Tag Archives: Venezuela

Former pro slugger Zapp giving back to baseball as youth coach

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A.J. Zapp is like so many baseball coaches. He is anxious to practice with his team.

Hopeful that time will come soon, Zapp gives an indication of how that session might go.

“We like to get into a lot of fundamentals early on — things like PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice), bunt defense, baserunning and defensive outfield play,” says Zapp. “We run multiple stations during batting practice. We keep (players) busy and avoid a lot of standing around.

“We like to keep practices short and sweet. Get your work done and get out of there.”

Zapp likes practices to take 1:30 to 1:45.

“After that you lose their attention,” says Zapp. “It’s not the number of reps, it’s the quality of reps you want to be taking.

“It requires the right mindset. Kids must come to practice to work.”

A.J. and wife Nikki Zapp reside in Greenwood and have three children — Evan (15), Ellen (13) and Emilie (10).

Evan Zapp (Center Grove High School Class of 2023) plays on the Indiana Bulls 15U Grey travel baseball team with his father as an assistant to head coach Zach Foley.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has teams separated now, there is hope they might be able to play in the latter half of June. Zapp’s team is supposed to play three of four events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., with out-of-town tournaments in Bloomington, Ind., and the Atlanta and Kansas City areas.

A.J. has coached his son on the diamond since Evan was 6, including some time with the Indiana Astros and Indiana Bulls.

Like his father, Evan throws with his right arm and bats from the left side.

“I encouraged him to be left-handed hitter,” says A.J.

In 2019, A.J. Zapp was Bulls 14U Red head coach. For eight years — seven with the Astros and one with the Bulls — A.J. coached with Phil Milto (uncle of former Roncalli and Indiana University pitcher and current Chicago White Sox farmhand Pauly Milto). Doug Zapp, A.J.’s father, was bench/pitching coach for seven seasons.

A former baseball player at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., Doug Zapp is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame. Doug and Linda Zapp have an older son named David.

Eighth-grader-to-be Ellen Zapp and sixth-grader-to-be Emilie Zapp play for the Circle City Volleyball Club in Plainfield, Ind.

Zapp, who turned 42 in April, got his organized baseball start at Center Grove Little League (now know as Center Grove Youth Baseball) in Greenwood, Ind. In 1992 and 1993, he was on Center Grove Senior League squads that went to the Senior World Series in Kississimmee, Fla.

Up until high school, A.J. was coached by his father. The younger Zapp was a catcher when he was younger. At 12 or 13, he moved to first base.

With a stacked Center Grove High varsity team, A.J. got just 10 varsity at-bats as a sophomore then began turning heads with the Indiana Bulls in the summer of 1994. He also shined on the CG varsity in the spring of 1995 and with the Bulls that summer.

In the fall of 1995, Zapp signed a letter of intent to play for head coach Paul Mainieri at the University of Notre Dame. As his senior season approached, he was hearing from that he might be taken high in the draft.

“I had a tough decision to make,” says Zapp, who helped his pro ball status with a 1996 season that saw him hit .524 with 16 home runs and be named first-team All-American, first-team all-state and Indiana Mr. Baseball. Center Grove won the Franklin Sectional, Franklin Regional and Richmond Semistate before bowing to eventual state champion Jasper at the IHSAA State Finals.

Zapp did not make an early verbal college commitment.

“It’s a little bit different now,” says Zapp. “We have (high school) freshmen and sophomores committing now.

“It makes it tough on the college recruiters to have to evaluate players at 15 and 16. But it’s the times we live in.”

Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Gandolph was Zapp’s head coach at Center Grove.

“Coach Gandolph ran a great practice,” says Zapp. “He was well-prepared for the games. All the players loved playing for him.

“He’s just a good guy and a great baseball guy.”

Andrew Joseph “A.J.” Zapp was selected in the first round (27th overall) of the 1996 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves.

South Spencer High School right-handed pitcher Josh Garrett (No. 26 by the Boston Red Sox) was also a first-rounder in 1996. He pitched in affiliated baseball through 2001, reaching the Double-A level.

Both Zapp and Garrett signed pro contracts prior to the 1996 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series.

