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Helping Michigan pitchers know their strengths mission of Fetter

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

In the know.

That’s what University of Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter wants the hurlers in his charge to be.

“First and foremost, I want them to be knowledgeable with who they are as pitchers,” says Fetter, who is guiding to Wolverines staff this weekend in the NCAA regional at Corvallis, Ore. (Oregon State, Creighton and Cincinnati are three other competing teams). “Our eyes can deceive us. I want them to be as informed as possible about what they do and own what they do instead of just guessing.”

With Fetter leading the process, Michigan pitchers have access to many resources, including video analysis, Rapsodo and TrackMan to help them devise a plan of attack.

It becomes a combination of approaches that leads to what that player does on the hill.

“It’s not based entirely on technology, a coach or what the player thinks,” says Fetter. “But we marry all those together.”

Fetter assists his pitchers in developing an arsenal and it starts with the fastball.

“What kind of fastball do you throw?,” says Fetter. “Then, how do we attack other teams?

“It all stems with developing a relationship with the player and getting them to buy in to being learners of who they are.”

In his second second at U of M, Fetter has helped produce a number of capable pitchers.

In 2018, Tommy Henry made the all-Big Ten Conference second team while Karl Kauffman was on the third team and Ben Dragani the third and all-freshmen teams. Four Wolverines were signed by Major League Baseball teams — Will Tribucher, Jayce Vacena, Alec Rennard and Troy Miller.

The 2019 all-conference squads include Michigan’s Jeff Criswell (first team), Kauffmann (third team) and Willie Weiss (freshmen). The MLB First-Year Player Draft is June 3-5.

Fetter is a 2004 graduate of Carmel (Ind.) High School, where he played two seasons for Tom Linkmeyer and two for Eric Lentz.

“Tom is great baseball mind, great baseball man,” says Fetter of Linkmeyer. “We still talk quite a bit.

“He took a chance on young kid. He always gave it to you straight. You always knew where you stood. He was always in your corner. I really enjoyed playing for him.”

Fetter remembers Lentz for his positive approach and knowledge of X’s and O’s.

From his 15U to 18U summer, Fetter played travel ball with the Indiana Bulls. His coaches were Dennis Kas, Craig Grow, Jeff Mercer Sr. and C.J. Glander.

“I couldn’t have played for a better summer organization,” says Fetter. “When you’re going up agains the best competition game in and game out, it helps you make the jump to the next level.

“It was a special group. There are some of the best summers of my life.”

One of his Bulls teammates was Jeff Mercer Jr., who is now head coach at Indiana University.

After a redshirt season as a freshman, the 6-foot-8 right-hander played for Michigan and head coach Rich Maloney and pitching coach Bob Keller from 2006-2009.

“From the moment Rich recruited me, he instilled a great sense of confidence in me as a player,” says Fetter of Maloney. “He really takes an interest in his players and coaching staff.

“He’s a great motivator.”

Fetter says Keller was at the forefront of teaching pitchers to be athletic and stressed pre-throwing routines and properly warming up.

As a pitching coach, Fetter works on helping his starters develop a consistent routine between appearances while monitoring the workload of the relievers. He pushes them on some days and lets the recover on others.

Fetter pitched in 51 games for the Wolverines (40 as a starter) and was 24-8 with a 3.32 earned run average. He struck out 248 and walked 72 in 278 innings. He also pitched for Cotuit Kettleers of the summer collegiate Cape Cod Baseball League in 2007.

When the 2009 MLB Draft came, Fetter was selected in the ninth round by the San Diego Padres. He pitched for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2009 and 2012. His manager at Eugene in 2012 was former Notre Dame head coach and current Milwaukee Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy.

After 51 appearances (37 as a starter), Fetter played his last pro season in 2012 and began coaching in the Padres system in 2013.

Fetter was an assistant coach for the San Antonio Missions and former big leaguer Rich Dauer was the manager and Jimmy Jones the pitching coach.

“They were a great couple of mentors,” says Fetter of Dauer and Jones. “(Dauer) taught me overall game management. From (Jones), I learned about the art of teaching the delivery — rhythm, balance, timing.

