Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tyrone Brooks…and the Two-Minute Drill

It’s spring and for Tyrone Brooks, who is the Director of Player Personnel for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that means he should be in Bradenton, Florida, meeting with the scouts and his team and getting ready for the season.

Instead, he is in San Francisco, waiting for the birth of his second child. San Francisco? Not Pittsburgh? That’s right. I know, it sounds a little confusing.

Tyrone Brooks
Here’s the backstory. From 2007-2009 Tyrone and his wife, Stephanie, lived in San Francisco when he worked as a scout for the Cleveland Indians covering the Pacific Coast League, Texas League, and California League.

He accepted a job with the Pirates as Director of Baseball Operations and a few days later his daughter was born in San Francisco. He and Stephanie want their second child to be born in San Francisco, as well.

So here they wait, as the Pirates start spring training in Florida.

For Tyrone, his path to this point started with the Atlanta Braves. He was an intern at first and then held various positions (in player development, scouting, and administration), throughout his 11 year tenure, as the Braves won 10 Division titles in 11 seasons and had two World Series appearances in 1996 and 1999. The organization won a total of 14 Division titles from 1991-2005—an incredible streak.

Tyrone knows how fortunate he’s been in his career and is grateful to those who have helped along the way the past 20 years. He also is not shy about giving back. He founded a group on LinkedIn, Baseball Industry Network, to help others who dream of working in baseball.

Tyrone and I sat down recently and he shared his story.

PJ: What is the outlook for the Pirates this season?

Tyrone: I think our club has the best depth as an organization I’ve seen here. It’s our best team on paper, but it’s a matter of us going out and taking care of business. The goal is bring the championship to Pittsburgh. This hasn’t changed. We have the same goal every year. We’ve taken little steps towards that.

In our division, we have to go through St. Louis. And the others have gotten better—Chicago, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee are all strong clubs. It’s going to be very competitive. We have to win every series. If you win two out of three games you are a very good team. It’s tough, but that’s what we have to do.

PJ: Who should we keep an eye on this season?

Tyrone: With the loss of Russell Martin to Toronto, we’ve brought Francisco Cervelli over from the Yankees. Russell did a great job handling the pitching staff and getting guys ready to pitch every game. Cervelli is an important player to watch. Defense is a big priority for us and if he can add some offense that will be good. It could be a pivotal spot for us.

PJ: Recently, Andrew McCutchen wrote a piece for the Players Tribune. What are your thoughts on this?

Tyrone: I was blown away by his message. What he’s dealt with growing up and especially with the resources he had and yet didn’t let the obstacles get in his way to achieve. It [this piece] opened a lot of eyes. It’s good to hear from someone like him. This should be a must-read and hopefully other players will chime in on how they can help.

What Andrew’s done on and off the field is exemplary. It would be nice to have 25 like him on the club, but that’s not possible. In the community he is helping kids and local charities and a lot of that goes unnoticed. He understands his position as a role model for kids coming up.

PJ: What can you tell me about the Pirates turnaround?

Tyrone: You have to look at the owner, Bob Nutting, and what he brought—a long-term vision for the franchise. He brought in the President, Frank Coonelly, and the GM Neal Huntington. Building from the bottom up with a process to develop a strong infrastructure from scouts to coaches to analysts. There is a lot of faith in individuals…there is also faith in leadership. All aspects have been part of this change.

One other thing that has been important is bringing in Clint Hurdle as manager. He has brought people in Pittsburgh together and is a leader on the field. He is a positive individual and has created an environment for the players to want to win. Initially, I saw the players hoped to win. Now, they believe in themselves and want to win every night. That’s how the mindset of our organization has changed.

In my first year, 2010, we lost 105 games. It was tough to get through. However, having gone through it as a group, we all want to do better, together. Neal, Frank, and Bob put this in place. They want to see people do well and gain opportunities. In turn, people want to do better and achieve because they understand what we want to do as an organization.

PJ: What is the organization’s biggest achievement?

Tyrone: Looking at the group that has been in place the last eight years, I would have to say sustainability…making the playoffs two years in a row. It’s one thing to get to the playoffs once. But if you do it the next year, it shows that you weren’t just a one-year wonder. It shows that things are going on here.

PJ: How has technology and information changed your role?