Zapp played 1,046 games in the minors (1996-2006) in the Braves (seven seasons), Seattle Mariners (two), Cincinnati Reds (one) and Los Angeles Dodgers (one) systems with 136 home runs and 542 runs batted in.

He socked 26 homers and drove in 92 at Double-A San Antonio as a Texas League postseason all-star in 2003 and belted 29 homers and plated 101 while hitting .291 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2004. On Aug. 20 of that year, he drove in nine runs and vaulted the Rainiers to victory with a walk-off grand slam.

Zapp is one of the few players to launch a homer over the tall wall in center field at Cheney Stadium – the “Blue Monster.”

Notable Zapp teammates included Mike Hessman (Minor League Baseball home run king with 433), Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa, Matt Kemp, Edwin Encarnacion and Marcus Giles.

Brian Snitker, who is now the manager in Atlanta, was Zapp’s manager at Low-A Macon in 1998, High-A Myrtle Beach in 2000 and Double-A Greenville in 2002.

Former Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves manager and current Baltimore Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez was Zapp’s manager at Triple-A Richmond in 2002. After that season, Zapp was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.

Former major leaguers Paul Runge (Greenville in 2002), Dan Rohn (Tacoma in 2004), Rick Sweet (Louisville in 2005) and John Shoemaker (Jacksonville in 2006) also managed teams that included Zapp.

Some of Zapp’s hitting coaches were Franklin Stubbs, Glenn Hubbard, Tommy Gregg and Sixto Lezcano in the Braves organization, Adrian Garrett with the Reds and Mike Easler with the Dodgers.

Zapp played on pennant winners at Myrtle Beach (Carolina League in 2000) and San Antonio (Texas League in 2003). Jacksonville (Southern League in 2006) lost in the finals.

He also played winter ball in Australia (voted MVP), Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

As baseball goes about streamlining Minor League Baseball, the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft scheduled for June 10-11 will be just five rounds — down from the 40 of the past several years.

“Those days can change a kid’s life,” says Zapp. “Losing out on that many rounds, I’m not a fan of it.

“There will be a lot of free agent signs.”

An unlimited amount of undrafted players can be signed for $20,000 each.

Kris Benson was the No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Clemson University. Besides Zapp, first-round high school draftees were Texas pitcher John Patterson (No. 5 by the Montreal Expos), Pennsylvania pitcher Matt White (No. 7 by the San Francisco Giants), California third baseman Eric Chavez (No. 10 by the Oakland Athletics), Washington pitcher Adam Eaton (No. 11 by the Philadelphia Phillies), Florida pitcher Bobby Seay (No. 12 by the Chicago White Sox), California outfielder Robert Stratton (No. 13 by the New York Mets), New York outfielder Dermal Brown (No. 14 by the Kansas City Royals), Virginia shortstop Matt Halloran (No. 15 by the San Diego Padres), Louisiana shortstop Joe Lawrence (No. 16 by the Toronto Blue Jays), Louisiana pitcher Todd Noel (No. 17 by the Chicago Cubs), Georgia pitcher Jake Westbrook (No. 21 by the Colorado Rockies), Louisiana pitcher Gil Meche (No. 22 by the Seattle Mariners), Kansas third baseman Damian Rolls (No. 23 by the Los Angeles Dodgers), Florida pitcher Sam Marsonek (No. 24 by the Texas Rangers) and Pennsylvania outfielder John Oliver (No. 25 by the Cincinnati Reds).

Sandwich first-rounders in 1996 included North Carolina outfielder Paul Wilder (No. 29 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), California pitcher Nick Bierbrodt (No. 30 by the Arizona Diamondbacks), Florida pitcher Matt McClendon (No. 33 by the Reds), Canadian pitcher Chris Reitsma (No. 34 by the Red Sox) and New York pitcher Jason Marquis (No. 35 by the Braves).

