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Longtime coach now can see the future

HUNTER'S GREEN — Ken Neuhaus was destined for a life in baseball.

Even as he tried to pull away and spend more time with his wife and two sons in recent years, the game's stronghold wouldn't let go.

As Neuhaus details his youth, baseball always played a central role. Not only did his family pass along its joy of watching and playing the game to Neuhaus, he also played semipro tournaments in Dyersville, Iowa, site of the diamond made famous in Field of Dreams.

"We played at the city park in Dyersville," Neuhaus said. "I played against a lot of the guys who were extras on the bench in the movie.

"What was neat is that the summer they shot the movie, my brother Tom and I went to the field they built for the movie — this was before the movie was even released and the site hadn't become famous or turned into a museum like it is now. We're driving down this gravel road and we see a sign — Field of Dreams — with an arrow. And we pull up to the field, and no one is there."

Neuhaus and his brother went up to the house near the field, and it was unlocked.

"We're walking around the house and we see that bay window where they [Kevin Costner and co-star Amy Madigan] had that famous talk," Neuhaus said. "Then we go down to the field and play a little fantasy game, running around in the cornfield, the whole thing."

Despite the cold winters, the summer game — baseball — was always front and center.

"I grew up throwing snowballs at stop signs. That's how I learned how to throw," said Neuhaus, 51.

His father took him to Wrigley Field in Chicago when he was 10, and he has made the annual pilgrimage to the historic shrine every year since.

After a successful college playing career in Wisconsin, Neuhaus became a highly regarded coach at Bethel College in Minnesota. He built the tiny Bible school into a Division III power during 14 years there. Before that, he was a Division I assistant at Southern Illinois University and the University of Iowa.

He and his wife, Karen, had decided the Minnesota winters and 25 years in coaching were enough, however, and they moved with their two sons, Ty and Tucker, to Tampa five years ago. That was by design, Neuhaus said. They knew Tampa was a baseball hotbed.

Neuhaus was content sitting in the background watching his sons' recreation games when coaching found him again. He had applied to teach world history at Freedom High School when principal Richard Bartels asked him to take over the school's baseball team in 2003.

He developed the Patriots into a competitive unit during two seasons, but again wanted more time with his boys, so he took a teaching job at Tampa Bay Tech High School two years ago.

He assisted friend Zack Walker with Tech's baseball program. When Walker left Tech before last season, Neuhaus figured that was it for coaching.

But another baseball opportunity, one with professional implications, was already brewing from a chance meeting at one of Tucker's AAU games.

Neuhaus was just talking about family and baseball with Chris Buckley when Buckley introduced himself as the Cincinnati Reds' senior director of amateur scouting. Buckley, whose son happened to be playing that night, quickly realized Neuhaus' keen baseball mind and knew many of his coaching contacts.

As their friendship developed, Buckley offered Neuhaus a part-time scouting job. It's the perfect gig for Neuhaus; he can scout son Ty's games at Wharton, where he's a freshman on the varsity team, and one other assigned game during the week and report back on players the Reds are following.

It doesn't pay anything, which is fine at this point with Neuhaus. He still teaches world history at Tampa Bay Tech. His wife teaches middle school at Family of Christ Christian School in Tampa Palms.

But things could change come October, when Neuhaus attends scout school at the Arizona Fall League. Top players are invited to the Arizona desert each fall, and the top two scouting prospects from all 30 major league teams are closely observed during the two-week class.

"That's the win-win deal," Neuhaus said. "You start as an associate and learn about the profession while you get to keep your day job. This is a good way for me to penetrate the marketplace into Major League Baseball."

The drawback entails more travel if Neuhaus commits to a part-time paid position after scout school. But the Reds are willing to work with Neuhaus because they value his ability to spot budding talent.

"It was easy for me to see he was on a higher level than your typical high school coach," Buckley said. "Ken has an excellent future in scouting if he wants it."

Buckley, who has been a scout for 27 years, said talent evaluation is difficult because it's about projection.

"It's very difficult without some practical experience," Buckley said. "It's a difficult game to figure out if a 17-year-old kid can eventually get out major league hitters. Can a high school kid hit major league pitching down the road? There are a lot of variables, like a kid's makeup, that you can't always be sure about at that age."

Neuhaus said he has always had an eye for talent — the fluid movements of players, their self-confidence and their body language — and can tell if they project to the next level.

He even remembers his brother and father telling him he used to organize neighborhood pick-up games as a kid, choosing sides based on everyone's ability.

An assistant at Bethel told him he'd be a scout later in life because of his ability to evaluate talent and take kids and move them into different positions on the field. Much of that was honed while coaching summer independent leagues in Nevada and numerous national and international instructional camps.

"I think it's a learned behavior," said Neuhaus, who attributes much of his baseball knowledge to well-known Southern Illinois and University of Illinois baseball coach Richard "Itchy" Jones. "You develop an eye for it."

He receives a lot of the gofer-type assignments like any entry-level employee, and he loves every second of it.

"They'll ask me to pick up a [Reds] scouting director or a cross-checker (administrative level scout) at the airport," Neuhaus said, laughing. "That's the same stuff I did as a grad assistant in college. And you know what, it's great because I get to pick the brain of these longtime scouts, and I'm speeding up my learning curve big-time for when I get to scout school."

Most baby boomers such as Neuhaus wouldn't be in the beginning stages of their career. But Neuhaus' maturity and advanced baseball knowledge work to his advantage in scouting.

Neuhaus always kept a 25-year life plan, a written journal to remind him of his goals. But he has had to upgrade some dates when it comes to his next career move.

"I'm really counting my blessings," said Neuhaus, who lives in Hunter's Green. "Everybody in the [Reds] organization has been unbelievable. They make me feel welcome and seem to want me in the organization. It was just meant to be, all these things falling into place."

Scouting for gold

in Florida

220 The number of amateur players from Florida drafted last year. Only Southern California produced more draft picks with 450, according to the Major League Scouting Bureau.

5 The number of tools for grading amateur athletes are running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average and hitting with power. They are graded on a scale of 2-8, with 8 being a can't-miss prospect.

1,390 The number of

players selected in the 1988 draft before future Hall of Fame catcher

, Mike Piazza. The one thing scouts can't always measure is heart and perseverance. Piazza, who went on to become an All-Star catcher, was an afterthought, selected in the 62nd round by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a favor to his godfather, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. .

2006 The year second baseman , David Eckstein was voted the World Series MVP, leading St. Louis to the world championship. Eckstein, another example of a player showing heart and perseverance, was told he was too small and would never make it.

June 5 The date this year's draft starts.

>>fast facts

Ken Neuhaus

Resides: Hunter's Green

Age: 51

Family: Wife, Karen, 43, a teacher at Family of Christ Christian School in New Tampa.

Sons, Ty, 15, a freshman at Wharton; Tucker, 12, a seventh-grader at Benito.

All-time coaching record: 402-370 (25 years)

Did you know? Neuhaus worked with recently retired major league outfielder Steve Finley and former big-league pitcher Cal Eldred as a college assistant.

Longtime coach now can see the future 05/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 1:49pm]
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