“Those are two of the countless people along the way.”

Fetter went from the Padres to becoming a scout for the Los Angeles Angels.

“I go to watch the game from a different perspective,” says Fetter. “I was able formulate opinions on what players do well.”

For the 2016 season, Fetter was reunited with Maloney as his pitching coach at Ball State University, where he got to apply things he had learned as a pro coach and scout.

Three of Fetter’s standout BSU pitchers were Colin Brockhouse, B.J. Butler and Zach Plesac. This past week, Plesac made his MLB debut with the Cleveland Indians.

He then worked in player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers, learning how that organization uses analytics.

That led him to joining the staff of Michigan head coach Erik Bakich.

“He is all-in 24/7,” says Fetter of Bakich. “He’s completely energetic. He lifts everyone up around him. He’s very positive and very prepared.

“He pushes all these guys to play their best and get 100 percent better in their own process of development.”

Fetter, 33, and wife Jessica have a son named Cole. He turned five months next week.

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Chris Fetter is in his second season as pitching coach for the University of Michigan baseball team in 2019. He pitched for the Wolverines from 2006-09. (University of Michigan Photo)

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As pitching coach for the University of Michigan baseball team, Chris Fetter (center) wants his players to be as knowledgeable as possible about what they do and bring it to the mound. Starting May 31, the Wolverines are in the NCAA regional at Corvallis, Ore. (University of Michigan Photo)

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Chris Fetter, a 2004 Carmel (Ind.) High School graduate and former Indiana Bulls, pitcher in the San Diego Padres organization and assistant at Ball State University, is in his second season as pitching coach for the University of Michigan baseball team in 2019. (University of Michigan Photo)

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Tiegs getting Indiana State pitchers ready for rigors of 2019 season

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana State University opens its 2019 baseball season with a three-game series Feb. 15-17 at Jacksonville (Fla.) University.

Fifth-year Sycamores pitching coach Jordan Tiegs is getting ISU arms ready for the opener and beyond.

“We’re full-go,” says Tiegs. “We’re building guys now. Some are up to four innings. We’d like our starters to be able to go six innings that first weekend.”

The process has been happening with both both scrimmages and bullpen sessions. They train with overload and underload throwing balls.

“We want to get it as close to what it’s like during the season as possible,” says Tiegs. Pitchers generally pitch live in intrasquad games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday while there is more bullpen work on Monday through Thursday.

ISU’s online roster lists 17 pitchers. All three of the team’s weekend starters from 2018 when the Sycamores went 31-24 overall and 11-10 in the Missouri Valley Conference — senior left-hander Triston Polley (Brownsburg High School graduate), senior right-hander Tyler Ward (Heritage Hills) and junior left-hander Tristan Weaver — return.

Polley went 7-2, Ward 6-3 and Weaver 3-5 in 2018.

Redshirt junior right-hander Colin Liberatore, who pitched at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016, is in the starting mix. Weekday starter Weston Rivers is not back.

While primary closer Ethan Larrison (25 appearances with nine saves) has moved on to professional baseball, 6-foot-5 junior left-hander Tyler Grauer (21 appearances with three saves) did some closing in 2018 and he’s back.

“We lost a lot of leads in sixth and seventh innings last year,” says Tiegs. “That will be a big emphasis this year.”

New pieces in the bullpen include right-handers Austin Cross, Zach Frey, Ross Kramer and Jake Ridgway and lefty Geremy Guerrero.

Cross, a 6-7 junior, is one of seven pitchers on the staff who were in junior college last season.

Tiegs calls junior Frey, also a JC transfer, a “competitive bulldog” who throws strikes.

Coming to Indiana State as a two-way player as a JC transfer, the Sycamores have decided to let junior Kramer focus on pitching.

“He may have the best arm on the staff,” says Tiegs.

Sophomore Ridgway impressed ISU coaches during a showcase camp and was made a full-time pitcher as a freshman.

Junior Guerrero is considered a “swing” man who could be used as a starter or in long or short relief.