Tyrone: The stakes are so high at this point. More and more clubs need data along with the information they are getting from scouts. It’s the baseline of where a guy fits, to help make educated decisions.

The Braves were a scout-centric organization. Now, so much information is used, both data and from scouts. Teams are truly run like a big business and it’s a matter of showing results. The GM reports to the president…and having the information is valuable to show why they are making certain decisions.
The biggest thing now is that information flows much faster and we make decisions at a faster pace.

Information is so accessible and easy to get. So, it makes sense to do more due diligence. There have been so many changes in the front office, going back 10-15 years. Now there are diverse skill sets. There are obviously so many intelligent individuals drawn into the game now. It’s changed how the game is run.

PJ: What do you see as the next wave?

Tyrone: I definitely see that information is getting more in-depth every year. I think we will continue to see this taken to another level—becoming more measurable and more accurate.

PJ: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

Tyrone: Looking back, No. 1 is John Schuerholz, who was GM of the Atlanta Braves and is now President. How he was able to trust people and put the right people in the right places. He had good instincts in reading people, understanding which players to bring in, and the organizational structure was just amazing.

It was an amazing streak—the Braves winning 14 straight division titles. Every year we expected excellence, we expected to be in the playoffs. Because of this, I challenged myself and asked “Is what I am doing making a difference?”

John did this. Not by micro-managing, yet when you needed input he was there. For me, I look at how he was able to be so successful for so many years…running this team and being so successful.

Paul Snyder [held various front office roles for the Braves] is another great…just being around him and Dayton Moore [also in the front office with Braves and current Royals GM]. How loyal they both were and how people were loyal to them. How they gave people opportunities, promoting from within.

These individuals challenged me…always allowing me to grow. I will always be grateful to them.
And, also Hank Aaron and Stan Kasten created an intern program [for minorities with the Braves] to get in the door at the ground level to learn and grow from there. If it wasn’t for that who knows if I would’ve been able to get my foot in the door at that time.

PJ: Tell me a little about working with Hank Aaron, who is one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, one of my favorites, as well as a great person.

Tyrone: You look at the struggles he had to go through from playing in the deep South and breaking the home run record and he is always so positive. None of this [his struggles] tainted anything for him. He has an understanding for each person…for who they are and trusts them. When I was in Atlanta he would talk to the young players about how he overcame obstacles and about treating others with respect. His love of the game would come out, as well as his positive frame of mind. He is a classy individual. As an industry we are proud of what he has done both on and off the field, and how he has conducted himself.

I came away with an understanding of him as a man and as a business person. He was an intelligent player and this has translated into being a successful executive. Seeing him as a person, his outreach in the community, and focus on education for people of color…this has had a great effect on me. For me, my education truly opened up doors for working in baseball.

PJ: As John Schuerholz, Dayton Moore, Paul Snyder, Stan Kasten and Hank Aaron helped you in your career. Tell me how you are paying it forward with your Baseball Industry Network group on LinkedIn?

Tyrone: I started this group five years ago. For me, it’s a passion to help people achieve in this industry and get opportunities. My thought behind it was two-fold—to bring professionals together to network and grow and to reach back to help those trying to break in.

This is truly a people business and it’s about building relationships. If it wasn’t for others I would not be where I am today—20 years working in baseball doing something I love to do. If I can help open doors to help others achieve their dreams, that’s great. When I get emails and calls from people who I may have helped by giving them advice, and hear their updates, I feel a lot of joy and take a lot of pride in that.

If we can continue to educate, even kids in inner cities, showing that if you love to do it, you can do it for a career [that’s a goal]. Most people only see the on field, but we can show them that they can still do things to work in sports, just behind the scenes.

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The Baseball Industry Network can be found at www.baseballindustrynetwork.com and followed on Twitter @tbrooksBIN





Monday, February 23, 2015

Kevin Garnett, Dee Brown, Juwan Howard, Ronnie Fields…just who was the best high school basketball player?

Who was the best high school athlete you covered? I get asked this question a lot.

One of the great things about sports is that we are always wondering who is the all-time the best. From the Top 100 Best NBA players to Hall of Fame inductees—the debate is ongoing.

Kevin Garnett dunking during
his first go-around with the Timberwolves
I thought it was time to turn back the clock and think about some of the best high school players. I asked a few of my former sports writing colleagues from Chicago to join in the fun.

