By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – After an MRI earlier this year revealed a torn labrum in his right shoulder, Traverse City St. Francis all-state pitcher Joey Muzljakovich decided on surgery that would end his senior season before it even started.
Then, Wayne State University coaches intervened.
“I was scheduled to have surgery two weeks after the MRI,” said the 18-year-old, who signed with Wayne State in November. “Wayne State called back and (the coaches) were super nice about it. They said, ‘Play your senior year.’ They said there was the potential that I could (damage it further) if I pitched or played third, where I would throw a lot, but that I could play first and hit. I’ll have to be careful with how intense my throws are (at first), but I’m so thankful for the opportunity.”
Muzljakovich, who said he will meet with the orthopedic surgeon at Wayne State and set a date for surgery after the season concludes, is a key cog for the Gladiators, who went 38-4 and finished runner-up to Madison Heights Bishop Foley in the MHSAA Division 3 Final last spring.
The Gladiators are ranked No. 2 in this spring’s preseason state coaches poll. A school St. Francis has close ties with, Frankfort, is ranked No. 1 in Division 4. Five St. Francis and two Frankfort players were on the A. Green North travel team last summer. The team was coached by Frankfort’s Mike Zimmerman, who was assisted by Gladiators head coach Tom Passinault. The team competed in tournaments across Michigan and the Midwest.
“(The St. Francis players have) become some of my best friends,” said Panthers catcher Brett Zimmerman, who was recently named a Collegiate Baseball preseason All-American. “We play and travel so much together in the summer that I know them about as well as I know my teammates at Frankfort.”
Coincidentally, Zimmerman and Muzljakovich will be teammates and roommates at Wayne State. The two were among six recruits the Warriors announced in November. Zimmerman’s older brother, Kyle, previously played for Wayne State.
Frankfort finished 36-1 a year ago. Its MHSAA title hopes were dashed in the Regional with a 2-1 10-inning loss to Muskegon Catholic Central.
Both the Panthers and Gladiators, who have ramped up their schedules, return talented rosters. And the St. Francis roster still includes Muzljakovich, who was the Traverse City Record-Eagle Player of the Year as a junior. On the mound, the righthander was 10-0 with a 0.58 ERA. He struck out 102 batters in 60 1/3 innings. At the plate, he hit .425 with two home runs and 35 RBI. He scored 38 runs.
“It was a devastating blow when we thought he wasn’t going to play at all,” Passinault said. “He was set to have surgery in February. It was very classy what Wayne State did. He had already signed with them.
“Just his presence on the field makes us better. The kids look up to him. He’s a natural leader.”
Casey Peterson, who teamed with Muzljakovich to give the Gladiators a potent one-two combination on the mound, will be the ace. The University of Dayton signee went 9-2 with a 0.47 ERA last season.
“He’s the man,” Muzljakovich said.
Juniors Josh Bradfield (5-0 with a 1.44 ERA) and Tyler Prichard will battle for rotational spots, too. Juniors Keaton Peck (5-1 with a 1.90 ERA) and Danny Passinault (3-0 with a 3.73 ERA) add experience, but their value in the field gives Tom Passinault pause to pitch them too much.
A year ago, Gladiators pitchers tossed seven consecutive shutouts.
“We were two innings off the state record,” Passinault said.
Pitchers were aided by a lockdown defense.
“That was a key last year,” Passinault said. “We were really good on defense. We made very few errors.”
With Cooper Peterson, a Hillsdale signee, behind the plate, Peck at shortstop and Danny Passinault in centerfield, St. Francis is strong up the middle.
At the plate, Peck hit .388 and drove in 28 runs last season. Peterson, who will probably bat fifth behind Muzljakovich, had a .330 average with three home runs and 28 RBI. Outfielder Artie Dutmers, who can also play the infield, hit .289 while Passinault was at .284.
The 38 wins last season set a school record.
“The road’s a little tougher – we play 11 games against Division 1 schools – but I think we’ll be good,” Passinault said. “Our thought (in scheduling) was that facing better pitching during the year will prepare us for the tournament. We may not have as impressive a record, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to try to get to East Lansing (for the MHSAA Finals).”
One thing is certain: The Gladiators will not sneak up on anybody.
“Last year we went into the season unranked, unproven because we had lost in the Districts the year before,” Muzljakovich said. “Nobody thought we were going to be good. We were the underdogs.
“Now, coming into this season, we have high hopes. We know we’ll have a target on our backs. We’ll have to be on our toes.”
Optimism is high at Frankfort, too. Mike Zimmerman returns three of his top four pitchers in Jack Morrow (11-0 with a 0.97 ERA), Kirk Myers (12-1) and James Eno. Morrow, who struck out 94 in 65 innings, will pitch at Albion College next season.
In the field, the Panthers will have veteran experience with Matt Stefanski (.422) at first, Myers (.404) at short, Adam Witkop at third, Griffin Kelly (.434) in center, Eno (.400) in right, Morrow (.407) in left and, of course, Brett Zimmerman (.506 with five home runs and 39 RBI) behind the plate.
