Category: Feature

Chukars’ groundskeeper cultivates baseball passion

Melaleuca Field grounds keeper Ryan Coleman, finishes spray painting the batters box for a recent Chukars game against the Great Falls Voyagers. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Melaleuca Field grounds keeper Ryan Coleman, finishes spray painting the batters box for a recent Chukars game against the Great Falls Voyagers. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

By KEVIN TREVELLYAN
ktrevellyan@postregister.com

Baseball fans take their seats by the hundreds during any given summer evening at Melaleuca Field to watch the Idaho Falls Chukars play.

The announcer lists batters’ names as they step up to home plate. Foul-tipped balls arc in the warm air into the parking lot while players stand watching the game with their arms hanging over the dugout railing.

Elsewhere, usually behind home plate and anonymous to fans watching baseballs skid across the closely trimmed outfield grass, Ryan Coleman sits in the grandstand — likely one of the sport’s youngest professional head groundskeepers.

For Coleman, 24, game days usually run from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; he’s there long after fans go home and pitchers have begun strapping ice packs to their arms.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman pulls a “nail drag” across the home plate area at Melaleuca Field with his intern, Bryan Duffy. The nail drag levels out the ground and allows the groundskeepers to smooth it with rakes. (Kevin Trevellyan / ktrevellyan@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman pulls a “nail drag” across the home plate area at Melaleuca Field with his intern, Bryan Duffy. The nail drag levels out the ground and allows the groundskeepers to smooth it with rakes. (Kevin Trevellyan / ktrevellyan@postregister.com)

The field requires rehab of its own. Gouges taken out of the infield dirt after a runner slides spike-first into second base need filling; the pitcher’s mound has to be smoothed over.

Maintaining every aspect of the field, from home plate to the dirt warning track, takes immense attention to detail — and an even bigger affinity for the game itself.

“The field, she’s kind of tricky. And if you’re not constantly thinking of ways to improve it, or make it safer and better for the players, I think you’re just going to fall behind,” Coleman said. “We have long days and short nights. You have to love baseball to do it.”

This is Coleman’s second year managing the Chukars’ grounds, and like the players laboring for a chance at the bigs, he too has an eye on advancement within baseball.

Coleman played infield at Feather River College in California, and Concordia University in Portland, Ore. In the summers between he managed fields for Oregon-based Athletic Field Design.

“He showed interest and passion. Usually when I hire someone they’re just there to get money; they don’t want to get into the industry,” said Coleman’s mentor, Athletic Field Design owner Mike Hebrard. “I think he’d do anything he could to keep playing, but this is the next best thing.”

Hebrard recommended Coleman for the Chukars job after hearing about it from an old college baseball teammate.

“He had no girlfriend, no dog — he was perfect, because it’s a lot of hours,” Hebrard said. “You have to throw the clock out the window. There’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in groundskeeping.”

Coleman, post-playing days, enjoys talking to Chukars’ coaches or golfing with some of the players, “just being around baseball really.”

He developed a perfectionist’s eye working on Little League Softball World Series fields with Hebrard.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman waters the field in preparation for a Chukars’ game against the Great Falls Voyagers. He and intern Bryan Duffy, left, often work 15-hour days during homestands, fighting a losing battle to bandage the field after the beating it takes each game. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman waters the field in preparation for a Chukars’ game against the Great Falls Voyagers. He and intern Bryan Duffy, left, often work 15-hour days during homestands, fighting a losing battle to bandage the field after the beating it takes each game. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

“We’re on ESPN, so that field has to look perfect every time,” Coleman said. “That was one thing my boss always harped on. I know we’re not on TV here in Idaho Falls, but I still try to take what I learned from him and teach it to my guys now.”

Coleman works with intern Bryan Duffy. It’s just them when the Chukars are away; Coleman has a few more interns working for him before home games.

“When he got here he didn’t have a significant amount of experience, but he’s done an exceptional job, especially for the lack of help I provide him — a lot of Minor League ballparks have entire grounds crews,” said Chukars General Manager Kevin Greene. “It might seem thankless at times because you’re out there by yourself busting it, but you get a couple years experience and you work your way up just like a player might.”

Eastern Idaho presents unique maintenance challenges compared to the damp Pacific Northwest where Coleman grew up; he’s contradicting nature’s course every time he pours a soil additive into the outfield at Melaleuca.

“We have real poor soil here for growing grass,” said Brad Clayton, Falls Fertilizer consultant. “Especially when there’s a baseball game there almost every day in warmer months between high school and the pros.”

Coleman works with Clayton to figure out which materials the field needs — which fertilizers and nitrogen supplements will strike the proper pH balance to allow Idaho Falls’ clay soil to accept grass roots.

“It’s always hot and always windy; that’s the toughest part,” Coleman said. “You have to keep the infield dirt moist when it’s 90 degrees outside and winds are blowing 20 mph; it sucks the water right out of the ground.”
Coleman expects to work for the Chukars at least through next season, but he’s keeping his eye on the possibility of another job higher up the professional baseball hierarchy, possibly for an A or AA team.

