Tag Archives: U.S. Steel Yard

Northwest Indiana adult baseball league lets men continue to play boys’ game

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Fun, camaraderie and competition is on display at diamonds around The Region when the men of the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league come to play the game they enjoyed as boys.

Line drives and laughter filled the air Aug. 3 as the league gathered at Robertsdale Complex — home of Lakeshore Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth League — in Whiting for the NWINBA’s 16th annual all-star game.

Hours before teams managed by Luis Gonzalez and Geovanny DeJesus took the field, a home run derby was staged. Twenty-one players entered for $10 each. Danny Garcia of the Brewers took the $210 first prize, besting Theo Owens of the Cubs in a five-pitch swing-off.

The league, established in 2003 by Steve Carpenter, is for players 28-and-over but there is a plus-3 rule that allows for three players per team that must turn 25 by the start of the season.

The oldest player in the league in 2019 is the Yankees’ Hector Tellez, 63. He joined the Diamondbacks in the loop’s second season while working in East Chicago. Mike Bochenek and Wally Bochenek were in the league then and still are playing. He now travels from his home in Coal City, Ill., which is more than 60 miles from Whiting.

“This league has developed so much since it began,” says Tellez. “We’ve all improved — myself included.

“I’m fortunate to be on the field with so many good players.”

The season goes from late April through September. This year, there are 18 regular-season games plus playoffs. Most contests are on the weekends, but there are some Wednesday night games.

“We’ve played just about any place in northwest Indiana,” says NWINABA president Astros player Jeramy Ortiz. The main fields this season have been at Robertsale, Dyer Babe Ruth, Kenny Lofton Field in East Chicago and Heartland Park in St. John. Each team plays two games at U.S. Steel Yard, home of the independent professional Gary SouthShore RailCats.

Teams used Major League Baseball names and wear replica jerseys. The 2019 NWINABA sports 210 players that come northwest Indiana, Chicagoland and the South Bend area and features the Astros, A’s, Brewers, Cubs, Mariners, Marlins, Nationals, Pirates, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees.

By league choice, players swing BBCOR metal or wood bats.

Ortiz is in his ninth NWINABA season. Why does he play?

“I love baseball,” says Ortiz, who is 38 and lives in Munster. “I played in high school (at Hammond Bishop Noll for Craig Pavlina and Doug Ferry Jr.) and college (at Muscatine Community College in Iowa and Culver-Stockton College in Missouri) and was looking for something different than softball.

“It’s Little League for adults. We have players who played just played Little League to guys who played in the pros.”

There are a number of former college players, including those from NCAA Division I schools.

Pitching varies widely.

“There are guys who bring it and those who use control and junk,” says Ortiz.

Will Lanter, 45, is manager of the Mariners and in his 10th season.

“I don’t want to give up the game yet,” says Lanter. “This is family. It’s friends.”

Many games feature full bleachers. There are cookouts on Father’s Day weekend. Little League players come out and watch the older generation.

Like Ortiz, Lanter is involved at Lakeshore Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth. They have helped with field maintenance, fundraisers and more.

“We need to keep the program going,” says Lanter of the youth league. “Without these programs, these kids have nowhere to go.”

In his 10th season, Mike Gerlach, 53, lives in Crown Point and is Red Sox manager. He is a former youth coach. He once coached his son, Mitchell, and now father and son are teammates. Mike’s brother, Keith, also plays for the team.

“It’s one big family in this league,” says Mike Gerlach.

Kyle Hon, 28, resides in Cedar Lake and is manager of the Mariners. This is his third NWINABA campaign. He is a Lake Central High School graduate. He did not play baseball for LC, but has been involved with travel ball or town ball since age 5. He played in a now-defunct adult league in Crown Point.

“I love the game,” says Hon. “I want to play until Father Time tells me I can’t.”

Ken Henriott, 43, played for legendary LaPorte High School coach Ken Schreiber.

“He was probably the best coach in the country,” says Henriott of the man inducted into 13 different halls of fame.

Henriott played for Schreiber’s Slicers and then at Southwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.

In his first season in the league and an all-star representing the Yankees, Henriott enjoys playing in front of his two children.

“It means a lot to me,” says Henriott. “They get to see what they couldn’t see back in the day.

