Category Archives: Baseball

A conversation with new Penn baseball coach John Yurkow

Yurkow headshotIt’s been no secret that Penn hasn’t had a great baseball team for while. The Quakers haven’t won the Ivy League since 1995 and have played .500 baseball or worse for most of the last two decades. That’s why, after eight years at the helm, John Cole was let go as the program’s head coach and his longtime assistant John Yurkow was hired to replace him last month. Recently, I sat down with Yurkow in his office to discuss what needs to happen for the Quakers to start winning championships again, his style as a coach, and what it means for him to have his first head coaching job.

What was your first order of business after taking over as head coach?

The first thing I did is I reached out to everybody on our team. The second thing was to get in touch immediately with the incoming class. I talked to some of the key alumni and have been trying to get the staff finalized. Then, I’m really just trying to keep all of the recruiting going. Coach [Mike] Santello and I, for two months, were in a holding pattern. We were out watching players and evaluating but there was only so much we could do. And then finally when we got the word, it was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’

What was the reaction from the players on the team?

They were generally excited. Unless they were just lying to my face, they seemed pretty excited about it. I’m pretty close with all of those guys. I recruited them all. So I think maybe they’re a little relieved to know they know who’s going to be taking the program over.

It was a national coaching search, so what was your mentality throughout the whole process? Did you think you had a pretty good chance throughout?

Early on, I was unsure. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I stayed on, I kept recruiting and I kept trying to run the normal day-to-day operations that a head coach would run. It was definitely something that was hanging over your head because you’re just not sure. The longer it went, the better I felt about it. I went through the interview process just like everyone else did, even though I was internal. And things just worked out. It’s kind of interesting how it all fell into place.

John Yurkow was an assistant at Penn for seven years before being promoted to head coach. Previously, he was an assistant at Duke and Rowan, his alma mater.

John Yurkow was an assistant at Penn for seven years before being promoted to head coach. Previously, he was an assistant at Duke and Rowan, his alma mater.

Is it an easier transition because you know the team so well?

Absolutely. I’m internal and I know everything about this place, so I know how to navigate through everything, which is a huge advantage. I know the players. I know what we have coming back. I can’t even imagine when you go and get a job at another school, you’ve got to move your family and your life gets turned upside down. It’s interesting here because last year we finished a game above .500 and we had three seniors. And we have an excellent freshman class coming in. Usually when you take over a program, it could be a mess. That’s not the case here. Things are set up, so I’m fortunate. It’s a unique situation.

What was your reaction when John Cole was let go?

I was surprised. I didn’t really see it coming. I was actually on the road in Chicago when it happened, so it was tough to deal with.

How do you think you’ll be different than him as a head coach?

I don’t know if I’ll be different than him but I think I have my own style. My personality is not going to be the same. I’ve got some ideas. As an assistant coach for 13, 14 years, you start making all these little lists of things you’d like to do when you have the chance to become a head coach. So I’ve got some things I want to implement. There definitely will be a lot of changes, without a doubt.

What kind of changes? What kind of style will you preach?

We’re going to be very aggressive in all phases of the game. That’s what I believe in. That’s how I was coached when I was younger. I don’t want to complicate the game for our guys. I want to keep it simple, so they can play free and easy and aggressive. You can’t overthink baseball. We have to create a mindset where if you do have a bad at bat or you do have a bad inning, you move past it and you’re on to the next thing. That’s what successful baseball players do.

Among the big recruits Yurkow reeled in was Mike Vilardo, who was named Big 5 Rookie of the Year in 2013.

Among the big recruits Yurkow reeled in was Mike Vilardo, the Big 5 Rookie of the Year in 2013.

What kind of head coach do you think you’ll be in terms of your personality in the dugout?

I don’t think I’ll be ultra laid back and at the same time I don’t think I’ll be screaming at the top of my lungs. I’m definitely intense. Winning’s important and that’s why I thought this was a great situation. I want to win Ivy League championships. That’s what I’m here to do.

You mentioned winning championships. What are your big goals, both for this season and long term?