“If I can make a field look perfect in Idaho Falls with the little resources I have, when I have more supplies at another job I can make that field even better,” Coleman said. “The attention to detail is the biggest thing to me.”

Coleman’s age and lack of formal field management education is unusual in his field.

“A majority of our members — 72 percent — has either a degree or certificate in some sort of turf grass management, most of them have studied agronomy or turf grass science,” said Kim Heck, Chief Executive Officer of the Sports Turf Managers Association. “And at 24, he would definitely be one of the youngest heads groundskeepers in Minor League Baseball.”

Though he doesn’t have a degree, Coleman’s education is ongoing, whether its leafing through the newest issue of SportsTurf Magazine, or picking the brain of the Kansas City Royals’ head groundskeeper.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman rakes the dirt around home plate before a recent Chukars’ home game against the Great Falls Voyagers. Nine innings of batters tapping their toes and stomping into the dirt as they swing the bat makes a mess of Coleman’s delicate patching. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman rakes the dirt around home plate before a recent Chukars’ home game against the Great Falls Voyagers. Nine innings of batters tapping their toes and stomping into the dirt as they swing the bat makes a mess of Coleman’s delicate patching. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

Wednesday afternoon while the Chukars were in Grand Junction, Colo., Coleman worked on the field with Duffy.

Away stretches give groundskeepers time to properly fix the spots they had to bandage during the previous home stretch.

Sprinklers sprayed water throughout the field while Coleman and Duffy worked on a gash near third base.

“Did they win last night?” Duffy said.

“They lost, Luna threw seven good innings then they gave it up to a lefty,” Coleman said, shoveling clay and soil onto the infield.

Afterward they dragged a rectangular wooden frame full of downward-facing nails across the home plate area, leveling out a hump where the umpire stands.

Little holes pockmarked the ground where batters dug their feet into the earth. A record of innate player tics common from Little League to Major League Baseball can be found all over the field.

“It kills Bryan and I to see it sometimes,” Coleman says with a smile. “Most of the batters are righties, and the hole next to home plate gets gnarly.”

They wet the hole and packed it with fresh clay; just like you would in a pottery class, Coleman said, as he scored lines in the clay and added another layer. He pounded the repair with a heavy, flat-bottomed tool, and squatted to run his hands across the material. The only record of his work was the wet spot left on the smooth ground.

During games, Coleman’s available in case there’s an emergency. Though he usually takes a seat behind home plate, he’ll meander around the grandstand. Knowing that they’re unaware of his presence, Coleman enjoys hearing people talk about how the field looks.

After playing baseball since childhood, making a career of the sport hasn’t hampered his enjoyment of it.

“It makes me love baseball more, knowing what goes into it. My uncle manages a golf course, and the last thing he wants to do after work is play nine holes. As long as that doesn’t happen to me, I’m stoked,” Coleman said. “I get to watch baseball during my break, what’s better than that?”

Ogden hosts stressful, successful all-star game

The players line up for the Canadian National Anthem prior to Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game in Ogden, Utah. (Victor Flores / vflores@postregister.com)
The players line up for the Canadian National Anthem prior to Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game in Ogden, Utah. (Victor Flores / vflores@postregister.com)

Many things occupied Dave Baggott’s mind Tuesday afternoon, but one overruled the rest.

“The game’s about to start pretty soon, but I’m more excited about going to bed without turning the alarm on,” Baggott said with a laugh.

The Ogden Raptors’ president was referencing Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game at Lindquist Field in Ogden, Utah. Baggott and his staff prepared for this game for the better part of a year, and the workload reached exhausting levels Monday and Tuesday.

Ogden was responsible for all of the festivities’ expenses, and the club will collect all of the revenue, Baggott said. The Raptors might not net a profit, but Baggott was proud of the event even before the game began.

“It’s not hard work, it’s just three times the work because normally you’re dealing with one team and one fan base,” Baggott said. “This is a culmination of a year’s worth of work, and we’ll see what the payoff is.”

Ogden announced it would host the 2016 all-star game during last year’s inaugural game in Spokane, Wash. Minor League Baseball officially approved it near the end of the 2015 season, allowing Baggott and company to move forward with the event schedule, ticket packages, TV deals, etc.

The festivities started Monday evening. Players and executives arrived sporadically throughout the day. The players talked to the media at 4:15 p.m., then left for dinner at Needles Lodge at Snowbasin Ski Resort. The players, executives, media and others involved rode gondolas up to the resort.

“I’m not real big on heights, so I’m glad it was the gondolas they were using and not the T-bars,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said. “I talked with a few young men (about the gondola ride) and said, ‘You ever seen anything like that?’ And they said, ‘Never.’ And they may never again.”

Tuesday’s festivities began with a fan fest at 3:30 p.m. Vendors lined the street outside of Lindquist Field, and fans received autographs from the all-stars. Then fans entered the stadium.

General admission tickets cost $18 while bleacher and grass area seats were $12, up from $12 and $6, respectively, for Raptors games. Each ticket served as a voucher that would get fans into four Raptors games for free (a $48 value). Baggott also sold 10-ticket packs that would give fans season tickets for the 2017 season. He said about 20 people

Idaho Falls catcher Meibrys Viloria connects for a single during Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star game in Ogden, Utah. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)
Idaho Falls catcher Meibrys Viloria connects for a single during Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star game in Ogden, Utah. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)

purchased such packages.