Benson (70 wins in 10 seasons), Patterson (18 victories in six seasons), Chavez (260 home runs in 17 seasons), Eaton (71 wins in 11 seasons), Seay (11 wins in eight seasons), Brown (271 games in eight seasons), Lawrence (55 games in 2002), Westbrook (105 wins in 14 seasons), Meche (84 wins in 10 seasons), Rolls (266 games in five seasons), Marsonek (one appearance in 2004), Bierbrodt (six wins in five seasons), Reitsma (32 wins and 37 saves in seven seasons) and Marquis (124 in 17 seasons) all made it the bigs. Bierbrodt made a stop with the 1997 South Bend Silver Hawks along the way.

Stratton and McClendon made it as high as Triple-A, Halloran Double-A, Noel and Wilder Advanced-A and Oliver Low A.

In 2019, there were 13 high schoolers drafted in the first round — Texas shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 2 by the Royals), Florida outfielder Riley Greene (No. 5 by the Detroit Tigers), Georgia shortstop C.J. Abrams (No. 6 by the Padres), Texas corner infielder Brett Baty (No. 12 by the Mets), California third baseman Keoni Cavaco (No. 13 by the Minnesota Twins), Washington outfielder Corbin Carroll (No. 16 by the Diamondbacks), Illinois pitcher Quinn Priester (No. 18 by the Pirates), Georgia Premier Academy/Panamanian pitcher Daniel Espino (No. 24 by the Cleveland Indians), North Carolina pitcher Blake Walston (No. 26 by the Diamondbacks) and New Jersey shortstop Anthony Volpe (No. 30  by the New York Yankees).

North Carolina high school pitcher Brennan Malone (No. 33 by the Diamondbacks) was a compensation first-round selection.

Competitive balance first-round picks from high school were Texas pitcher J.J. Gross (No. 36 by the Rays) and Pennsylvania outfielder Sammy Siani (No. 37 by the Pirates).

Abrams played for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2019.

Indiana’s three 2019 first-rounders came from the college ranks — University of Kentucky pitcher Zack Thompson (No. 19 by the St. Louis Cardinals), Tulane University third baseman Kody Hoese (No. 25 by the Dodgers) and Ball State University pitcher Drey Jameson (No. 34 by the Diamondbacks). Thompson (Wapahani), Hoese (Griffith) and Jameson (Greenfield-Central) are prepped in the Hoosier State.

Generally speaking, there are more right-handed pitchers out there. That means lefty swingers will see pitches breaking into them. Of course, the opposite is true with righty hitters against lefty pitchers.

Zapp sees big leaguers try to combat this trend.

“The two-seamer and cutter very popular in Major League Baseball now,” says Zapp. There’s also been plenty of lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty. “Games lasting longer because of the match-ups late in the game. Relievers have wipe-out sliders. Every reliever seems to throw 95 mph-plus with their fastball.”

When Zapp was playing, the gas increased as he went up in levels.

“A lot of those big arms are starters early in their careers and they move to the bullpen,” says Zapp.

Looking at how the youth baseball scene has changed over the years, Zapp says in the impact of social media and entities like Perfect Game USA and Prep Baseball Report give players so much exposure.

“The training, too,” says Zapp. “Kids are training all year-round. There’s a lot of hard workers.

“The competition is getting better. It’s a very competitive sport.”

Zapp, who was head baseball coach at Franklin (Ind.) Community High School in 2007, is around sports during his day job, too. As a sale representative for BSN Sports — the largest Nike and Under Armour team dealer in the country — he talks all day with athletic directors and coaches and sells practice gear, football, uniforms, spirit wear and more.

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A.J. Zapp graduated from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., and was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 1996. (Best Card Image)

AJZAPPFAMILYNikki and A.J. Zapp are surrounded by their three children (from left): Evan, Emilie and Ellen. A.J. was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Center Grove High School in 1996, played 11 professional seasons and is now a coach with the Indiana Bulls with Evan on the team.

 

Plainfield, Southern Indiana grad Kehrt scouting for Diamondbacks

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeremy Kehrt is taking the lessons he learned as a player and using them to evaluate baseball talent as an area scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Kehrt, an Avon, Ind., resident, is heading into his third year with the D-backs after concluding his own professional career. As a right-handed pitcher, he competed for 10 seasons in the minors with the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations.

