Tag Archives: baseball

The Closer

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The most nervous person on the field during David Gerber’s pitching debut for Creighton baseball in 2014 might have been his older brother, then senior outfielder Mike Gerber.

The Bluejays were down 6-2 late in a March game against Arkansas State. David was just a freshman, and the elder Gerber anxiously hoped his brother could start his college career off right.

David hit the first batter he faced, but Mike snagged two fly outs to end the inning, leaving the Bluejays unscathed. It was a brief debut, but a moment neither brother will forget.

“Not a lot of brothers have the opportunity to say that they got to be on the same field at the Division I level,” the pitcher says of his first time on the mound in a college game.

It was also the beginning of David’s career as one of the best relief pitchers in Creighton history. Now a senior, the side-winding closer has played an important leadership role on the 2017 Bluejays squad. He was named to the National College Baseball Writers Association 2017 Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List amid expectations that he would finish his career as the all-time saves leader for Creighton.

A strong family bond brought David to Omaha, and a rare adaptability has set him up to succeed in the high-pressure closer role.

“His record speaks for itself,” says Creighton head coach Ed Servais of David. “He has taken advantage of every opportunity.”

The Gerber brothers’ father introduced them to baseball. “We saw his love for the game and adopted that,” David says. “It became the culture of our family.”

A 2 1/2-year age gap and mutual appreciation for baseball helped make the young Gerber boys inseparable. They maintained an allegiance to their favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, even after moving from Springfield, Missouri, to the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois.

Tragedy struck the family when David was 14 years old. Their father, Michael (the elder brother’s namesake), died of kidney cancer. The loss tested the family, forging a tighter bond between the brothers and their mother, Karen.

“He doesn’t have Dad to call, so I try to be there for him in [rough] times,” Mike says, explaining his role as big brother.

The fraternal relationship was an important reason why David followed Mike to Creighton, where the older Gerber was already well on his way to being drafted by the Detroit Tigers organization.

“It was a family decision, along with the fact that I was comfortable with the coaching staff,” David says. “Mike and I were [going to be] in the same city, and our mom could take a trip up to see us.”

David didn’t see much action beyond his debut at Arkansas State during freshman year. Performance-wise, he was not ready. During that time, he focused on developing a rigorous mental and physical routine that served as the bedrock of his current success. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he also changed his pitching delivery from the traditional over-the-top style to the more irregular side-arm submarine delivery. 

“His velocity was probably around 84-85 [mph], and there are not a lot of guys that throw like that from the traditional arm slot,” coach Servais says, explaining the pitching style switch. “He is an unbelievably coachable player. Credit goes to him for being open-minded.”

The switch paid off. Following injuries to other players and multiple successful outings, including one at Kansas State, the Creighton coaches decided David was the best man to have at the back end of their bullpen.

“When I came in, it was a goal of mine to be a closer as a senior,” David says. “I don’t think coach ever expected me to be in that role as early as it happened. It is a tough situation. You are either the hero or the villain. There is no greater adrenaline rush than going out to close a game, and I can’t replicate how the mind works in that scenario, and how you go off into a different world, and your body takes over.”

After racking up 20 saves during his sophomore and junior seasons, he retained the closer job to finish out his Creighton career.

At the start of his senior season, David suddenly found himself in a role familiar to his older brother’s final year (in 2014). Both seasons featured overwhelmingly young rosters. Like Mike, David also had to play an essential leadership role. The 2017 squad had 16 freshmen, including those who red-shirted.

“He has done a good job one-on-one trying to pull guys aside and talk them through some things that he experienced as a freshman,” Servais says.

Despite being separated, with Mike chasing major league dreams in spring training as David began his final year at Creighton, the younger brother hopes to follow again in Mike’s footsteps.

The brothers who enjoyed a rare chance to share the collegiate field together still root for each other and cherish their friendship. 

“We talk on the phone all the time,” Mike says. “He is always there if I need anything, and I can tell him anything. I would be a totally different person if he wasn’t around.” 

Visit gocreighton.com for more information.

This article published in the May/June edition of Omaha Magazine.

One For the Books

January 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Well, another year has come and gone. That is to say: last year has gone, and this new one has come. That is, to be more precise, assuming you are reading this essay sometime after the annual transition and all of the associated festivities and repercussions. Frankly, it’s hard for me to know when anything is coming or going anymore, so let’s just agree that it’s 2017, okay?”