“I’m a pitcher and I can still hang with these guys. You always keep the batter guessing. It goes back to the basics. You use your fastball and change-up and then the curveball or slider.

“It’s the pitcher against the hitter — always. It’s a chess game. It’s tough to fool these guys. They’re all good players.”

Luis Gonzalez, 35, is manager of the Yankees. The Hammond resident is in his third season in the league. He played at George Washington High School in Chicago.

“I like this league because it caters to older players,” says Gonzalez. “I can’t keep up with the high school kids.

“It’s competitive and a lot of fun.”

Gonzalez says adult baseball for someone married with children is ruled by two things.

“It’s what you’re family is willing to let you do and if your body can keep it up,” says Gonzalez.

Chris Evans, 32, lives in Hammond and is manager of the Nationals. He is in his fourth NWINABA season.

He entered the league as White Sox infielder, managed the Diamondbacks for one season then spent the off-season recruiting players for the Nationals.

“Last year we had a pretty good team,” says Evans, who currently skippers an 8-5 squad.

Ortiz says the league is looking to expand and may create a 38-and-over division in 2020. The NABA, headquartered in Littleton, Colo., allows for flexibility in local leagues and sponsors events for various age divisions, including 50-and-over, 60-and-over and 65-plus.

For more information on the Northwest Indiana League, email NWINABABaseball@gmail.com.

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James Frasure (Cubs) swings for the fences during the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league all-star home run derby Aug. 3 in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Theo Owens (Cubs) competes the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league all-star home run derby Aug. 3 in Whiting. Danny Garcia (Brewers) beat Owens in the finals. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Derrick Goad (Tigers) smack the ball during the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league all-star home run derby Aug. 3 in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Jeremy Ortiz (Astros) gets loose for the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league all-star game Aug. 3 in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)LUISGONZALEZCHRISEVANSNWINABA

Luis Gonzalez (Yankees) and Chris Evans (Nationals) consult prior to the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league Aug. 3 in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)

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The patch for the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league all-star game Aug. 3 in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)

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The Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league has a close relationship with the Lakeshore Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth League and held its all-star festivities Aug. 3 at Robertsdale Complex in Whiting. (Steve Krah Photo)

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Jeramy Ortiz (Astros) is president of the Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league.

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The Northwest Indiana National Adult Baseball Association league held its all-star festivities Aug. 3 at Robertsdale Complex in Whiting. (NWINABA Photo)

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Lefty Thurston competing with independent Gary SouthShore RailCats

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

For the third straight game, Ryan Thurston took the mound for the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats and for the second time, he nailed down a victory.

The left-hander pitched in his 24th contest for the independent professional baseball team Tuesday, July 30 and set down the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the ninth inning at U.S. Steel Yard.

During his scoreless frame, Thurston yielded a single and ended it with a caught-looking strikeout in helping the RailCats to a 2019 season-high tying fourth straight win.

On Monday in Franklin, Wis., Thurston picked up his first pro save by recording the final two outs with no hits and two walks in a triumph against the Milwaukee Milkmen.

The Sunday game saw Thurston pitch an inning and give up two runs and three hits as visiting Gary topped Milwaukee.

These are situations that Thurston lives for. He’s been drawn to them since he was a kid playing baseball and basketball in southern Indiana.

“I love to compete,” says Thurston. “I may not have the best stuff.”

Thurston has two kinds of fastballs — a four-seamer and two-seamer — plus a change-up, curveball and slider.

“I’d like to think my ball moves,” says Thurston, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder. “(My fastball is) 85-89 (mph), depending what I want to do with the ball — sink it or go up in the zone.

“I’ve tried to develop more as I’ve gotten older. You have to have fastball command. You’ve got to be ready everyday. You need to throw every pitch in every count.

“If it’s 2-0 and it’s their best hitter, you may not still throw fastball. It might be a change-up or curveball away. It’s more of a thinking game.

“I have the same fastball and same slider I had in college, I just think a little more. I adapt a little more as the game goes on.”

Dan Thurston, Ryan’s father and the former Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School head coach, has long been emphasizing mental toughness to his youngest son (Former Madison police chief Dan and Madison Middle School math teacher Jackie Thurston have Trey, Ryan and Trisha).

“You’ve got to keep a level head,” says Ryan. “Baseball’s a game of failure and you have to deal with failure.

“It’s about being mentally-prepared and mentally-ready.”

