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Purdue grad Isom embraces independent pro baseball manager role, wins title with Joliet Slammers

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Isom got to do something for the first time in nearly two decades as a professional baseball manager in 2018.

Isom got to hoist the championship trophy as the decision maker for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers — his first title as a pro skipper.

“It only took me 18 years, but I finally got one,” says Isom, a 1990 Lafayette Jefferson High School and 1998 Purdue University graduate who still resides in West Lafayette, Ind. “A lot of teams made the finals and just came up short for one reason or another. Our pitching staff (at Joliet) was outstanding and did not lose guys to major league clubs like some teams did.”

Without Major League Baseball feeding them players, Isom and other independent ball managers go out and found their own players. The Slammers championship squad featured 14 that came from tryout camps.

“I love getting guys that have been overlooked by the draft for one reason or another,” says Isom of his attraction to independent baseball. “Scouting is not an exact science. We work with them and try to continue to make them better players.

“In independent baseball, most teams rely on the manager. I like it that way. I have the ultimate say in who is going to be on our club.

“I value those tryouts. I know the players are hungry if they’re going to a tryout camp.”

The Frontier League is considered a developmental circuit and the maximum age is 27. A couple of top pitchers from 2018 — Nate Antone and Liam O’Sullivan — will age out and Isom intends to help them make connections so they can keep playing either at the independent or affiliated level.

“Indy ball has been a great time for me,” says Isom, a three-time Frontier League Manager of the Year (2002, 2016 and 2018) who turned 46 on Sept. 22. “I loved every minute of it when I was a player and I’ve loved every minute of it as a manager.

“I’ve been fortunate to make a career out of this.”

Isom doesn’t see it as a job. He sees it as an opportunity to pass along what he knows about the game. He soaked up information from the folks in affiliated baseball and he has done the same thing in independent ball.

Besides his current job with the Slammers, Isom’s managing stops have taken him to the Canton (Ohio) Crocodiles, Washington (Pa.) Wild Things, Joliet JackHammers, Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums and Lake Erie (Ohio) Crushers.

In six seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers system, he managed the West Virginia Power, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Brevard County (Fla.) Manatees and Helena (Mont.) Brewers.

As a left-handed pitcher, Isom played for Tony Primavera at Lafayette Jeff then three seasons at Purdue (1991-93) — one for head coach Dave Alexander and two from Steve Green. Isom went 16-4 with five saves and a 3.72 earned run average over his last two Boiler seasons. In 149 1 /3 innings, he struck out 119 and walked 55.

Isom was born in Pullman, Wash., and wound up in West Lafayette when his father was hired at Purdue (Gary Isom is Professor Emeritus of Toxicology in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology).

The southpaw was an all-Big Ten Conference honoree in 1993 along with teammate and future major league Jermaine Allensworth. The Boilermakers were the only college to recruit Isom.

“As a player, (Alexander) instilled discipline in me,” says Isom of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer. “He taught time management skills and how to hold yourself accountable.

“I had to grow up quick.”

Green imparted wisdom and inspiration.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Coach Green,” says Isom. “He’s probably the most influential person I’ve had in my baseball career.”

At age 14, Isom played for a Green-managed Pony League team.

“He taught me how to throw a split-finger fastball (forkball) and my career took off from there,” says Isom. “As a pitching coach/head coach, (Green) instilled a lot of confidence in me. He wanted me to have the baseball in my hand.

“I got drafted because of what he taught me.”

Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 18th round of the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Isom pitched three seasons in the Pirates and San Diego Padres organizations and then four more in indy ball.

While playing in indy ball, he met two managers — Doug Simunic and Andy McCauley — that helped him on what would lead to a career as a manager.

Isom played for Simunic with the independent Northern League’s Fargo-Moorhead (N.D.) RedHawks and was allowed to pick the skipper’s brain.

“I was just trying to learn and he took me under his wing,” says Isom of Simunic, who went on to become the first independent baseball manager to reach 1,000 wins. “I took best from all the managers I had.

“I’m learning everyday.”

MacCauley coached in Fargo-Moorhead and met up with Isom again with the Frontier League’s Kalamazoo (Mich.) Kodiaks.

Isom was released eight times during his pro playing career. After three starts and three losses for Kalamazoo, he cut himself from the team and headed home only to be called back by MacCauley to be pitching coach. The two men have bounced baseball ideas off each other ever since.

MacCauley has been the manager of the Frontier League’s Evansville (Ind.) Otters since 2010.

Isom’s best friend in baseball, MacCauley was in his wedding (Jeff and former Purdue volleyball player/current Klondike Middle School physical education/health teacher Lisa Isom have two children at Harrison High School in West Lafayette — senior volleyballer Samantha and freshman baseballer Will) and trades between Joliet and Evansville are common.