Last year really sucked. But then, most do.  I mean, nothing good happened at all, am I right?

Well, except the Cubs…they happened, and that was good. Even though allowances must be made for Cardinals fans, oh…and Cleveland fans, and maybe football fans, Cricket aficionados, purists of rounders, and other reprobates who hate baseball…So, I have to admit the Cubs winning might be considered a bad thing, and thus, part of a bad year…but for me it was good. I mean, the Cubs are World Champions! Who’da thunk it? I’m thrilled, and I hope that’s fine with you.

But except for the Cubs, last year really sucked.

Well, except for Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was cool, though again, there are those who can’t stand Bob Dylan’s voice…or people who actually think Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” is great stuff…or the few who dislike his stuff because it’s hard to dance to…Well, just remember Bob didn’t get the prize for his vocals or rhythms, but rather, for his poetic lyrics…and I memorized all the words to Highway 61 Revisited within 48 hours of buying my copy, so it was good for me. I hope that’s fine with you.

Anyway, except for the Cubs, and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, last year really sucked.

Then again…the Kepler Space Observatory discovered a total of 1,284 new exoplanets in 2016—that is, hitherto unknown worlds beyond our solar system. As a space nerd, I thought this was pretty amazing, wonderful stuff. I’m always happy when I find out new stuff, though it does make some people uncomfortable when they realize how small this little ball of ours is, and how fragile and insignificant the vast universe can make us feel. Also the Flat Earth Society took this news hard…so, for them, not so good, I guess. But for me, the news sent me back to my bookshelf and Arthur C. Clark. I hope you understand.

Still, except for the Cubs, the Nobel Prize, and more than a thousand new planets, last year really sucked.

And come to think of it, if I take time to sit back and think…I didn’t fall off the roof. That’s a good thing that didn’t happen. I hauled out the old ladder, schlepped it out back, climbed it, and cleaned out the gutters with the leaf-blower I bought from a TV infomercial, and climbed down again without plunging to my death. I do realize that there are a few people in the world who would have taken great cheer from such a pedestrian end to my great career. I regret any disappointment I may have inflicted upon my enemies by surviving such a risky endeavor. Though it must be noted that none of my rivals died either, so in that sense, we broke even.

Yeah, except for the Cubs, the Nobel, all the new planets, and the fact that I didn’t die… 

Last year really sucked.

Otis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

Otis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.

Beauty & the Cyborg Beast

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Less than three years ago, it dawned on scientist Jorge Zuniga why a childhood friend wanted nothing more than to play baseball.

It was odd. Growing up in Santiago, Chile, there were not many baseball fans. Just the one, as far as Zuniga knew (after all, soccer reigns supreme in Chile). Even more curious, Zuniga’s friend had just one hand.

Why baseball?

“There’s not one baseball field in the whole country,” Zuniga says, laughing at the exaggeration, “but this one kid without a hand wants to be a baseball player.”

Then, 20-odd years later, Zuniga and his 7-year-old son are playing catch in the long shadows of the front yard. Zuniga remembers his one-armed friend and his inexplicable love of baseball. Then it hits him.

“Oh,” Zuniga says, “I bet this kid that didn’t have a hand just wanted to do what every kid wants to do.” He yearned to play catch.

Biomedical2Earlier that same day, he had listened to a radio news report about “Robohand,” a project in South Africa that creates 3D-printed prosthetics for children. Zuniga—with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a lab at Creighton University—wanted to know more about the Robohand. But he had difficulty connecting with the researchers involved.

After several attempts to reach the people in South Africa, he relied on his own knowledge, resources, and expertise to make a prosthetic on his own. It took several months to perfect his prototype, but Zuniga’s journey highlights how the health care industry is utilizing new breakthroughs in 3D printing technology.

Nothing is more personal than health care. And few things are more customizable than the 3D-printed object. The field of prosthetics represents just one obvious medical application for the technology, one with many advantages: to provide a custom-fitted solution for an amputee; to shave thousands off the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs; to negate the financial burden if insurance doesn’t cover the device; and especially for children, to provide a fast solution to wear, tear, and outgrowing the artificial body part. 