Here’s the roster for our high school sports roundtable:

Tina Akouris covered high school sports from 1994 to 2013, with a break from 2009 to 2012 to cover the Big Ten, and is currently a producer/writer for WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM in Chicago.

Dale Bowman covered high schools sports from 1984-2013 and is currently the Chicago Sun-Times outdoors columnist, host of Outside with Dale Bowman radio show, co-host and prime blogger for Stray Casts Media, and monthly columnist for Heartland Outdoors.

Orrin Schwarz has covered high school sports from 1991-present and is currently Assistant Sports Editor/DuPage County and pro soccer writer for the Daily Herald Media Group.

And I covered high school sports from 1985-86, 1988-2000, and 2012-2013.

So, without any further delay…

Who were the Top 5 boys basketball players you covered or saw play and why?

Tina: The ones I remember most are from St. Joseph in Westchester: Demetri McCamey and Evan Turner mid-2000s; and Leon Smith from King and Quentin Richardson from Whitney Young in the mid-1990s.

McCamey and Turner just dominated, and playing their home games in a small gym probably helped make them appear bigger than they were.

Smith and Richardson went head to head in a Public League Championship game [1998] and the hype leading up to that game was intense. It was the good guys of Young vs. the rough-around-the-edges guys from King. People thought Smith had taken a few cheap shots at Richardson in that game. 

Dale: Ronnie Fields, Farragut, mid-1990s. He was just an explosive all-round player.

Tommy Kleinschmidt, Gordon-Tech, late 80s. He was an all-round, technically perfect and better athlete than most would admit of a white player.

Rod Brookin, Steel-High, Steelton, PA, mid-80s. A monster player, who smashed backboards, at least twice if my memory is right, and packed gyms.

Kevin Garnett, Farragut, mid-90s. I suppose I should include him, but Fields was a better high school player.

I only had a chance to cover or see them once or twice, but King’s Rashard Griffith and Thomas Hamilton, early-mid 90s. They were big enough to play in the NBA in high school, probably the greatest Twin Towers anywhere in the U.S. at any time

Orrin: Dee Brown, Proviso East. He had a special quality about him even then. You had fun watching him have fun.

Drew Crawford, Naperville Central. A great athlete, but also a very smart player, son of NBA ref Danny Crawford.

Ronnie Fields, the best athlete this side of Michael Jordan, too bad he couldn’t get things together outside of basketball.

Kevin Garnett. I thought it was a mistake for him to go pro straight from high school. Turns out the mistake was mine.

John Shurna, Glenbard West. Not a great athlete, but he made everyone around him better.

PJ: Jamie Brandon, King, late 80s-early 90s. From the moment I saw him play he made this list. He was a leader on the court and early on in his high school career you knew he was really good. He led his team as a senior to a 32-0 record and the state title and was Mr. Basketball in 1990. I remember a half-court buzzer beater he made in the semi-finals of the Public League Championships to help his team advance. I think it was his sophomore year. To this day, they are still debating whether that one left his hands before the clock ticked down.

Kevin Garnett. He dominated in his senior year. A great player.

Ronnie Fields. He was another player that was fun to watch grow from his sophomore year on. I agree with Dale, he was better than Garnett.

Juwan Howard, CVS, late 80s. There was a lot of talent in Chicago during this time and he stood out. Like Jamie Brandon, he just kept getting better.

If you could travel to any time period, what boys basketball player or team would you like to see play and why? Or, if it’s a player/team in another sport, please share.

Tina: I’d love to have seen Ben Wilson play at Simeon his junior year, the season that my former colleague at the Sun-Times, Taylor Bell, named him the No. 1 player in the nation. I was only in junior high when Wilson was killed so I don’t remember him that much.

Dale: Baseball, Shawon Dunston. I just thought he had baseball gifts beyond belief.

Orrin: Kenny Battle, 1984 West Aurora. When I was in high school, he was the guy to watch.

Thornton High School basketball…1998? It was a pretty amazing team also with Antwaan Randle El, Napoleon Harris, and Tai Streets. They played football professionally, but they were a lot of fun to watch on a basketball court.

Brian McBride’s Buffalo Grove soccer team.

PJ: Benji Wilson. From what I’ve heard, he was simply the best.

Proviso East’s 1991 one-loss state championship team with Michael Finley, Sherrell Ford, and Donnie Boyce. The “Three Amigos” were future NBA players.