Ryan Thurston played his earliest organized baseball at the youth league in Madison and then travel baseball with the Greenfield-based Indiana Bandits, coached by Jeff Montgomery. In his 16U and 17U summers, he played for the Cincy Flames.

Thurston’s coach at Western Kentucky University was John Pawlowski.

“He pitched in the big leagues (with the 1987 and 1988 Chicago White Sox),” says Thurston of Pawlowski. “He really knew his stuff.

“He taught me a lot about different pitches and when to throw them and being the the best I can be.”

Thurston graduated from Madison Consolidated in 2014 and Western Kentucky in 2017 with a graduate school year at WKU in 2018 (he played for the Hilltoppers in parts of five seasons and earned a financial management degree).

At Madison, he won four baseball letters at Madison, earning all-state honorable mention as a senior. He was all-conference and team MVP three times. He also garnered three letters in basketball.

At Western Kentucky, he pitched in 66 games (52 as a starter — 14 in each of his final three seasons) with 13 wins, 299 strikeouts (second in program history) and 174 walks in 306 2/3 innings (third in WKU annals).

As a senior, the lefty pitched a career-high 80 2/3 innings while allowing a career-low 15 extra-base hits. He finished the season with a 4.24 ERA, although that mark stood at 3.08 prior to his final two starts. He was the only pitcher in Conference USA to secure wins over both Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech.

Thurston signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and pitched in 13 games (nine in relief) in 2018 before being released.

The 24-year-old southpaw signed with the American Association’s Chicago Dogs and pitched two games with that franchise before Gary claimed him off waivers.

With the RailCats, a team he joined May 26, Thurston is 2-0 with a 2.58 earned run average. In 35 1/3 innings, he has 33 strikeouts and 16 walks.

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Ryan Thurston, a 2013 Madison (Ind.) Consolidated High School graduate who pitched at Western Kentucky University from 2014-18 and holds a financial management degree from that school, is now a relief pitcher for the independent Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Bridges wants Hanover Central Wildcats to be smart, aggressive on bases

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Power may not show up at the field every day.

But there’s no reason aggressiveness on the base paths can’t be a part of each game.

That’s the way third-year Hanover Central High School head baseball coach Ryan Bridges sees it as he looks forward to the 2019 season.

“We did a very good job last year of taking the extra base,” says Bridges, who played four seasons at Griffith (Ind.) High School and five at Purdue University. “We’d see the ball in the dirt and were gone. It’s something I expect out of each one of my kids — to be a good, aggressive base runners.

“We always try to put pressure on the defense and make them make a play. High school kids are prone to make mistakes — even the best of them. A little bit of pressure can go a long way.

“You’re not always going to have those boppers. You can teach these kids to run bases and keep going. I can keep playing that style.”

Bridges and his Wildcats are part of the Greater South Shore Conference (with Calumet, Griffith, Hammond Bishop Noll, Lake Station Edison, River Forest, Wheeler and Whiting as baseball-playing members).

To get his team ready for the postseason, Bridges has beefed up the non-conference schedule. It includes contests against IHSAA members Crown Point, Hammond Morton, Highland, Hobart, Kankakee Valley, Lowell, Munster, Portage and Valparaiso and Illiana Christian, an Illinois High School Association school in Dyer, Ind.

A year ago, Bridges took his team to McCutcheon (now led by former Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber).

A game in the annual High School Baseball Challenge hosted by the Gary SouthShore RailCats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary is scheduled against Lowell on Friday, April 12.

Hanover Central (enrollment around 715) is part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Andrean, Kankakee Valley, Knox, Twin Lakes and Wheeler. The Wildcats have won one sectional crown — 2011. That team went on to be 2A state runners-up.

Bridges played for head coach Brian Jennings at Griffith and graduated in 2007.

A corner infielder and designated hitter for Purdue, Bridges appeared in 126 games (85 as a starter) and hit .288 with six home runs and 61 runs batted in. A back injury in his freshmen season led to a medical redshirt.

“I enjoyed every second of all five years of it,” says Bridges of his Purdue days.

He credits Schreiber for his attention to detail whether it was a bunt play, study tables or the amount of commitment it took to achieve excellence.

“He likes things done a certain way,” says Bridges. “If kids understand the level of commitment needed at the next level, it will help them for the four years of high school.”

