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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.

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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)

 

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South Bend’s Milovich has made a life in minor league baseball

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Andy Milovich was introduced to baseball in South Bend, Ind.

Andy played the game at Southeast Little League, South Bend Riley High School (graduating in 1987) and for South Bend American Legion Post 357 and then at Valparaiso University (graduating in 1992).

“I was raised on ball fields,” says Milovich. “It’s an important part of what I do and it’s what gets me up everyday.

“My baseball roots start in South Bend. It has everything to do with where I’m at now.”

He recalls fondly coming home after school and catching the end of the Chicago Cubs game on WGN-TV. The next morning, he devoured the box score and saw highlights on Ray Rayner’s show.

With Myrtle Beach being a High Class-A affiliate of the Cubs (one step up from Low Class-A South Bend), Milovich was beyond thrilled when he received a World Series ring when the big club won it all in 2016.

Back in 1987, Andy played for Post 357 against South Bend Post 50 in the first game at South Bend’s Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium (now known at Four Winds Field).

Beginning with an internship with the South Bend White Sox in 1990, Milovich has made a life in the game with 2018 being his 28th year in professional baseball. He is both president and general manager for the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders and president of the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans.

A son of Ron and Judy Milovich and brother to Matt, Brad, Brian and Melanie, Andy learned baseball from his father who began coaching at the Little League level at 18 and continued in adult amateur baseball around South Bend until a few years ago.

Ron Milovich, an optometrist, started a team in the early 1990s featuring local players and some of Andy’s Valpo teammates.

“Dad was always making time for kids and the community,” says Andy. “That’s the way he was raised.”

Andy played at VU for head coach Paul Twenge and at Riley for Ralph “Peanuts” Pienazkiewicz.

Both men instilled in Andy the notion of balancing athletics, academics and personal life and overcoming life’s obstacles through hard work.

“Nothing is given to anybody,” says Milovich. “You have to learn it.

“You take that approach into the business world and you’ll have success.”

As a baseball executive, Milovich has faced the grind of a long season while helping to entertain customers.

“We want to put on a great show and give them a three-hour vacation,” says Milovich. “To use baseball as an opportunity to change communities the way we do is a really rewarding.”

Greenberg Sports Group, founded by Chuck Greenberg, manages minor league baseball franchises in Frisco, Myrtle Beach and State College, Pa. Greenberg is general partner and chief executive officer in Frisco, chairman and managing partner in both Myrtle Beach and State College.

Before joining GSG, Milovich spent 18 years with Palisades Baseball. He has served as assistant general manager and general manager of the Erie (Pa.) SeaWolves, GM of the Mahoning Valley (Ohio) Scrappers, vice president and GM of the West Virginia Power and became president and GM in Myrtle Beach in January 2013.

Milovich says the key to success in Myrtle Beach was “investing in people” and “built on affordability and fun.

“It’s the way we’ll grow it here (in Frisco),” says Milovich, who has turned over the Myrtle Beach GM reins to Ryan Moore.

Milovich went going back and forth between South Carolina and Texas before settling with his wife Cher (the couple met when Andy was working in Mahoning Valley) and daughters Addison (9) and Dylan (7) in Frisco in mid-July.

Frisco, Texas, which has an approximate population of 175,000, has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (population over 7 million).

The RoughRiders consider north Dallas their primary market and the DFW Metroplex as a whole as their secondary market.

Milovich has been working to get an understanding of the operation and diverse market in Frisco. About half of his staff of 60 or so employees work in ticket sales. Using data, they target the various smaller manageable segments of the market.

“We’re measuring many kinds of groups,” says Milovich.

Frisco and surrounding area is home to many large corporations and there are several other near-by entertainment options, including the Texas Rangers (baseball), Dallas Cowboys (football), Dallas Mavericks (basketball), Dallas Stars (hockey) and FC Dallas (soccer). The RoughRiders are a Double-A affiliate of the Rangers.

Myrtle Beach (with a metropolitan population of around 450,000) is different than Frisco, with its smaller market and staff catering to the needs of both residents and tourists.

