The nursery rhyme “Rain, Rain Go Away” has often served as unofficial anthem for the MHSAA’s baseball tournament, first held in the spring of 1971.
A decade after the start, downpours again turned a planned Saturday-sprint-to-the-finish into a three-day-marathon that finally wrapped up on Tuesday, June 16, 1981.
In the end, the 10th MHSAA Boys Baseball Tournament did feature a few ‘firsts.’ The finish of the season marked the first year that championship games for each of the Association’s four classes were scheduled for play at a single site. Previous championship action saw each class play its title game in a different city across the state.
Alumni Field at Central Michigan University served as host. Home of the Chippewas, the site served as an impressive backdrop, as the stadium had been recently renovated thanks to fundraising work by Mount Pleasant insurance businessman Jack Weisenburger, who had played five years of professional baseball in the Boston Braves organization, and nationally-known beloved sportscaster Dick Enberg, a CMU alumnus.
Roger Horrie’s 10th-inning two-out hit up the alley in left center scored freshman pinch runner Deron White from third base, giving Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher a 7-6 walk-off victory over Flint Carman.
The smash, coming off Jeff Hamilton’s two-ball, two-strike pitch, was welcome relief to Lancers coach Jim Bresciami, whose team had stranded 17 runners on base prior to the game winner. Gallagher had loaded the bases in both the seventh and ninth innings, but was unable to score.
“Roger is our best bunter,” Bresciami told Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mick McCabe, “but we already had a man thrown out at the plate on a bunt so we just let him swing away, and the good Lord let it drop.” Horrie had walked three times and bunted twice earlier in the game.
The contest, twice postponed because of storms, was finally played on Tuesday.
Hamilton (who later played for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1986-91) starred for Carman, notching three RBI on a triple in the top of the fifth inning to give Carman a 5-3 lead. Kirk White’s two-run homer for Gallagher in the bottom of the inning tied the game at five each. Darrin Lum doubled in the sixth for Carman, then scored on a single by Pat Richard to make it 6-5 before Don Rowland (later a member of University of Miami’s 1982 and 1985 NCAA championship baseball teams and a draft pick of the Detroit Tigers) tripled then scored following a sacrifice bunt by Andy Krause, again knotting the score.
With the win, Gallagher became Michigan’s first Class A team to repeat as champion, while Bresciami became the state’s first coach in Class A to win two titles.
Bresciami compiled a 545-149 record over 21 seasons at the school before retiring following the 1985 season. His teams earned three runner-up finishes (B-1974, B-1977, A-1984) and three Finals titles (A-1971, A-1981, A-1985). In addition, Gallagher returned to the Class B title game in 1986, falling to Battle Creek Lakeview, 4-3, under coach Bob Hadacz, a four-year assistant to Bresciami. Gallagher then won another crown in Class B in 1989, coached by Thomas Trompics.
On Monday, Bay City All Saints required only five innings to grab its second baseball title, trouncing Tecumseh 7-1. The Cougars had previously won the 1978 crown in Class C.
Tecumseh scored first, loading the bases in the top of the second inning and pushing a run across on Rex Robinson’s one-out single to grab a 1-0 lead. But it was all All Saints to follow. The Cougars responded in the bottom of the inning with an RBI single by Mark Berent, then added two more with Mike McIlhargey’s 385-foot home run shot to bump the score to 3-1. Catcher G.J. Zanotti added a solo homer in the third inning, then All Saints scored twice more in the fourth and again in the fifth. The game was called under MHSAA rules after three downpours made the field unplayable. Dave Laprairie went the distance for the win.
“For many on the team,” noted the Bay City Times years later, “their biggest game was not the state final win over Tecumseh. … To them, the real highlight was their semifinal against Mount Pleasant that was played in Bay City's Veterans Park before a crowd of nearly 3,000 people.” Mount Pleasant had finished as runner-up in Class B a year previous, and took All Saints – the top-ranked team in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association (MHSBCA) regular-season final poll – to extra innings before surrendering, 10-7.
Following the postseason, All Saints shortstop Keith Miller was named to the MHSBCA Class B first-team all-state squad. (Miller would later play college baseball at Oral Roberts University, then carve out a nine-year career in the Major Leagues playing five seasons with the New York Mets and four with the Kansas City Royals.)
Allen Park Cabrini grabbed a 9-8 win over Buchanan in a thriller. It was the second title in three years for the Monarchs and coach Donald Oboza.
Suspended in the third inning on Saturday with Cabrini leading 1-0, the game was resumed Monday. Cabrini added four more runs in the inning for a quick 5-0 lead. Buchanan scored twice in the bottom of the third, and then tied the contest at 5-5 in fourth, highlighted by a John Ehlert home run.
The Monarchs jumped out to a 9-5 lead before storms delayed play for another hour and 35 minutes entering the seventh inning. When the game resumed, Buchanan rallied for three runs in dramatic fashion to pull within one.
“With (Buchanan) runners at first and second and no one out,” wrote Jack Walkden in the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium, “the Bucks John Ehlert hit a long drive up the alley in right-centerfield. But (Cabrini centerfielder John) Stanko went far to his left to haul down the drive over his shoulder. The play proved even more important when two of the next three Buchanan batters collected hits. If Ehlert’s drive had gotten through, Buchanan probably would have at least tied the game.”
“That guy made a heckuva play on Ehlert’s ball,” said Buchanan coach Bob Storm. “That was the ballgame.”
Cabrini’s senior righthander Tony DeMarti, “who several times left his shortstop position to pitch” due to the MHSAA’s rule that forbid one hurler from pitching more than a combined 30 outs over 10 innings in the Semifinals and Final, was “brought … back to the mound (in the seventh),” according to McCabe, “where he eventually ended the threat …”
Cabrini first baseman Mike McKelvey finished with a single and a double, driving in three runs. Stanko notched a single and a double, scored twice and added an RBI on the day for the Monarchs. DeMarti, who had scored the eventual game winner, also earned the victory in relief – his eighth win in 12 decisions on the year.
Cabrini finished with a 29-11 mark. Buchanan’s 27-5 record was the school’s best to date.
In the only game to finish as scheduled at CMU, Reading’s Randy Spangler (13-1) pitched a complete game, scattering five hits as the Rangers downed Mesick, 1-0.
The run came in the top of the first inning as catcher Mike Shoemaker walked, moved to second on a sacrifice by Jon Keger, and then scored on an error when Spangler’s grounder to deep short was thrown away.
Paul Ruskowski walked and stole second for Mesick in the bottom of the seventh inning, but was left on base. Coach Jack Kerspilo’s Rangers ended the year with a 26-3 record. Starter Chris McNitt took the loss for Mesick, which finished the season at 23-4.
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) Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher claimed the Class A baseball title in 1981, its second championship in the sport. (2) Future Dodgers infielder Jeff Hamilton waits on a pitch for Flint Carman in Class A. (3) John Stanko takes a cut for Allen Park Cabrini in the Class C title game. (4) Buchanan celebrates a homer by John Ehlert. (Photos collected by Ron Pesch.)
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."
2023 Made In Michigan
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
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.)