“The expense to put on the all-star game is probably five times greater than putting on a normal game,” Baggott said. “So there’s a lot on the line.”

The all-star game was preceded by a home run derby. Idaho Falls Chukars’ catcher Meibrys Viloria participated in the derby, which was won by Salem-Keizer’s Gio Brusa. The main attraction started at 7:15 p.m., and the Northwest League won 11-5. The announced attendance was 5,339. The game wasn’t broadcast live, but it will air on Root Sports (Rocky Mountain region) at 2 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Sunday.

Next year’s game will be played in Hillsboro, Ore. (home of the Hillsboro Hops), pending MiLB approval.

“We’ll do a postmortem and a debrief,” O’Conner said. “We’ll check with all of the Major League affiliates that participated, and we’ll move forward and ask for an extension.”

Baggott said two things constituted a successful event: a significant profit and minimal mistakes. He wouldn’t know about the first category until after the game, but everything leading up to the game went smoothly, and nothing went noticeably awry during the game. He was also happy to give Ogden exposure, regardless of money.

A successful end to the night, however, had different standards to Baggott.

“We’ll have a little postgame party upstairs at the BBQ for an hour after the game,” Baggott said. “And then I want everybody to get out of my ballpark and go home because I want to go to sleep (laughs).”

Chukars’ all-stars took giant leaps this season

Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Last Wednesday, the Chukars lost to Missoula on a walkoff home run. The man who served up the homer was Brian Bayliss, who discovered he was a Pioneer League All-Star hours earlier.

Bayliss’ all-star selection couldn’t fully neutralize the sting of the walkoff, but it softened the blow. The second annual Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game is a good reminder to Bayliss and the Chukars’ other four all-stars Alex Luna, Yeison Melo, Manny Olloque and Meibrys Viloria of the larger picture. They’ve taken strides toward the higher levels of affiliated baseball over the last month and a half.

“It’s an honor,” Olloque said. “Just keep going. We’ve got plenty of season left. Improve on it.”

All five of I.F.’s All-Stars have gone through some version of the same story: they’ve broken through this season afterlackluster 2015 campaigns. Viloria might be the most glaring example.

The 19-year-old catcher leads the Pioneer League in batting average (.448), slugging percentage (.776), OPS (1.269), doubles(17) and total bases (97). Viloria has drawn only 10 walks, but that does not mean he’s impatient.

“He knows what he’s looking for,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “If there’s a fastball on the outer half, and hedoesn’t like it, he’d rather be 0 and 1 than 0 for 1. Taking nothing away from his aggressiveness. It’s a controlledaggressiveness.”

Why take a walk when you get a pitch you can crush?

Viloria has 20 extra-base hits, including the six home runs that landed him in Tuesday’s home run derby and in the starting lineup for the game to follow. He had 39 hits last year with Burlington. None went for extra bases.

“I was working hard last year,” Viloria said in Spanish through I.F. bench coach Ramon Castro. “I tried hitting the ball (hard)but I couldn’t do it last year. I wasn’t focused. This year, I’m more focused, relaxed, I see the ball better and I have moreconfidence.”

Olloque hit .169 with a .438 OPS in 18 games with the Arizona League Royals that summer after battling a thumb injury. Hehas been plenty healthy this summer.

Olloque’s .342 batting average and .895 OPS netted him the start at third base for Tuesday’s game.

“He recovers really well,” David said. “If the pitcher makes a good pitch or a good couple pitches, it doesn’t phase him.”

Melo had the best 2015 season of I.F.’s all-stars, hitting .318 in 43 games for the Arizona League Royals. His OPS, however, was .772. That number is .919 this season, thanks in large part to 12 doubles, four triples and three home runs. Melo leads the Pioneer League in hits (58) and RBIs (39).

“We have done some things that have allowed him to be more in a position to see the fastball,” David said. “If it’s a breaking ball that he can get to or they hang, he’s in a better position to (hit) that, but he’s also recognizing, for the most part, the ones he can’t handle.”

Luna had a 4.54 ERA in 41.2 innings with Burlington last year. In 40 innings this season, he leads the Pioneer League in ERA (2.48) and the team in strikeouts (42). He’s issued just seven walks.

“We want to fill up the strike zone, and he’s able to do that,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “It makes the hitters more aggressive. Then he can pick, he can change speeds, and he does that well.”

Luna will miss the game due to a strained oblique, and Bayliss filled his vacancy. Bayliss played for the Chukars last year and finished with a 6.39 ERA in 25.1 innings. His ERA is 3.24 in 16.2 innings this year, and he allowed only one earned run his first 10 innings. Suppan said Bayliss has been effective in throwing his changeup off his sinking fastball, and he tries to get hitters to chase his curveball.

The five all-star Chukars aren’t close to their major goal, but Tuesday’s game validates the progress they’ve made.

“I continued working hard,” Melo said. “I want to make the next level next year.”