When school is out, Will travels with the Slammers and sees the effort that goes into being a pro player.

“In independent baseball, you’ve got to put up numbers or there’s going to be changes,” says Isom. “Hard work will pay off.”

When he’s not away managing professionals, Isom can be found back in West Lafayette spending time with his family and teaching private lessons at On Deck Baseball, a business owned by former pro player Josh Loggins.

“I want to see kids get quality coaching,” says Isom, who coached two seasons at Lafayette Central Catholic High School in the 1990s.

JEFFISOM

Jeff Isom, a graduate of Lafayette (Ind.) Jefferson High School and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., managed the Joliet (Ill.) Slammers to the championship of the independent Frontier League in 2018. (Joliet Slammers Photo)

 

Educated at Anderson U., LaPorte grad Eaton is experiencing independent pro ball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Eaton thoroughly enjoyed his time on and off the baseball field at Anderson (Ind.) University.

Since his last game with the Ravens, the pitcher has been experiencing life as an independent professional player. The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder left-handed pitcher is currently on the disabled list for the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things of the Frontier League.

“Faith has been a vital part of my baseball journey — in large part thanks to my development at Anderson University — and I feel fortunate that I am today in pro ball,” says Eaton, who completed his undergraduate accounting degree in 2015 and Masters of Business Administration with a focus on global business in 2016.

Eaton, a 2011 LaPorte High School graduate, pitched for Anderson in the spring of 2012 and 2013 and underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in the fall of 2013, missing the 2014 spring season.

“It was from wear and tear,” says Eaton. “The ligament wasn’t torn. I had just put so much stress on it over the years, it wasn’t protecting the nerve anymore.

“I talked with a surgeon at Methodist Sports Medicine in Indianapolis. I wanted to continue playing baseball.”

Eaton was given the option of skipping the surgery and going through physical therapy with a chance of success at about 45 percent or getting the procedure with an expected 90 percent success rate.

“It was kind of a no-brainer for me,” says Eaton, who came back to pitch for the Ravens in 2015 and 2016.

David Pressley was the head coach at AU for Eaton’s first four years at the school.

After Anderson won the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and qualified for NCAA Division III regional play in 2015, Pressley went back to his home state of Alabama to coach at powerhouse Madison Academy High School.

“I really grew as a person and player at Anderson,” says Eaton. “I learned to be role model for kids. (Presley) taught me how to be a better man and helped me develop my faith.”

Dustin Glant served as Ravens head coach in 2016 before becoming pitching coach at Ball State University.

“(Glant) helped me increase my velocity 6 mph in the (2015-16) off-season,” says Eaton. “I wouldn’t have stood a shot at pro ball if he wasn’t there for my last season at Anderson.”

In three college seasons, the southpaw appeared in 34 games (30 as a starter) with a 16-5 record, 3.21 earned run average, 161 strikeouts and 84 walks in 193 2/3 innings.

Spending much of his time for seven years studying, playing or working out around Anderson, Eaton also was employed part-time doing accounts payable and receivable for Reflectix, a stock reflective insulation manufacturer.

Eaton’s pro path has included stops with the Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats of the American Association and Tucson (Ariz.) Saguaros in the Pecos League in 2016 and the AA’s Salina (Kan.) Stockade (which played all its games on the road) and Washington in 2017. He signed with the Wild Things in July, made 12 appearances (all in relief) with 1-0 record, one save, 2.21 ERA, 23 K’s and seven free passes in 20 innings and was re-signed in October for the 2018 season.

An ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain near the same area where he had Tommy John surgery has kept Eaton out of action so far this season. He got a Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injection and is back in LaPorte, where is working out and going through exercises to improve his wrist grip and forearm strength.

“I’m working on my core, cardio or legs — or a mix of them,” says Eaton of his regular gym sessions. Just this past week, he began doing light biceps and shoulder work.

It’s all about building strength back up around his left elbow.

Eaton says he expects to begin throwing again around July 2 and report back to the Wild Things a week after that, though the “diehard Indianapolis Colts fan” did plan to be in Washington to see former NFL Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee play for the Things at It’s All About the Warrior Field at ConSol Energy Park.

Eaton has been following the team’s game on video streaming.

Four pitches are in Eaton’s arsenal — four-seam fastball (he does work on a two-seamer during bullpen sessions), curveball, slider and “circle” change-up from the three-quarter overhand arm slot. He was consistently clocked at 86 to 89 mph on his heater while touching 90 a few times last season.

“As a left-hander, I can get away with a lot more than a righty would,” says Eaton.

But he has learned that there is a drastic difference between facing D-III and professional hitters.

“You have to use a lot more off-speed going into pro ball,” says Eaton. “Sometimes, you can blow it by them in D-III ball. (Pro) hitters a lot better at adjusting.