Selected in the 47th round of the 2008 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by Boston out of the University of Southern Indiana, Kehrt pitched in the Red Sox system into 2014 and in the Dodgers chain 2014-16, going 45-57 with a 4.55 earned run average over 222 games (128 as a starter). He hurled at the Triple-A level in 2011-14 and 2016.

He was the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs Citizen of the Year in 2011. That same year he was 2-1 in 10 games with Scottsdale of the Arizona Fall League.

He pitched in the Double-A Texas League All-Star Game in 2015. He was with Laguna of the Triple-A Mexican League and Trois-Rivieres of the independent Can-Am League in 2017.

Kehrt also played winter ball in Puerto Rico with Mayaguez in 2012-13 and 2013-14 and Caguas in 2015-16, Venezuela with Zulia in 2014-15 and Magallanes in 2016-17 and Mexico in 2016-1 with Mazatlan.

In his role as scout, he estimates that he drives 50,000 miles a year while checking on high school and college players in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

“I commute as much as possible,” says Kehrt, who tries to make it back to wife Meagen, 4-year-old son Maddux and 2-year-old daughter Belamy immediately after most scouting trips. “Fall is more organized with scrimmages and scout days and these new exhibition games. Summers and falls have more showcase environments. Spring can be crazy and you can go from Michigan to Kentucky in one day to see players.”

Kehrt traveled to the University of Louisville Wednesday, Oct. 16 to see action in the annual Pizza Bowl fall intrasquad series.

Whenever the weather, schedule changes and traffic allows, Kehrt tries to arrive at the field as early as possible to observe players during warm-ups. He sees how they interact with teammates and coaches.

“I want to get the whole picture of what the player is,” says Kehrt, 32. “I talk to the people in their life. I try to get multiple looks.”

Drey Jameson, a hard-throwing right-hander who signed with the Diamondbacks in the first round out of Ball State University, was tracked by Kehrt.

Kehrt, 33, saw 2019 Southport (Ind.) High School graduate Avery Short several times before Arizona selected the left-handed pitcher in the 12th round of the 2019 MLB Draft.

“For a high school kid, he was able to throw an insane amount of strikes,” says Kehrt of Short. “He had an advanced (baseball) IQ for a 17- or 18-year-old kid.”

Short pitched for Team USA in the U18 Pan-American Championships in Panama in the fall of 2018. The southpaw was reportedly inked by the D-backs for a $922,500 signing bonus.

“They get experience and get used to grinding during the summers (in travel ball),” says Kehrt. “They have fun during their senior years. It’s one last hurrah and they can showcase their stuff.”

Andrew Saalfrank was chosen by the Diamondbacks in the sixth round of the 2019 draft out of Indiana University. Purdue University catcher Nick Dalesandro (10th round) and Indiana State University right-hander Ethan Larrison (16th round) were taken in 2018.

A 2004 graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School, Kehrt played two seasons for Brian Planker and one for Michael Thompson. After playing in the Plainfield Little League and Plainfield Teenage Babe Ruth Baseball League in his younger years, he pitched in a few tournaments with the Indianapolis Bulldogs his 16U summer then spent full summer seasons with the James Hurst-coached travel team as 17U and 18U player.

“(Hurst) gave me the best advice I ever got,” says Kehrt. “He told me to go to college. That’s what he did (left-hander Hurst pitched at Florida Southern College and got into eight games with the 1994 Texas Rangers and hurled in three with the 1995 Indianapolis Indians). “That was a pivotal point in my high school career.”

Off to college to study marketing (he finished his degree in December 2008), Kehrt played at USI for four seasons (2005-08) — the last two with Tracy Archuleta as head coach and Joel Weaver as pitching coach.

“They changed the culture of the team,” says Kehrt of Archuleta and Weaver. “Coach Weaver connected with me on mechanics. He broke it down, made it easy to understand and click in the game.

“I owe a lot to me making a big step to both of those guys.”

Kehrt’s pitching coach for six seasons with Red Sox minor league teams was former big league left-hander Bob Kipper, who spent time with the righty reflecting on the positives and negatives of his outing.

Spending time around major league pitchers in spring training was also instructive to Kehrt.