The main draw of the area is the beach and the Pelicans are trying to get their share of the entertainment dollar.

Running a minor league team has changed quite a bit since the 1990s.

“It used to be you could have your giveaways and a fireworks show and you could count on the community responding,” says Milovich. “Media consumption is now so fragmented. There are so many entertainment options we didn’t have back then.

“The ability to build promotions that resonate and connect with the masses is a lot tougher.”

To help him grow his network of friends and contacts and to advance the industry, Milovich serves on the steering committees for both the National Sports Forum (scheduled for Feb. 10-12, 2019 in Las Vegas) and Minor League Baseball Promotional Seminar (slated for Sept. 24-27, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa).

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Andy Milovich, a graduate of South Bend (Ind.) Riley High School and Valparaiso (Ind.) University, is in his 28th year of professional baseball. He is president and general manager of the Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders and president of the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans. (Myrtle Beach Pelicans Photo)

 

Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Miami U. lefty now following routine in Pirates organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Sticking to his daily routine, Zach Spears is finding out what it means to pitch as a professional.

“It’s executing what you’re trying to do and staying on top of things at all times,” says Spears, who was selected in the eighth round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is a 2015 graduate of Mt. Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind.

Through games on June 28, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound left-hander had made two appearances (both as a starter) for the West Virginia Black Bears of the Short-Season Class-A New York-Penn League and was 0-0 with a 2.25 earned run average, no strikeouts and two walks in four innings.

“In my routine to prepare for a start, I’m activating the arm,” says Spears. “I get the body moving before I pick up a ball. When I pick up the ball, I don’t want to have any tightness or anything like that. I do band work to get my whole entire body loose.”

Spears throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider and “circle” changeup from a three-quarter overhand arm slot. His velocity ranges from 89 to 95 mph on his fastball, 76 to 80 mph on his slider and 82 to 85 mph on his change-up.

“My fastballs have a lot of arm-side movement,” says Spears. “It’s real important to change speeds and keep the hitters off-balance.”

In three seasons at Miami, the big southpaw was 8-22 with a 4.92 ERA, 216 strikeouts and 126 walks in 212 innings. This spring, he logged 82 innings for MU.

Danny Hayden was the RedHawks head coach and Matt Davis the pitching coach.

Spears, who turned 21 June 3, remembers their advice.

“You’ve got to go about things the right way to be successful,” says Spears. “You can’t be lazy. You have to be prepared at all times to have success.”

Ryan Carr was the head coach and Brian Downs the pitching coach in Spears’ last season at Mt. Vernon.

“They told me to go out there and have fun,” says Spears. “Approach the game with a positive, hard-working attitude and just trust yourself and compete.

“It’s helped me.”

Spears has one more year of college left. He was a sport management major with a minor in marketing and management at minor.

How does he plan to use that education?

“I’d like to go into some kind of real estate,” says Spears. “It’s got a sales side I enjoy. I like to be hands-on doing things.”

Baseball life for got rolling for Spears at the Mount Vernon Optimists League. He played two years of travel ball in high school with the Pony Express.

Zach is the younger of Pat and Deb Spears’ three children. There is older brother Andy and older sister Elizabeth.

The next steps in the Pirates system are the Low Class-A West Virginia Power, High Class-A Bradenton Marauders, Double-A Altoona Curve and Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. The Black Bears play on the turf at Monongalia County Ballpark in Granville, W.Va.

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Zach Spears, a 6-foot-7 left-hander drafted out of Miami University of Ohio by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018 is now with the West Virginia Black Bears. He is a graduate of Mt. Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind. (West Virginia Black Bears Photo)

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Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville) High School and Miami University of Ohio pitcher Zach Spears (67) is now with the West Virginia Black Bears in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (West Virginia Black Bears)

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Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville) High School and Miami University of Ohio pitcher Zach Spears (67) is now with the West Virginia Black Bears in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He was an eighth-round MLB Draft selection in 2018. (West Virginia Black Bears)