I expect us to compete for the Ivy championship this year. I want to make this a place that great student-athletes see and they want to come and matriculate here – because they know when they come here they’re going to great a baseball experience and obviously they’re going to receive a great education. Success, as that happens, I’m hoping will enable us to bring in higher-caliber players that maybe three, four years ago we would have had trouble bringing in. And I think the facilities are starting to help with that. Our field is a solid facility but in the past three years they put in a $27 million weight room, they put in Penn Park – which is our indoor facility when they put in the bubble – and we spent $80,000 just to renovate our locker room five months ago. So for an 18-year told to come in and see all of that, it shows the administration is really making an attempt to bring our facilities to a national level. It’s great.

From what you’ve seen, what’s prevented Penn from being a dominant program in the Ivy League?

That’s a good question because if you look at the breakdown of our schedule from last year we played better against scholarship programs than we did against teams in our league. That’s kind of a head-scratcher. I have some theories as to why and I’m already starting to think how I’m going to change those things, without getting too far into it. But yeah, that’s interesting. And our road record was better than our home record. We need to go in and switch some things and change that mindset a little bit. But that’s why I think we’re not very far away. That’s one of the nice things about this. You can get excited when you think you’ve got all these guys got back, you’ve got a real good incoming class, and the facilities are great. And I just put together a really good coaching staff.

The 1995 Penn baseball team was the last one to  win Ivy League championship. Yurkow hopes that will change.

The 1995 Penn baseball team was the last to win a league title. Yurkow hopes that will soon change.

Can Penn become a national power?

I don’t see why not. If you’re going to shoot for the stars, let’s go for it. I think things are really moving in the right direction. I think timing is everything and the timing is right here. I’m very, very fortunate to come into this situation with the players that we have here and where everything is starting to fall with the University.

So this is a pretty good job for you right now?

It’s awesome. I’m still floating right now. This is a great place to work. It’s a great University, a great administration and great kids. You always think about where is your first head coaching job going to be – and I don’t think I could have picked a better spot.

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Penn’s trip to Citizens Bank Park

Penn and St. Joe's played under the lights at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday (Drew Hallowell)

Penn freshman Austin Bossart has only been to Citizens Bank Park twice in his life.

The first time he sat about as high as you can sit, in the upper deck by the left field foul pole.

The second time he alternated between the dugout and home plate.

“This opportunity was great,” a beaming Bossart said shortly after the Penn baseball team played Saint Joseph’s in the championship game of the Liberty Bell Classic, an eight-team tournament for local Division I colleges. “I wouldn’t have passed this up for anything.”

After beating Villanova and La Salle to get to the Liberty Bell finals for the first time in the tournament’s 21-year history, the Quakers lost to St. Joe’s, 6-3, in Tuesday night’s finals at the Bank. (For more game details, check out the Pennathletics.com recap, a short article I wrote for CSNPhilly.com and a few well-done Daily Pennsylvanian pieces.)

But for most of the Quakers, it seemed, the final score meant less than getting the chance to play on the same field as pro ballplayers, if only for a couple of hours.

Bossart follows through on a swing during Penn's first trip to Citizens Bank Park (Drew Hallowell)

“It’s disappointing but I think the opportunity for all of us to come here was better than actually winning the trophy,” said Bossart, the only Penn player who had a multi-hit game. “I would have loved to win the trophy. But it was just a good opportunity for all of us. You’ve gotta enjoy it for what it was.”

Interestingly enough, Bossart, a St. Louis native, said he played at two other major league ballparks – Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field – before coming to Penn. But, of course, that didn’t make the freshman catcher any less giddy when he stepped foot on the pristine grass and dreamt of watching baseballs fly into the outfield seats.

“I was joking around like I would hit a grand slam at bat,” Bossart said. “It was a lot of fun, joking around with the guys in the dugout.”

Romanticism aside, the experience gained by playing a championship game against a city rival could also help get the Quakers in gear as they prepare for four big games against Cornell this weekend at Meiklejohn Stadium. Cornell is currently in first place in the Lou Gehrig Division of the Ivy League, four games up on Penn (15-17, 6-6).