Local umpires step up at Chukars games

Umpires Conner Culhane (left) and Chris Sundvold talk during the Idaho Falls Chukars’ game against the Helena Brewers on July 15 at Melaleuca Field. Sundvold filled in for an injured Jacob Botek. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)
Umpires Conner Culhane (left) and Chris Sundvold talk during the Idaho Falls Chukars’ game against the Helena Brewers on July 15 at Melaleuca Field. Sundvold filled in for an injured Jacob Botek. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)

Teagan Smith knows Melaleuca Field well, but the ballpark looked foreign to him last Thursday.

Smith umpired an Idaho Falls Chukars game for the first time in his 10-year umpiring career.

His experience at Melaleuca Field is exclusive to high school games, which might feature 100 fans on a good night. The attendance at last Thursday’s game between the Chukars and Helena Brewers was 3,177.

The mix of a large crowd and professional stakes led to a bundle of nerves for Smith, who was filling in for the injured Jacob Botek. But the butterflies fluttered away once the game got rolling.

“It’s just baseball,” Smith said.

Smith was one of three local umpires who picked up Botek’s slack during the Chukars’ most recent homestand. Idaho Falls general manager Kevin Greene is tasked with finding replacement umpires. Conflicting schedules and low pay sometimes make that job difficult.

On the rare occasions when Greene needs to find a replacement umpire, he turns to Brent Martin. Martin is the District 6 commissioner for umpires and rules interpreter, and he has filled in at Chukars games for years. Martin declined to umpire last week due to a bad knee, so he recommended Smith and Brad Hadley to Greene.

Hadley worked with Pioneer League umpire Conner Culhane on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. But neither Hadley nor Smith could work Friday’s game due to their previous commitments as umpires for American Legion baseball games. That left Greene in a bind.

“I called the (Pioneer) League president and said, ‘I’ve got no one,’ Greene said. “He said, ‘Kevin, you’ve gotta find someone.’”

Greene eventually got Chris Sundvold to fill in.

Players and coaches know the replacement umpires are not professionals, but the umpires didn’t poor treatment from the teams. And Smith, Hadley and Sundvold umpired relatively clean games. It’s just baseball, after all.

The only real issue is finding umpires, and scheduling is not the only conflicting factor.

The Pioneer League pays replacement umpires $75 per game, according to league president Jim McCurdy. Martin said umpires get paid about $75 for Legion games, and that number spikes to $120 for doubleheaders. Barring extra innings, Legion games last seven innings, and mercy rules can reduce game times even more. Every Pioneer League game goes at least nine innings, and umpires are required to show up an hour before first pitch.

“You should be getting $100, minimum, for a professional baseball game,” Martin said. “We don’t want to bleed them dry, but we think we should be compensated at least to the high school level or better.”

Umpires can make more than $75 for Pioneer League games, but the extra cash comes out of the team’s wallet, Greene said, and there’s only so much room in the budget. McCurdy said increased pay for replacement umps has not been discussed in recent league meetings.

Hadley doesn’t mind the meager pay. For one, the opportunities for local umpires to work Chukars games are so rare that the money they receive hardly affects their total income. Martin, for instance, hasn’t umped a Chukars game since 2014.

Hadley also considers it a privilege to work Chukars games.

“It’s fun to say that you’ve umped a (professional) game, even though it’s minor league,” he said. “I’m not too worried about the pay because it’s not that big of a deal.”

On the road again: Jeff Suppan adjusts to life as coach

 

Jun15ChukarsWorkout1-768x466
Idaho Falls Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan, right, watches right-hander Reid Redman on June 14 at the team’s first workout at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

Jeff Suppan has memorized one line of Spanish: “No hablo español pero entiendo todo.”

Translation: “I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand everything.”

It’s a joke Suppan tells the Spanish-speaking pitchers on the Idaho Falls Chukars in attempt to hurdle the language barrier. And the Latino pitchers make up a fraction of the players Suppan is mentoring in his second year as I.F.’s pitching coach.

“You try to understand the individual, whether they speak the language or not,” Suppan told the Post Register.

Last season, Suppan made a translated cheat sheet of key points he wanted to tell his Latino pitchers. He also consults bench coach Ramon Castro or bilingual players if he needs a translator.

But the maze of translation still provides some frustration.

“If I say, ‘Hey, be aggressive,’ (a Latino pitcher) might think it means, ‘I have to throw 100 miles an hour,’” Suppan said. “To me, that doesn’t mean that. ‘Just hit the strike zone. Be aggressive in your pitch, whether it’s a changeup, slider, curveball or fastball.’”

These adjustments are relatively minor compared to Suppan’s first weeks in Idaho Falls last summer.

Suppan officially retired from Major League Baseball in 2014. His last pro season was 2012, when he split time between the San Diego Padres and their Triple-A affiliate. When the Padres released Suppan after the season, the right-handed pitcher ended his 17-year MLB career.

The year before his stint with San Diego, Suppan played for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Kansas City Royals’ AAA affiliate. Suppan said people in the Royals’ organization gauged his interest in coaching. At the time, he couldn’t fathom coaching career.

