April 25, 2019

Touring the Bases with Bart Zeller

December 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Bart Zeller is a former major leaguer, who recently coached the Joliet Slammers to their first ever Frontier League championship. Bart is a great baseball man who obviously loves managing and actually still plays himself, all of which you will read about. I believe you will enjoy the great insight Bart gives about independent baseball, his career in sports, and how baseball players have changed over the years.

Jack Perconte – Congratulations on your Frontier League championship. I have had that euphoric feeling of winning a professional championship and unless you have been a part of something like it, it is hard to describe those feeling to others. How would you describe the feeling you got after winning it all?

Bart Zeller – I was lucky enough to have played on a Championship team in the Texas League when I was with the Cardinals.  That was quite a thrill, however, nothing can compete with the thrill of watching 24 players, and our coaching staff react to the championship.  The true joy and happiness I witnessed from our players will be with me the rest of my life.  I did ask the players to win with “dignity” and they could not have done a better job of demonstrating that.

Jack – Team chemistry is another hard thing to describe. How would you describe it and did your team seem to have it at the beginning or did it come with winning?

Bart – To me team chemistry is all about the character of the team.  Each team I have been associated with in professional baseball usually followed the lead of the coaching staff.  Our chemistry during the first month of the season was “undeveloped” and there was little doubt that we were searching to create our identity.  Actually winning had very little to do with it, but rather it was developed when we made a couple of roster changes.  Sometimes there is addition by subtraction and with a couple of moves, the players recognized that our coaching staff was ready to make any move to improve the chemistry of the ball club.  After that, the team got to the park early, hung around together and talked baseball.

Jack – As a follow up, as a manager, what things do you do to foster that team chemistry?

Bart – One of the first things we did, as a coaching staff, was to impose a fine for anyone leaving the locker room before 45 minutes had gone by after the end of the game.  We wanted players to sit around the locker room, talk about the game, and get to know one another and to rid themselves of their emotions, which are always present after a game.

Jack – When did your love of sport develop and besides your parents, was there any one coach or person who was your biggest influence as a kid in sport?

Bart – I started playing baseball in Chicago Heights when I was 8 years old.  I don’t think I missed a summer of baseball before I got out of professional baseball when I was 30.  The one person who taught me the basics of baseball was Hale Swanson, Director of Parks for Chicago Heights.  He stopped games, talked to the kids and made sure that they corrected their mistakes on the playing fields.  He would eject any parent who was critical of players, umpires or managers.

Jack – I noticed you were a three-sport athlete in high school. That is almost unheard of today in the age of specialization. Thinking back to your experiences, what are your thoughts about the way kids specialize to one sport at an early age nowadays?

Bart – Playing football, basketball and baseball in high school was the best thing that could have happened to me.  The many skills transferred from one sport to the other made me a better baseball player.  Lateral movement in basketball was invaluable to my being a better catcher, while learning what it is like to be knocked down…and having to pick yourself off the ground in football helped me to better understand that success is not possible and that one has to keep working.

I don’t like the “specialization” in sports that kids are faced with today!  Frankly, I think that baseball has suffered from this as kids just get burned out when they are 15-16 and have been playing baseball all year round.  There is something special to changing seasons and having the bat and ball in the closet for a few months.

Jack – Looking back on my career, I have no regrets, but if I had the chance to do it all over, there are many things I would do differently. Looking back at your baseball career, which took you to the major leagues, are there any things you would have done different?

Bart – Jack, when I played professional baseball, a player was done playing and had to have a job lined up when he got back home.  There was no special weight training, no workout facilities, and definitely no free time to work on your skills.  Today’s athlete usually has enough saved to work at his trade during the winter months.  A player has to do it or is swallowed up by the competition.  I don’t regret anything about what I did, except that I would have loved to have had a batting cage near my home to work on my hitting.

Jack – I assume your kids grew up playing sports, as a parent, what was that experience like? Was it hard seeing them play and maybe not having the sport dreams that you had?

Bart – Yes, I am lucky to have four children and all four of them played one or more sports in high school.  Since I was 8, I had the dream of playing major league baseball, and it became my objective during high school and college.  My boys wanted to know what they would have to do to get into professional baseball, and I outlined a program for them to do each and every day.  I told them that I would not check to see if they were doing their work, but told them if you really want it badly enough, I know you will do the work.  Well, with jobs, girls, friends, and other activities, their attention was pulled away from baseball and that was okay with me, because not everyone is cut out to become a professional. My daughters were successful in their endeavors and I am sure that all four of my kids are better off today for having participated in sports in high school.

Jack – If you could change anything or things about how youth sports are played today, what would that be?

