Frankfort Carries Perfect Start into May

May 12, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

It’s no secret in the small town of Frankfort that longtime coach Mike Zimmerman plans to retire after the 2018 season.

In the meantime, his Panthers – most of them juniors who will finish up next spring as well – are off to an incredible start to what is shaping up as a long and successful farewell tour.

The MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for April, Frankfort’s baseball team is now 25-0 – its best start under Zimmerman, who took over the program in 1994 after six seasons as an assistant coach.

Included in its April victories were a pair over Maple City Glen Lake – a Northwest Conference rival which eliminated the Panthers in the District last spring. A 10-0 win over McBain three days later on April 21 gave Zimmerman the 500th win of a coaching career that’s seen him lead Frankfort to five Regional titles and four MHSAA Semifinal appearances.

He plans to be done after next season so he’ll be able to watch son Brett – one of those juniors – play at Wayne State University. But of course, that’s down the road a bit. For now, his Panthers are top-ranked in Division 4 and enjoying their time together that started when the current seniors got to high school and were joined the next spring by six current juniors who started as freshmen – but really, it all began much earlier than that.

“I’ve coached these kids since they were 5. I’ve always been their coach,” Zimmerman said. “I know their personalities. They know my personality. And that all helps.

“It’s not like I have one son on the team. These kids hang out at my house; it’s like I have a whole team of sons. And that makes it special too.”

Two seniors and seven juniors start, with a third senior working through an injury. From the outside, that might make this team seem young – but as Zimmerman points out, many of his players have 60 varsity games under their belts.

Junior Jack Morrow noted to the Traverse City Record-Eagle after the McBain sweep three weeks ago that he and his teammates had a feeling at the start of high school that they’d eventually put together this kind of success. The Panthers took a step with a solid 23-9 in 2016.

This spring Morrow and junior Kirk Myers together have combined to pitch for more than half that many wins already. Morrow is 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA and Myers, also the shortstop, is 7-0 with a 0.65 ERA.

They also hit .422 and .415, respectively, with Brett Zimmerman pacing the offense at .529 and junior Griffin Kelly at .439. Zimmerman, the catcher, also has thrown out an incredible 15 of 18 would-be base stealers.

Perhaps more importantly, at least to the players, the tall guys lead the homer contest 7-4. That’s just another way these guys are having fun – Panthers 6-foot and taller are trying to hold off the sub-6ers in a longball derby.

Frankfort has clinched a share of the Northwest Conference title – especially impressive again as Glen Lake also is ranked, at No. 7 in Division 4. The Panthers can claim the championship outright Tuesday against Mesick.

And then comes a tournament road with some notable obstacles – if Frankfort makes it through the District, No. 5 Muskegon Catholic Central is a possible Regional opponent while seeking its second Division 4 title in three seasons.

But Zimmerman said he players aren’t looking that far, focusing first on improving so they’ll be ready for whatever opportunities this postseason might hold.

“They’ve been together so long, they know each other well, they trust each other,” Mike Zimmerman said. “They don’t care about stats. They care about trying to win.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2016-17
Flushing girls basketball - Report
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central girls skiing - Report
Powers North Central boys basketball - Report
Dundee boys basketball - Report
Rockford girls swimming & diving - Report
Rochester girls golf - Report
September: Breckenridge football - Report

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankort's Kirk Myers (5) watches a teammate cross the plate during a win this season over Suttons Bay. (Middle) The Panthers celebrate coach Mike Zimmerman's 500th win. (Photo courtesy of Frankfort baseball program.)

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 1, 2023

If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.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.

Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team.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.

Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players."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.)