Grandville Backstop Home Again Behind the Plate

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 16, 2021

GRANDVILLE – Spencer Verburg understands his position on the baseball diamond isn’t the most glamorous. 

It doesn’t bother the Grandville senior standout one bit. 

In fact, he takes pride in his role as one of the top catchers in the Grand Rapids area.  

“I like to do the dirty work,” said the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Verburg, who recently signed with Central Michigan University. “Not many people want to do that, and everyone wants to be a shortstop or center fielder where you look cool and get the girls.

“I feel like a team can't take it to the next level without a dude behind the plate that is willing to block and get down and dirty to help the pitchers look pretty.” 

Verburg is a defensive stalwart who embraces the opportunity to help his pitching staff. 

“I like receiving because I’m able to stick pitches that other catchers would drag out of the zone,” Verburg said. “It’s such a confidence booster when you stick and steal one and it can change the whole game because your pitcher gains the confidence he needs and then he starts rolling. 

“I’ve always focused on defense because it's hard to find good catchers out there. I feel like so many people have focused on hitting, so I focused on catching where I knew not as many people would focus on.”  

Grandville baseballVerburg’s prowess and maturity was on display in Grandville’s first tournament of the season last weekend. 

Bulldogs head coach Matt Cook was impressed by Verburg’s ability to block out his offensive struggles and remain focused on his catching duties. 

“He didn’t have a great day at the plate and I sent him a text telling him that the way he talked to our younger pitchers, the way he carried himself behind the plate and the way he talked to umpires is going to pay such dividends in the long run,” Cook said. “He didn’t let the other things bother him at all.” 

Verburg is thrilled to be back on the field with his teammates after the pandemic wiped out his junior season. 

Last year was a challenging time for all spring sports athletes in the state.  

“It hit hard because baseball is such a big part of my life,” Verburg said. “I didn’t get to play with my teammates and see them every day. There weren’t any places to work out or throw or hit because so many places were shut down because of COVID.” 

The Bulldogs had just wrapped up tryouts before they found out the season would be put on pause. It eventually turned into a cancellation. 

“There was no way I thought they were going to cancel the season, and we thought we would just wait it out for a couple weeks,” Verburg said. “It felt like it dragged out, and eventually we sensed that we wouldn’t be playing at all.” 

Verburg had mixed emotions because he knew he had another year of high school baseball. 

On the other hand, he knew that wouldn’t be the same for his senior teammates. 

“I felt really bad because I’ve been playing with those guys since I was a freshman, and I’ve been through so much with those guys,” he said. “It was hard to not be able to go out and play that last season with them and know they were not going to enjoy senior night and everything else.” 

“It was heartbreaking for everyone around the state and the country,” Cook added. “Guys like Spencer and others who had been waiting in the wings and they knew they were going to be day-one starters and play every single inning. And then for the season to get canceled ... I know it was really tough on those guys.” 

Cook saw a noticeable difference in his players’ preparation upon learning of their return this spring. 

“They have been so locked in this year, and I think a lot of it is because they lost a year and are not taking anything for granted,” Cook said. “We’ve had our best practices so far this year than we’ve had in my four years here. 

Grandville baseball“Guys are more locked in because of that missed year. They don’t take practice for granted, and they want to be there.” 

Verburg feels blessed to have the opportunity to play in his final season. 

“I’m so thankful because last year it was obvious to everyone that things can be taken away so fast,” Verburg said. “This is the first year I’ve been able to play with all the guys I grew up with since kindergarten. It’s nice to go out and play the game that we love together and just have fun doing it.” 

Verburg has been on the varsity since he was a freshman. As a sophomore, he spent time playing behind then-senior Jake Paganelli. 

The following offseason, playing with his Diamonds travel team, Verburg began to show promise at the plate.   

The combination of defense and hitting helped him earn interest from college scouts. 

“Things just started to click for me at the plate,” Verburg said. “It’s this feeling you have when you step up to the plate and you knew you were not going to strike out. You knew you were going to find a way on base no matter what pitcher was out there and no matter what situation it was.” 

Verburg fit in right away as an incoming freshman on varsity.  

“He was business-like then, and had goals early,” Cook said. “We recognized him as a kid that was only going to work and work and work, It’s rare when you find a freshman that carries himself the way he did. He carried himself like an upperclassman.” 

The Bulldogs possess a lot of potential this year after winning 24 games in 2019. 

“I think we’re being slept on, but we're scrappy,” Verburg said. “I  think we can make a deep run in the tournament.”

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Grandville catcher Spencer Verburg gets ready for another inning behind the plate during his team’s doubleheader against Grand Ledge earlier this month. (Middle) Verburg signs with Central Michigan in November. (Below) The then-sophomore drives a pitch for the varsity in 2019. (Photos courtesy of the Verburg family and Grandville 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."

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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.)