Being tall with long limbs is helpful for a pitcher.

But size is not always the determining factor in success.

“In a perfect world, they could all be 6-3 and 215 (the average size of a big league starter),” says Tiegs. “But what about the 5-9 guy who throws in the low to mid 90’s and can really spin it and is really competitive?.

“We have a bit of a mix here,” says Tiegs, who has 6-9 junior left-hander Will Buraconak and 5-9 freshman righty Paul Wendling in the pitching corps. “Both are going to help us a lot.”

Of course the plan on paper in February is not always what unfolds by May.

But one thing is constant.

“We want guys who are going to compete for the right reasons and execute their game plan,” says Tiegs of his pitchers. “We want to generate as much weak contact as we can.

“For some guys play book is simple. For some, it’s more complicated. It’s what they can handle.”

When recruiting, Tiegs wants pitchers who have a feel for the game around them and not ones who “can win the 60-foot, 6-inch battle” only.

“These are the ones who can’t hold runners and can’t field their positions,” says Tiegs. “Guys don’t work on these days as much as they used to.

“You can forget that a whole game is being played.”

Tiegs works for Sycamores head coach Mitch Hannahs.

“He’s a very smart baseball guy,” says Tiegs of Hannahs. “He knows what pitching means to a team. It can make or break your entire season.”

Hannahs gives his perspective while giving Tiegs the freedom to develop his staff his way.

“As a former infielder, he has a pretty good feel for what pitchers go through on the mental side,” says Tiegs.

The mental side of the game is something that is addressed daily by Tiegs in practice.

“We get them in the right frame of mind on the mind,” says Tiegs. “We want them to be in control of their thoughts and in the moment.

“They should keep things as simple as possible and not get the wheels spinning too much.”

Speaking of spinning, Indiana State does keep tabs on spin rate, spin axis and rotation using Rapsodo technology.

Tiegs notes that the use of TrackMan is another way of getting analytic feedback.

This can help players “develop a better version of themselves.”

“We don’t want to overkill with it,” says Tiegs. “It’s just another tool.”

Tiegs is a 2005 graduate of Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock, Ontario, Canada.

There was no high school baseball in his district. But he played on an elite travel team. The London Badgers played about 80 games a year from April to September with three or four tournaments in the U.S.

Tiegs also participated in volleyball, basketball, hockey and tennis and is definitely a believer in the concept of the multi-sport athlete.

“It can hurt your athletic growth if you eliminate things at a younger age,” says Tiegs. “Using different movements, it’s only going to help in baseball with agility and coordination.

“The more you can be exposed to that stuff is only going to benefit you. You’re going to get enough isolated work when you get to college.”

Tiegs wants his pitchers to be as athletic as possible.

“Pitchers can get a bad rap at being the non-athletes on the field,” says Tiegs, who has his ISU hurlers go through circuit training — strength and mobility — each day before they ever throw a baseball.

Tiegs was a pitcher and was selected selected in the 46th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, but played opted instead for college baseball. He played at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Ill., the College of Charleston in South Carolina and wound up at the University of Indianapolis.

The head coach at Sauk Valley was Al Ready, who is now head coach at UIndy.

Keith Hatfield, now head coach at Center Grove High School, was his pitching coach at UIndy.

“In 2009, we had a lot of talent on the mound,” says Tiegs. “We had to make sure guys were in the zone with their stuff. The only way we were going to get beat was with free bases.”

Tiegs delivers the same message to the Sycamores.

“We want our guys to constantly apply pressure and the pressure will be on them,” says Tiegs.

Before coming to ISU, Tiegs was the U of I Greyhounds pitching coach for three seasons on the staff of head coach Gary Vaught.

Having played and coached at the two levels, what is the main difference in NCAA Division I and II from a pitching perspective?

“It’s in the depth of lineups you see day in and day out,” says Tiegs. “You can get away with more mistakes (in D-II). With the better D-I teams, you need to be sharp for 7, 8, 9 guys in lineup. When they hit your mistakes, it’s usually louder.”