“I’m a big learn-by-example guy,” says Kehrt. “I’d watch John Lackey during his bullpens and see how his mechanics work.”

With the Dodgers, former big league pitcher Matt Herges was his pitching coach at Double-A and Triple A.

“It was eye-opening how much more I could learn at age 29 and 30,” says Kehrt. “He allowed me to play an extra year.”

Kept busy these days with scouting and family, Kehrt has taught lessons in the past at former big league pitcher Bill Sampen’s Samp’s Hack Shack training facilities.

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Jeremy Kehrt, a graduate of Plainfield (Ind.) High School and the University of Indiana, works in the bullpen during his minor league baseball career. He is now an area scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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Jeremy Kehrt pitched in the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers systems during his baseball-playing career.

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The Kehrt family (from left): Jeremy, Maddux, Meagen and Bellamy. Jeremy is an area scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Kehrts resides in Avon, Ind.

 

Valparaiso graduate Suiter adds Mexico to list of baseball experiences

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s funny how life and baseball works.

Jerrick Suiter is closing up shop at a GNC store in Fort Worth, Texas, when he gets a call to join the Mexican Pacific League pennant chase.

Two days later, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout is off to new experiences with the Venados de Mazatlan.

Suiter, an outfielder, corner infielder and designated hitter in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, plays his first game South of the Border Dec. 21 and goes 2-for-3 with a run batted in on Christmas Day.

“This is my first time in winter ball and first time in Mexico — ever,” says Suiter. “It’s been quite an experience. I’ve learned a lot of Spanish.

“It’s going to help me with my Latin teammates. I can feel what they were going through their first time in the States. I have a greater appreciation for that now.”

When he’s not at the stadium or heading to the gym, Suiter has found time to soak up the sun. The team has set him up in a condo 50 yards from the beach.

Recent daytime temperatures have been in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s been around 40 in north central Texas and in the single digits or lower in northwest Indiana.

Suiter, who has been used primarily as a DH since he had not been throwing much in the off-season, would like to be a part of a couple of championship before reporting to 2018 spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., where he is due Feb. 19 — two weeks before his 25th birthday on March 4.

Mazatlan opened its season Oct. 11 and is closing in on the end of the regular season with hopes of winning the league and a berth in the Caribbean Series (which will bring champions from Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico).

In Mexico, Suiter has been reunited with Gerardo Alvarez, who managed the Bradenton Marauders in 2017.

After hurting his thumb at the end of spring camp, Suiter played briefly in the High Class-A Florida State League before joining the Altoona Curve of the Double-A Eastern League, where the right-handed swinger hit .285 with 10 home runs, three triples, 20 doubles and 58 runs batted in over 347 at-bats and 100 games.

Altoona beat Trenton to win EL title. Sutter had an RBI in the final game.

If the Pirates give him a promotion, Suiter would play Triple-A baseball with the Indianapolis Indians.

Suiter, who was selected in the 26th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after three seasons at TCU, made an adjustment in the batter’s box in 2017.

“I was very wide and kind of low,” says Suiter of his stance. “It was killing any chance I had to put some juice into the ball. Now, I’m pretty tall, kind of (Ken) Griffey-esque with my hands a little lower. I see the ball a little bit longer and use my legs more than the rest of my body to generate some power.”

Suiter, who stands 6-foot-4 and currently weighs around 250 pounds, has been an avid lifter for years, but he is not trying to get too big.

“I don’t need to put on much size,” says Suiter, who usually reports to spring training around 250, drops five pounds by the end of camp and five or 10 more during the season. “Size in baseball doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to make you slow and not very flexible. I know how my body works and that I lose weight very quickly. I’m looking to get stronger while leaning out.”

A football, basketball and baseball standout at Valpo (he was the Northwest Indiana Times Male Athlete of the Year in 2011), Suiter got a chance to spend a lot of time on the gridiron and diamond with coach Dave Coyle.

“He was a big discipline guy,” says Suiter of Coyle. “I loved him as a coach. He wanted to the best for his team and for his players.”

Work ethic was important to Coyle just like it was to Eric Suiter, who coached Jerrick and company as they grew up playing sports.