But prosthetics only scratch the surface of possibilities awaiting biomedical 3D printing. The FDA, for example, recently approved the first 3D printed drug—an incredibly fast-acting seizure medication that dissolves in seconds thanks to a structure only possible through 3D printing.

Improvements to medical devices that were once too expensive to contemplate can be prototyped on the cheap. Zuniga, who now (as of August 15) works out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Biomechanics Research Building, says he has printed the model of a fetus for a blind mother who wanted to “see” her unborn baby. He has also worked with physicians at Omaha Children’s Hospital to print three-dimensional models of patient hearts so surgeons can study the organ long before they pick up a scalpel.

Zuniga’s use of 3D printing carries immediate significance and practicality. A glance at the more fantastic applications, however, can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There, biomedical engineer Bin Duan is heading up a new bioprinting unit that is printing and growing bone and cartilage for regenerative purposes. Later this year, Duan and his team will implant small plugs of printed bone into animals that should eventually integrate with the animal’s existing tissue.

Bioprinting works by printing with at least two different materials. First, a biocompatible polymer creates a scaffold or lattice in the desired shape of the tissue, such as an ear or a piece of bone. The second material, living cells, are printed onto the scaffold. The cells cling to the structure, and over the course of several weeks they live and multiply as the scaffold slowly degrades and disappears. Eventually, the scaffold material is gone, but the tissue remains.

One potential application of UNMC’s bone tests could be used to help future children born with certain defects. A printed bone implant made from the child’s stem cells would then grow with the child, eliminating the need for multiple surgeries.

In a more distant future, an organ transplant might not be from a random donor, but from the patient’s own stem cells: a new, perfect organ printed when it is needed, and far less prone to rejection. Skin grafts and bone regeneration, all of it made with a patient’s personal cells.

UNMC’s bioprinting program is still in its infancy, so a breakthrough with more complex systems will likely come from a place like Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Widely regarded as the national leader for 3D bioprinting, researchers there have already printed skin, blood vessels, bladders, and muscle—some of them implanted in humans. But complex organs like the heart, kidneys, and liver remain unsolved puzzles…for now.

In the here and now, researchers like Zuniga can make accessible what was once out of reach for many.

When he finished his first 3D-printed prosthetic arm, he showed it to his young son. The elder Zuniga expected to impress his son with the level of realism it held. The boy was not impressed.

“He said, ‘If that’s for children, that’s not gonna work,’” Zuniga says. “’Daddy, that hand is too real. You need something cooler than that.’”

Inspired by his son’s insight, Zuniga created “Cyborg Beast,” a brightly colored, prosthetic, cybernetic hand that more closely resembles something out of a science fiction movie than a human limb. The plans and instructions on how to use them are open and free to anyone with access to a 3D printer.

“You’d be surprised at how many people around the world have access to (3D printing) machines,” Zuniga says. “…It’s like the start of a revolution.”

An artificial limb that once cost $4,000, can now be had for about $50—about the cost of a trip to the ballpark.

Visit cyborgbeast.org to learn more. B2B

Argent Jewelry

June 21, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Matt Powell of Perspective Jewelry freely admits he didn’t purposefully or strategically branch out his fine jewelry business into a new genre. He was, however, quick to recognize its potential.

“The sports stuff is something that we just sort of fell into,” he says. “We developed a cool product, there was customer demand for it, it lent itself to this kind of thing, and we’ve just taken off and ran with it.”

Powell’s unintentionally sporty but apt metaphor illustrates how, in just a few years, Perspective Jewelry has added an entire sub-business—Argent Sports—featuring officially licensed NCAA and College World Series custom jewelry pieces.

“We’re kind of on the fringe market in that we’re on the high-end side. We fit that alumni crowd, the more affluent, luxury-box crowd,” Powell says, explaining that his clients generally have long-held “institutional attachment” that becomes part of their identity, and they’re looking for lasting, high-quality jewelry to reflect that. “So we have product that ranges in retail price from, say, $75 to $2,000. That puts us at the very high-end of the licensed sports jewelry line.”

l-r: Sheila, Matt, and Chad Powell

l-r: Sheila, Matt, and Chad Powell

The pre-game actually began in 1993 when Powell left a position with a major fine jewelry retailer (where he specialized in custom projects) to strike out on his own from his hometown of Missouri Valley, Iowa. He brought his wife, Sheila, into the business side of things. His son, Chad, eventually became a CAD (computer-aided design) master and joined the family business.  In 2007, the Powells opened up an Old Market storefront, Perspective Jewelry Design Studio, where they created, and still create, many one-of-a-kind engagement rings and other fine pieces.