Jordan and wife Chelsea Tiegs are expecting their first child in late March.

In its preseason poll, Missouri Valley Conference head coaches have picked Indiana State to finish third behind Missouri State and Dallas Baptist and ahead of Bradley, Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Valparaiso and Evansville.

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Jordan Tiegs was a player and pitching coach at the University of Indianapolis before going to Indiana State University as pitching coach. (University of Indianapolis Photo)

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Jordan Tiegs is the baseball pitching coach at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. (Indiana State University Photo)

 

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)

 

Indiana Baseball Hall of Famer Hawkins knows the importance of being nice

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Only nine men in the history of Major League Baseball made more pitching appearances that LaTroy Hawkins.

From 1995-2015, the lanky right-hander took the mound 1,042 times for 11 different MLB organizations — Minnesota Twins, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies (twice), New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays.

Originally signed by Daniel Durst, the 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate made a minor league stop with the Fort Wayne Wizards in 1993 and went on to won 75 games and save 127 in the big leagues.

Along the way, “The Hawk” met thousands of folks.

Hawkins always tried to treat them with kindness — the way he was taught growing up in Gary, Ind., by mother Debra Morrow and grandparents Lesley Cannon and Eddie and Celestine Williams.

“I always wanted to do the right thing,” says Hawkins, who will be inducted into the Indiana High Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January. “Part of that is having a positive impact on others.

“I learned at a young age that trouble easy to get into and hard to get out of. I didn’t want to be a thorn in my (mother or grandparents’) side. I wanted to put a smile on people’s face.”

LaTroy’s mother still resides in Gary as do Mr. and Mrs. Williams. Grandmother Lesley died more than a decade ago, but her words and actions still ring true with LaTroy.

“She taught me about caring about people,” says Hawkins. “It didn’t matter what color they were.

“She had this uncanny way of opening up her home to everybody. You could always get three hot meals from her. She had a real sweet presence about her.

“She told me to always be willing to help people. You never know when you might need help. You always nice to people. Show them that you care. That always stuck with me.”

Lesley asked her grandson to always be that way.

“I try to be nice 99 percent of the time,” says Hawkins. “It’s hard to be nice 100 percent of the time. You come across more good people than (bad people).”

Maybe he didn’t always know your name.

“Hey, Big Fella!”

But Hawkins had — and still continues to have — time for everyone in his sphere that has revolved around a little white sphere. That might be folks on the grounds crew, security staff or on the loading dock.

“I made it my business to get to know everybody around me that made my day a little smoother once I left my front door and went to work,” says Hawkins.

When he learned about his Hall of Fame selection, he saw it as recognition for hard work and good character.

“It’s also the things you’ve done to grow the game of baseball in Indiana and around the world,” says Hawkins. “That’s having a positive impact I think.”

Now retired from his 21-year playing career, Hawkins is back with the Twins as a Special Assistant to Baseball Operations. His responsibilities include: contributing to the development of the organizational pitching philosophy used in the selection and development of all players. He will occasionally serve as an analyst for Twins games on Fox Sports North.

In working with the organization’s minor league pitchers, he gets them to set realistic goals and to help with both the mental and mechanical sides of their trade.

He talks about throwing high fastballs, pitching inside or down and away and when to use the curve ball.

But he also stresses the importance of data — something he paid little attention to as a player.

“It won’t work for everybody, but they’ll be some careers saved because of it,” says Hawkins. “It was a thing (when I played), but I didn’t want to know it.”

“When I started to 1995, analytics had a very small imprint.”

People relied on the human element and scouting.

“All we had to go on back then was the eye test,” says Hawkins. “Either you could do it or you couldn’t. Now there’s a reason for that and a program that can help you do it.”

Hawkins, who turns 45 on Dec. 21, helps hurlers change their grip to get a higher spin rate on their deliveries. After hanging out with Twins video personnel last March and seeing TrackMan data from spring training games and and also the numbers from his last three seasons (2013-15), he saw how spin rate either helped or harmed his own performance.

