Nick Plummer doesn’t necessarily view this summer as a make-or-break season, but he does realize the clock is ticking in his bid to make The Show.
Now in his fifth season in the St. Louis Cardinals chain, the former Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice star, like all minor league baseball players, suffered a setback when the 2020 minor league season was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were called into alternate-site camps during the abbreviated Major League Baseball season, the majority simply sat out a year. The loss means players this summer are scrambling to recapture lost momentum and get careers back on track.
In a sport where development is the key to climbing the competitive minor league ladder, Plummer, one of a number of former Michigan high school standouts striving this summer in professional baseball, admits he needs to make significant progress playing for the Cards' Double-A affiliate in Springfield, Mo.
“Not playing in 2020 was a big deal for everyone,” said Plummer, the state’s 2016 Mr. Baseball Award honoree. “But I feel good about this season. Each year you need to develop and learn leadership and maturity.
“I worked on the mental side of baseball as well as working out (in Rochester). I tried to make the best of things, but it was tough.”
The season could mark a significant turning point in Plummer’s career. The center fielder had never hit over .228 during his four seasons, but is off to a quick start at Springfield, batting a career-high .283 with four home runs and 18 RBI over 145 at bats with a .386 on-base percentage.
Plummer, now 24, was drafted by the Cardinals in the first round, 23rd overall, during the 2015 amateur draft. He's part of an intriguing group of former Michigan prep stars trying to progress this summer.
South Haven’s Ryan Dorow is playing at Triple-A Round Rock in the Texas Rangers chain, located about 180 miles south of the parent club’s home in Arlington. A former baseball, basketball and soccer star in high school who helped those teams to a combined eight District championships, Dorow went on to become one of the greatest players in Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association history at Adrian College where he hit .395 with 95 extra base hits while driving in 188 runs over 179 career games.
Dorow, a first-team all-MIAA pick all four seasons, said his goal is to simply improve each year as a pro. This season he’s hitting a combined .336 in 31 games across two levels, with six homers, 17 RBI and a .414 on-base percentage.
“You need to prove something to the organization and stay true to yourself,” said Dorow, who never hit less than .383 in any season at Adrian. “As a player you want to develop quickly, but everyone has their own timeline. You have to go out and have fun and improve.
“Coming out of high school and college, it was always in the back of my mind to play professional baseball, but you also have to understand that whatever happens, happens. I was just looking for another opportunity to play.”
Another former state prep star is making a radical switch in his opportunity in pro baseball. Grosse Pointe South’s Carmen Benedetti was the state’s 2013 Mr. Baseball, setting school records in average (.492), homers (22) and RBI (143). He became a 12th-round pick (367th overall) of the Houston Astros after batting .323 with 10 homers and 56 RBI in three years as a first baseman/outfielder at Michigan.
By his own admission, Benedetti, a three-time all-stater as a position player, was a less-than-stellar pitcher at South before throwing fewer than 30 innings for the Wolverines. But while an arm injury two years ago ended his hopes of playing in the field as a pro, the now 26-year-old Benedetti has turned to pitching this season with the High-A Ashville Tourists in North Carolina. He’s currently on the minor league injured list but was anticipating a mid-June return.
“Every year in baseball is a challenge, and I’ve just had to take (the switch) in stride,” said Benedetti, now in his fifth year in the Astros chain. “We all had 2020 off, and now we need to get the ball rolling. You still have to perform, and I’m going to do what I do. It’s a new road, but I feel like I’m lucky to get this far and now I’m just going to see another part of the game.”
Two more standouts who’ll be trying to make the most of their summers are brothers Chris and Mike Mokma of Holland Christian. Chris was taken in the 12th round of the 2019 draft by Miami while Mike – who threw a four-hitter with 14 strikeouts in an 8-5 win over Linden in the 2016 Division 2 championship game — signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers after serving as the staff ace at Michigan State.
Mike is playing with the High-Class A Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League. Chris is pitching with the Low-A Jupiter Hammerheads, who play in Palm Beach County, Fla., about 80 miles north of Miami. Chris has made eight starts, striking out 32 over just more than 41 innings. Mike started this season strong and is striking out a batter per inning over his first 10, all in relief, but has navigated some tough outings after returning from the injured list at the start of this month for the Midland-based Loons.
“The biggest goal is always development,” Chris Mokma said. “I’m still only 20, and it’ll be my first year of playing with older guys. I want to develop my pitching and my command and be able to throw any pitch in any count for a strike.
“Professional baseball has changed baseball for me a little, and now you’re just trying to evolve. If you pitch well, you move up. That’s still baseball. You can’t let the fun go away. At the end of the day you are playing a sport, but your goal is to get to the big leagues.”