For the first few years at Perspective, the Powells were comfortable with just their “nice niche” of taking clients’ ideas (and sometimes heritage diamonds or other elements) all the way from rough concept to shining reality.

“We’re artisans in that we know how to do it all. We can design it, we can build the models and prototypes, we can cast the pieces, we can set the stones, we can do all the other work involved with it,” he says. “It’s really all—start-to-finish—us.”

The same in-house resources that were optimal for couples designing engagement rings made possible the fast turnaround time needed for custom sports jewelry. Argent Sports began with a simple baseball pendant created during a College World Series. Using various precious metals and a range of enamels, diamonds, and gemstones, the Powells developed a line of customized baseball necklaces for team insiders and fans by the next year’s series.

“We found something that people responded to and reacted to, and we took that and built on it. We kept fine-tuning it and adjusting, and through that feedback loop, we developed a product line that works,” Powell says, explaining that the direct interaction with clients visiting during the CWS was another advantageous factor in Argent’s growth.

“If I were sitting in my little shop in Missouri Valley, I don’t think I could have ever done it.”

ArgentJewelry3

Baseball pendants are still a mainstay for Argent, and they have more design options to broaden the spectrum further. “We do add new product all the time,” Powell says.  “We have something for different price points.”

Baseball jewelry led to football jewelry, and, following a serendipitous visit from just the right official, Powell was able to gain exclusive rights to licensed NCAA logos and images. With the ability to create exclusive, institution-approved pieces, the CWS remains a peak period for business, and Powell gets closer to the fans each year through a temporary second location he operates in Omaha Baseball Village. He holds relationships with retailers from Alabama to Wisconsin, often in communities with the right kind of fan, such as college towns. This enables him to sell team-affinity jewelry year-round— and sell baseball pieces long after the last CWS game. He’s produced pieces in batches for special groups like alumni organizations and booster groups.

“You have to have the right crowd and the right store…There’s a streakiness and a quirkiness to it that’s really hard to put your thumb on, and we’ve really kind of learned as we’ve gone along,” he says.

Most of the pieces on the top end of the line are made on demand, Powell says, and although he doesn’t mass-produce, anything that doesn’t sell can usually be recast and the material repurposed.

“We’re not doing any of this overseas; it’s all done here in Omaha and Missouri Valley. Because it’s all done locally and we’re able to turn it pretty quickly, I don’t have to stock a ton of inventory and hope it sells. When I get an order I can fill it either immediately or pretty quickly and then I can backfill.”

Meet the Maloleys

June 6, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A variety of sounds greet one at the front door of the Maloleys’ home. The sounds of a piano, at least one violin, and a cello come from different areas of their 1950s home. Something else sounds like a complete symphony.

l-r, Caroline, Jacob, Meredith, Zachary, Clara, and Sam Maloley

l-r, Caroline, Jacob, Meredith, Zachary, Clara, and Sam Maloley

“Oh, that’s a CD,” Julie Maloley says with a slight wave of her hand like it’s no big deal.

It’s a bit of a cacophony…but only a little bit. It is, however, everyday life for Maloley and her children. They all play the violin and the piano.  Sons Sam, 14, and Jacob, 8, play the cello.

Caroline, 13, practices the piano daily for approximately 30 minutes after breakfast, then moves to her violin. Sam practices cello after breakfast, then moves to the piano. Meredith, 17, practices the violin after she attends a math class at Millard North first thing in the morning.

For now, she’s the only one attending class in a traditional school building. Sam wants to play baseball in high school, so along with violin, piano, and cello, he plays on a select baseball team. And yes, he also studies.

Julie home-schools her kids using a curriculum called Mother of Divine Grace. The Catholic-based curriculum emphasizes liberal arts. Youngest daughter Clara comes in from the main room to the library, with its built-in bookcases packed with tomes on subjects ranging from literature to music theory to biblical studies, and plunks down at the table with a handwriting book and a pencil.

