with his young players to this day.

“He showed me that concept and it’s made a world of difference,” says DeJesus. “It gives you the opportunity to be your own pitching coach.”

The method begins with 12 pitches to various parts of the strike zone — inside and outside — and allows the pitcher to evaluate where is more or less consistent, where he is improving or regressing and where his mechanics can be altered to effect the release point.

DeJesus, who likes to take to Twitter to debunk modern training philosophy, is not a big fan of speed for speed’s sake.

“Look at players’ heart,” says DeJesus. “That can’t be quantified. They don’t play for numbers.

“Velocity is king now. To me that’s not pitching. That’s measurables. You have to integrate velocity and command. 

“If you have no clue where it’s going, what’s the purpose of training.”

When teaching his sons to hit, DeJesus has spent time listening to hitting coaches and it’s also helped him as pitching instructor.

“The more I know about hitting, the more I can help pitchers,” says DeJesus. “We can expose weaknesses.”

Puerto Rico-born Jose Santiago, a former big league pitcher and Daytona’s pitching coach in 1998, tried to get DeJesus to become a coach in the Cubs organization.

“I thought I still had some games to play,” says DeJesus. “I wanted to retire on my own terms and not someone else’s.”

The final three pro seasons for DeJesus were spent in independent ball — Nashua (N.H.) Pride in 1999, Lehigh Valley (Pa.) Black Diamonds in 2000 and Alexandria Aces in 2001.

The 2000 season is memorable because it wound up with the team living in tents when bankruptcy proceedings got them thrown out of area hotels.

New Orleans native Kim Batiste, who played on the Philadelphia Phillies World Series team in 1993, cooked for his teammates.

It was also in the Atlantic League that DeJesus got a valuable baseball lesson thanks to former big league slugger Ruben Sierra.

During a pro career that spanned 1983-2006, Puerto Rican Sierra was with the Atlantic City Surf in 1999 and rapped a few offerings from Nashua’s DeJesus.

Baseball lifer Doc Edwards was the Atlantic City manager. 

“Those are the guys who taught me how to pitch,” says DeJesus, who got a chance to talk baseball with those men deep into the night. “The conversation got me to understand what it is to pitch.

“Today, too many pitchers don’t call their own pitches. They don’t get to think for themselves.”

Javier DeJesus and his sons are involved with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Diamondbacks travel baseball organization.
Javier DeJesus was an All-American baseball player at Southwestern Louisiana University (now known as the University of Louisville-Lafayette).
Javier DeJesus with the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins (Classic Best Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Rio Grande Valley White Wings.
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Javier DeJesus with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Fleer Image).
Baseball Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (left) meets with Javier DeJesus. The latter played 10 years in pro baseball and lives in Fort Wayne, Ind.

New Saint Francis Cougars head baseball coach Butcher committed to making history

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dustin Butcher wants baseball success for his alma mater.

The new head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., is committed to making the Cougars into a perennial championship contender — something already achieved by the school’s football and basketball programs.

“To do something special, you have to commit to it,” says Butcher, who takes over the program after the retirement of Greg Roberts. “We’re going to make history here at some point.

“I’m excited. I have a lot of pride in this university.”

Saint Francis is a member of the NAIA-affiliated Crossroads League (along with Bethel College, Goshen College, Grace College, Huntington University, Indiana Wesleyan University, Marian University, Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, Spring Arbor University and Taylor University). The Cougars are seeking their first regular-season or tournament title in baseball.

USF head football coach Kevin Donley is the winningest coach in NAIA history. Men’s basketball Chad LaCross has won over 70 percent of his games with two national runner-up teams. Coach Jason Ridge now leads a women’s basketball program that won a national title in 2014.

Butcher graduated from Heritage High School in Monroeville, Ind., and played baseball and soccer at Saint Francis, completing his undergraduate degree in 2001. He went on to earn a masters in sports and exercise psychology from Ball State University.

During his internship with USF’s soccer teams — men and women — Butcher got a chance to built the mental skill set of athletes.

Butcher played baseball for coach Dean Lehrman at Heritage. His USF coaches were Steve Kovacs and Doug Coate in baseball and Ken Nuber then Mitch Ellisen in soccer.

“I’m thankful,” says Butcher. “Coach Lehrman kind of saved me from myself. He was very honest. I wasn’t on the best path. I wasn’t living up to expectations.”