There are several other former Michigan prep stars scattered throughout the minors this summer. Infielder Werner Blakely of Detroit Edison was taken in the fourth round (111th overall) of the 2020 draft by the Los Angeles Angels, the highest Detroit player taken since Northwestern’s Marc Washington was selected by the Tigers in the fourth round of the 1982 draft.
Blakely, who will play in the Arizona Rookie League in Tempe, was ranked as the country’s 260th best high school player by Perfect Game. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound shortstop batted .467 with five homers and 38 RBI in 96 at-bats his junior year before losing his senior year to COVID.
Also among notable Michigan players in the minors are five from the 2015 and 2016 Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Teams, including four pitchers who helped the Wolverines to the 2019 College World Series finals. Tommy Henry (Portage Northern), Karl Kauffman (Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice), Jeff Criswell (Portage Central) and Jack Weisenburger (Rockford) are all in pro ball.
Oakland took Criswell in the second round (58th overall) of the 2020 draft after Weisenburger was taken by the A’s in the 20th round the year before. Criswell has made one scoreless two-inning appearance for High-A Lansing (Mich.) and is on the injured list, while Weisenburger is 1-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 35 strikeouts over 21 1/3 relief innings at Double-A Midland in Texas.
Henry was the 74th player taken in the 2019 draft and pitching for the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles (Texas) of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization; he’s 1-3 in 10 starts with a 4.93 ERA and 59 strikeouts over just under 46 innings pitched this season. Kauffman was the 77th overall pick in the same draft by the Colorado Rockies. He is pitching for the Hartford Yard Goats (Conn.) in Double-A, where he’s made nine starts.
Also on the Wolverines’ World Series club was outfielder Jordan Nwogu, previously a second-team all-stater from Ann Arbor Pioneer who was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the third round (88th overall) of the 2019 draft. He’s playing with the Low-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans (S.C.) and is off to a slow start at the plate but has stolen six bases.
Hamilton’s Grant Wolfram was nabbed by Texas in the 18th round of the 2018 draft. A pitcher, Wolfram will be spending his fourth year in pro ball with the High-A Hickory Crawdads (N.C.). He won 19 games with Davenport University and later pitched at Central Michigan. As a high school tennis player at Hamilton, Wolfram was 30-1 as a senior and named all-state. In all, he earned 10 varsity letters in tennis, basketball and baseball. He’s made eight starts with 43 strikeouts over just less than 31 innings pitched.
Pitcher Garrett Schilling had a remarkable prep career at Bishop Foley and also is playing this summer in Double-A with Hartford after being taken in the 18th round of the 2017 draft by Colorado. Schilling was an outstanding three-sport star in high school; he amassed a 36-0 record as a pitcher, was a two-year letter winner in hockey and made 7-of-11 field goal attempts as a kicker on the football team.
He helped Bishop Foley to three Division 3 baseball championships over his first three seasons from 2011-13 and a combined 146-12-1 record over four years until a line drive off his face at the end of his senior spring required season-ending surgery. Schilling went a combined 4-for-9 with five RBI in Finals wins over Bridgman, Lansing Catholic and Grandville Calvin Christian.
He wound up attending Xavier where he went from pitching seven innings as a freshman to earning 14 saves with a 1.91 ERA as a sophomore, to 15 starts and a 6-4 record and 3.57 ERA his junior year. He was a two-time all-Big East second-team selection. Schilling is carrying a 4.63 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning in nine starts.
Sam Weatherly of Howell is pitching for the Low-Class A Fresno Grizzlies (Calif.). A first team all-stater in 2016, Weatherly was taken by Colorado in the third round (81st overall) of the 2020 draft after pitching collegiately at Clemson. He’s 2-3 with a 4.38 ERA – with 61 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched – over nine starts this season.
Former Detroit U-D Jesuit and U-M catcher Harrison Wenson is playing for his third minor league team and second organization this season, having begun in the Angels system, receiving his release from High-A Tri-City (Wash.) and signing with the Cubs’ High-A in South Bend, Ind.
A rare three-time draftee, Wenson was selected by the Tigers in the 38th round in 2013, in the 39th round by Pittsburgh three years later and then by the Angels in the 24th round of the 2017 draft. He was a member of the MHSBCA’s Dream Team as a junior and senior.
PHOTOS: (Top) Former Brother Rice standout Nick Plummer hauls his gear at Hammons Field in Springfield, Mo., as a member of the Double-A Cardinals this season. (2) Plummer follows one of his drives. (3) South Haven’s Ryan Dorow awaits a pitch for his Triple-A team in the Texas Rangers chain. (4) Holland Christian’s Chris Mokma begins his delivery for the Jupiter Hammerheads. (5) Brother Mike Mokma fires a pitch for the Great Lakes Loons. (Photos courtesy of the Springfield Cardinals, Round Rock Express, Jupiter Hammerheads and the Mokma family.)
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.)