Pointes' Pride Instilled by Longtime Leaders

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 31, 2017

GROSSE POINTE – Neither Frank Sumbera nor Dan Griesbaum were raised in Grosse Pointe.

But no one, at least at the high school level, has done more to enhance and promote baseball in the Pointes than this long-serving pair.

Sumbera, 69, is in his 45th season as coach at Grosse Pointe North and Griesbaum, 64, is in his 34th season at Grosse Pointe South. In this sport the rivalry that exists between Grosse Pointe’s two public high schools is as good as it gets. Sumbera holds the upper hand in MHSAA Finals titles, 2-1, and Griesbaum has the edge in District titles, 23-14.

This last statistic is notable in a sense that the two programs are often paired in the same District, as they are this season. South will host North in a Division 1 District Semifinal at 10 a.m. Saturday.

This season there is an added twist to the much-anticipated community showdown. Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, for the first time, will compete in the Division 1 tournament lined up on the other side of the bracket from North and South. University Liggett will play Detroit East English in the other Semifinal at 11:30 a.m. The winners will play for the title approximately 2 p.m.

University Liggett won four MHSAA Finals titles the past six seasons, two in Division 4 and two in Division 3, including last season in the latter. Coach Dan Cimini, knowing he had a strong team returning, petitioned the MHSAA to opt up to Division 1 for this season and 2018.

So far the Knights have proven they can hang at the Division 1 level. They are ranked No. 2 in the latest poll released by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association.

And Cimini’s group received a break in the draw as it won’t have to defeat both North and South to win the District title.

This is Cimini’s 14th season as head coach, and he tips his hat to the job Sumbera and Griesbaum have done in laying the groundwork.

“Frank has been there forever,” Cimini said. “Dan has been there a long time. I feel old, and I’m 48. I’ve coached 22 years. No doubt about it, those guys have set the standard.”

Cimini grew up in Grosse Pointe and competed in the city’s strong Little League program. He played for Griesbaum at South and played four years in college, two at Macomb College and two at University of Detroit Mercy. He was part of the 1987 South team that reached the MHSAA Semifinals for the first time in school history.

Cimini said the quality of baseball has remained strong in the community over the years but noted there have been some changes.

“The Little Leagues are phenomenal,” he said. “The Federation ball is phenomenal. But there aren’t as many kids playing. Now there are seven teams playing in the (Little League) majors. Back when I played there were 13 of 14. I miss those days. If I could take myself back, that’s where I’d go.”

At least in the modern era, one must point to Sumbera as the person most responsible for the quality of baseball being played at the high school level.

Sumbera played three sports at Chesaning High – baseball, basketball and football – and then went on to Central Michigan where he played basketball.

Upon graduation Sumbera went looking for a job and received a tip from a college roommate. Sumbera was told that Grosse Pointe High would be splitting into two schools, North and South, and that they needed teachers, and, naturally, coaches. North opened for the 1968-69 school year, and Sumbera was hired as an assistant junior varsity football coach. In 1973 he became the assistant varsity baseball coach, and the next season he took over the baseball program.

“We won the District that year,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. We beat (then Detroit, now Warren) DeLaSalle, 2-1, in the final.”

Sumbera has coached some of the best teams in the state. His 2006 Division 1 championship team was 38-1. His 1980 Class A championship team was probably his best. Five players on that team were selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft including Bill Babcock, one of the top pitchers on that team. Babcock’s son, Luke, will enter the ninth grade next fall is expected to enroll at North and play for Sumbera.

That’s the way it is in the Pointes. This large community that borders Detroit’s eastside is infectious. It’s common for someone who grew up here to remain in the area and raise his or her own family.

“A lot of the kids I coached in the 80s, I’m coaching their sons,” Sumbera said. “They play a lot of baseball here. As they grow through the ranks to high school, (Griesbaum) and I have to make cuts. You might have 250 at the Little League level, and by the time I get them we have like eight.

“The North-South rivalry is as good as any around. I coach football, and it’s intense every year. In baseball it’s as good a rivalry as there is in the state. It’ll be the fifth time we will have played South (this season). In our last doubleheader we won the first, 12-6, and lost the second, 3-2, in eight innings. That was a crusher. It’s big. The kids know it. The families know it. They all go to church together and play against each other during the summer.”

Griesbaum, a graduate of St. Clair Shores South Lake and Central Michigan, where he played baseball, said the level of competition is remarkable especially when one considers the schools do not have open enrollment. The only way one can play for North or South is to live in the school district.

Griesbaum got his start as an assistant under Sumbera (1980-83) before going to South in 1984.

“There’s nothing like a North-South game,” he said. “Our rivalry is one of the best. It’s a baseball community. My 6-year-old grandson plays T-ball. You look at what North and South have accomplished. There’s the (Grosse Pointe) Farms and City (Little League) teams. Then there’s the success of the Redbirds that (former Detroit Tiger) Dave Bergman ran. We run a (Christmas) Holiday hitting camp. We have 75 kids the first day and 75 more the next. It’s for the second through the sixth grades. We want to expose baseball at an early age.”

Some have expressed displeasure that all three Grosse Pointe schools are in the same district. Cimini scoffs at that thought. He said there are many districts throughout the state that have more than their share of quality teams.

The last two seasons North and South were in separate Districts, and they won their respective Districts both years. In 2015, they met in a Division 1 Quarterfinal, and South won. It was the Blue Devils’ seventh trip to the Semifinals, a record (tied with Saline and Grand Ledge) for a public school in Division 1/Class A.

Cimini said he’s looking forward to seeing what his team can do against the established powers.

“I can’t wait,” Sumbera said. “The whole thing is, come June 3 you have to be ready to play.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Pointe South's Dan Griesbaum, left, and North's Frank Sumbera both have led their respective programs for more than three decades (Sumbera for more than four). (Middle) University Liggett coach Dan Cimini played for Griesbaum at South and has built a top program in the community as well. (Photos courtesy of the Griesbaum family, C&G Newspapers and the University Liggett baseball program.

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)