By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Blake Ballard looked out at the snow covering Gladstone last month and figured it would never melt. When he and his teammates finally played in their first tournament of the season April 20, the temperature couldn’t have broken 30 degrees.
It’s the annual plight of a high school baseball player. And Ballard and teammates are glad to enjoy it for the first time – as members of Gladstone’s first high school baseball team since 1959.
The Braves made their re-debut last month thanks to a full community effort that included deft advising from the eventual coach, creative thinking by the administration and school board and enthusiastic fundraising by parents and supporters – none of which is lost on a group of athletes who are off to a 10-3 start heading into Thursday’s doubleheader against Escanaba.
“Once we figured out it was going to happen, we were excited. Kids started practicing a lot,” said Ballard, one of the team’s two seniors. “It’s going to be pretty sweet later on. Whoever didn’t (play) will regret it.”
Gladstone has roughly 5,000 residents, and baseball has remained a staple of the community over the last half century – just not as the high school level.
Children grow up playing in the local little league and on travel teams, and then graduate to American Legion ball when they are older. But for any number of reasons – including weather-related difficulties in scheduling, low interest or lack of facilities – only 19 Upper Peninsula MHSAA high schools offer baseball.
At Gladstone, boys instead played and can continue to choose from track and field, golf and tennis during the spring. Ballard, for example, was a golfer before getting his chance on the diamond this year.
A football and basketball player too, he often was asked why his school didn't play baseball – and really had no idea how to answer.
Community members had campaigned for baseball in the past, said athletic director Matt Houle. He’s worked at Gladstone for more than 30 years, and has seen four or five strong pushes over the last decade alone.
But those efforts faced two challenges. The first was funding – all programs at Gladstone previously were funded by the school, but baseball if added would have to raise its own money. And the school also wanted to make sure to continue complying with Title IX, which meant finding more opportunities for female students as well if a baseball team was added for the boys. (Gladstone already has a softball program, and it’s one of the state’s best of the last decade with two MHSAA titles and a runner-up finish last season in Division 3.)
Enter former Escanaba baseball coach Don Lauscher.
He and two others keyed a similar effort that led to Escanaba High School creating a baseball program in 2002, and he also assisted Marquette when it added baseball four seasons ago. He had coached Gladstone Legion teams in 2005 and 2006 and Escanaba's varsity to a 130-27 record from 2007-11, but wasn't looking to become coach of a new program – he just hoped to lend his knowledge on getting it started.
Rallying the community was the easy part. And to keep with Title IX, Gladstone added self-funded co-ed swimming and bowling programs.
Supporters convinced the school board they could fund the program – and already have the team two years ahead on its expected financial obligations thanks to special events but also additional donations from local foundations and independently by other members of the community.
“Our community has always been supportive of our athletic teams. And being a town looked upon as a strong baseball/softball program, it was inevitable it would happen,” Houle said.
“People kept coming up and saying, ‘Congratulations Coach. We’re really behind you,’” Lauscher said of a recent breakfast fundraiser. “It’s amazing.”
The community is getting its money’s worth.
Ironically, an uncle of Lauscher's wife played on that 1959 Gladstone team. That didn't play into his taking over as coach, but he had other reasons.
Perhaps most of all, Lauscher missed teaching the game. He's coached it at just about every youth level and attended clinics as far away as Georgia and Louisiana, and enjoys passing on what he's learned. And life events fell into play to allow the opportunity to be assisted by his son Kurt and nephew B.J.; both played at Grand Rapids Community College and Kurt also pitched at Central Michigan University.
Again, because of the summer programs, Lauscher didn’t start completely from scratch. A core group including Ballard, juniors Christian Groleau, Christian Tackman, Sam Pouliot and sophomore Justin Jurek gave the Braves a quality pitching staff and some high school-comparable experience. Still, the team didn't have a catcher when practice began and fundamentals have been the focus as the coaches bring everyone up to speed.
As a whole, the 14-player roster has caught on quickly.
“Seeing the things these kids didn't know to where they are now, I’m very surprised where they are now,” Don Lauscher said.
The team plays at its local Legion field, which has lights and is only about a quarter-mile from the school. The Braves hosted their first “Parents Night” last week and truly are inclusive of the full student body with Lucas LaCosse joining Ballard as the seniors, followed by five juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen.
Gladstone’s other spring sports haven’t lost out much, if at all. The track and field team has 41 athletes and the golf team has 16; the tennis team is down to 11, but graduated a large senior class last season.
More Upper Peninsula schools are talking about adding baseball and softball, Houle said; Hancock softball played its first games ever Wednesday. Schools looking to get a program together would be wise to follow Gladstone’s road map.
“There is so much enthusiasm for it right now,” Houle said. “Just being at the diamond around kids I know so well, to see in their faces the excitement ... I’m very honored. There’s a great sense of pride among these kids.”
After the team's first four dates were canceled, Ballard threw the first game of Gladstone High's modern history.
“It was weird. (But) everyone liked it," he said. "It seemed like a big difference, playing for our school now."
PHOTOS: (Top) Christian Tackman (10) prepares to throw to first base while shortstop Blake Ballard follows behind during a game this spring. (Middle) Gladstone catcher Justin Jurek looks toward the dugout for a signal. (Photos courtesy of Lori Jurek).
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.)