“It took a year, maybe two years to get the player out of me,” Suppan said.

Suppan became more attracted by coaching the longer he was retired. He stayed in touch with the Royals and went to the team’s scout school. A year after officially retiring, he was hired as the Chukars’ pitching coach.

One of the hardest things for Suppan to get used to last summer was riding the bus to every road game. He flew in chartered jets his entire major league career, which began in 1995. From 1998 to 2011, Suppan’s only trips to the minor leagues were for one-start rehab assignments.

He only had to worry about one pitcher for the previous two decades, as well. As a pitching coach, Suppan had to focus on more than a dozen.

Suppan owned a Los Angeles restaurant fittingly named Soup’s Grill until this past December. His coaching responsibilities helped lead to the restaurant’s sale.

“My wife was stuck in California with two kids having to run to the restaurant because somebody didn’t show up,” Suppan said. “I didn’t really think that was fair, and the market was right, so we sold it.”

Chukars left-hander Matt Portland was disappointed when he found out he’d be returning to I.F. for a second straight season. No player wants to repeat a minor-league level. One bright spot, however, was the Chukars coaching staff, particularly Suppan.

Portland described Suppan as approachable and hip, a coach who deftly balances the mentor-peer relationship. Suppan will discuss more than just pitching, although he’s good at that, too.

“His favorite saying is, ‘You never know when a bag of (expletive) is going to fall on your head,’” Portland said. “You’ve gotta be even-keeled and be ready for the highs and the lows.”

Portland has a 9.18 ERA this season, but last week he threw a sequence of pitches that left Suppan proud.

The basis of the sequence is this: throw an inside slider followed by a sinker that begins where the slider ended. The goal is to create an invisible X in the hitter’s mind, keeping him off-balance.

After weeks of practice, Portland executed the sequence in a game.

Moments like these make the grind of I.F.’s season worth it for Suppan. Whenever he can get through to his pitchers, Hispanic or otherwise, he’s glad he pursued a coaching career.

“Hitters can hit forever in the cage, but we can’t really throw (forever),” Suppan said. “Getting that work down to where it’s short increments where we’re gaining a lot of knowledge from it, that’s where I get really excited.”

Tall order: Cole Way transitions from punter to pitcher

Way
Way

Not many athletes get to choose between playing pro baseball or college football.

But there was Cole Way, sitting in his parents’ living room, wondering if he’d be selected in the 2014 MLB draft. If not, he’d likely return for his senior year at Tulsa. As a punter.

Way almost lost faith, but he finally heard his name called in the 38th round. The Kansas City Royals selected him, causing the living room to fill with hugs and tears.

“(The Royals) called me right after that and were like, ‘Hey, we’re serious about you,’ Way said. “I told them right there, ‘I’m in.’

Two years and a $50,000 signing bonus later, Way is pitching for the Idaho Falls Chukars. At 24, the left-hander is one of the oldest players on I.F.’s roster. But in baseball years, he’s one of the youngest.

I feel like I’m growing, maturing in the game like I need to be doing,” Way said.

Perhaps more surprising than Way’s path from punter to pitcher is that he was a punter to begin with. He’s 6-foot-11.

Way became a punter because of his brother Tress, who is heading into his third season as the starting punter for the Washington Redskins. Cole juggled baseball and football scholarship offers entering his senior year at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla. Watching Tress thrive at the University of Oklahoma helped sway Way toward football.

“Being a little brother, I was like, ‘Well if he can do it, I’m gonna do it,’ Way said.

A group of Way’s friends chose to attend Tulsa, so Way’s decision became easy. Tress believes Way could have gone to bigger school if he attended more football camps in high school.

“Out of high school, Cole was probably the best punter in the country,” Tress said. “Cole was a better punter than I was.”

Way grew three inches after his junior season at Tulsa in 2013. In May 2014, he traveled to Corona, Calif., to visit Tress’ future in-laws, which included former Seattle Mariner Brian Turang. Turang, who owns a training facility in Corona, heard Way was a pitcher in high school and asked him to pitch for the first time in three years. Turang’s radar gun clocked Way’s fastball from 89 and 92 miles per hour.

Turang recommended Way to a Southern California-based Royals scout, who brought Way in for a workout, according to MLB.com. The scout was also impressed, and Way was invited to a Royals pre-draft workout.

A week after the workout, Way sat in his parents’ living room listening to the MLB draft feed on a laptop. If Way wasn’t drafted but signed as a free agent, he’d consider balancing baseball with his final season at Tulsa. That consideration went out the window when the Royals selected him.

Tress told his brother that baseball was a no-brainer. As impressive as Way was as a punter, Tress gushed even more about his pitching ability.

“I try telling people how good he was in high school. Anytime he stepped on the mound, guys never touched the ball,” Tress said. “We all had a pretty good idea what God created him to do.”

Last year with Burlington, Way overextended his elbow three weeks into last season and missed the rest of it. He entered this summer healthy, and he’s posted a 3.18 ERA in 5.2 innings so far.

Pitching coach Jeff Suppan is impressed with Way’s stuff and temperament. Way’s football career rarely comes up.