And I think I want to see Rod Brookin smashing those backboards!

Who were the Top 5 all-around male/female high school athletes you’ve seen play and why?

Tina: Candace Parker, Naperville Central, graduated in 2004. She played like a guy, and I mean that as a compliment. She had this easiness on the court and by her just showing up, she could intimidate players on the other team...thereby getting a win.
Alexandria Anderson
competing in the long jump
in high school

Alexandria Anderson, track and field, Morgan Park [she went on to Texas and is now competing for USA Track & Field]; early 2000s. She was the one who broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s state record in the long jump. No one thought anyone could do that. When she ran, it looked like she was floating.

Dan Dierking, Wheaton Warrenville South (WWS), mid-2000s; football and track. He was the Sun-Times player of the year his senior year. He broke some of Red Grange’s records at WWS, but I remember him more as just being a nice kid, who didn’t let all the hype get to him.

Dale: Terri Zemaitis, early 90s. Three-sport star at Downers Grove South, then an All-American volleyball player at Penn State.

Ricky Watters, mid-80s. I covered him when he was already a stud football player as a sophomore at Bishop McDevitt in Harrisburg, PA. By the time he was a senior, not a single school would kick the ball to him.

Ronnie Fields. A helluva a basketball player who seemed to enjoy what he did.

Mark Mulder, Thornwood, baseball, mid-90s. He was such a good baseball player that when the coaches and I were doing the Sun-Times All-Area team, we had three options for him: pitcher, first base, or DH.

Rod Brookin. First high schooler I saw bust a backboard, at least twice. You had to get to his games more than an hour ahead of time, even if you were press, to get in the gym.

Orrin: Candace Parker. The best women’s basketball player ever.
Candace Parker, now with
LA Sparks, dunking

Mike Fisher, Batavia, soccer, 1993. The first MLS draft pick, but he chose med school. I’ve never forgotten his bicycle kick goal in the state third-place game.

Austin Teitsma, Glenbard South football, wrestling, track, 2011. He always seemed to have a smile on his face. A great teammate who also excelled in all three sports, and I think he won state titles in track and wrestling. Played football at Illinois.

Justin Jackson, Glenbard North, a freshman running back at Northwestern. I never actually saw him play football, I just had writers thanking me each week for sending them to cover his football games. I did see him play basketball. He took his team to the supersectional. A year later that team has only won half a dozen games.

Reilly O’Toole, WWS football, just quarterbacked Illinois. This might have been what it was like watching Fran Tarkenton.

PJ: Karen O’Malley, Madison East (WI), basketball, 1985. She went on to play at the University of Wisconsin. She had a sixth sense on the court. She saw everything, knew when to play more aggressively and just loved to play the game.

Kristi Gaines, Tunstall (Dry Folk, VA), softball, 1991. She was the ace pitcher on this team that lost a tough 2-0 game in the state semi-finals. She led her team to a 23-2 record and totally dominated batters. The best high school baseball or softball player I ever saw play the game.

Donovan McNabb, Mt. Carmel, early 90s. As a quarterback he just stood out.

Who were the biggest surprises (went on to have bigger college/pro careers than you imagined) in any sport?

Dale: By far, Kevin Garnett. I thought Fields was a much better player. Second would be baseball player Jody Gerut, Willowbrook. I would have never thought he would be signed, let alone make the majors. But he did.

Orrin: Frank Kaminsky, Benet Academy, playing at University of Wisconsin. Nobody who saw him play in high school expected him to be this good. Nobody.

John Shurna. A great kid who nearly carried Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament.

Antwaan Randle El, Thornton about 1997, Indiana, Pittsburgh Steelers. Considering his size, or lack thereof, he did much better than expected.

Chad Steinbrecher, Glenbard West soccer, 1992, U.S. Navy Seals, multiple deployments, son of former U.S. Soccer secretary general. Excelled on a different playing field.

Who were the biggest busts (athletes you thought would make it, but didn't)?

Tina: Kyle Prater, Proviso West; he graduated in January of 2010. He went to USC but was injury prone and transferred to Northwestern. People made a big deal about him in high school because he was tall (6-5ish), but he also played in one of the weaker football leagues in the area. He was banged up a lot at Northwestern, too.