Recent HC graduates with college programs include Troy Cullen and Jose Sanchez at Indiana University South Bend, Michael Biegel at Calumet College of St. Joseph and Eric Lakomek at Wabash College. Among players Bridges coached at Griffith there’s Kody Hoese at Tulane University and Amir Wright at Saint Leo University.

Current Wildcats shortstop Nolan Tucker has signed with Valparaiso University. Sophomore center fielder Jared Comia has received D-I offers.

Purdue was Big Ten Conference champions in Bridges’ final season (2012). Two of his Boliermaker teammates — catcher Kevin Plawecki and pitcher Nick Wittgren — are now with the Cleveland Indians.

Bridges graduated from Purdue and has a special education endorsement and masters degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. He taught in the Griffith system and was an assistant on Jennings’ baseball staff for four seasons before going to Hanover Central, where he teaches physical education at the middle school in addition to going baseball.

While he may not have been that way when he was playing for him, Bridges says he saw Jennings come to the see the value of giving his players a physical and mental break when it’s needed.

“We get the whole week off before tryouts,” says Bridges of his Wildcats program. “Once it starts, there’s no break.

“That’s pretty important.”

During this IHSAA limited contact period where coaches can lead their teams in baseball activities for two hours two times a week, Bridges has players coming in at 5:30 a.m.

“We have quite a few basketball kids,” says Bridges. “Coach (Bryon) Clouse is nice enough to let my pitchers throw.”

“I the way they have it set up now,” says Bridges. “Coaches are aren’t running these kids four days a week in January and February.

“But I wish they would let pitchers throw a little more. Arm care is important and some of these kids have nowhere to throw — not only pitchers, but position players.”

Hanover Central pitchers began bullpens this week. Bridges will slowly progress their pitch counts moving up to the first official day of practice (March 11) and beyond.

“I’ll use more arms earlier in the (season) before I can get arms in shape,” says Bridges, who does not recall any of his hurlers reaching the limit of the pitch count rule adopted in 2017 (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). I’m very precautionary when it comes to that. Some of these kids have futures (as college pitchers).”

Bridges’ coaching staff features Nic Sampognaro, Cole Mathys, Anthony Gomez and Mike Halls. Sampognaro is a 2011 Hanover Central graduate who played at Saint Joseph’s College. Volunteer Mathys is also an HC graduate. Gomez played at Munster and moved on to Vincennes University and Ball State University. Halls is in charge of the Wildcats’ junior varsity.

Noting that the community is growing and that there are a number of baseball players in the eighth grade, Bridges says there is the possibility of having a C-team in the future.

Hanover Central is located in Cedar Lake, Ind. Cedar Lake also sends some students to Crown Point. Some St. John students wind up at Hanover Central.

Hanover Central Middle School fields a team for Grades 6-8 in the fall.

In the summer, there is Cedar Lake Youth Baseball and Saint John Youth Baseball. Both offer teams for Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth players. There are also a number of area travel ball organizations.

Bridges has known John Mallee for two decades. He went to him for hitting lessons as a kid. He is now a hitting advisor for Mallee and this summer will coach the Northwest Indiana Shockers 16U team. Indoor workouts are held at All Aspects Baseball and Softball Academy in South Chicago Heights, Ill., and The Sparta Dome in Crown Point, Ind. Mallee is the hitting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Catcher Jesse Wilkening, a 2015 Hanover Central graduate, made his professional debut in the Phillies system in 2018.

Hanover Central plays it home games on-campus. Since Bridges has been with the Wildcats, they have added a batting cage behind the home dugout and got a portable “Big Bubba” portable batting cage and pitching machine.

“We always looking to improve the field,” says Bridges. “But I want to help the kids first with their skills.”

Ryan and Nicole Bridges have a daughter. Harper turns 2 in March.

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The Hanover Central Wildcats (Hanover Central Graphic)

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Head coach Ryan Bridges and his Hanover Central Wildcats baseball team.

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The baseball team from Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind., gathers at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary. The Wildcats, coached by Ryan Bridges, are to play at the home of the Gary SouthShore RailCats again April 12, 2019.

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The Bridges family (from left): Ryan, Nicole and Harper. Ryan Bridges is head baseball coach at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind. He teaches physical education at Hanover Central Middle School.

