By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
Larry Tuttle has seen just about everything in his 51 seasons of coaching the Blissfield varsity baseball team. So much, in fact, that there’s not a lot of “firsts” anymore on the diamond.
But, when the Royals went out and won the 27th District title in Tuttle’s career last weekend, something new did happen. A 14-year-old pitched the Royals to the championship.
“He’s 60 years younger than me,” Tuttle said about his freshman pitcher, Ty Wyman. “That’s a lot of years.”
It’s also a lot of championships. The Royals are 25-9 this season and in the Regionals for the first time since 2010. The biggest reason they are still alive has been the development of the young players on the team. Eight of the 14 players on the Royals roster are either freshmen or sophomores, including Wyman.
“We started out a little shaky. We couldn’t find our groove,” said Wyman, who doesn’t turn 15 until late October. “It was mostly our defense. Once we started playing better defense, everything started coming together.”
When the Lenawee County Athletic Association coaches picked the all-league team this week, three of the Blissfield freshmen made first team – Wyman at first base, catcher Zach Horky and outfielder Gavin Ganun. That’s a rare feat, even for a coach as experienced as Tuttle.
“They are not just good baseball players, they are smart and outstanding athletes,” Tuttle said. “The success they are having now is a testament to how hard they have worked. They’ve had good coaching all along. They are intelligent baseball players. They know the game. Their parents have done a great job.”
Wyman said his teammates push each other on the field, court or diamond.
“We’ve been playing together since we were 6 years old,” he said. “We always push each other to do better.”
Ganun burst onto the Lenawee County sports scene in the fall when the ninth-grader was named the Blissfield starting varsity quarterback. All he did was guide the Royals to the third round of the MHSAA Playoffs and lead the county in passing yards. He also was a starter on the varsity basketball team in the winter and an immediate starter for the Royals baseball team. During the regular season, he batted .400 and tied for the county lead in hits, doubles and home runs.
“His dad played for our 1992 team that won a state championship,” Tuttle said of Ganun. “Next year, he’ll probably move into the infield and pitch for us.”
Horky started the season as an outfielder but became the starting catcher as the season went on.
“He worked his way into the catcher’s spot,” Tuttle said. “That really solidified our team.”
Growing up, Wyman mainly played second base. With that position already handled, he had to find a different spot to play on the Royals varsity team.
“I just wanted to play,” he said. “I wanted to work hard so that the coaches couldn’t keep me out of the lineup.”
He found a home at first base. As the season wore on, he also became one of Blissfield’s starting pitchers. In the District Final against Dundee, Wyman allowed just three hits and shut out the Vikings.
“I just wanted to throw strikes,” Wyman said. “I knew my defense was going to pick me up.”
Wyman comes from a strong background in sports. His mother, the former Melissa Stahl, is among the top girls basketball scorers in state history. His sister Kelsey was a Class C Associated Press basketball Player of the Year, and he has a brother on the current Royals baseball team.
Tuttle said the three freshmen all earned their spots in the lineup because of their work ethic in practice.
“It’s always been my philosophy that you earn your playing time in practice,” Tuttle said. “I tell the kids it doesn’t matter what grade you are in or what your name is. If you want to play, you have to earn it in practice.”
Wyman could get another shot to pitch Saturday if the Royals make the Regional Final at Clinton. Ann Arbor Greenhills (18-12) plays Jonesville (21-11-2) at 10 a.m. and the Royals take on Michigan Center (24-7) in the second Regional Semifinal.
Tuttle, who turned 74 on Wednesday, has won seven MHSAA championships during his tenure at Blissfield. He has no plans to leave the game that has meant so much to his life. He entered the season ranked second on the all-time Michigan high school baseball coaching victory list with 1,245. The leader is Grand Ledge’s Pat O’Keefe. A District champion as well, Grand Ledge is 32-3 this season, giving O’Keefe 1,286 wins, 16 more than Tuttle.
“These kids keep me young,” Tuttle said. “This was a pivotal year for us, but we have a great group of parents and I have a great coaching staff. I’m not able to do some of the things I used to be able to do, physically, but I still work with the kids. I can still teach the fundamentals, and I love working with them. I’m not going anywhere.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO: Blissfield pitcher Ty Wyman winds up during one of his turns on the mound this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Blissfield baseball program.)
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.)