Fish's Eleven: 11 Summers Have Seen Local Talent on Chillicothe's MINK League Baseball Team

Paul Sturm
psturm@chillicothenews.com

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Had it not been for COVID-19, the Chillicothe Mudcats’ college-level baseball team would have jumped right over having a “Dirty Dozen” all-time total of local players to a baker’s dozen. Instead, heading into 2021, the list remains the “Fish’s Eleven.”

The Mudcats’ canceled 2020 season was slated to have seen the heaviest concentration of locally-produced diamond talent on the roster since pitcher Josh Norris, infielder Matt Radel, and outfielder Drew Lollar graced the 2006 MINK League champion’s list of on-field contributors.

Among the players returning head coach Caleb Bounds and general manager Doug Doughty had rounded up to play here this summer were 2018 returnee Tristen Sewell and new 2020 Chillicothe High graduates Wes Brandsgaard, a catcher/infielder, and Jaden Winder, a pitcher. When next May rolls around, it would seem probable any or all of those three would be invited to – at last – wear Mudcats colors.

Until then, assuming the coronavirus is able to be contained or managed by then, the total number of Chillicothe or Livingston County residents who have won the burgundy, black, white, and gray remains at 11 – Chillicotheans Lollar, Radel, Norris, Sewell, Colin Parker, Derek Hussey, Alex Singleton, Zach Douglas, Steven Cooper, and Ty Figg and Ludlow’s Clint Gilliland.

That talented group includes enough diversification of skill that, given them as a team, a manager/coach readily could pencil in at defensive positions that – if each magically was in his heyday – would be most-capable of competing effectively.

Parker, Norris, Singleton, Sewell, and Gilliland all toed the pitching rubber for the Mudcats. Douglas’ and Cooper’s primary position was catcher and Lollar, Figg, and Singleton could comprise a very good outfield. Radel always was a middle infielder and Hussey, while an outfielder for the Fish and in college, spent his pre-college career almost exclusively as an infielder. When not pitching in their youth, Parker, Norris, and Singleton all routinely played key, left-side (third base or shortstop) infield spots and lefthander Sewell was used at first base a lot. Gilliland, when not pitching for Chillicothe’s American Legion Cardinals, spent a lot of time as an outfielder, but also played on the infield.

Looking back at the Mudcats experiences of those 11, this installment of our extended reminiscence of the team’s 18 seasons will begin with the trio which was most impactful – Hussey, Parker, and Norris.

Just as Gilliland had done a decade-and-a-half earlier, Hussey sandwiched a summer in the Mudcats’ river between two seasons playing with St. Joseph’s MINK League team.

The outfielder, who played collegiately at Northwest Missouri State University, was chosen to the league’s midseason 2018 All-Star Game North Division team roster en route to a final batting average of .314 over 25 games and 86 at-bats. An excellent defensive center fielder whose speed helped him swipe 11 bases – second-most on the team, he had his season abbreviated by about three weeks when, ironically, he hurt his throwing arm during the “scouting combine” event held in conjunction with the All-Star Game at Joplin.

Hussey’s season was highlighted by a few outstanding games. On June 10 at Joplin, he homered and drove in three runs while going three for seven in a wild, 16-14, 11-innings win. The next night, still at Joplin, he went three for six and drove in four runs, scored twice, doubled, and stole a base in another 16-14 game – this time a loss in which his heroics nearly led to a successful rally from a 13-1 deficit after three innings. Finally, at Jefferson City on June 24, he went four for six, scored four times, doubled, was hit by a pitch, drove in two runs, and swiped two bags in a 14-8 10-innings victory.

Parker, a righthander who did get into a few games as a pinch-runner and started once each at DH and third base in 2009 “keep-busy” games pre-NBC World Series tournament games (career offensive totals of two for eight with three runs scored), was part of the team each year from 2008-11. The first of those came on an emergency basis prior to his senior year in high school.

In that time, the lanky Parker accumulated a career wins total second only to Bounds’ 13. He appeared as a hurler in a team-record 34 games, 13 of them as a starter. Working a combined 100-1/3 innings, he compiled a 7-3 record with one save and a respectable 3.41 ERA. In his three full seasons with the club, he posted solid ERAs of 3.04, 2.45 (2010), and 3.21 and was a very helpful part of two NBC World Series-qualifying teams (2009-10).

In addition to his record number of pitching appearances, at the conclusion of his playing time with the Fish, his wins total was tied for the most in team history with two others. It was equaled by a third hurler the next year before Bounds surpassed it in 2016, but it still remains No. 2 all-time.

Norris was the first hometowner to suit up with the Fish and acquitted himself admirably, even though an arm/shoulder injury during his college career cut into his velocity.

