By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
“It’s a big one,” said state director of athletics Al Bush, when asked about organizing the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s inaugural baseball tournament back in January 1971. “The idea has been under study for more than three years.”
After discussions with the MHSAA Representative Council, in mid-December a committee of seven coaches from various parts of the state gathered and built the framework for the tournament, according to Associated Press reports.
Still ranked among the Top 10 all-time fall classics, the Detroit Tigers’ 1968 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals meant interest in the national pastime was on the rise in Michigan.
Bush noted that about 650 Michigan high schools had sponsored baseball in 1970, and that plans for organizing the pending tournament were much like those for basketball, with Districts and Regionals. Circulars sent out by the MHSAA asking about planned participation indicated nearly 500 schools intended to play in the tournament. As in other sports, except basketball, plans were to host separate tournaments for the Upper and Lower Peninsula due to weather conditions experienced above the Mackinac Bridge.
While a number of cities in the past had hosted baseball tournaments where schools from around the state had been invited to participate, the MHSAA had never previously sponsored a statewide tournament. Perhaps the most well-known was one hosted in Battle Creek for about 10 seasons in the 1940s and 1950s.
In April 1971, Districts were announced, with qualifying round play scheduled for May 17-27 and Pre-District contests planned for May 29 that would allow the field of teams to be cut to four for the Districts. A total of 594 teams entered the Lower Peninsula tournament. The Finals for all classes were scheduled for June 19.
“I think you could draw it out of a hat and call a certain team a favorite, and you’d be correct,” said MHSAA Associate Director Vern Norris 45 years ago when discussing the uncharted territory of that first tournament. “There’s just no basis for comparison. I think we can say the teams competing Saturday are the cream of the crop, although in any tourney competition some good teams are eliminated early.”
“Overall, we’ve been very pleased,” he continued. “No. There haven’t been any major problems. The umpiring has been good and the support from the schools excellent. The person who really helped us out was the weatherman.”
All 48 Regional games were played without a hitch. In years past (and in years to come), weather had played havoc with previous tournaments.
Four sites were used for the games. Class A was played at Wyandotte Memorial Field, while Class B was hosted at Battle Creek Central. Class C contests were scheduled at Marshall High School with Class D at Central Michigan University’s Alumni Field in Mount Pleasant. Semifinal games were scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., with finals scheduled at 3:30 p.m. at each location.
The Detroit area emerged with three of the four titles, with games played beneath hot and humid weather.
Jim Saad, recruited to Colorado State to play football, smacked a 355-foot two-run homer to left field in the opening inning of the Finals as Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher blanked Royal Oak Kimball 3-0 before 1,200 fans for the Class A crown. Greg Boos tossed a two-hitter for the Lancers, striking out 10 along the way. It was the first of three Class A baseball titles won by Gallagher and their coach Jim Bresciami, who would lead his teams to 545 wins between 1965 and 1985. The Detroit Catholic League’s First Division East champion, Gallagher finished with a 32-5 record on the year. Right-hander Boos ended the season with an 11-2 mark.
Detroit Lutheran West posted 24 wins against a single defeat, scoring a 4-1 win over Pinconning for the Class B title. A bases-loaded single by Fred Schebor in the fifth inning brought in two runs to break open a 1-1 tie. Bill Lindblom was responsible for West’s other two runs, driving in runners with a single in the second inning and a double in the sixth. Junior Leon Druckenmiller struck out six and scattered six hits for the Leopards for the win. Earlier in the day, John Paloni struck out 18 batters in West’s 3-0 Semifinal win over Wayland.
Hamtramck St. Ladislaus took advantage of a pair of third inning errors, scoring two runs in the team’s 3-0 win over Dearborn Sacred Heart. Tom Crepeau pitched a four-hitter and struck out seven, while Paul Janas led the victors with two singles and a double in the Final. The win avenged a pair of nonleague losses to Sacred Heart during the regular season. Rick Radzinski pitched a two-hitter and drove in three runs in Ladislaus’ 7-1 Semifinal win over Sanford-Meridian.
Managed by 1952 alumnus Jim Powell, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart rebounded from an early 8-1 deficit in its Semifinal game with Marion for a 16-12 win, gaining a birth in the Class D championship game against Portland St. Patrick. The Irish’s Roger Therman then pitched a four-hitter in a 5-1 win over St. Patrick.
To the north, with its later thaw, the high school baseball season continued to revolve around summer American Legion baseball but also two U.P. high school leagues: the Eastern Upper Peninsula High School Baseball League (EUP) and Western Upper Peninsula High School Baseball League (WUP). In its 14th year of operation, the WUP saw Ironwood post an 11-1 record against six league opponents to earn the 1971 league championship, while Rudyard repeated as champs with a 12-4 season in the nine-team EUP.
Today, the U.P.’s most famous baseball player remains Kevin Tapani, a 1981 graduate of Escanaba, who pitched for 13 years in the Major League. Tapani quarterbacked the Escanaba Eskymos to the MHSAA Class A football title in 1981, yet never threw a pitch for his high school because of the weather.
Forty-five years later, Mother Nature continues to influence baseball in the Upper Peninsula – although over time Upper Peninsula schools began taking part with those from the Lower Peninsula in a statewide MHSAA Tournament. The first U.P. team to make the Semifinals in baseball was Sault Ste. Marie in 1988.
This season, 21 Upper Peninsula schools sponsored varsity baseball teams, as gradually some have brought back programs long in hibernation – Gladstone, for example, made the Division 3 Semifinals in 2014 after bringing back a baseball program the year before that hadn't played since 1959.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Lutheran West stands together for a team photo; it won the inaugural Class B title. (Middle) Champions of the first MHSAA Tournament, in 1971, included Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher, Hamtramck St. Ladislaus and Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)