“It’s distracting out there,” she announces, proceeding to perfectly copy pages of cursive letters—mimicking skills learned in earlier decades.

Indeed. Youngest son Zachary, who turns 7 on June 2, practices piano with Caroline’s aid. Jacob stands around anxiously waiting with his cello.

“Jacob! Just wait!” Julie calls out as she hears a low note from the string instrument combined with the sounds of the piano. “Sam will be done soon.”

As Sam comes up from the basement, Zachary heads down.

Maloley4

The chaos actually benefits the kids. They study under the Suzuki method, a theory of musical study started in the 20th Cenutry by Shin’ichi Suzuki. Central in this philosophy is that all people can (and will) learn from their environment.

The family’s affair with music began when oldest Madeline, 20, was 3. Julie’s nieces and nephews played instruments, so Julie and husband

Skip began violin lessons for their daughter.  The next year Madeline began playing piano.

“It kind of snowballed one right after the other,” Julie claims.

Madeline now studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney on a violin scholarship.

They aren’t always this anxious to practice. Today (April 13) is Clara’s 11th birthday, and they are all practicing willingly, because they are going to the zoo for her special day. Mom told them they need to finish practicing and schoolwork before they can leave.

Besides, a big event is about to happen. The beautiful, yet disjointed sounds of cello and violin heard in the Maloleys’ home are brought together along with violas and a stand-up bass that Friday night at the Omaha Conservatory of Music’s opening night gala. Guests sit in the new concert hall that once housed the sanctuary of Temple Israel, listening to the sounds of the Beatles performed by 30 young strings players. Five of those players hold the last name Maloley.

The group performing such well-known pop tunes as “Let it Be” is Frontier Strings, an ensemble at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Maloley3

Aside from performing with the strings group, Meredith takes violin lessons from executive director Ruth Meints. She plays at Hospice House on Wednesday nights, (per mom’s orders) and teaches music to 16 students, who troop through the house one right after another each weekend. Her ultimate goal is to become a music teacher.

Sitting in the audience, often, is their father. Skip is the lead database administrator for Green Plains and owns Pacific Solutions Inc.

“Dad enjoys watching the kids. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Julie says of both homeschooling and allowing the kids to participate in multiple music lessons.

Julie herself doesn’t claim to be a musician, but is able to play piano and violin. She often practices with the kids, and sits in on lessons. One of the cores of the Suzuki method is that the parent be able to supervise instrument practice, and take notes at lessons in order to coach the children effectively.

She has coached them well. The perfect sounds of Bach’s Gavat come from Clara and Caroline’s violins, along with several other youngsters, as guests stroll through the executive suite at the conservatory’s gala. The Maloleys, along with all the children, are poised, eager, and happy to perform.

“It’s not that I think they will be Juilliard musicians, but it’s something they can do for the rest of their lives.”

The Loyal Royal

October 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The batter steps up to the plate and smacks a line drive into the left field gap. The runner at second base starts motoring toward third, rounds the corner, and heads for home. It was seemingly a logical base-running decision, but an ill-advised one for a couple of reasons: one, this is Kauffman Stadium; two, Alex Gordon patrols left field.

Gordon seems to have a sixth sense about where a ball will ping off the wall or hop on the outfield grass. Sure enough, on this night against the Baltimore Orioles, he times his run toward the ball perfectly, catches it on the first bounce, and immediately rifles a throw straight into the glove of All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, who applies the tag. Another baserunner kill (assist) for Gordon, whose defensive skills have earned three consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

Now in his eighth season with the Kansas City Royals, the Lincoln native has become the face of the franchise. He is everything the club thought he would—and could—be when they drafted him as the second overall pick in 2005 following a legendary junior year at the University of Nebraska, where he swept all the national player of the year awards. When Gordon signed with the Royals in September of that year, sports outlets throughout KC hailed him as the next George Brett, the hero who would once again lead the team to the Promised Land of playoffs and stop the hemorrhaging in the loss column. Heady stuff for a 21-year-old.

“Yeah, I felt a little pressure,” reflects Gordon, sitting in a quiet room deep within “The K” behind the Royals dugout. “But I think anytime you’re drafted where I was drafted there’s going to be those expectations. It’s how you deal with it that makes the difference.”