“He doesn’t really say he was a punter,” Suppan said. “He just says he was on the football team.”

Way knows he’s raw compared to most minor-league pitchers, so he’s patient. He’s just grateful the Royals gave him a shot.

“Hopefully I can live up to the expectations of what they saw,” Way said.

Scary injury landed Brandon Dulin with the Chukars

Idaho Falls' Brandon Dulin takes the throw from pitcher Alex Luna during Tuesday's game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls’ Brandon Dulin takes the throw from pitcher Alex Luna during Tuesday’s game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

Brandon Dulin should not be in Idaho Falls right now.

The Idaho Falls Chukars first baseman proved last season that was he was too good for Rookie ball, and the Kansas City Royals promoted him to Single-A Lexington this spring. He continued to hit well.

But since April 12, Dulin has played just four games, all with the Chukars. The reason: a freak injury on one of the most routine plays in baseball.

Dulin, 23, started at first base for Lexington in the second half of a doubleheader against the Augusta GreenJackets on April 12 in Lexington, Ky. Dulin walked in his first plate appearance and singled in his second, raising his slash line to .364/.417/.818 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in three games with the Legends.

After the fourth-inning single, Dulin was forced out at second base on a fielder’s choice. He slid feet-first into second base on the play, something he’d done hundreds of times before. As Dulin stood up, pain shot up his back and neck.

Dulin stayed in the game for two more innings but asked his coaches to take him out in the seventh. He was having trouble moving and even breathing.

“They were really worried about me as soon as I was like, ‘Hey, I can’t play,’ because it’s just not like me to pull myself out of the game,” Dulin said.

In the locker room after the game, Dulin fainted for a brief second. That’s when the Legends’ training staff knew something was seriously wrong, so Dulin was rushed to the hospital. In hindsight, Dulin fears what might have happened if he didn’t pass out, or if the training staff wasn’t around.

“I could’ve just went to sleep not feeling good ‘I’m just gonna sleep it off’ and it could’ve been really bad,” Dulin said.

Dulin discovered he had hemothorax, a type of internal bleeding between the chest wall and the lung. It caused his lung to collapse, and it kept him in intensive care for nine days.

Dulin’s parents, Jason and Lisa, flew from their Baker, Mont., home to Lexington after they heard about their son’s condition.The three returned to Whitaker Bank Ballpark after leaving the hospital.

“We walked in and his trainer was like, ‘I literally thought I’d never see you walk through these doors again,’ Lisa said. “‘I thought you were dying that night.’ It was pretty scary.”

Dulin rehabilitated in Kansas City (his hometown) before heading to Arizona for more rehab. The Royals then assigned him to I.F., where he finished the 2015 season. Dulin hit .286/.290/.321 in seven games for the Chukars last year after posting .280/.360/.516 line in 59 games for Burlington. He was batting .385/.429/.615 going into Tuesday’s game, and he hit home run against Ogden on Saturday.

“It wasn’t about baseball, it was his health. That’s all we were concerned about,” said Jason, who watched Saturday’s game with Lisa and other family and friends. “Seeing him out playing and hitting a home run tonight, it makes you feel good that he’s healthy and he’s able to play.”

Dulin is not sure how long he’ll remain in I.F., although his early success points to an exit sooner rather than later. He has steep path to Kansas City, but even after his scary injury, Dulin remains focused on playing in his home city.

“You keep playing as hard as you can and put yourself in position to get that call,” Dulin said. “I believe that I have a good shot.”

Reid Redman continues adjusting to life as a pitcher

Right-handed relief pitcher Reid Redman, 27, is on a rehab assignment with the Idaho Falls Chukars. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Right-handed relief pitcher Reid Redman, 27, is on a rehab assignment with the Idaho Falls Chukars. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

It’s hard to blame Reid Redman for missing the warning signs.

The right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization felt some tightness in his right forearm during 2015 spring training, but he pitched through it.

“I was pretty new to pitching, so I thought this was just what pitchers go through,” Redman told the Post Register.

The pain persisted during his first two months with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate. That May, Redman decided to get his arm looked at. An MRI revealed a ulnar collateral ligament tear. He underwent Tommy John surgery the next day.

The surgery landed Redman, 27, with the Idaho Falls Chukars this summer on a rehabilitation assignment. His goal this summer is to progress as a pitcher, a position he began playing three years ago.

Redman graduated from Texas Tech in 2012 with a degree in oil and gas. In 2013, the Lubbock, Texas, native started considering a career in the oil industry.

Redman was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 23rd round of the 2012 MLB draft. He played infield at the time and had hardly pitched an inning in his career.

In 2012, the Rays assigned Redman to Rookie-level Princeton, where he spent most of his time at second base. Redman batted .265/.324/.376 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 253 plate appearances that summer. It wasn’t a horrendous performance, but Tampa Bay released him after 2013 spring training.

Redman packed his things and headed back to West Texas. He figured his career was over.

“I was going to get into oil and gas of some sort,” Redman said. “That’s all there really is around there.”