“I hope this will kick us in the butt a little bit and give us momentum going into next weekend,” Bossart said. “Hopefully we can pick it up in Ivy League play.”

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A Penn grad tries to rebuild Major League Baseball’s worst team

Jeff Luhnow after getting hired by the Houston Astros in December

The 2012 Major League Baseball season opened last week, and with it came the perpetual belief that every team has a chance.

Well, every team except maybe the Houston Astros.

Fresh off a dismal 56-106 record last season, the Astros have been picked last in most MLB preseason power rankings and are deep in rebuilding mode.

All of which is to say that new general manager Jeff Luhnow, who graduated with a dual degree from Wharton and the School of Engineering in 1989, has his work cut out for him.

Luckily, the Penn grad and former St. Louis Cardinals executive seems up to the task, despite this being his first GM position. One article, written shortly after his hire, describes Luhnow as brainy and bilingual, part of the new breed of cerebral, stats-first baseball execs:

Some old-school baseball team initially derided Luhnow with nicknames such as “Harry Potter” and “the accountant.” Here’s a guy whose playing career peaked out in high school, whose pre-Cardinals resume featured stints as the president of a dot.com venture, Archetype Solutions, Inc., and vice-president of marketing for Petstore.com.

That said, his Penn degree will certainly serve him well in his new role, wrote another Houston sportswriter – Zachary Levine – who also went to Penn.

Educated in a dual degree program that blended business and engineering, Luhnow joins a front office that is increasingly data-oriented. To listen to him and to CEO George Postolos talk is a different experience than to listen to the old regime when it comes to what Luhnow called “the zero-sum game” of baseball.

Still, while Luhnow’s “new-age” thinking may have upset some “old-school” baseball men in the past, Luhnow was quoted in the same story as trying to steer clear of the scouts vs. stats war that has seemed to be building steam ever since the writing of “Moneyball” nine years ago. Here’s his quote:

“There’s a misperception about what the winning formula is. You can’t be the elite scouting and player development organization without the best scouts and coaches in the industry. Those are baseball people who have been in this their entire life and use their good judgment and experience to make decisions.

“The complementary part is adding a whole new area, which is really utilizing whatever technology and whatever capabilities are available, whether it’s understanding medical assessments, understanding performance histories, different ways to evaluate character. There’s a lot of science that can be added to the equation.

“But it’s really all about gathering up as much valuable information as you can, organizing in a way that makes sense and making the best possible decisions.”

Luhnow would certainly be wise to use all of the tools at his disposal to rebuild the Astros, which opened the 2012 season with 10 players on a major league roster for the first time. That number shows just how inexperienced the ’Stros are and how deep Luhnow’s rebuilding efforts must go. But for the general manager, that part is also, well, kind of cool:

“One of the most fun things I’ve gotten to do in my nine years as a baseball executive is tell five position players and five pitchers that they were making their first opening-day roster in their career. That was really a fun experience after a lot of the other conversations that you have to have during the spring: letting a guy go or telling a guy that he’s going to be reassigned or optioned out. It was really fun to get a chance to do that.”

Of course, there will also be some hard parts, mixed in with the fun. But for now, the Penn grad is saying all the right things as he tries to build the worst team in baseball into the best.

“I want to see Minute Maid Park filled to the rafters in an American League championship series. I want to see this city get excited about the possibility of going to a World Series. And I would love to see Houston to win the World Series, and the team in Texas that gets talked about be the Houston Astros. I’m all in.”

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Penn baseball breeds professionals

By most accounts, the Penn baseball team’s 2011 season was an average one as the Quakers finished with a 19-10 overall record and a 10-10 mark in the Ivy League.

For the program as a whole, however, the last couple weeks have been anything but average.

In a rare and exciting development, two Penn baseball players – pitchers Paul Cusick  and Vince Voiro – were selected in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft and a third – catcher Will Davis – was very nearly signed by the Philadelphia Phillies.