“It’s a well-rounded team,” Mike Zimmerman said. “Our pitchers do a nice job of keeping guys off base and Brett does a nice job stopping guys from running. He threw out 80 percent of runners trying to steal last year.
“And offensively, you can’t pitch around one or two guys. We have any number of guys that can hurt you.”
The first three hitters in the lineup can run. Kelly, Myers and Zimmerman combined for 89 steals last season.
Brett Zimmerman said the players are as tight as any team he’s played on.
“We’re always finding ways to get together and make connections,” he said. “The other night we all went to a restaurant to watch the national championship basketball game. When you can (bond) like that it really helps build trust.”
Although his dad was a coach and his older brother a star player, Brett Zimmerman didn’t pick up baseball until he was 9. He was into motocross until an accident prompted him to turn to baseball.
Meanwhile, Kelly, Stefanski and Myers are all three-sport standouts. Kelly and Stefanski signed to play football at Northern Michigan and Grand Valley, respectively.
A year ago, the Panthers were riding high and ranked No. 1 when they fell to Muskegon Catholic.
“We had our chances,” Mike Zimmerman said. “It was a fun game. We couldn’t get the break when we needed it. They did. That’s baseball.”
“It was a heartbreaker,” Brett Zimmerman added. “We had high expectations.
“And we have expectations this year. We’re fortunate to be ranked No. 1 going into the season, but we know that number on the rankings sheet means nothing if you don’t win the last game of the season. We had one loss last year, and everybody was mad and devastated.”
Like St. Francis, which is scheduled to open at Coldwater on Saturday, Frankfort has beefed up its schedule to include Climax-Scotts, Muskegon Catholic and Traverse City Central in nonleague play. This week’s games with Gaylord and Kalkaska were wiped out by a spring snowstorm.
“It’s northern Michigan,” Mike Zimmerman said. “There’s nothing you can do to change it.”
The delay – St. Francis has been on the diamond once this preseason – doesn’t bother Muzljakovich. He’s just glad to be able to play this season.
He believes he suffered the shoulder injury in football, although he doesn’t remember one particular play that caused it. As a middle linebacker-fullback, Muzljakovich rarely came off the field for the 11-2 Gladiators.
“There were times my shoulder would ache, but I didn’t think it was anything big,” he said.
After Danny Passinault, the quarterback, went down with a broken collarbone during the season, the Gladiators decided to add trickery to the playbook just in case they might need a jolt on offense.
In the playoff game with Maple City Glen Lake, St. Francis went to its bag of tricks with a direct snap to Muzljakovich, who took off as if to run. He pulled up and tossed a touchdown pass.
On the play, however, he again felt pain in his shoulder.
“Oh, it will get better,” he rationalized.
But once football ended, and he started throwing in weekly workouts with his summer travel team, the shoulder continued to bother him.
“I couldn’t get loose,” he said. “It felt tight … and it was aching.”
So he started physical therapy and called Wayne State to let the staff know what was happening. He said the staff told him to continue with physical therapy, but if he didn’t notice any improvement he should go in for an MRI.
Muzljakovich was heartbroken when he learned of the MRI results.
“I was holding back the tears,” he admitted. “I didn’t want my high school career to end like that.”
The decision was made to have surgery almost immediately so Muzljakovich could start the recovery process and improve his odds of pitching at Wayne State as a freshman. He said the subsequent phone call to Wayne State was not easy.
“I was trembling in my boots,” he said. “I didn’t know how they would take it. I felt I let them down. But they are outstanding coaches and even better people. I am so grateful.”
He also called Brett Zimmerman, who has been one of his catchers in travel ball the last two summers.
“It was tough for me to hear that,” Zimmerman recalled. “I know his passion, the work he’s put in. At that time, he didn’t think he would get his senior season in. I felt terrible for him.”
Two years ago, as a sophomore, Muzljakovich tore a knee ligament in football and had to sit out the baseball season. At that time, he thought about giving up football.
“Baseball is my first love,” he said. “I didn’t want to mess it up with another injury.”
But not wanting to let his teammates and coaches down, Muzljakovich decided to give football “another year to see how it goes.”
“My junior year went great,” he said. “I was a little hesitant my senior year because I had just verbally committed to Wayne State. But I figured I’ve had a lot of memories created on the football field, and I wanted to create some more my senior year. It didn’t work out how I wanted (with the injury), but I made bonds with my teammates that are priceless.”
As for Brett Zimmerman, he has another St. Francis connection. He’s dating Gladiators volleyball standout Molly Mirabelli, whose father Doug is a former Major League catcher.
“He offers advice and Brett soaks it up like a sponge,” Mike Zimmerman said.
“He’s a great source to go to with questions,” Brett added.
The most pressing question now is – when will the season start?
When it does, expect St. Francis and Frankfort to be in the state conversation.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) St. Francis’ Joey Muzljakovich eyes a pitch during last season’s Division 3 Final against Madison Heights Bishop Foley. (Middle) Frankfort’s Brett Zimmerman settles under a pop-up last spring. (Below) Jack Morrow unwinds toward the plate during last season’s all-state campaign. (Frankfort photos courtesy of Frankfort baseball program.)
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.)