Before he began searching for new jobs, a scout for the Miami Marlins called Redman wondering if he could come to Palm Beach, Fla., for a tryout. Redman didn’t hesitate.

Redman arrived in Palm Beach hoping to impress the Marlins scouts at the plate and in the field.

“They said, ‘You don’t need any bats or anything, you just need your glove. We want to see if you can pitch,’ Redman said. “I was pretty confused at first. Thought they might have the wrong guy.”

A Miami scout was impressed with Redman’s arm as a infielder for Texas Tech, Redman said, and the Marlins wanted to see if that arm would translate to the pitching mound. Redman wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity. But all he threw, all he knew, were fastballs.

“I really had no idea what I was doing,” Redman said.

His velocity, movement and mechanics impressed Miami enough for them to offer him a contract. It’s paid off.

Redman posted a 1.91 ERA in 28.1 relief innings for the Batavia Muckdogs (short-season Single-A) in 2013. He played for the advanced Single-A Jupiter Hammerheads and the Double-A Jacksonville Suns the following season. His combined ERA in 61.2 innings that year was 2.04, with 68 strikeouts and 12 walks.

Redman and left-hander Brian Flynn were traded to the Royals for Aaron Crow before the 2015 season, and Redman was assigned to Northwest Arkansas. He posted a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings before he experienced a pitcher’s worst nightmare last May. But he considers the Tommy John rehab a blessing in disguise, a chance to improve his slider and changeup.

“His stuff is there, he’s got good velocity,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “He has a good idea of how the game is played. That’s half the battle really.”

Redman does not know how long his rehab assignment will last or where he’ll be assigned after Idaho Falls. But it’s easy for him to be patient. After all, he thought his career was finished three years ago.

“I’m gonna try to do this as long as I can, and hopefully have some fun while I do it,” Redman said. “Oil and gas will be there when I get done.”

Another year, another new Chukars’ broadcaster

Andrew Haynes begins his first season as the Idaho Falls Chukars’ broadcaster and director of media relations. He is the fifth person to serve that role since 2009. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Andrew Haynes begins his first season as the Idaho Falls Chukars’ broadcaster and director of media relations. He is the fifth person to serve that role since 2009. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

John Balginy enters his 32nd season as an Idaho Falls Chukars broadcaster, yet change continues to flow through the booth.

Andrew Haynes is another agent of that change. The 29-year-old was hired in March as the Chukars’ latest broadcaster and director of media relations. He’s Balginy’s fifth booth partner since 2009, when local legend Jim Garchow passed away at 72 due to leukemia.

“I just hope to grow as an announcer and as a media relations contact, especially with my writing skills,” Haynes said. “Get a little more smooth, especially on the air. Also looking forward to helping out around the team and learn the ways of professional ball.”

Haynes is the Chukars’ third different director of media relations/broadcaster in as many years. Alex Cohen served the position last summer, and he currently works for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Class A Affiliate. Chris Lewis, who now calls Boise State women’s basketball games, preceded Cohen in Idaho Falls.

Balginy is still getting accustomed to the constant movement of his broadcast partners. He called I.F. minor league baseball games with Garchow for 25 years.

“The first year or so, it was strange not having Jim there,” Balginy said. “But I enjoy these young guys. They have a lot of enthusiasm. They’re trying to move up, and I’m just trying to stay here and stay alive.

Balginy has only interacted with Haynes for a few days, and he’s been impressed so far. He said Haynes has already shown better preparedness than Cohen, and that trait can help neutralize Haynes’ relative inexperience.

“Preparation’s always key,” Balginy said. “Jim Garchow always said, ‘If you have a good pregame show, you’re gonna have a good broadcast.’

Haynes’ lone experience as a media director before joining the Chukars was in the summer of 2010, a year after he graduated from Fresno State University. Haynes handled media relations and called games for the East Texas Pump Jacks of the Texas Collegiate League. The Pump Jacks played in Kilgore, Texas, a town of about 15,000 people. Haynes had spent his whole life in Fresno, Calif. (population greater than 500,000) before 2010.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” Haynes said. “But it was a good culture shock. It was a good eye-opener.”

Haynes returned to Fresno and became a broadcaster for Fresno State’s flagship radio station in 2012, primarily calling softball games. He also called some high school games.

In addition to calling home games with Balginy, Haynes will travel with the Chukars for every road trip. Balginy will accompany him for I.F.’s first road trip to Grand Junction next week, but Haynes will ride solo after that.

At this point, Haynes does not know if he’ll join the Chukars’ drive-thru of broadcasters or if he’ll stick around for at least two summers. Either way, Haynes does not see Idaho Falls as a longterm destination.

“I do hope to work my way up the ladder and hopefully do major league games,” Haynes said. “I might go on a different path, but that is the goal at this point.”

Former Chukars named all-stars

The Texas League announced its all-stars this week, and four former Chukars made the list.

Those four, who play for the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, are right-handed pitcher Jake Junis (played for I.F. in 2013), right-hander Alec Mills (2014), third baseman Mauricio Ramos (2013) and first baseman Frank Schwindel (2013).