The way Gordon dealt with setbacks early in his Royals career made the difference between being a success or becoming another asterisk in what was then a maddening streak of first-round draft busts. He debuted against the Red Sox in April 2007. His offensive output disappointed during his first two seasons. Then, in 2009 and 2010, injuries severely curtailed his playing time. On top of that, the Royals moved Gordon from third base to the outfield. To regain his swing and build his confidence in a new position, the Royals sent him down to Triple-A Omaha.

“I could have gone down there, moped around and been upset; not tried to work hard to get to where I wanted to be,” says Gordon of his time in Omaha. “ But I took a positive attitude and did everything I could.”

Gordon’s widely admired work ethic and relentless pursuit of perfection paid off. He scorched the scoreboard in Omaha and, just as importantly, discovered he loved playing left field. “It kinda’ comes natural,” he says. Many would argue he is now the game’s best outfielder.

An All-Star with his own cheering section and a legion of “Gordo Nation” fans, Gordon opted to stay with the club that he worshipped growing up in Lincoln. In 2012, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $37.5 million, though baseball insiders say he could have gone to another club for a lot more. Gordon will have none of that.

“They stuck with me,” says Gordon, explaining why his loyalty to the team runs so deep. “You know, they could have easily gotten rid of me or traded me. But they believed in me and I thank them a lot for that. It’s somewhere I want to be and somewhere they’ve let me be for awhile.”

Kansas City’s proximity to Nebraska also played a huge part in his decision to stay. Gordon’s wife, Jamie, whom he met in college and married in 2008, also hails from Lincoln. The lure of home is so great that the couple, along with their two young sons, Max and Sam, live in Lincoln during the off-season. For their part, Nebraskans embrace Gordon not just as a Royal but also as a Husker.
“Alex Gordon is awesome,” says Nebraska fan James Kolasky, a nurse in Elkhorn. “He was on the Dream Team for the Huskers in 2005 along with Joba [Chamberlain]. They went to the College World Series, but the cards didn’t fall their way.”

Though the “Dream Team” only won one game at the CWS, the experience still resonates with Gordon.

“We were from Nebraska and we played in Omaha, so we got the home crowd,” says Gordon, who first attracted attention as a two-time Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year at Lincoln Southeast High School. “We had an escort to the baseball field [at the old Rosenblatt Stadium]. We almost felt like rock stars. It was pretty cool.”

True to his Nebraska roots, Gordon displays neither ego nor airs of any kind when dealing with the media. He accepts giving interviews as part of the job and remains accessible and patient—a genuinely nice guy. But the ballplayer is all business. His small talk is about as lean as his physique. (Gordon is a walking billboard for the benefits of a chicken and protein diet, which he follows faithfully). His daily routine consists of weight lifting and cardio, followed by batting practice, a little shut-eye, and then back to the batting cage. While his life is an open book, thanks to the Internet, he still provided a little-known tidbit:

“I’m really good at cards,” he admits. “Just ask the other guys on the team. I always kill them at cards. Other than that, I’m a pretty laid-back guy and a family man. It doesn’t take much for me to have fun.”

Nebraska’s best baseball player—kind, courteous, and killing it in Kansas City. And a card shark to boot.

 

This is Omaha

May 4, 2015 by

FourStarters-1Once

This article appears in May/June 2015 Omaha Magazine.

ONCE 

Orpheum Theater

May 13-17

Winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, Once is a truly original Broadway experience featuring an impressive ensemble of actor/musicians who play their own instruments onstage. Based on the Academy Award-winning film, it tells the enchanting tale of a Dublin street musician who’s about to give up on his dream when a beautiful young woman takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs. As the chemistry between them grows, his music soars to powerful new heights, but their unlikely connection turns out to be deeper and more complex than your everyday romance.

The Oscar-winning independent Irish film, Once, was made for $150,000. Shot in 17 days, it went on to gross $20M worldwide, becoming a critically acclaimed international smash. It stars Glen Hansard, from the popular Irish Rock band The Frames, and Markéta Irglová. The duo won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Original Song with “Falling Slowly,” and the film won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Music. The soundtrack was also nominated for two Grammy Awards.