“My dad was extremely hard on me as well as the rest of the team,” says Jerrick. “It made me into the athlete I am today. I couldn’t thank him more for it.”

Jerrick’s father lives in Valpo and mother Jeanette in Chesterton. His sister Danielle Suiter plays volleyball at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Half-brother Carter just played his first Pop Warner football season in Chesterton. Step-sister Hailey is a student at Purdue University.

Jerrick was working toward a degree in Habilitation of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing before leaving TCU early for pro baseball. He has relatives on his father’s side that are deaf or hard of hearing and knows both basic and American Sign Language.

“I started signs before I was talking,” says Suiter. “I don’t use it every single day like I should, but I know more sign language than I know Spanish, I can tell you that.”

He was planning to go back to school when Bradenton made the playoffs in 2016, which meant he would be too late for the start of the fall semester. Suiter spends his off-seasons in Fort Worth and does some hitting at TCU.

“I love the city,” says Suiter, an Indiana Bulls travel baseball alumnus who was drafted in 2011 by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school but persuaded to play at TCU by former Horned Frogs recruiting coordinator Tony Vitello (who is now on the staff at the University of Arkansas) and played for head coach Jim Schlossnagle.

“He finds a way to win,” says Suiter of Schlossnagle, who now has Kirk Saarloos as a recruiting coordinator. “He brings the right guys in there. They’ve been to Omaha (for the College World Series) every year since my junior year. Something’s going right there.”

While he long wanted to be a pro baseball player, Suiter has an affinity for the hardwood.

“Basketball has always been my favorite sport,” says Suiter. “I’m not a big NBA guy, but I love watching college basketball.”

During winter break his sophomore year at TCU, he helped coach fifth and sixth grade AAU players. Shooting around on the court was one way he warmed up for his workouts.

But he has stopped doing that.

“The Pirates are writing my paychecks every two weeks,” says Suiter. “I don’t need to be roll a ankle or jeopardize my career in baseball.”

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Jerrick Suiter, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout, takes a cut in 2017 for the Altoona (Pa.) Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A team. (David Hague Photo)

 

Pitching to contact helps South Bend lefty Rondon earn 10th victory

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Manuel Rondon averages more than seven strikeouts per nine innings and the left-handed pitcher in the Chicago Cubs organization still likes to blow hitters away.

But the 22-year-old Venezuelan is beginning to appreciate what pitching to contact can do for him.

Rondon, a fourth-year professional, went a season-best 6 2/3 innings and pushed his 2017 record to 10-3 Monday, July 17 in helping the South Bend Cubs best the visiting Cedar Rapids Kernels 2-1 in Midwest League play.

His 10 wins are twice as many as any other South Bend pitcher has amassed so far this season.

After issuing a leadoff walk and seeing Cedar Rapids score a first-inning run without a hit, Rondon went on to put up zeroes.

The lefty would yield four hits (two doubles) with three strikeouts and three walks while getting five groundouts and six flyouts. He benefitted from double plays in the second and third innings.

South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence chalked up Rondon’s successful outing to “attacking the hitters and not being predictable.”

Lawrence watched the southpaw command his fastball and mix in his other pitches and throwing different pitches and different ball-strike counts to keep the Kernels off-balance.

“He’s done that well for the last couple starts,” said Lawrence of a player who was purchased in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels in 2015 and was named the Northwest League Pitcher of the Year in 2016. “(Early in the season) he had some games where he was missing up in the zone and got hit around a little bit. It just took him a little bit of time to get his rhythm again. Now, it comes down to keeping the ball down and changing speeds.”

Getting ahead of hitters allows Rondon to effectively use his change-up.

Rondon, whose native language is Spanish, spoke through South Bend teammate Alberto Mineo after Monday’s start.

“He said he honestly loves striking out guys, but there are situations where you have to pitch to contact, if you want to go longer in the game and keep your pitch count low,” said Mineo. “Today was his longest game (of the season) and he was pitching to contact.”

Mineo, who singled in both South Bend runs Monday, related that Rondon liked how his curve ball was working. With more experience, he is gaining confidence in his ability to get hitters out.