Paul Cusick

“That’s hard to do in the Ivy League – to get three guys to get the chance to play pro ball,” Penn baseball coach John Cole said by phone Thursday as he was driving through Connecticut on a recruiting trip. “It’s a nice compliment to the program.”

Cusick spoke with the Gazette the same day he signed his first professional contract, and the right-hander has since won his first game with the Gulf Coast League Phillies.

Meanwhile, Voiro, who was drafted in the 47th round by the San Diego Padres, has yet to sign his deal, and, according to Cole, may opt to return to Penn for his senior season and re-enter the draft next year when he can be a higher pick.

“If the money is right, and it’s life-changing money, I’d probably advise him to sign,” Cole said. “If the money is not right, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in minor league baseball. Sometimes, it’s in your best interest to come back and see if you can do better. It might be in his best interest to come back.”

Vince Voiro

And then there’s Davis, Penn’s star left-handed hitting catcher who was flown to the Florida to join the Gulf Coast League Phillies with his buddy Cusick, only to be told that same night that the organization had health concerns about his knee and would be flying him back home.

Davis had surgery four years ago but was healthy throughout his career at Penn, where he belted 25 homers, the second highest total in the program’s history.

“I think he was shocked,” Cole said. “That’s tough for a young guy to handle. He had his dream snatched away. I was just as devastated as he was.”

Days before his tumultuous journey from Florida and back again, Davis spoke with  me about what the Phillies’ interest in him, on top of two other Quakers being drafted, meant for the program.

“I feel like we changed the culture of Penn baseball,” he said. “We got the program moving in the right direction. You have to look at our coaches. They’ve done a good job recruiting.”

And now, Cole believes the 2011 draft will certainly help to recruit even better talent to Penn. Too many injuries and not enough depth has hurt the team in recent years, but if Cole can show high school stars how well he developed guys like Voiro – who raised his velocity from 84 mph to 94 mph during his time at Penn – then the program can take the next step.

“This is certainly something that helps with recruiting,” the Penn baseball coach said. “We always talk about developing guys and now the proof is in the pudding.”

Moments later, Cole hung up and continued on the recruiting trail, looking for more players like Cusick, Voiro and Davis.

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Pitcher Paul Cusick C’11 talks about being drafted by Phillies

Cusick signs his first professional contract (Chas Dorman/Penn Athletics)

Fresh off a brilliant 2011 campaign that landed him the coveted Ivy League Pitcher of the Year award, Penn baseball’s Paul Cusick C’11 was riding high. And then he was riding even higher. On June 7, not long after graduating from Penn, Cusick was drafted by his favorite team – the Philadelphia Phillies – in the 29th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. The ace right-hander was the first Penn baseball player to be drafted since Brian Winnings in 2004, but, remarkably, the Quakers kept the momentum rolling when fellow Penn righty Vince Voiro was picked by the San Diego Padres in the 47th round and then catcher Will Davis C’11 was signed by the Phillies, joining Cusick in Clearwater with the Gulf Coast League Phillies. The Gazette caught up with Cusick just hours before he signed the contract with the Phils from his Wilmington, Del. home and a few days before he reported for duty in Florida.

So where were you when you heard the news?

I was actually watching the Phillies game with my family in our living room. And [Phillies scout Eric Valent] gave me a call. My dad saw it on the computer, and right when he saw it I got the call.

What was your family’s reaction?

We were all pretty excited. I got hugs from my parents. And my two little brothers were there and they were excited about it. One of my brothers, he’s a year younger than me, he was giving me a hard time. He said, ‘You know this is all fun and games until I get taken in the 27th round next year.’ He doesn’t even play baseball. It was pretty funny.

What was the reaction from your Penn coaches and teammates?

They were all super excited. Growing up playing baseball, it’s something you always dream about. Me and [Penn baseball coach John Cole] were talking about it at the beginning of year. It was definitely a goal – after, of course, winning an Ivy championship and other season goals. It’s been a goal for me since I started playing baseball, and it’s pretty awesome to achieve that. The coaching staff was ecstatic.

When did you first think playing pro ball was a realistic goal?