Bart – Less parental pressure for the kids to become the next Nolan Ryan!  Let the kids have fun playing their chosen sport and the “cream will always rise to the top”!  Lessons, training and hard work will usually produce favorable results but every athlete rises to his own level of competency…and then has to become productive in our society.

Jack – Do you feel like today’s pro athlete is similar to when you played? Less or more hungry? Less or more hard working?

Bart – There is no doubt that today’s professional athlete is much more physically developed what with the introduction of protein shakes, nutrients and better training methods.  They are faster, stronger and throw the baseball much harder than in my day.  We had some guys throwing 90+ but nowhere near the number that we do today.

However, I do not think the affiliated player works as hard as we did.  If we did not produce, we would not get a contract the following year.  There was no bonus money handed out so we were happy to have a job.  I watch the players today and they don’t hustle, they don’t look for taking the extra base and definitely don’t like to work at their trade.  Bunting has become a lost art as well as hitting behind the runner when necessary.  We were hungry each day and our facilities were not close to todays.  I recall in Rocky Mount, NC, our CF brought flares out to the outfield and lit them so we would be able to see him…yes, he was ejected.

Jack – I believe independent baseball has been a great and much needed avenue for pro ballplayers. What is the motivation for most of your players to keep playing after college or after having played in affiliated pro ball? Love of game? make it to the big leagues? Money? All of the above?

Bart – After coaching and managing in Independent Baseball for 7 years, I think there are two reasons for playing:  1) Wanting one more chance to sign with an affiliated team or 2) For the true love of the game and the competition of the game.  It is for sure that few players are in the Frontier League because of the money.  As a coaching staff, we pledge to the players that we will do everything possible to get them their chance to sign.  We were fortunate to have two players, Dott and Quigley sign contracts with teams in 2011.  I just love it when it happens and would love nothing better than to have to find a new team for 2012 because everyone signed.  The majority of players will have to make a decision to continue playing or move into the workforce in society.

Jack – How would you compare the fundamentals of pro players today to when you played in the areas of fielding, hitting, throwing and pitching?

Bart – That’s a great question, and I wish I could answer with the intelligence it warrants.  There is little doubt in my mind that the players today have faster bat speed; they throw the baseball harder in MPH;  and they run as a group much faster.  When we look at bunting, I would say that the players in my day worked much harder at it because it was something they were evaluated on.  I also think with the pressure to “rush” players to AA and AAA, they don’t have the luxury of making mistakes and learning the game of professional baseball.  College baseball is not, and should not be a developmental place for professional baseball.  Therefore, players coming out of college have to receive instruction on a daily basis to improve their skills.  I think we were the recipients of such instruction…to a fault…when I played.

Jack – I have had friends who coach at high levels of ball say that today’s players will work on hitting all day, but to work on fielding is a whole other ball game, agreed or not?

Bart – Basically, I agree with that statement.  How many times does a player ask for fly balls or ground balls?  However, they are more than happy to stay in the cage and see how far they can hit the ball.  Remember, one can practice long hours, but if they are not practicing good habits, it is worthless.  Twenty minutes of hitting done correctly is all a player needs to improve.  However, defense improvement requires hours or work, which is not a lot of fun.

Jack – As a follow up to the last two questions, how much motivation work do you have to do with the modern ball players?

Bart – I am not sure whether our players would say I motivated them to play the game.  It is my job to try to put each player in situations where he has the best chance of success.  I am not a screamer, I don’t believe in criticizing a player in front of the team…but I sure believe in praising them in front of the squad.  I ask two things from our players:  1) Be on time and 2) Hustle all the time.  I think by asking them to hustle all the time, they become motivated to work hard, do the best that they can be and to be a good teammate.  All the other things that I believe in come up during spring training and practice…hats worn at all times, uniform worn correctly, run on and off the field, equipment is everyone’s responsibility etc, etc.

Jack – Finally, I believe you are still playing ball. Tell us a little about the Roy Hobbs tournament?

Bart – There are two Senior Baseball Leagues in the United States, MSBL (Men’s Senior Baseball League) and Roy Hobbs Baseball.  Each has its own World Series in the fall of each year.  MSBL is in Scottsdale, Arizona while Hobbs is in Fort Myers, Florida.  I have been playing baseball again since I was 45 and just competed in the 60 and over in Florida.  We got beat 2-1 in the Semi Finals by a team from the Northwest.  A very good game, which was well pitched and well played.  It’s fun and gives me a reason to stay in as good a shape as I can possibly be in…I pitched a 12 inning game down there and won 3-2.

Former major leaguer Jack Perconte is the author of The Making of a Hitter: A Proven and Practical Step-by-Step Baseball Guide and Raising an Athlete: How to Instill Confidence, Build Skills and Inspire a Love of Sport (http://jackperconte.com) and has a baseball instruction site at www.baseballcoachingtips.net.

 

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