By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Don’t get Beal City senior Brett Upton wrong. He wants all the attention on himself – in the biggest of moments.
But he’s the first to deflect the credit to his teammates.
Take for example Saturday afternoon at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium. Upton pitched a gem, completely dominating Unionville-Sebewaing during a 10-0, six-inning victory in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game.
He deserved the lion’s share of the credit. No one could dispute that.
“It’s awesome. I embraced it. I feed off stuff like that,” said Upton, who struck out eight while walking just a pair. “I love big games, I love being the guy in situations like that. All the credit to my teammates, though, making me look a lot better than I really am. That’s for sure.”
The championship is the fourth in Beal City baseball history. The Aggies also won titles in 1993, 2009 and 2010. They were runners-up in 2013-14.
“I’m so happy for these kids,” Beal City coach Steve Pickens said. “This is what baseball is all about. When I see my kids do well, it’s like you put a dollar in and two dollars come out.
“They’ve been dedicated all year, and they work hard and that’s paid off.”
Beal City scored the game’s first run in the bottom of the fourth inning. Senior Kollin Sharrar reached on a bunt single and scored on an RBI double by junior Keegan Haynes. The Aggies added another run in the fifth inning on an RBI single by junior Colby Berryhill, scoring Lucas Schumacher.
But the Aggies broke the game open – and closed it out – with eight runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Haynes and freshman Cameron Lynch each singled to center to get things rolling for their team. After junior Nate Wilson was intentionally walked to load the bases, senior Aaron Schafer drove in a pair to make it 4-0.
That was just the beginning for Beal City. One batter later, with the bases loaded, Berryhill drove in two more with a double. Upton then had a double of his own, scoring senior Lucas Schumacher to give his team a 7-0 lead. Haynes’ RBI single made it 9-0, and Wilson closed things out with an RBI single.
“I can’t even describe it right now. Four years, four years it took us to get here,” Upton said. “To finally finish it, oh my God. All the hours we’ve put in all winter, this senior corps as a group. It’s all paid off. We won our last high school game ever, can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Haynes finished 3 for 4 scoring twice and driving in a pair for Beal City (23-8). Schumacher also had three hits, scoring twice, while Berryhill finished with two hits and three RBI.
Pickens, in just his second year as head coach of the Aggies, spoke about the state of the baseball program in Beal City.
“The kids want to play baseball out there. That’s half the battle, getting them to play,” Pickens said. “I don’t have to do that, so now I can start at 202 instead of 101. By the time we get to the state tournament, here we are.”
Beal City beat Gaylord St. Mary, 7-3, in their Semifinal matchup Friday.
Unionville-Sebewaing (22-16) bested St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic, 5-1, to advance to Saturday’s championship game.
“When you get beat, you get beat. At the end of the day, it’s going to sting but you can live with that knowing you got beat by a good team. They’re a great team,” USA coach Tyler Bader said. “They pitched well, they defended well, they bunted well. I think we could have done some other things that would have made it a little tougher (for them). Anytime you get just one hit, it’s tough to win a game.”
Despite the loss, Bader said he was proud of his team.
“When you get this far into the tournament, you know the team in that other dugout is no slouch. We just couldn’t take advantage of our opportunities when we had guys in scoring position, to put a little pressure on them,” Bader said. “I told them before we went up on stage (to receive the runner-up trophy), ‘I know we’re bummed, we’re mad, but try and enjoy this because in a couple days we’re going to look back on this moment.’
“I know there are a lot of other schools and players out there that would love to swap places with us and be the loser in the state championship game.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Beal City raises its championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) Brett Upton delivers a pitch for the Aggies.
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.)