Evan Watkins, Glenbard North, quarterback; went to Northwestern. He was a huge kid, over 6-5 and everyone fawned over him as a high school quarterback...again the height thing....and he WAS good in high school, but at Northwestern he was behind Dan Persa and didn’t see much playing time until Persa ripped his Achilles tendon against Iowa in November 2010 and Watkins had to take over. The kid looked scared, like he wasn’t prepared and was just really awkward out there. He ended up leaving the football program.

Dale: Ronnie Fields. I thought he was a lock for the NBA from the time he was a freshman in high school.

Robert Farmer, a running back from Bolingbrook who was buried at Notre Dame by Holtz (if my memory is right, or maybe I just like to blame Holtz). Farmer might have made the greatest high school play I ever saw. He was playing safety or cornerback, I forget which one, and an opposing wide receiver ran free. Farmer came from the other side of the field and ran him down, then blew him up with a hit from behind, from behind I said, which could be heard on the other sideline.

Jarrett Payton, St. Viator, mid-to-late-90s. He could have been one of the greatest soccer players to come out of Illinois, instead he switched to football and was so-so.

Orrin: Mike Fisher. He probably shouldn’t be considered a bust since he chose med school after graduating Virginia. But he would’ve been a great pro.

Ronnie Fields, poor grades, a car accident, poor basketball fundamentals because he relied on outstanding athleticism.

Benji Wilson
Benji Wilson. Again, not really a bust. Murdered on a Chicago street before he could graduate high school. He would have been one of the best basketball players to come out of Chicago. All the greats to come out of Simeon, like Jabari Parker and Deon Thomas, are compared to Wilson.

Billy Savarino, soccer, Brother Rice. Set the Illinois scoring record, but he wasn’t a good enough athlete to be great at the next level at Notre Dame.

PJ: Jamie Brandon. I thought he would have a great college career and a lock for the NBA. He was a good ball-handler, floor leader, and shooter. He went to LSU and played with Shaq. He never got to play in a system that used his skills. He didn’t do much at LSU and declared for the draft early and went undrafted.

I agree with Orrin and Dale on Ronnie Fields.

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And I must say while we still do not have a clear cut answer to the all-time best high school basketball player or the best high school athlete, we were all so fortunate to have witnessed so many greats.


Follow Orrin on Twitter @Orrin_Schwarz

To read Dale’s outdoors columns check it out here Sun-Times outdoors
You can catch Dale’s podcast (coming soon) and blogs here Stray Casts "Outdoor Cartoon Television"
Follow Dale on Twitter @BowmanOutside

Follow Tina on Twitter @takouris

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Brett Shimanovsky…and the Two-Minute Drill


Sometimes it just takes a look back.

This time I looked back and discovered the son of a college friend, Suzy Lilienthal Shimanovsky, is a pitcher in his second season for the St. Louis University (SLU) Bilikens.

Brett is not just any pitcher.

Brett's Bilikens team photo
He made varsity in his sophomore year at Highland Park High School and finished with these stats: 5-1 with 2 saves, 52 strikeouts, and a 3.38 ERA. Not bad for a sophomore.

As a junior, this lefty helped his team win a sectional title and gave up only one run on two hits in a super sectional loss, retiring 11 straight at one point during the game.

In his senior year, he was ranked No. 21 in the Illinois Class of 2013 by Prep Baseball Report. He finished this season with 53 strikeouts.

In Brett’s first season with the Bilikens, he had 2 saves, struck out 27, and had a 3.38 ERA in 24 innings pitched. He only allowed more than one earned run in one inning.

It doesn’t stop there. Last summer Brett pitched for the Kenosha Kingfish in the Northwoods League compiling a 3-1 record, with 3 saves, and struck out 24 with a 2.84 ERA in 25.1 innings of work.

At 6-1, 190 lbs., he throws a fastball, slider, and curve and is working on a change-up. And he throws in the upper 80s.

The Bilikens are starting off the season in Florida in a few tournaments and currently have a 1-3 record.

I sat down recently with Brett and he shared his story.

PJ: How did your baseball career start?

Brett: I started playing when I was four and it took off the summer of my freshman year. My high school coach asked a number of us to come out every day at 5am for 1 ½-2 hours to workout. It wasn’t mandatory, but that’s when the work ethic set in. If I wanted to play baseball after high school I had to do this.