I started talking to scouts this summer while playing out in California [with the Atwater Aviators of the Pacific West Baseball League]. I had a pretty good summer, and then carried that into a strong short fall season. I started receiving things from scouts and that’s when I started to think this is a real possibility. It was a really cool feeling.

How much sweeter is to get picked by your favorite team?

I would have been ecstatic for any team to take me. But growing up a Phillies fan, living 30 minutes away, it was just a dream come true.

How big of a Phillies fan are you?

Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I went to ballgames all the time as a kid. Going to school, any time I had an off day, I would try to go down to the ballpark. I’ve been to some playoff games, some World Series games. I went to games at the Vet growing up, and I’ve been to the new ballpark a ton of times since it opened. Being able to join that organization is surreal.

What’s been the best moment for you as a Phillies fan?

I had an opportunity to go to game when they clinched the 2008 World Series against the Rays. That’s got to be the pinnacle for most Phillies fans. It was pretty awesome.

Cusick was at Citizens Bank Park when this happened

Who’s your favorite Phillies player, both now and ever?

I was a big fan of Brett Myers when he was on the Phillies. He’s a hard-throwing righty with a good curveball. Growing up, that’s how I was in high school. I really liked him. The pitching staff now is unreal, but Chase Utley is a real good player. I like him a lot.

The minor leagues can be a grind and unglamorous – are you prepared for long bus rides and everything else that comes with minor league ball?

I played in summer ball leagues the past three summers and it’s basically the same thing. We were packed into these vans, 16 of us, and we’d go on eight-hour bus rides. That was a glimpse, a taste, of what minor league baseball would be like. I love baseball, I’m sure like everyone else in the minor league system does, so I have no problems sitting in the back of the bus for a couple of hours to go play some games.

Do you feel like you really put it all together this past season at Penn [he went 5-3 with a 2.70 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings]?

I think a lot of things went right for us this year. It would have been nice to win an Ivy championship before heading out there. But we had a lot of individual success on our team this year. It’s a shame it didn’t translate to more wins.

Cusick had a big senior season but the Quakers went just 19-21

What do you think you need to improve on to make it to make your way through the minor league system?

Every pitcher, their main goal is consistency and being able to show up every single start and consistently make good pitches. That’s something every pitcher struggles with and every pitcher works on.

What do you think you do best?

This season I had a lot of success striking people out and I was able to get ahead in the count. I have the ability to throw not just fastballs but off-speed pitches for strikes, which really helps with putting hitters back on their heels.

Is there a certain pitch that can carry you through and also a certain pitch you’re trying to improve on?

I mean, I’m gonna need all of my pitches. I had good success this year with my fastball, curveball and slider. I feel like my changeup is definitely something I’ll need to develop more and work on going forward as a good fourth pitch.

You graduated with a degree in economics so you have a pretty good backup plan if you can’t make it to the Big Leagues, right?

Yeah, but I mean I’m gonna try to play baseball for as long as I can. If someone is going to offer me to play something I’ve been playing since I was 8 years old, why not milk that until it runs dry? One of the reasons I wanted to go to an Ivy League school is to obtain that degree, but I want to play baseball for as long as I can.

Is it also nice a fellow Penn teammate got drafted too?

Oh yeah, it’s awesome. Vince is one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever met in my entire life. To see him have the chance to further his career, it’s an awesome feeling. I’m so happy for Vince.

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Week in perspective: A new Voice, a new robot and the end of an old streak

There’s been some interesting sports news coming out of Penn this week. Let’s start with something I’ve been following for a while:

After a long wait, John Alexander learned he would replace his father, C.T. Alexander, as the public announcer for Penn football games at Franklin Field. C.T. retired last year after 50 seasons on the microphone, and was the subject of a ton of media attention, including this Gazette article I wrote last September.

John had worked in the booth for 30 of those years as hid dad’s “spotter.” Both John and C.T. had asked Penn more than a year ago if John could take over for his dad stating this season, but at the time the younger Alexander was only told he could audition for the job.