Butcher says he contributed to Cougars soccer for his willingness to be a grinder.

“I was good in high school, but at the collegiate level I wasn’t good enough,” says Butcher. “But I think I made everybody around me better because I would never stop.

“It made me realize that you need guys like that. I pushed guys in practice. They knew you couldn’t take a day off.”

Butcher’s first assistant college baseball coaching stop came at Marian in Indianapolis on the staff of Kurt Guldner and assistants Kip McWilliams and Toby Rogers.

Jessica Butcher, Dustin’s wife, is a family doctor with Lutheran Health Physicians. She did her residency in Fort Wayne and Dustin coached a season at Saint Francis and then went with head coach McWilliams at Indiana Tech. Butcher returned to Saint Francis to join Roberts in the fall of 2008 and remained until the present.

“I’m appreciative of Coach Guldner giving me my first job,” says Butcher. “Coach Mac is really the one that got me going to the (annual American Baseball Coaches Association national convention). If you love baseball and you’ve never been to an ABCA convention, you need to go. It’s mind-blowing.

“It’s such a cool culture of coaches. It’s a group of guys constantly trying to learn and share information. I love it.”

Butcher is grateful for Roberts, who allowed him to find his own way of implementing his philosophy.

“He allowed us to coach,” says Butcher, who also served alongside Miguel Tucker (who is now on McWilliams’ staff at Indiana Tech). “He gave us full autonomy. He allowed us to fail and succeed on his watch. He was just so good at teaching. He always had an angle that would make you think.

“I owe him a lot.”

As head coach, Butcher will emphasize the grinder mentality

“I want to challenge them to where they hit a wall physically and they have to figure out how to get to the other side,” says Butcher. “You’ve got to find something within yourself.”

To narrow the gap on the competition, Butcher expects his athletes to move some iron.

“I’m a big believer in the weight room — it allows you to compete at a higher level quicker.

“To win at the NAIA level, you see a lot of teams across the country in the World Series or Top 25 with transfers (Division I or junior college). We don’t have the luxury of being able to pluck any JC kid or get every Division I bounce-back. We don’t have the financial capability. To be able to compete, we’ve got to push in the weight room.

“To make history, we need to do more — we need to develop more, we need to take more swings outside of practice time. That’s something I’m going to ask our coaches to do.”

Former Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne player Kristian Gayday has been hired as a USF baseball assistant and a search is one for a second assistant. Gayday, who played for Mastodons and head coach Bobby Pierce, will lead Cougars hitters and help with infielders and outfielders.

Butcher is especially fond of the methods favored by strength and conditioning specialist Eric Cressey. Because they seem to be more in-line with baseball, the coach says his Cougars will front squat and deadlift.

Recruiting at Saint Francis focuses on a 50-mile radius around the school. Anyone from inside that ring can commute. By school policy, those outside that radius must live on campus and that adds to the cost.

The 2019 online roster includes 15 players from Allen or surrounding Indiana counties.

Using resources like FieldLevel and getting athletes to on-campus to experience the atmosphere of home football games, Butcher is wrapping up the 2018-19 recruiting class while also looking for 2019-20 commits.

Travel organizations that have been good to Saint Francis are the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks, Summit City Sluggers and Indiana Chargers.

“Those are three top programs,” says Butcher. “You want to make sure you see them in the summer because they always have kids to recruit.”

He expects his roster to hover between 30 and 40 players, which will take practices and a few scrimmages in the fall and a 55-game schedule in the spring. Some winter workouts will take place at The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy. All home games will be played on the turf at the ASH Centre in Fort Wayne.

Dustin, the oldest of six children, is the son of Becki Beauchot and Steve Butcher. Dustin’s sisters are Abbi, Emily and Daisy with Sam and Jack (a senior-to-be at Heritage).

Living in Leo, Ind., Dustin and Jessica Butcher have two children — Nolan (9) and Ella (7). Ella was in Miguel Tucker’s wedding. Jessica has been the baby doctor for former USF players.

“That’s why you do it,” says Butcher of the bonds formed through baseball. “It’s a family. That’s hard to get through to coaches.

“I hope they understand it.”

DUSTINBUTCHER1

Alum and long-time assistant coach Dustin Butcher is now the head baseball coach at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Homestead graduate Jernigan enjoying experience as second-year pro

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andre Jernigan grew up in Fort Wayne watching young baseball players chase their professional dreams in the Midwest League.