Chukars Notebook: Derek Gordon’s unorthodox path to pros

Idaho Falls’ Derek Gordon delivers a pitch against Orem on July 28 at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls’ Derek Gordon delivers a pitch against Orem on July 28 at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

The Idaho Falls Chukars’ best starting pitcher was a scrawny second baseman six years ago.

That pitcher, Derek Gordon, is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. Before graduating from Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast High School, he stood 5-foot-11.

A position shift is a small part of Gordon’s unorthodox route to professional baseball success. His under-the-radar career and famous brother have contributed to one of Gordon’s primary traits: measured expectations.

“I didn’t expect much, and now it’s not like I have super high expectations for myself,” Gordon, 23, said Friday. “But I have a standard I set for myself. I want to go out and compete and have the best chance to win.”

In high school, Gordon knew he wasn’t a phenom like his older brother, Alex, an MLB all-star who was chosen second overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2005 amateur draft. So Gordon chose to play for Missouri’s Park University of the NAIA.

Park’s coaches recruited Gordon to play second base and pitch, but when the season approached, the slender Gordon stood 6-foot-4. The Pirates opted to move Gordon to the outfield in addition to his pitching duties.

The next year, Gordon and his coaches agreed he’d exclusively pitch. He finished his Park career with a 3.35 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched.

That success didn’t net him a minor league contract. Luckily for Gordon, he knew Bill Sobbe, the pitching coach for the independent Kansas City T-Bones. Sobbe set up a pitching session in front of T-Bones manager John Massarelli in June 2014. The team signed Gordon days later.

His ERA was 6.49 in 14 games for the T-Bones.

Gordon’s family was full of Royals fans even before Alex and their cousin, Jake Kuebler, were drafted by the franchise (Kuebler played 23 games for the Chukars in 2010). Gordon’s parents even named his older brother, Brett, after Kansas City legend George Brett.

The Royals cemented Gordon’s fandom this year.

In January, Gordon was driving to his cousins’ house to play catch. On the drive, he received a phone call. It was J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ vice president/assistant general manager for player personnel. Kansas City had signed Gordon, Picollo said.

After Gordon hung up, he pulled over to the side of the road.

“I was shaking,” Gordon said. “I was so excited.”

Gordon was a mid- to late-inning reliever for the T-Bones, but the Royals asked him to be a starter. In nine starts for Idaho Falls, Gordon’s ERA is 4.34, which would be better if not for the seven earned runs he allowed against Helena on Aug. 9.

On the season, Gordon has 44 strikeouts and 14 walks. His success has less to do with his fastball velocity (which sits in the high 80s) than his command and ability to throw offspeed pitches for strikes.

“I think he’s learning how his body feels two, three times through the lineup,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “He’s a smart guy. He learns his stuff, and I think that’s what’s helped him.”

Gordon’s name is almost always preceded by “Alex’s brother.” It defines his baseball persona. Gordon discusses his brother with an aggravated admiration, but he harbors no ill will. Alex works too hard for Gordon to feel that way.

Gordon hopes he’ll be Alex’s teammate in the not-so-distant future. He certainly doesn’t want to face him.

Gordon’s expectations are measured, after all.

“I want him to get a little older, maybe have a little less energy in his legs,” Gordon said with a laugh. “Maybe I can sneak something by him. Right now, I don’t think that’s possible.”

ROSTER MOVE

Left-handed reliever Nick Green was promoted from the Chukars to the Single-A Lexington Legends on Friday.

Green, 24, had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for Idaho Falls this season with seven walks and 15 strikeouts. He also had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for the Chukars in 2014.

Green, a Salt Lake City native, was selected by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2014 MLB draft.

INJURY UPDATE

Chukars catcher Pedro Gonzalez has not played since July 25 against Orem while dealing with shoulder irritation. He’s day-to-day, the Chukars said, and is being re-evaluated this weekend.

“He’s getting close,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said Friday. “Hopefully we’ll get him back here soon, once he feels better swinging the bat and that kind of thing.”

With the addition of Luis Lara, Gonzalez is one of four catchers for Idaho Falls, so the team does not want to rush Gonzalez back.

Gonzalez, 23, is hitting .328/.403/.552 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 67 plate appearances this season.

WHO’S HOT?

LHP Matt Portland

On July 9, Portland’s ERA ballooned to 7.88 after allowing three earned runs in 1.1 innings against Ogden. The rookie reliever has pitched 13.1 innings since then, giving up one earned run. His ERA now sits at 3.38 for the season.

Portland, 21, hasn’t merely benefited from batted ball luck, either. The 17th-round draft pick walked three batters in those 13.1 innings since the July 9 outing, where he issued three walks. On the season, Portland has walked seven batters while striking out 22 in 21.1 innings.

WHO’S NOT?

OF Cody Jones

When the second half began, Jones had settled in nicely as Idaho Falls’ regular center fielder and leadoff man. But the rookie has fallen into a slump the last two weeks.

Since July 31, Jones has gone 9 for 44 (.205 batting average) with five walks and nine strikeouts. The sixth-round draft pick’s .326 batting average going into the July 31 game against Ogden has dropped to .285 through Saturday.