PJ: In a video after your sectional win in your junior year of high school, you were interviewed and I noticed you had writing under the bill of your cap. What was it and is this something you continue to do?

Brett: I have a different quote for each hat. It started my junior year of high school and it brings me good luck. I just try to find something inspirational. If I’m in a pickle on the mound, I take off my hat and look at it and it keeps me in the zone, keeps me from falling apart.

My friend, Max, who I played baseball with at the time, had a relative that passed away and he put that name on his hat. I thought it was cool to put something meaningful in your hat to look at if you were ever in trouble.

I’ve used quotes from Mohammed Ali. I think the quote from that sectional game was from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

This year a quote I am using is from Marshawn Lynch. It seemed like a joke, but meant something to me: “I know I’m gonna get got, but I’m gonna get mine more than I get got.” It means I’m going to fall but I will get on my feet more than I fall.

PJ: You wear Number 31 on your jersey is there any significance to this?

Brett: Originally I liked 34, however when I moved up to varsity, our stud catcher had that number. So, I settled for 31, which was the closest number. I had a phenomenal season, so I became superstitious and stayed with it.

PJ: What was it like last summer having former professional baseball player and catcher, Duffy Dyer, as your coach?

Brett: It helped with pitching, however we also had a pitching coach who gave us a lot of information, for example on how catchers line up for pitches. It really improved my game. It was really cool for all of us when he [Coach Dyer] would bring his World Series ring and show it off. And he would talk to us about being in the majors. However, it was the pitching coach who really helped with my mechanics.

PJ: What was it like playing in Kenosha?
Brett pitching for the Kingfish

Brett: I loved it. In fact, I am going back to the same team this summer. It was a great experience. We would go out to eat as a team. I met a lot of great guys. I’ll be playing against some of them this year for SLU.

It was a real bummer that we just missed the playoffs [by ½ game]. It would’ve been cool to go in our inaugural season. Hopefully, we’ll be there next year and win it all.

PJ: You put up some good numbers last summer. How do you think playing in the league helped you?

Brett: I believe it’s all about my hard work ethic. When you work hard, you become good. That and the competition in the league helped me a lot.

PJ: You’ve started and come out of the bullpen in the past. Which role do you like better?

Brett: In high school I was a starter. In college, I love relieving and closing in the summer was an experience. My coach here at SLU wants me to close this year. I like that feeling that you’re the last guy. You threw the last pitch that hopefully got your team the win.

PJ: As a lefty how do you think you have an advantage over hitters?

Brett: When I talk to my hitters I ask them for tips. They say when I throw the ball from behind my head it’s deceptive. I throw well against lefties. My job is to come in against the top hitting lefties and throw sliders, three straight. The slider originally looks like a strike and it tails away from the hitter and the strike zone. They swing and miss.

PJ: SLU has won the conference title the last three years and is picked to win it again. What is your goal for this season?

Brett: Personally, I would like to break the appearance record at SLU. I think that would be funny as our pitching coach [Jon Levin] holds that record now. But, my main goal is to help get our team to Omaha [where the College World Series is played].

PJ: Who has been the biggest influence on your baseball career?

Brett: My dad [David Shimanovsky]. Since I started playing, he helped initiate my competitive mentality and did whatever it took to help me get better.

My dad has always been a little intense when it comes to sports, and he always made sure that I was in line and not doing anything stupid. And my mom helped make sure my dad was in line and didn’t do anything stupid.

PJ: One last one...who is your favorite baseball player?

Brett: Mariano Rivera is probably my favorite baseball player. He likes to throw his cutter a lot and I’m the same way with my slider.

PJ: He was also consistent, unhittable and made few errors.

Brett: Haha, yeah. That, too. He’s one of the best.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Andrew Knapp...and the Two-Minute Drill

Baseball is in Andrew Knapp’s blood. He’s been around it all his life.

Andrew in last year's game against
Stanford. Photo by Michael Pimentel,
GoldenBearSports.com

He kids that he was a suitcase baby, moving around and living in hotels until he was five years old. That’s when his dad, Mike, retired from baseball.
Mike spent 11 seasons catching in the minors, seven of them in AAA. He was drafted by the California Angels and finished with the Seattle Mariners, playing in numerous cities along the way including Midland, Texas; Omaha, Nebraska; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Andrew hopes to continue to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He already plays the same position, catcher. He attends Cal, just like his dad. The next step is being drafted, but for right now he is focused on the season and his team.