Jernigan, 23, is now doing the same as an infielder with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

A Homestead High School graduate in 2012 and Louisville Slugger All-American at Xavier University in 2016, Jernigan was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 14th round of the ’16 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after being named Big East Conference Player of the Year.

At spring training this year, Jernigan enjoyed picking the brains of former Minnesota Twins who were Fort Wayne Wizards coming through the minors — LaTroy Hawkins (with Fort Wayne in 1993) and Torii Hunter (1994).

“It’s incredible to play on the same fields and in the same league as them,” says Jernigan, who played 36 games for Elizabethton (Rookie-level Appalachian League) after the draft and four contests for the E-Twins in ’17 before being assigned to Cedar Rapids June 29.

“We’re lucky to come out here and just play,” says Jernigan. “I just like to take it day by day and enjoy the experience. It’s that fun and excitement you had when you were a kid that made you want to become a professional baseball player.

“It’s very easy once you get out there to lose sight of that. You start to think of it as a job. My main goal is to come out and learn something new and get better each and everyday.”

Playing so many games, pro baseball can become a mental and physical grind. But Jernigan chooses not to see it that way.

“You don’t think I have to play today, I get to play today,” says Jernigan. “It’s really just a blessing to be out here.”

Jernigan grew up playing shortstop and accept for being moved to third base by then-Homestead head coach Steve Sotir during his sophomore year, he was an everyday shortstop until he became a pro. The Twins have used him at second base, third base, shortstop and even one game at catcher.

“A ground ball’s a ground ball though the ball gets too you faster at third base,” says Jernigan. “The Twins talk about (playing multiple positions). I’ve always been told the more versatile you are, teams can get you more playing time.”

Jernigan is thankful for a foundation laid by Sotir, who now works at The Base in El Paso, Texas, and current Homestead head coach Nick Byall.

“They run a great program,” says Jernigan of Sotir and Byall. “I look back on the drills and some of the things we did. I can’t thank them enough with helping me with my development.”

Scott Googins, who became head coach at the University of Cincinnati after the ’17 season, was head coach at Xavier during Jernigan’s days as a Musketeer.

“Coach Googins made sure that we put together a tough schedule and faced the Vanderbilts and the Arizona States and some high-power arms,” says Jernigan. “Playing those teams in those series definitely helped in the sense that I’ve seen the velocity and the breaking balls.

“I seen some of that electric stuff. The biggest thing (in the minors), everyone you face now is a Friday night guy.”

The key is to hit the pitcher’s mistakes.

“I want to find a pitch and drive it,” says Jernigan. “You must be ready for the fastball at all times. You can adjust to the off-speed after that.”

Andre was born to Frankie and Stacey Jernigan in Muncie and the family landed in Fort Wayne around the time Andre was starting school.

Frankie Jernigan graduated from Muncie Central High School and earned a baseball letter at the University of Nebraska (1989). He passed along his knowledge and love of the game to sons Andre and Austin (who played baseball at Homestead and is now a senior student at Ball State University).

“I can’t thank him enough for all those days when he threw us BP and hit us ground balls,” says Andre of his father.

Andre played travel in younger days with the Mavericks and then with the Fort Wayne Cubs (now the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks).

In one of those small world phenomenons, The Diamond Baseball and Softball Academy owner/senior baseball instructor and director of player development Manny Lopez was a minor league teammate of Ramon Borrego when both played in the Twins organization. Borrego is now manager of the Gulf Coast League Twins.

Jernigan graduated from Xavier with a degree in finance.

“I’ve always been good with numbers,” says Jernigan. “It’s one of those things that I find interesting.”

Another interesting family connection is former NBA standout Bonzi Wells. He is connected in Andre’s mother’s side.

Wells shined on the hardwood at Muncie Central and Ball State and then played with the Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets before stints in China and Puerto Rico.

At 40, Wells now plays in the new BIG3 pro 3-on-3 league.

Jernigan says Wells recently talked with youngsters at Muncie Central.

“He has that inner drive that keeps you going,” says Jernigan.

ANDREJERNIGAN

Andre Jernigan, a graduate of Homestead High School and Xavier University, is in the Minnesota Twins organization with the Cedar Rapids Kernels. (Steve Krah Photo)