He made his debut in 2004 and made an immediate, positive impression. Used 13 times – third most on the team, he fashioned a 1.99 ERA over 22-2/3 innings, an ERA second only to staff ace and all-time standout Brian Wyatt’s 1.07. Making a couple of starts in non-league games, Norris earned one win and a save without a loss that year.

The following year, after suffering the injury, Norris had fewer total appearances (eight), but innings pitched (33-1/3). He posted a 2-1 record and earned another save, although his arm/shoulder issue left him with greater control difficulty that led to spottier effectiveness (3.51 ERA).

He nearly “made” his and the 2005 team’s season in his final appearance when, with the club shorthanded for postseason play, he became – effectively by default – the starting pitcher in a game which would decide if the Mudcats would qualify for the NBC World Series for the first time.

Facing the talent-heavy Beatrice Bruins, who had a future major leaguer in the heart of their lineup and two future MLB hurlers on their staff – including his mound opponent in that contest, Norris, in only his third start of the summer, blanked the Bruins in four of the first five innings and nursed a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth. Then, an error on a potential inning-ending double-play grounder opened the door for Beatrice to plate three runs in the sixth and eventually tag Norris with his lone loss of ’05.

Returning in 2006 under head coach Keith Vorhoff, Norris continued working on his transition to a “finesse” style, due to the wing problems. Getting into 11 games and making three starts, he worked the identical number of innings (33-1/3) he had the year before, but this time with a 7.02 ERA. He had a 2-2 record that closed his Mudcats career with a cumulative mark of 5-3 with two saves and a 4.43 ERA over 89-1/3 innings.

Like Parker, he was part of a championship club and, in fact, pitched in the team’s second-ever game in the NBC World Series in 2006. He worked two scoreless innings in middle relief before surrendering 4-straight hits and four runs without getting an out the following frame in his last Fish outing.

Notching a singular spot among the 11 locals who have been Mudcats was Singleton.

Joining Parker on the squad from 2009-11, he was the most-liberally-used 2-ways Chillicothean, getting into 55 contests as an outfielder/pinch-hitter/pinch-runner and taking the mound another 10 times.

He got into four games with the 2009 MINK League champs as a position player before playing in 32 for the North champions the next year and 19 in 2011. Across that expanse of time, he had 62 official at-bats (not counting walks, hit by pitches, sacrifices) and collected 16 hits (.258 career average). With 11 walks and four HBPs added in, he had an impressive .402 on-base percentage. He scored 13 runs.

As a moundsman, Singleton toiled 14-1/3 total innings with a 6.28 ERA and a 2-2 record with one save. All of his hill appearances were in relief.

Gilliland, who played for the St. Joseph Saints in 2003 and 2005 while attending Missouri Western State University at St. Joe, was a regular member of the Mudcats’ 2004 starting rotation, opening seven games while coming out of the bullpen twice for Phillips. He produced a 3-4 record, firing 42-2/3 innings and having a 3.38 ERA.

The lone lefthander of the local pitching quintet, 2018 Mudcat Sewell appeared in 16 games, making two starts. His overall work was spotty with career-long control issues a major drag on his showings, but those performances tended to have a specific skew. Sewell repeatedly had success for an inning or two, whether in the infrequent starts or in relief, only to struggle the second time batters had a chance to face him in a game.

His ERA across his 28-1/3 innings was 9.52, mushroomed by a few bad outings, including in the season finale in which he ironically gained his only win in four decisions. However, his ERA was a fraction of that when counting only opponents’ initial plate appearances against him, an aspect head coach Bounds came to recognize and adapt to later in the season. Using Sewell only for short stints from the bullpen, Bounds got more-reliable and productive results, including the southpaw notching a pair of sharp, late-season saves.

Aside from Hussey, none of the six Chillicotheans who exclusively were position players had regular, extensive use.

2006 teammates Radel (.167 average, five RBI in 54 at-bats) and Lollar (.195 average, two RBI, six steals in 41 at-bats) did get to experience the NBC World Series atmosphere at Wichita, Kan. Each got a hitless at-bat in the team’s eliminating second-game loss there.

Douglas got into 16 games in 2013, but only batted 22 times. After a summer in the military service, he came back in 2015-16 and played in another 17 contests combined. Overall, the Wheeling native had nine hits, but 15 runs scored, in 55 official at-bats (.164 average). Adding on nine bases on balls and five times being hit by a pitch, he had an on-base percentage of .333.

Cooper participated in eight 2014 games, managing one hit in a mere nine at-bats. He did reach as a hit batsman once, as well, and scored once.

Figg was an emergency addition to the team late in 2017 after injuries and departures whittled away at the mid-July roster. He was used mostly as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner, getting into four games, but batting only once. He did score a run in one of his pinch-running uses.

(The next installments will encompass our review of some of the very best hitters the Mudcats have featured.)