By Butch Harmon
Special for Second Half
ALLENDALE – A few weeks after Forest Hills Northern second baseman Mitchell Gumbko “pinch hit” to help Allendale pitcher Javier Gonzalez bridge a language gap during a freshman baseball game, their story of sportsmanship continues to spread around the Grand Rapids area and beyond.
Pitching in his first high school game as a member of the Allendale freshman baseball team against Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern on April 18, Gonzalez was in a jam. Not only did he walk the first batter he faced, but he then committed a balk. With the umpire coming out to the mound to explain the situation, the jam only worsened as Gonzalez – who has been in the United States for only just over a year – speaks very little English.
In a society where winning is a major emphasis in sports, Gonzalez, however, picked up a major assist from the Northern batter who was due up soon.
Gumbko has been in the Forest Hills Northern school district’s Spanish Immersion program since he was in kindergarten. With Gonzalez continuing to struggle, Gumbko made his way to the mound with the coaches and umpires to give his opponent some help.
“I didn’t realize their pitcher was struggling so much,” Gumbko told Advance Newspapers/MLive last week, “but Coach (Joe) Payne asked if anyone speaks Spanish on our team. I have been in the Spanish Immersion program since kindergarten so I told Coach that I’m fluent in Spanish.”
Gonzalez’ coach Chad DeWeerd was happy for the help from the opposing dugout.
During Allendale practices, DeWeerd has been counting on freshman Cooper Tolson to give all the help he can. But explaining the balk rule required a little more explanation than the rest of the Falcons could offer their teammate.
“Before the game I let the Northern coach know that Javier speaks hardly any English,” DeWeerd also told Advance Newspapers/MLive. “My kids know a little Spanish, but not enough to help in that situation.”
DeWeerd had told Payne beforehand about Gonzalez and the language hurdle. “As I was walking to coach third base, the head coach from Allendale warned me that his pitcher does not speak English and that this is his first time pitching,” Payne said. “I told him not to worry.
“The Allendale pitcher looked nervous and uncomfortable, and you can tell he was unfamiliar with pitching. After walking our first batter, the next pitch he balked, which advanced our runner to second base. I saw the field umpire trying to explain to the pitcher what he was doing wrong, but the pitcher looked at him with a blank look.”
Payne informed the home plate umpire about the situation. After a few more pitches, and with Gonzalez continuing to struggle with the balk rule, Payne called on his player to step in and become a language pinch-hitter.
At Ada Vista Elementary, all subjects are taught in Spanish beginning in the first grade. Gumbko has become fluent in his second language.
“I needed Mitchell to become his coach instead of his opponent,” Payne said. “I asked the Allendale coach if I could call time out and have one my players translate to the pitcher.”
This time the conference on the mound became a lot more beneficial for Gonzalez, who had someone with whom he could communicate – even though he was wearing the opponent’s uniform.
“I think he was pretty surprised and also happy to be able to talk to someone he could understand,” Gumbko said. “The umpire told me what to say to him because he was balking, and he did not know he was doing it. It was pretty awesome to just know that I can use (Spanish) on a daily basis and was cool to realize I was helping him out.”
“You can tell Javier was nervous and did not know what was going on, until Mitchell started to translate instructions to him in Spanish,” Payne said. “Javier’s eyes just sparkled. Javier just kept nodding yes, ‘Si,’ and at the same time agreeing in Spanish back to Mitchell and understanding what Mitchell was saying.”
While Gonzalez’ teammates are not as familiar with the Spanish language as Gumbko, they have been trying their best to pick up as much as possible.
“The team has really embraced Javy,” DeWeerd said. “The first day of tryouts when they were stretching and loosening up they started counting in Spanish.”
“Cooper knows a little more Spanish than the rest of the guys,” DeWeerd added. “He has tried to help him as much as he can. The guys also have an app on their phone that helps with translation, and they have a lot of fun on the bus rides. This is a really special team and they have embraced Javy, and he really is one of the kids.”
Gonzales and his family of five, who are originally from the southern section of Mexico, have been in the United States for a year and a month. While he also enjoys soccer and was a member of Allendale’s junior varsity soccer team last fall, he has been playing baseball since he was a child and enjoys pitching the most. Along with pitching, Javy also plays right field for the Falcons.
Since the Northern game more people in the Allendale community have learned about Javy’s story – and offered assistance.
“Our 8th-grade Spanish teacher, Mrs. (Lynne) Burns, found out about Javy’s story and sent an e-mail to our athletic director offering to come and help,” DeWeerd said. “She is going to be at our next game. It’s not just the team that has helped out Javy, but the whole school is helping.”
Having Gumbko step up in that first game, however, was an act of sportsmanship that will be remembered for some time.
“I just stopped and realized this is why I am a teacher,” Payne also said in the Advance Newspapers/MLive report. “This is why I coach, for moments like this.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Allendale freshman baseball players Javier Gonzalez (left) and Cooper Tolson. (Middle) Gonzalez jogs on the field during a recent game. (Photos by Butch Harmon.)
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.)