“They are good at picking up on your mechanics. That’s like smelling blood in the water for the hitter. They see it’s going to be a off-speed pitch and sit back on it.”

At LaPorte High School, Eaton was part of the Scott Upp-coached Slicers varsity for his junior and senior seasons. In 2010, he was 1-0, 1.05 and 20 strikeouts and six walks in 13 1/3 innings for a 27-4 team.

Eaton was 4-3, 4.16, 34 strikeouts and 14 walks in 38 2/3 innings for a 20-10-1 club in his senior season of 2011.

Upp is credited for teaching Eaton about always having an aggressive approach to the game.

“You can’t go in with a soft approach,” says Eaton. “You have to attack everyone.”

One thing Eaton appreciates about the Wild Things is that they are not as likely to swiftly cut someone after a few sub-par performances or for the promise of a better player.

“They stick by you and trust you and give you a sense of security,” says Eaton. “As long as you do everything to your full potential.

“That’s why we usually have such a good clubhouse. Guys can get close and don’t have to worry about leaving the next day.”

Eaton doesn’t mind the distance from home with the way he is treated.

“It’s well worth it playing for a classy organization like Washington,” says Eaton, who grew up in LaPorte and played in the local Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth baseball leagues, beginning at age 11.

His summer travel baseball experience included the Indiana Breakers in 2010 and Plymouth American Legion Post 27 in 2011.

Summers during his college days, were spent working a job and working out.

Eaton counts work ethic as his best quality as an athlete.

“I’ve always got a focus and a plan going into my workout or my day,” says Eaton. “I know what I need to do to get better.”

Jake is the son of Steve Eaton and Terri Wainscott and has a older half sister named Nikki.

His father is a retired from more than 40 years as a bricklayer.

“I mixed a lot of mortar for him over the years,” says Jake of projects around the house.

His mother is a registered nurse.

JAKEEATONWILDTHINGS

Jake Eaton, a LaPorte High School graduate who holds undergraduate and masters degrees from Anderson (Ind.) University, is in independent pro baseball with the Washington (Pa.) Wild Things. (Washington Wild Things Photo)

Lake Central, Purdue grad Olund gets pro start with Traverse City

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STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Two weeks after stepping off the college diamond for the last time, Alec Olund made his professional baseball debut.

Olund, a graduate of Lake Central High School and Purdue University, played for the Boilermakers (38-21) June 3 in the Chapel Hill Regional and soon made his way home to northwest Indiana.

Early last week, he had separate workouts for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds and independent Windy City Thunderbolts.

On Thursday, he got a call from Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums manager Dan Rohn asking him to join the independent Frontier League club in Evansville.

“It was just out of the blue,” says Olund. “I had never worked out for them or had any previous contact.

“As a crazy side note, my dad (Tony) bought bath bomb for my mom (Lyda) a few weeks ago and name of the bath bomb is Beach Bum and the colors are navy and yellow just like the team. It’s sign that this is meant to be. It’s pretty insane, actually.”

The Olunds as well as the family of Alec’s girlfriend, Rachel Bell, have already been talking about the 300-mile trip to see Alec play and the beach along Lake Michigan.

Alec Olund arrived on Saturday June 16, signed his contract and was on the bench that night. On Sunday, June 17, he was in the lineup. He played in left field and went 0-for-3 from the No. 9 hole.

He picked up his first pro hit —  a fourth-inning single — Tuesday, June 19, at Washington, Pa.

Olund, a right-handed hitter, hit .231, .254, .219 and .336 in his four seasons at Purdue. He appeared in 183 games (152 as a starter). He hit four home runs (two coming in one game his freshman season of 2015).

How has he improved over the years?

“My first two years (at Purdue), I showed glimpses of what I was capable of,” says Olund. “But I had a lot of inconsistencies. I was still — for the lack of a better word, a little immature at times. I was trying to do too much with my swing.

“I’ve always been great defensively with great speed and a great arm.”

Olund went into the 2018 college baseball season thinking it could be his last at any level.

“I tried to simplify some things and just put a good swing on every pitch and not try to do too much,” says Olund. “That’s why I found a lot more success at the plate. I was able to tie everything together.”

In the summer of 2017, Olund played a few games with the Northwest Indiana Oilmen of the Midwest Collegiate League. But he spent most of his time getting bigger and stronger and tweaking his swing. It was something the Purdue staff, who had originally planned to send him to Palm Springs Calif., for the summer season, wanted him to do.

Olund hired a personal trainer — Justin Connors — to put him through a series of vigorous workouts.

“I owe a lot of my success to Justin,” says Olund, who first discussed training with Connors while in Jamaica for older brother Tony Olund’s wedding. “He’s a great guy. He’s really, really good. I wish I would have went to him sooner.