 

Becich welcoming new bunch of Wheeler Bearcats to varsity baseball

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A new bunch of Bearcats will get a chance to make an impact on Wheeler High School baseball in 2019.

The 2018 squad had several seniors who had been playing for the school located in Union Township near Valparaiso, Ind., since they were freshmen.

Jake Armentrout moved on to Xavier University in Cincinnati. Clayton Sanders signed at the University of Saint Francis in Joliet, Ill.

Catcher Mason Diaz, a Northern Kentucky University commit who hit .388 last spring, is back for his senior year. Rex Stills, who hit .302 in 60 plate appearances as a freshman, is back for his sophomore season.

There will be opportunities for others to make their mark on varsity baseball for the first time.

How will the Bearcats go about doing that?

“We’re looking to do all the small things right and, hopefully, everything else falls in line with it,” says Kyle Becich, who is entering his ninth year with the program and fifth as head coach. “We’re rebuilding a foundation.”

Becich, who spent four seasons as a Wheeler assistant on the staff of Josh Long, counts Tommy O’Shea, Phil Sanchez, Christian Rosta and Payton Ball as assistant coaches.

The Bearcats generally have 24 players in the program for varsity and junior varsity squads. Some players swing back and forth based on the needs that day.

Wheeler (enrollment of about 540) is in the Greater South Shore Conference (with Calumet, Griffith, Hammond Bishop Noll, Hanover Central, Lake Station Edison, River Forest and Whiting as baseball-playing members).

Past non-conference foes have included Crown Point, Hammond Clark, Hammond Gavit, Hebron, Hobart, Lowell, Merrillville and North Newton. The Bearcats have met Hebron in the annual High School Baseball Challenge hosted by the Gary SouthShore RailCats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary.

Wheeler is in an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Andrean, Hanover Central, Kankakee Valley, Knox and Twin Lakes. The Bearcats last won a sectional title in 2008.

“It’s a tough sectional,” says Becich of a field which is full of traditionally-strong teams and produced the 2018 3A state champion (Andrean).

Wheeler plays its home games on its campus at Richard Wendt Field. Wendt, a former Wheeler coach, died in 2012.

Recent upgrades to the facility include re-building the pitcher’s mound,  installing a new home plate and pitcher’s rubber, leveling the playing surface, realigning the bases, adding new wind screens in the outfield and reworking the speaker system.

Every October, the Bearcats have a field day where players, coaches and parents put the field to rest for the winter.

During the current off-season period, the Bearcats are getting stronger in the weight room.

The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association, IHSAA and Indiana Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association have been working together on a proposal to add an arm care program to the baseball calendar.

“I support that, especially for kids that have nowhere to throw right now,” says Becich, noting that some of his players can work out with their travel teams at indoor facilities but not all have that kind of access. “You only have one arm your entire life and so many bullets to throw. It’s best to protect it when you can.”

Wheeler baseball has also been building a relationship with Union Township Little League. Last season, players who hope to one day don the Green, White and Orange were invited to work out on the field and were treated to pizza.

Becich, 32, is a 2005 Munster High School graduate. He played baseball and football for the Mustangs then one football season at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. He finished his education degree at Indiana University in Bloomington. His first job out of college was as a social studies teacher and coach at Wheeler.

Becich credits former assistant principal Jack Schimanski for playing a major role in his development.

“He was a huge mentor for me,” says Becich of Schimanski. “I was picking his brain all the time, learning some of the minor details.”

Schimanski had been a head coach at Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High School and learned much from Gordie Gillespie, who won 1,893 games in his 58-year college coaching career.

Kyle and Kelsey Becich have two children — son Liam (4) and daughter Reese (3).

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Mason Diaz, a Northern Kentucky University commit, catches  for Wheeler High School during the 2018 baseball season. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Rex Stills crosses the plate for Wheeler High School during the 2018 baseball season. He is back for 2019. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Mason Diaz, Sam Beier, Jake Armentrout, Nate Gosbin, Adam Wagoner and Hunter Catherman line up for the Wheeler Bearcats at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. Diaz returns for Wheeler in 2019. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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The Wheeler baseball team gathers during the annual High School Challenge at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind. Wheeler is in Union Township near Valparaiso.

