By Jim Masters
Imagine you’re the manager of a baseball team, it’s the first game of the season and you still hadn’t met one player on your team, let alone had a practice with them. Even T-ball team coaches are afforded a few practices before they dive into games.
Not for the Lake County Corn Dogs. Most of their players will no sooner arrive home from college and they’ll be suiting up for the Northern League’s new Class D developmental league team, playing its inaugural season at Legacy Fields in Crown Point.
Manager Justin Huisman has his work cut out for him getting the ball club’s lineup set and finding enough playing time for everyone over the 55-game season, which begins on May 23. Yes, that Justin Huisman, Crown Point resident and former pitcher for the Kansas City Royals.
Corn Dogs Majority Owner Ralph Flores is intent that the Corn Dogs will have a winning first season. So he sought experience in a manager — someone who could get the team in sync early and demonstrate the care and mentorship needed to work successfully with pre-professional players.
Huisman’s prior success leading the NWI Oilmen to league titles was a natural fit with an upstart team like the Corn Dogs. Besides, having Huisman in the Corn Dogs’ dugout juices up a ready-made rivalry with the Oilmen.
“Coach Huisman brings experience from every level of the baseball world to our ballclub,” Flores says. “Couple that with his great character and you have a manager who brings significant value to the organization, his players and fans of the Corn Dogs.
Huisman, who spent the past several seasons as Trinity Christian College’s manager, jumped at the opportunity to manage the Corn Dogs. There were just so many pluses in taking the job.
“The thought of having a team in Crown Point was intriguing because the field is five minutes from my home and I have a lot of friends and family in the area,” he says. “When I sat down with Ralph and he explained his vision for the team and the direction the league was going, it definitely sounded like something I wanted to do. I knew it was going to be a well-run organization and something I would be proud to be part of.”
As a manager, the opportunity to coach fundamentals and help players with the mental side of the game excites Huisman. He’s experienced the highs and lows of being drafted by the pros, moving up in the minor leagues, playing in the Majors and then managing players primarily at the collegiate level.
“I know that no matter what a player is going through I’ve probably gone through it in my career too,” he says.
Huisman expects players to come ready to play and make the most of their opportunity to develop and demonstrate their abilities to Major League scouts.
“If you need motivation created for you, you’re probably not gonna go very far,” Huisman explains. “Your passion for the game should already be there, but for me as a coach my job is to stoke that fire. If I see a guy dragging a little but, I’ll give him a tap on the shoulder or do whatever it takes to get him going. I’m not a rah-rah type of coach and don’t put on a cheerleading outfit, but I’ll be one of the first guys there to give you a fist bump.”
For Huisman, just being part of a player’s journey that could possibly lead to playing in the Majors is the main reward. Besides, he gets to stay in the game and put on a uniform himself.
While he only knows his roster by what he’s seen on paper, Huisman will have a couple of power hitting outfielders in Roman Kuntz and Jacob Ferry, both products of Division I powerhouse Morehead State.
“It looks like we could have a well-rounded team… and a lot of guys who can really drive the ball out of the ballpark,” he says. “I’m excited because it looks like we can do a little bit of everything, but once we get playing every day we’ll see exactly where we are.”
It won’t be all guesswork for Huisman. He’s willing to ask players where they are comfortable hitting in the batting order and make out the lineup card accordingly. “For me, it’s more day-to-day watching the guys and seeing how they respond, who’s got the mental toughness to handle certain situations, like when you’re down in the last inning and need a clutch hit or a strikeout.”
While Huisman certainly wants to win and entertain fans, his top priority is player development, as well as keeping them free of injury. That certainly holds true for the pitching staff by not overusing any one arm.
“I really do want to bring a (Northern League) championship to this organization, but if it’s a decision to win a championship or protect a guy, I’ll protect him every time,” he says.
By understanding the developmental needs of his players, combined with the experience of having led collegiate level teams, Huisman sees an opportunity to truly bring his considerable managerial resume to the fore.
“I had an eight-year pro career and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says. “If I can help just one guy accomplish their dreams, whether he plays in the big leagues for one day or 15 years, just to say I had a small role in that makes me happy. So, that’s why I coach.”
|The Justin Huisman File|
Position: Pitcher, Right-handed
High School: Thornwood H.S.
College: University of Mississippi, 1997-2000, member of collegiate baseball team; Purdue University Northwest, B.A., Marketing/Marketing Management; Liberty University, M.A., Sport & Fitness Administration Management
Major League Draft: Colorado Rockies, Round 15, 2000
Major League Debut: Kansas City Royals, April 25, 2004
Favorite baseball moments: Scoreless in first 9 MLB innings pitched; First MLB save