“That’s when I really got interested,” says Hawkins. “I saw what made me the pitcher I was. I didn’t care how hard I threw. Coming up in the Twins organization it was about command. That’s why I lasted so long. When I started throwing harder, I had still had command.”

It was also helpful that Hawkins possessed loose wrists, long fingers and strong hands.

“You’ve got to have two out of three to be able to do some of those things with the baseball,” says Hawkins.

Before going to spring training in 2018, Hawkins plans to travel to Indianapolis for the Jan. 28 Indiana Hall of Fame banquet at the Sheraton at the Keystone at the Crossing. The rest of the induction class includes coaches Rich Andriole (Indianapolis Cathedral/Guerin Catholic) and Pat Murphy (Valparaiso High School/retired), contributor Colin Lister (Fort Wayne/deceased) and Veteran’s Committee selection Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians broadcaster).

LaTroy and Anita Hawkins (who is a Gary Roosevelt High School graduate) celebrated their 17th year of marriage Nov. 25. The couple have a 16-year-old daughter — Troi — and reside in the Dallas area.

Westin Hotels & Resorts, Justin Tuck, LaTroy Hawkins And Rocco DiSpirito Launch "Make Monday Better" Campaign With Surprise Giveaway At A.C.E. High School In Canarsie, Brooklyn

LaTroy Hawkins began his 21-year Major League Baseball career with the Minnesota Twins and now works in the team’s front office. The 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate is part of the 2018 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. (Yahoo Photo)

 

Wagner continues to hone his baseball broadcasting craft

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A baseball broadcaster’s life is more than calling the action on the field.

Relationships must be built with players, coaches and managers.

Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School (1999) and Indiana State University (2003) who is in his 11th season as the play-by-play voice of the Triple-A International League’s Buffalo Bisons, says it is in the relationships area where he has made his greatest improvement.

“I have a little bit more of a feel of how to operate a clubhouse,” says Wagner. “It’s been one of my major strengths in the last few years. That took awhile by learning and doing. There’s no road map. Every clubhouse is different.

“To do a baseball job really, really well, you’re going to have to know the dynamic of that clubhouse and the people that are within those walls so you can relay that on the air.”

Wagner has learned to be sensitive as he prepares to inform and entertain his radio or TV audience.

Every player has a different backstory.

“Some are excited to be at Triple-A and will talk to you until they are blue in the face,” says Wagner. “There are guys who fight for that 25-man job at the end of the bench coming away from spring training that are so disappointed that they are at Triple-A.”

Others are caught in the numbers crunch and are not happy about it. Rosters are constantly in flux between a Triple-A and major league team (in Buffalo’s case, the Toronto Blue Jays).

“There’s a certain feel, I think, and broadcasters and media people have to have to be respectful of that buffer zone,” says Wagner. “But, at the same time, you have to do a job.”

It’s all about mutual respect.

Take the case of Joe Biagini, who pitched out of the bullpen for Toronto in 2016 and started in 2017 before being sent to Buffalo, where he made his debut Monday, Aug. 7.

Wagner had never met the 6-foot-5 right-hander.

“You don’t want to ambush a guy in the middle of the clubhouse,” says Wagner.

The play-by-play man introduced himself to the pitcher before the game in Indianapolis. In a brief conversation, Wagner learned about Biagini’s travels and his expectations for the outing.

“I knew he was going to throw less than 50 pitches,” says Wagner. “I got little nuggets where I could have credibility on the air.”

In the case of Wagner and his broadcast partners (Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire and Pat Malacaro), they are not digging for dirt, but those interesting details to share with listeners and viewers on various platforms, including ESPN 1520 AM (the team’s flagship), WGGO 1590 AM, WOEN 1360 AM, Spectrum Sports in Buffalo or online.

“We don’t break news,” says Wagner. “We’re not a broadcast network. We’re employees of the team. We’re respectful of all that stuff.”

Wagner operates with sensitivity and clarity.

“Sometimes guys’ careers are in the balance and it’s what you may know ahead of time,” says Wagner. “You have that access to the team day in and day out. You’re the eyes and the ears and you have to tie it all together.”