Andrew, a junior, was named first-team Preseason All-American by Baseball America. The last Cal Bear to receive this honor was Brett Jackson in 2009. Brett is with the Chicago Cubs and is slated to start in AAA this season.
Andrew has spent his last two summers playing the game he loves. In the summer of 2011 he led the Northwoods League in hitting with .500 and drove in 33 runs. And, last summer he played in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Chatham Anglers. In 40 games, he batted .293 with 13 doubles, 8 home runs, and 29 runs batted in.

In the season opener he hit the game winner—a bases-loaded single up the middle to defeat Michigan 5-4 in extra innings.
In game two of the series he hit a two-run homer to left field.
And, on Sunday, March 3, against Houston he went 4-for-5 with a double, home run, and three RBI.
I sat down with Andrew recently and he shared his story.

PJ: Your dad played baseball at Cal. Was this the only college you wanted to attend?
Andrew: My dad played catcher here in 1985, 1986. He transferred from Sacramento City. Growing up I went to a lot of Cal baseball and football games. I never saw myself wanting to go anywhere else. Through high school I was not highly recruited. So, I started looking at other places a little. But, in my junior year I played good…hit around .500 and got an incredible offer from Cal. It’s the school I always wanted. My dad’s dad went to Cal; my brother is coming next year. It’s in my family.

PJ: How long have you been playing catcher?
Andrew: Since my freshman year in high school. When Devon (Rodriguez) went down last year, I played first base and outfield. I was behind Chadd (Krist, all Pac-12 catcher who holds Cal’s all-time doubles record with 65 and was selected by the Cubs in the ninth round of the 2012 draft), a four-year starter. I learned from watching him. It’s where I am most comfortable and where I will thrive later in baseball. One of the things I take pride in is my handling of the staff. I have guys who want to pitch to me and enjoy throwing to me. We have chemistry and they trust me. With me back there they have more confidence in their pitches and have faith that I will catch and block them.

PJ: Last year was tough…losing one of your key players in Devon Rodriguez. What was it like facing this challenge?
Andrew: When Devon went down, we lost a huge part of our team. He’s a team leader on and off the field, definitely. It was a big blow to us, but it’s not like this team hasn’t dealt with adversity. It took a full team effort last year. That experience and what we learned from it will help us this year. Playing in different positions and now being back in our regular positions just gives us a different perspective. And, with Devon back we will be that much better.

PJ: Tell me a little more about the adjustment you had to make to play other positions last year.
Andrew: It was tough as I never really played first base. I like to see myself as an athletic guy…just knowing how to play, where to throw the ball. I was out early before every practice and every game taking ground balls and fly balls under the lights. I had to fill a big spot with Devon gone. I was just trying to fill some of the void.

I have more confidence and am a much better catcher now. Now we have a catcher being a catcher, a first baseman being a first baseman. Last year was a stretch and there was always that little question of is this going to work? Is he really a shortstop if he’s never played shortstop?

PJ: What are your goals for this season?
Andrew: If the team has a good season, I have a good season. We need to get back into the playoffs and win the Pac-12 championship. We have the hardest conference in the nation. If you end up on top you have a good chance going to the College World Series. I want to be a leader on and off the field. Whatever it takes for the team to succeed is what I’m going to do.

PJ: When did you decide to become a switch hitter?
Andrew: My dad was a right handed hitter in the minors and was told that he would have gone further if he had been a switch hitter. So, it was my mom who turned me around and told me to hit left handed. In little league I hit right handed, but when I was 13 I made the change. Now it’s 100% natural and it even feels more natural left-handed. It took two to three years to get good. It takes a lot of commitment to stick with hitting left handed. I have to hand it to my dad because he kept me going.

PJ: What are your overall baseball goals?
Andrew: I would like to pursue a professional career. I am always getting better. I’m going to ride it as long as I can. Going to Cal I am getting a good education and will earn my degree. I will end up in baseball no matter what, even if it’s on the business side. Baseball is my life now and in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Devon Rodriguez...and the Two Minute Drill

When Cal baseball player Devon Rodriguez said he was at full strength and ready to play, he definitely meant it.