“I worked my absolute tail off and put about 20 pounds of muscle on (at 6-foot-1 1/2 frame).”

Olund had been around 180 pounds and played in the spring at between 198 and 202. “It’s been a huge key for me. I’ve been able to put easier swings in the ball.

“When I was lighter, I had to manufacture a lot of my power. I was using a leg kick and trying to get the timing perfectly. Now, I’ve simplified and I’ve been using my core and my strength to put good swings on the ball.”

Besides the strength building, Olund studied successful major leaguers — guys like Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Nolan Arenado — and tried to incorporate what they do into his offense.

“I experimented with a lot of different things,” says Olund. “I tried to find what works best for me.”

Former Lake Central coach Jeff Sandor brought Olund up to the varsity during his freshman year and the player never looked back.

Olund was the only sophomore on LC’s 32-1 IHSAA 4A state championship team in 2012.

“Jeff was really, really tough on me,” says Olund of Sandor. “There were times when I would get mad at him. He was hard on me because he knew I had the potential and I could be really, really good.

“He kind of held me to a different standard than other players.”

Olund played four seasons of football in high school and was away from baseball workouts for months in the late summer, fall and early winter.

But even that first season, Sandor had him practicing and — soon after — playing with the varsity.

“That was a really neat experience for me,” says Olund. “Here I was 14 or 15, playing with 17- and 18-year-olds.”

The older guys were accepting of the frosh.

“They felt like I belonged there and I did as well,” says Olund. “They took me in with open arms. Jimmy McNamara is one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met. He’s a special kid. He really took me under his wing.

“He said it was OK to be myself. I really jelled with that team and we had a lot of fun.”

McNamara was two years ahead of Olund and was the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner in 2012 before going on to a four-year playing career at Central Michigan University.

Olund’s earliest experience with organized baseball came with youth leagues in Schererville. After that, Tony Olund started the Region Redbirds and the team traveled around the Midwest.

The summer leading into Alec’s freshman year at LC, the Redbirds went 73-7.

“It was amazing,” says Olund. “That was kind of my first taste of really good baseball.”

His 15U summer, he played for what is now known as the Cangelosi Sparks, a travel organization in Illinois led by former major leaguer John Cangelosi.

“That guy’s really, really good at what he does,” says Olund, who went to Cangelosi for hitting lessons for years during his teens. “I really liked him a lot.”

From 16U to 18U, Olund played for the Indiana Bulls. He is appreciative of his years with the elite travel organization.

“Dan Held, Quinn Moore, Gary Sylvester, Ryan Bunnell — so many Bulls people hold a special place in my heart,” says Olund. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball, that 17U summer on the Black team.

“That was an incredible ride, that whole Indiana Bulls experience. I’m grateful for that because it’s put me in the position I am today.”

The Held-coached 17U Black squad was stacked. Many players went on to NCAA Division I baseball and are now playing in the pros, including Drew Ellis and Logan Sowers.

Olund was brought to Purdue by head coach Doug Schreiber and played his two seasons for him and his last two for Mark Wasikowski.

“Doug is tough,” says Olund. “I liked that. He was old school. We were going to work hard.

“Coach Waz brought a winning attitude. We build a culture of whatever it takes to win, we’re going to do that. We played hard, aggressive baseball.”

While at Purdue, he earned a degree in organizational management.

After his freshmen season, Alec was going to play in the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.

But his mother was diagnosed with skin cancer and he opted to stay close to home, playing with the Oilmen.

“Thankfully, it’s been gone now,” says Olund of the melanoma that was removed. “She’s been really healthy. I still pray for that everyday, that she stays healthy.”

Olund started dating Bell when he was a Lake Central senior and she was a sophomore. The daughter of Craig and Lisa Bell is now heading into her junior college basketball season at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne.

“There’s always constant support with her and her family,” says Alec. “They are really good people.”

The Olunds and Bells live about a minute apart in the Schererville area.

Playing sports at a high level is something else Alec and Rachel have in common.

“There’s a lot of things that she’s been through that I’ve been through,” says Olund. “I try to help her as much as I can. I also don’t want to dominate her life because I want her to experience it for herself.”

A middle infielder most of his Lake Central career, Olund moved to the outfield.

“They saw me as an outfielder in high school because I had a long arm and good speed,” says Olund. “They could use me in center field.”

Olund played some center field at Purdue and was then moved to right field.

“I feel I profile more as a center fielder,” says Olund. “I can track down balls really well.

“If I was in the infield, I’d profile more as a third baseman because I do have a long, strong arm. Those middle infielders have short, quick arms.”

ALECOLUNDTRAVERSECITY

Alec Olund, a Lake Central High School and Purdue University graduate, made his professional baseball debut June 17, 2018 with the independent Frontier League’s Traverse City Beach Bums. (Steve Krah Photo)