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Kyle Becich coaches third base for the Wheeler High School baseball team. The 2019 season will be his ninth in the program and fifth as head coach of the Bearcats.

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Head coach Kyle Becich (left) and assistant Tommy O’Shea watch their Wheeler High School Bearcats baseball team.

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Kyle Becich, head baseball coach and social studies teacher at Wheeler High School near Valparaiso, Ind., and wife Kelsey have two children — son Liam and daughter Reese.

 

Former Homestead, IPFW pitcher Weaver briefly with Gary, goes back to Florence

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Chuck Weaver went undrafted by Major League Baseball at the close of his college career.

But the 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher did not let that keep him from becoming a professional.

Weaver, who toed the rubber for Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Taylor University in Upland, Ind., Vincennes University and Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, earned his first paycheck for pitching with the Florence (Ky.) Freedom in the independent Frontier League in 2013. He was an FL All-Star in 2014.

Appearing in 49 games (45 as a starter) with 17 victories, he was with Florence until August of 2015.

That’s when he signed with the Miami Marlins organization and hurled 22 innings with 19 strikeouts and three walks with short-season Batavia.

In 2016, Weaver went 9-5 with Low Class-A Greensboro. He fanned 72 and walked just 10 in 83 innings. His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) was 1.04.

But he also hurt his elbow. Weaver underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery Oct. 25, 2016 and missed the entire 2017 season.

Weaver worked hard on getting back. He went to 2018 spring training with the Marlins only to be released a few weeks later.

He had played at Homestead for coach Steve Sotir with one season each at Taylor for Kyle Gould and at Vincennes for Chris Barney and two at IPFW for Bobby Pierce.

After his released, the Fort Wayne head coach welcomed Weaver to practice when he asked to throw to Mastodons catchers.

“I still stay in touch with Bobby all the time,” says Weaver of Pierce. “He’s a great guy.”

Florence still held Weaver’s contract and could have returned to the Freedom, but wanted to try his luck in the independent American Association.

“I’m a big family guy,” says Weaver, 27. “I wanted my mom to come watch and support. I feel like this is the best fit of all the teams in the American Association.”

Chuck’s mother and stepfather — Susan Abbott and Rod Abbott — as well as stepbrothers — Ryan Abbott and Ray Abbott — are all in the Fort Wayne area. They’re about 150 miles from Gary.

So Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey, who coached four seasons for Gary SouthShore RailCats manager Greg Tagert, recommended Weaver to the AA club based in northwest Indiana.

Weaver made his first start for Gary — a no-decision — Sunday, May 20 at U.S. Steel Yard.

He goes to the mound with a fastball, change-up and slider.

The majority of his fastballs are of the two-seam variety. However, he does have a four-seamer.

When he was making his way back from surgery with the Marlins, Weaver was reunited with former Florence pitching coach Chad Rhoades.

Rhoades, who pitched for Gary in 2012, coached pitchers at short-season Batavia in 2016 and later served as Marlins rehab pitching coordinator. In the latter role, he helped Weaver add a four-seam heater to his repertoire.

On May 31, the RailCats announced they had traded Weaver to Florence.

Like the majority of players in independent baseball, Weaver is looking to showcase himself for MLB-affiliated teams.

He explained the dynamic.

“You see more of a drive for the game and more desire to play (in indy ball),” says Weaver. “In affiliated, I feel a lot of the guys took it serious but not as serious as the guys here.

“It was more individualized in affiliated and it’s more (team-oriented) here. People are helping each other.”

While developing in an affiliated system, players may spend a lot of time working on one particular element of their game and teams are not focused as much on winning as getting the player up the chain toward the big league team.

“Guys would go out there and throw only fastballs because they had to work on fastball command,” says Weaver of affiliated ball. “Here, you’re trying to get that shot. You want to showcase all your stuff.

What does Weaver see as his strengths?

“I’m a real hard worker,” says Weaver. “I wasn’t drafted, but I felt like a pushed my way (to affiliated baseball). I have to continue to push myself.

“Even if I’m tired after a long bus ride, I have to take it serious and get my work in. I can’t be lazy about it.

“It’s my job.”

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Chuck Weaver, a Homestead High School graduate who also pitched for Taylor University, Vincennes University, Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne and in the Miami Marlins organization among others, is now with the Gary SouthShore RailCats. (Gary SouthShore RailCats 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.

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