After sitting out last season because of a knee injury and blood clot in his calf, Devon, a redshirt junior first baseman and designated hitter, wasted no time in showing what the team was missing last season without his bat in the lineup.
Devon at AT&T Park during a 2011 game against Rice.
Photo by Kelley Cox, GoldenBearSports.com.
 
In the home opening series of the 2013 campaign, he went 8-for-11 with 4 RBI and helped the Bears sweep Michigan.

In Friday afternoon’s game Devon hit a game-tying single in the ninth, picking up where he left off in 2011…
…he went 5-for-5 and hit three doubles against Rice.

…he went 2-for-4 hitting a double, a home run, and driving in two runs against Ohio State.
…he went 4-for-5 crushing a home run and driving in three runs against USC.

And, while he put up good numbers during that season finishing with a .408 slugging percentage and a .341 on-base percentage, it was the Houston Regional in June that will be forever linked to Devon.
On June 6, 2011, in one of the most exciting games in the program’s history, the regional finals against Baylor, Devon went 3-for-4 with a home run and 4 RBI, and had his biggest hit ever…which Cal Coach David Esquer has called the “most famous hit.”

He lived every little kid’s dream…ninth inning, down by one, bases-loaded, two outs…and it’s all on you. Devon stepped up to the plate and got the hit that brought in two runs to beat Baylor 9-8 and move Cal into the next round. He was 8-for-18 for a .444 batting average, and collected 6 RBI in five games to earn the Most Outstanding Player Award for the Regional.
Cal did the remarkable during the postseason, battling back from six elimination games, going through the losers’ bracket and winning four straight games in that Houston Regional, and winning both games in the Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Of course it was a remarkable season off the field, as well. On the brink of elimination as a sport due to budget constraints, the boosters and alumni raised $9 million to save the program.
And, the team just kept grinding away and winning…finishing the ride tied for fifth at the College World Series with a 38-23 record.

I sat down with Devon Rodriguez recently and he shared his story.
PJ: 2011 was quite a season. Baseball was cut and then it was brought back and through all of this you kept winning and made it to the College World Series. What was it like playing not knowing if Cal baseball would see another season?

Devon: 2011 was a rollercoaster ride. So many ups and downs, we were never sure of our future. We wanted to prove to everyone that they were wrong to cut us. We played for us with a chip on our shoulder…for the guys to the left and right of us. I have never played with guys who were so unselfish…not thinking about their personal stats, just trying to get a win.
We never thought they would cut baseball as it is one of the oldest sports at Cal. We were like Band of Brothers…we went to war every day trying to make it last. There was no complacency the whole season. This really helped us get to the College World Series.

PJ: You had a big hit in the Regional finals that season. Tell me about the hit.
Devon: The game…the best game I’ve ever been part of. We were down in the 9th by four runs. Everyone was getting on base anyway they could. I knew the whole season was in my hands. You dream of this growing up. Playing in the backyard…you play this scenario. I was blessed to get a hit. It wasn’t for me…it was for my team and for all those who fought for us and brought us back.

PJ: Last year you injured your knee and ended up sitting out for the entire season. What happened?
Devon: In practice I dove for a ball and landed wrong and hurt my knee. I was only supposed to be out six weeks, but got a blood clot in my calf and was out the whole season. It was devastating for me. I felt like I let the team down, but I knew the guys behind me would pick it up. We’ve been through lots of adversity and they gave their best effort every game, but didn’t make the playoffs. I am excited to get back on the field again and battle with these guys.

PJ: What was rehab like?
Devon: Once I got the blood clot there was no physical activity. I was out two months. Once that got cleared up I had great trainers and medical staff that helped me back to full strength. Every day we strengthened all the muscles in my legs. There was no stopping once I got clearance…it was full go. I just knew how I felt and how much I could push myself.

PJ: What was it like getting back onto the field?
Devon: The first time playing in a game this year I was nervous. It had been so long since I played. But, it was fun. I will not take this game for granted. This injury tested me as a person and a player. My support system is strong…my coaches, friends, and family. I am back at full strength and excited for the season, for the team to do things the right way and have a great season.

PJ: What are your goals for this season and beyond?
Devon: My goals personally are to do everything to help the team win. If it means I hit certain numbers, so be it. But, my goal is to help this team win and get to the College World Series.

I’d like to play baseball as long as possible. After that I’d like to go into law.