Orpheum Theater

409 S. 16th St. 

TicketOmaha.com

liedcenter.org

FourStarters-2CWS

The College World Series

TD Ameritrade Park Omaha

June 13-23/24

Call it Baseball’s Burning Man. There’s just nothing like it in the world of college sports: One city inextricably linked to the national championship of a major sport. For more than 60 years, college baseball players have had one goal each spring—to keep rolling down that “Road to Omaha.” For many it’s more a week-and-a-half-long vacation, a chance to leave the real world behind at the rebirth of summer and immerse in the unique rhythms and peculiarities of “America’s Pastime.” For 10 days (or 11 days if the 3-game championship series goes to a third game), Omaha adopts the spirit of the game, a vibe built on colorful people, bizarre superstitions, and a freewheeling festival groove. Baseball fans are cool. They’re laid back. They’re friendly. They’re master tailgaters. There’s a reason the series has stayed in Omaha all these years. It’s just hard to imagine any place doing it better.

TD Ameritrade Park Omaha

1200 Mike Fahey St.

Tickets from $30.

cwsomaha.com 

Fourstarters-3friedfood

Omaha Magazine’s Fried Food Festival

Presented by Storz Brewery

Lewis and Clark Landing

June 20

Partnering with Storz Trophy Room Grill & Brewery, Omaha Magazine’s Fried Food Festival promises lots of outdoor fun on Father’s Day weekend. Featuring everything for the fried food foodie, this festival will celebrate all things dipped and battered on the Lewis and Clark Landing from 1 to 6 p.m.

Bringing together street-style vendors, food trucks, and multiple beer gardens is a sure-fire way for dads to load up the calories and enjoy this special weekend. Sticking to a theme we think is only natural for a fried food festival, you’ll enjoy live country music while gobbling down such perfect—if funky—combos as deep-fried pickles and squid.

Enjoy the view of the riverfront while learning a twangy two-step or a do-si-do from professional line dancers. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can try your luck on the mechanical bull. If a little liquid courage is needed, relax in one of the many beer gardens featuring locally brewed Storz beer.

But don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen and bring the kids to the fun zone featuring large inflatable obstacle courses. Admission is free, so bring dad, the kids, and yourself to Omaha’s only Fried Food Festival.

Lewis and Clark Landing 

345 N. Riverfront Dr.

FriedFoodFest.com

FourStarters - 4RiitaIkonen

Riitta Ikonen: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Leaf 

Through June 27

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

Myth, memory, and mysticism. Finnish artist Riitta Ikonen ties together all three, and she does so through long-term, multi-disciplinary projects that she creates alone or in conjunction with regular collaborators. Throughout her work, nature frequently acts as both content and context, with characters literally inhabiting the natural landscape or anthropomorphizing into it.

This is evident in several of the exhibition’s featured projects, including Ikonen’s acclaimed Eyes as Big as Plates series, which she created through an on-going collaboration with photographer Karoline Hjorth. Inspired by Scandinavian folklore, the series documents older inhabitants clad in the artist’s wearable costumes in remote landscapes around the world. Within the solitude of these places, her subjects become one with their surroundings, subtly underscoring the age-old relationship between people and nature.

While each of Ikonen’s projects differ in breadth and scope, at their core they all emphasize the deep and abiding connection as well as the silent, dynamic potential that exists between people and nature, the spaces they inhabit, and the experiences they share.

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

724 S. 12th St.

BemisCenter.org

The Perfect Game

February 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

If you have boys, and if you and those boys love baseball, and if those boys were cursed enough to be right-handed, you likely would have a hard time not day-dreaming on what-ifs while watching Pat Venditte throw a bullpen using his left hand.

Left-handed pitchers are gold in baseball. (While 10 percent of people are left-handed, 22 percent of pro pitchers are lefties). They make the team even if their fastball can’t break stemware. Pat Venditte was born a right-hander like most of us. But his dad, Pat Sr., followed through on that grand scheme that other dads of righties invariably abandon: When Pat junior was 3, Pat Sr. senior had him throw with both hands when they played catch, kick a football with both feet, and eat with both hands at dinner. In time, he was a genuine switch-pitcher, able to pitch from whichever hand gave him the biggest advantage over the hitter. “It was an experiment,” says his father as he watches Pat throw at Creighton’s Kitty Gaughan Pavilion. “But it wouldn’t have gone anywhere without Pat’s persistence. Any success is all his.”