Rondon also expressed his appreciation for the Cubs coaching staff to cheer up players during good days and bad days and how the South Bend fans support the team.

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Manuel Rondon is a left-handed pitcher with the South Bend Cubs. (South Bend Cubs Photo)

 

South Bend’s Wawrzyniak helps ballplayers navigate language, cultural gaps

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Building better communication bonds between foreign professional baseball players and the club’s that employ them.

That’s what Linda Wawrzyniak is doing for the game with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. When she started her business it was tied to adult education.

It has morphed into a service for teams who have increased their international investments and built baseball academies in Latin American countries but did not have an effective system to integrate players in ways that include more than balls, strikes and outs.

Based in South Bend and traveling extensively in the U.S. and Latin America, the bilingual Wawrzyniak works to help athletes navigate language and culture gaps.

She teaches English classes and so much more.

Wawrzyniak and HSA had a contract with South Bend Community School Corp., when she was approached about a decade ago by the South Bend Silver Hawks, then a Low Class-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s where she met South Bend field manager Mark Haley and D-backs executives. They wanted her to teach a few language classes.

“My son was in baseball at the time,” says Wawrzyniak. “I thought it would be fun. Then I realized that they didn’t have a great system to do this. Guys didn’t have a lot coming in and when they left, I didn’t know what they were going to. There were a lot of holes.”

Immersing herself into the world of baseball and figuring out how to help these young foreigners pursuing their diamond dreams, Wawrzyniak created a necessary niche.

“There’s just a ton of need,” says Wawrzyniak. “The broad brush stroke of English doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s so much that happens behind the scenes when they’re with us. It’s trust. We’re a different kind of coach, really.

“We’re not just teaching English, we’re teaching a few other things. It’s the heart. It’s the cognitive processes of learning. It’s having another person to lean on emotionally.”

Wawrzyniak notes that it takes 500 hours in a classroom setting to learn conversational English.

“We don’t have 500 hours, so we have to do it faster,” says Wawrzyniak. “You develop some systems and methodologies.”

Many contractors work in-season only. Wawrzyniak trains them and oversees their programs.

“We take a lot of time to find good people,” says Wawrzyniak.

Major League Baseball requires all its teams have an integration program in the Dominican Republic. Some hire teachers and others have someone on staff.

By investing much time and energy, Wawrzyniak has learned how to get the conversation started and how to build relationships.

“With what I do, you’ve got to know those kids,” says Wawrzyniak. “You’re not just supplying paper and pencils. You know lives. You’re directly involved with player development. I know those kids and I know the teachers that know those kids.”

Three of the many players that Wawrzyniak has a connection with and has watched blossom in professional baseball are Venezuelans Ender Inciarte and Wilson Contreras and Dominican Eloy Jimenez.

Inciarte, 26, played in South Bend in 2010 and 2011, broke into the big leagues with Arizona in 2014 and is now with the Atlanta Braves. The center fielder was recognized as one of baseball’s best defenders in 2016.

“To see him win the Gold Glove, I cried,” says Wawrzyniak. “I was overjoyed for him. I knew the struggles he went through. He struggled with losing his father. For awhile, it really slowed him down but it didn’t stop him.”

Contreras, 25, played in the Midwest League in 2013 with Kane County and made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. A versatile player, he has played most of his pro games as a catcher. He played in Game 7 when the team finally snapped its 108-year world championship drought.

“He just learned to temper himself,” says Wawrzyniak. “He’s a neat person. You watch these players figure out who they are. You see them mature. He learned to make the most of who he was.”

Jimenez, 20, is considered the top prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America. The outfielder played in South Bend in 2016 and is now at High Class-A Myrtle Beach.

“He’s just a naturally joyful person who loves to play,” says Wawrzyniak, who has faced the rising star in ping pong and basketball. “That’s neat. You don’t see that very often.

“He’s paying attention to every aspect of his career.”

When the Cubs started expanding into the Dominican Republic a few years ago, they sought out Wawrzyniak to help them smooth the transition.

“By that time, I was already working in the D.R. and the U.S.,” says Wawrzyniak. “I already had that international experience and understood what that required.”