Wagner wants the Bisons broadcast to be a “constant and enjoyable listen.”

Consistency and quality is helped by familiarity. Wagner and analyst McGuire have been paired for a decade.

“I know when Duke wants to talk,” says Wagner. “That goes a long way in how our broadcast sounds. There’s a certain comfortability in the way the Bisons broadcast sounds.

“That makes it sustainable whether it is the excitement of Opening Day; it’s April and where we’re coming out of the gate strong all the way to those 8-23 June games that I’ve had to endure … You can’t get too high. You can’t get too low .. You hopefully show up, call a good game, you’re mechanically sound and people enjoy all 27 outs.”

The aim is for a first-class product each time the Bisons take to the air or the net.

“I’m trying to treat it like a major league broadcast every night because that’s where I want to be,” says Wagner. “I want to be in a big league booth. Finding things that are interesting for them hopefully reinforces what I’m trying to do.”

The mediums for Bisons baseball have changed since Wagner called games for the Single-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws in 2004 and even since he did his first Bisons game in 2007.

“We were sending box scores and game stories via fax,” says Wagner of his early days. “Now, if you’re a reporter or a news agency, you’re not waiting on a box score. You’re  looking at my Twitter feed (@benwag247) or the team’s Twitter feed (@BuffaloBisons).”

Wagner has also watched analytics become more important and technology expand with the advent of TrackMan, which allows teams to measure and quantify things like the release point of a pitcher, number of revolutions of a pitch and a hitter’s tendencies.

“We have guys that travel with us that cut up every at-bat, every pitching sequence and are uploading it to major league sites,” says Wagner. “They’re harnessing all this data.”

When calling games, Wagner often writes the question “Why?” at the top of his scorebook.

He puts himself in the listener’s place.

Why are you supposed to be listening to this game?

Why are you still tuning in to this game?

Why is this at-bat important?

Why is this pitch important?

“I remind myself and then remind the listener,” says Wagner. “I’m trying to harness their attention in a world that has no attention span. Especially in baseball, we have to keep rehashing why these things are important.”

Wagner catches himself asking these questions while watching afternoon Major League Baseball games that have turned one-sided.

“How would I keep the game interesting?,” says Wagner. “That’s my challenge.”

While he occasionally has time for a longer story, he keeps things flowing.

“I look at it as though everything out of my mouth has to be condensed to 140 characters,” says Wagner. “Every little nugget about a guy, every play — in terms of description — has to be short and concise and really to the point.”

Wagner has been with Buffalo through three affiliations — Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and now Toronto.

Canadians often come to Buffalo to shop, dine or go to sporting events like Bisons baseball. The Peace Bridge is 5 minutes from Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field and it’s less than 100 miles from Coca-Cola Field to Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays.

The relationship with the Mets provided wide exposure on SportsNet New York.

“There were days the Mets were off and the Bisons were home and they’d broadcast our games and (viewers) could see the prospects and get an idea of what’s going on down on the farm,” says Wagner. “We were trying to get some excitement built around the young players coming up.”

Rogers Communications owns the Blue Jays and has several media platforms to broadcast games for Canada’s lone big league team.

Wagner is a frequent contributor to Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto.

“Guys on the Blue Jays broadcast — Jerry Howarth, Joe Siddal and Mike Wilner — have been stalwarts when it comes to supporting the affiliation. Because of that, they bring me in.”

Wagner and Howarth jockey emails back and forth all the time.

“I may know a guy is on the move, but he has no idea because he is focused in on the 25 men who are on the roster in Toronto that day,” says Wagner.

When Taylor Cole was called up to pitch the Jays, Wagner was able to provide some interesting perspective on the 6-1 right-hander.

“I’ve seen him pitch six times already,” says Wagner of a player who had been hurt then moved through the Toronto system. “I was able to share that information.”

Wagner does speaking engagements on behalf of the Bisons during the off-season and also does play-by-play for college football and basketball.

BENWAGNER

Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School and Indiana State University, is in his 11th season at play-by-play voice of the Buffalo Bisons. Buffalo is a Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Steve Krah Photo)