I was told John auditioned against Palestra P.A. man Rich Kahn, who will continue with the promotional announcements at Franklin Field while John calls all the football action. John’s sister, Linda, who’s been helping out for nearly a decade, will continue to work alongside her brother, as well.

Linda, left, and John, center, will continue the tradition started by their father, C.T.

Personally, I applaud the athletic department for keeping it in the family. John is one of the nicest people I’ve met at Penn and his love for Quaker football runs deep. And after 50 flawless years on the job, C.T. deserved to pick his replacement.

Here’s an email John sent out this morning to announce the news:

Dear fellow alumni and friends,

It has been a long six months since I e-mailed last while awaiting word of the Penn Athletic department’s final decision regarding my father’s replacement as the “Voice of Franklin Field.”  Yesterday, I got the call and was offered the position to replace my father and quickly accepted it!  I want to thank all of you again for your support of my efforts to continue this family tradition, as I am certain all of your e-mails and letters positively influenced the decision.  You have helped me achieve my childhood dream of succeeding my father at the microphone of one of the most historic football stadiums in the country and I sincerely appreciate it.

So next season, please come support a great football program and stop by the makeshift Press Box in the North Stands to say hello, while my sister, Linda, and I continue our family’s tradition of describing the football action in historic Franklin Field.

Now on to this goofy story that’s picked up national attention:

Not since Doug Glanville has someone from the Penn engineering school gotten this much baseball-related fame.

Or should I say “something.”

If you haven’t heard of “PhillieBot” by now, you just haven’t been paying attention. Designed by Penn engineering students for Science Day at Citizens Bank Park, “PhillieBot” – a one-armed, three-wheeled robot – threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Wednesday’s Phillies game.

Although the pitch didn’t reach the catcher (who, in this case, was the Philly Phanatic) and prompted some booing from the merciless Philadelphia fans, the robot/pitcher story still made national headlines. Here’s one story from ESPN.com and another from the engineering school on how “PhillieBot” came to be. The robot even now has his own Twitter account.

Only time will tell if “PhillieBot” replaces Glanville and Mark DeRosa as the most famous baseball “player” to come from Penn.

And finally a quick shoutout to an incredible streak:

The women’s lacrosse team has been arguably the most dominant team at Penn over the past few years.

But on Wednesday, the Quakers’ remarkable 34-game Ivy League winning streak came to an end with a home loss to Princeton.

Chas Dorman, Penn’s associate director of athletic communications, does a nice job putting the streak into historical context here and DP alum Zach Klitzman returned to offer his own take on the team here.

I’ll be reporting more on the team myself leading into next month’s Ivy League Tournament and NCAA Championships, so for now I’ll just offer my kudos on one of the most impressive winning streaks, across all sports, in the history of the Ivy League.

——–

So yes, it was a pretty eventful week for Penn sports. I wonder if anything is going on next week?

Thinking…

Thinking…

Oh right, there’s this.

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Former baseball captain honored by national healtchare magazine

When Ben Breier C’93, W’93 was asked by Modern Healthcare magazine about his professional accomplishments, he related them to his four years as a catcher on the Penn baseball team.

“One thing I take pride in is my ability to relate to people,” said Breier, who earlier this month was named by the magazine to their 2010 “Up & Comers” list, which honors young leaders aged 40 and under who are making a difference in the healthcare industry. “A lot of that stems from athletics and baseball in particular.”

In March, Breier, a member of the Penn Baseball Hall of Fame, was named the chief operating office at Kindred Healthcare in Louisville, Ky. Before that, he served as president of the company’s hospital division, helping revenues grow approximately $2 billion. From 2005-2008, he served as president of Peoplefirst Rehabilitation.

Winning awards is nothing new to Breier, who was a first team all-Ivy selection in 1990 and 1992 and a Penn captain in 1991, 1992 and 1993, sharing the captainship with future Major Leaguer Doug Glanville in ’91. And he’s remained faithful to Penn baseball, having hired the last two executive fellows at Kindred from the ranks of graduating Quakers and also serving on the program’s board of directors.

Any current Penn baseball player might want to network with him. Breier’s Forbes profile shows he’s making slightly more than most bloggers.

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