She understands that culture is an all-encompassing concept.

“Let’s break that down,” says Wawrzyniak. “Culture is defined as societal norms. But because America is a melting pot, we don’t have one culture. Navigating that is one thing. There’s also gender cultures and age cultures.

“Culture’s a lot of things. Until you’ve had to teach it, you don’t really realize how big that is.”

College-age people today have a different verbiage and values from those of 30 years ago.

“It’s basically a difference in generations,” says Wawrzyniak. “Slang in the United States changes every five years. The reason it changes is that it’s driven by pop media.”

A typical baseball clubhouse is full of multiple generations. The references that a staffer in his 50’s makes may not connect with a player of 20.

“You might have coach who grew up with The Terminator and this new generation who has never seen The Terminator, and the coach says “I’ll be back!” and the Latin goes are going “What?” The Korean guys are going “Huh?” It doesn’t carry.

“If you haven’t integrated social media and pop media into what you’re doing, you’re behind the times. You have to be able to help kids understand those things.”

Wawrzyniak, featured recently on MLB.com, did her job well enough to receive a big thank you from the Cubs — a World Series ring.

“The Cubs are an amazing organization — world class,” says Wawrzyniak. “They didn’t have to give me a ring. But they did because I think they saw the value in working with all these Latin players, which is such a huge percentage of their minor league system.

“Huge progress was made. They saw that and acknowledged that.”

In the Cubs organization, South Bend represents the first full-season team for its minor leaguers. They play 140 regular-season contests compared with about half that at Eugene, Ore., in the short-season Northwest League.

“It’s hard,” says Wawrzyniak. “It’s more games than they’re used to playing. There’s a little more traveling than before. It’s a higher level of competition.”

It’s also “not their first rodeo.”

By the time they come to South Bend, they’ve usually already been in the U.S. three or four times. First there’s a month in the fall instructional league. They go home and then come back for spring training or extended spring training. They return home and then come back the next year for another spring training or extended spring training session before heading to Eugene.

While the Cubs have a nutritionist and many meals are provided, players usually are responsible for one meal a day and they crave foods from back home. Many grocery stores carry Latin American brands like Goya and there’s some chains that are attractive.

“They love Chipotle,” says Wawrzyniak. “That’s as close to home as they can get.”

Of course, it all comes down to the game.

“I’ve learned more baseball than I ever thought I would know,” says Wawrzyniak. “I now see the game within the game. I ask questions of coaches all the time. We build that into our programs.

“It’s not like what you learn in the first year of high school Spanish — Donde Esta La Biblioteca? (where’s the library?). They don’t want to know that. We have to give them words that make sense in their environment. We create materials that correspond to that.”

Wawrzyniak has made it a point to know what it feels like to throw a pitch, swing a bat, make a slide. She watches baseball on TV each night and breaks it down. She has devoured history and statistics.

“It’s not something you can do without knowing,” says Wawrzyniak. “I’ve spent a lot of my time just learning. You’ve got to know all of it. If you want to be effective, you have to. Any field you’re in, you have to know it.”

HSA teaches players how to interact with reporters. Normal conversation-starting questions revolve around who, what, when, where, how and why. But many times it comes across as very open-ended and sets the player up for failure.

“Speaking to the media, to me, is one of the hardest things and it’s not because they don’t have the words,” says Wawrzyniak. “It often comes down to how the question is formulated. There are a variety of ways reporters ask questions and they’re not always the same. One is ‘tell me about …’ That’s so vague.

“Most men don’t like opened-ended questions. (It’s the difference between) ‘tell me about what you envision for Mother’s Day vs. ‘what do you think we should do for Mother’s Day?’ Most guys struggle with that, regardless of their nationality. It’s kind of a sneak attack on these guys because they don’t really know what you want.

“It’s better, when you’re dealing with an international player, to be more specific.”

Wawrzyniak’s advice: The reporter should know what they want from the interviewee when they pose the question.

It’s all about communication and making a connection.

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Linda Wawrzyniak is helping the baseball community integrate foreign players with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. The Chicago Cubs recently said thank you with a World Series ring.