As Time Marches On, Tuttle's Blissfield Success Sets Record Pace

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 24, 2021

BLISSFIELD – Larry Tuttle spends a little more time in the dugout these days.

The Blissfield coach, 76, says that is his daughter’s idea.

“My daughter tells me she didn’t want me out there,” Tuttle said. “My reaction time isn’t what it used to be.”

Tuttle not coaching third base is something new. However, not much else has changed with the Blissfield baseball program since Tuttle arrived more than five decades ago as a budding baseball coach.

He was an assistant coach at Temperance Bedford who wanted to be a varsity head coach. Blissfield gave him that opportunity, and he never left.

“They asked me if I wanted to coach track,” Tuttle said. “I said, ‘No, I want to coach baseball.’”

Earlier this month, Tuttle’s Royals beat Hillsdale, on the road, in front of a large contingent of former players, parents and community members who made the trip to witness history. With a 15-0 win in the opening game of the Lenawee County Athletic Association doubleheader, Tuttle passed former Grand Ledge head coach Pat O’Keefe to become the winningest high school baseball coach in state history. 

Blissfield is up to 27-3 this season, giving Tuttle 1,324 career victories. O’Keefe compiled 1,315 wins during 1968 and then between 1970 and 2019 before stepping down. Both are in the Michigan Baseball Hall of Fame. 

“Pat and I go back a long way,” Tuttle said. “We’ve known each other a long time. We were both active in the coaches association as board members. He is a good man. This record has been between he and I for many, many years.”

Blissfield baseballThe secret to Tuttle’s success is that he treats today’s games pretty much the same way he did when he took over the program in 1968. 

“The expectations don’t change,” Tuttle said. “That’s important. It is the same today as it was with all my teams. You set that expectation early on. The kids have been great.”

Tuttle has had enormous success at Blissfield. This week the Royals clinched the LCAA tittle, the 40th league title Tuttle has won during his 53 seasons. Also during that span, Blissfield has won 32 District, 23 Regional and seven MHSAA Finals championships. His most recent Finals title came in 2003, which, at the time, was his third in four years. 

He has coached several baseball players that went on to play in college, several at the Division I level, and around a dozen who were either drafted or signed as free agents with Major League Baseball organizations. A couple of them have made it to the Major Leagues, and others have remained in professional baseball as coaches or managers at one level or another.

Steve Babbitt moved to Blissfield in the late 1980s when he was hired as a teacher, and became Tuttle’s assistant coach. He eventually became Blissfield’s athletic director. He was in the district for 30 years, and has retired – and Tuttle is still at it.

“He already was the head coach for 20 years when I got here, and now I’m retired and he’s still coaching,” Babbitt said. “It’s remarkable. … For somebody to be as passionate as Larry and to do it as long as he has, for more than 53 years, is unbelievable.”

Babbitt said Tuttle might have mellowed a little bit over the years, but, to his credit, he’s adapted his coaching style while keeping the expectations the same.

“Once you cross that line and get on the field, nothing has changed,” Babbitt said. “The expectations are the same. He loves the game.”

Tuttle coached third base up until this season, when he decided to turn that duty over to assistant Eric Schmidt, one of his former players. Tuttle not only coached Schmidt, but Schmidt’s father as well. The Royals have several coaches, all with various duties.

“Eric is doing third base this year and doing an excellent job,” Tuttle said. 

Matt Ganun and Matt Jones – both former Royals baseball players – take turns coaching first base. Another former Royal, Jeff Jackson, helps relay Tuttle’s calls from the dugout. 

“Jackson and Ganun were on the 1992 state championship team,” Tuttle said. “They know the game.”

Having so many coaches in the dugout is a blessing, Tuttle said.

Blissfield baseball“I’ve got a lot of great coaches with me,” Tuttle said. “Everybody knows their responsibility and it just falls into place, much better than anybody thinks. If someone look at us, it looks like we are stumbling over ourselves. That’s not the case at all.”

Tuttle has heard from several of his former players and community members since setting the wins record.

“I’ve had a number of players who have contacted me, some over the internet, some have phoned. It has been very exciting from that standpoint and very rewarding to hear from them,” Tuttle said.

“I heard from Brad Fischer. He has been in pro baseball for 43 years with various teams, Major League teams. … He made a comment to me that really hit home. He said, ‘Coach, if it hadn’t been for you, my career in baseball would never have happened.’ That really hits home when someone tells you that. Then I know maybe I’ve had an impact on some lives.”

Blissfield is enjoying one of its best seasons in years, led by five seniors – Nolan Savich, Ty Wyman, Zack Horky, Scott Jackson and Gavin Ganun. Ganun and Horky have signed to play at Bowling Green State University next season. 

Tuttle’s goals have been the same pretty much every season for years – win the league, win the District, and make a deep MHSAA Tournament run. This year’s team is ranked No. 6 in the most recent Division 3 coaches association poll.

Breaking the record also brought a lot of attention, from newspaper and television stations to Bally’s Sports Detroit doing a segment on Tuttle and the team for a Detroit Tigers pre-game show.

“It’s been exciting,” Tuttle said. “It’s been good for our whole community and the school system. In a small town, the school system is a major part of the community.”

Tuttle lives across the street from Blissfield High, not much more than a long fly ball from the Royals’ stadium. Most days, especially this time of the year, that is where you will find him, working on the field.

“I don’t do as much as I used to because I have a lot of people helping me,” Tuttle said. “Some of the other coaches won’t let me now. But I’m over there almost every day doing something, because usually there’s something that has to be done to keep it looking like it does.”

Some things never change.

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Blissfield coach Larry Tuttle poses for photos with his team after setting the MHSAA record for baseball coaching wins this month. (Middle) Tuttle’s 1992 team was among his Finals champions; he is standing back row, far right. (Below) Tuttle with this season’s five seniors. (2021 photos courtesy of Joe Flaherty. 1992 photo from MHSAA files.)

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.)