So now, 25 years later, thanks to both rare nature and persistent nurture, Pat stands on this mound in Creighton’s baseball facility on the verge of the major leagues. He throws from three different arms slots from the left side and three more from his right like some six-armed Hindu deity. “I don’t overpower people,” Venditte says after his south-paw two-seam fastball draws a faint pop from the catcher’s mitt. “But I get people out. I’ve done that consistently all my career. If I keep getting people out, I should get my shot.”

For baseball fans in Omaha, especially Creighton fans, the Venditte story is pretty well known. He walked on at Creighton after a “nothing special” career at Central High School, struggled early, then had a breakout season in 2007. He held opposing batters to a .185 batting average, the fourth best in the nation. Still, scouts treated him as little more than an oddity. He was picked in the 40th round that year.

After his 2008 season, scouts took him more seriously. He went in the 20th round to the New York Yankees. Still, he was the 620th pick that year. Do the math. His chances of reaching the majors were considered slim.

Thanks to his custom-made ambidextrous glove, Venditte switches hands depending on the batter he faces. Early in his career, he met a switch hitter who switched sides every time Venditte switched to his opposite hand. There is now the “Pat Venditte Rule” [8.01(f)] that says he must declare which hand he’ll use and stick with it. He has a ruled named after him. That’s how rare he is.

Besides an injury that upended his 2013 season, Venditte put up call-up worthy numbers thoughout his minor league career (an impressive 2.46 ERA as a reliever in 384.2 innings). But even with those numbers, even though he is a fan-favorite who always draws onlookers when he warms up in the bullpen, the Yankees never gave him a shot. Near the end of last season, with the Yankees out of contention and Venditte yet again getting batters out, fans and some baseball writers were clamoring for him to get a chance. Once again, he didn’t.

He wasn’t bitter, he says. Just disappointed—again. “I saw the amazing guys around me, I had an idea of what the organization’s plans were, I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of things go right in my life. A lot of things. But sometimes it’s just not your day. This time it didn’t quite happen.”

Which brings us to the news in the Pat Venditte story. In the fall, Venditte was signed by the Oakland A’s. If you’ve seen Money Ball, you know why Venditte calls his signing “the perfect fit for me.”

The A’s management is famous for looking deep inside statistics to find under-valued, under-appreciated players. They embrace the unconventional. If you get guys out, you’ll get a shot. Venditte feels he has a real opportunity to play for manager Bob Melvin. “Honestly, I’ll probably end up in AAA (in Nashville) coming out of spring training,” Venditte says. “But if I show them I can be consistent—do the job I know I can do—I really think I’ll be given a shot. It’s a great opportunity.”

Many in the baseball world agree. Dave Rawnsley, national director of scouting for the scouting service, Perfect Game, says the A’s are the best organization in baseball for Venditte’s skillset.

“The A’s think outside the box and do creative things with their MLB roster,” he says. “With that is his great story. I think the Yankees made a mistake not giving Venditte a cup of coffee last fall once they were out of it. He’s such a great story. The positive publicity they could have gotten from that would have been a plus with all the bad stuff going on there. You can’t measure that in dollars.”

If Venditte finally reaches his dream this year, it is likely he will become a national story. Television cameras and fans will gravitate toward him. He will be star.

And then, no doubt, dad’s eager to give their boys an edge in the sport will start their own Venditte family program.

But, honestly, both father and son suggested boys and their fathers not get their hopes up too much. Rawnsley, who has tracked a nation of ballplayers for more than two decades, also says dads should temper their hopes.

“There are switch hitters, sure. But it’s so much more complicated to throw a ball than hit a ball. Dads wanting it to happen won’t impact the fact it’s extremely rare.

“That’s why Venditte is close to unique,” he says. “That’s why he’s such a great story.”

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Kevin Kugler

October 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As die-hard Husker, Hawkeye, and NFL fans begin the sprint that is football season, the man with the voice girds for an 11-month-long marathon of his own. Omaha-based sportscaster Kevin Kugler logs tens of thousands of air miles every year hopscotching across the country to the next city on his itinerary, providing radio play-by-play  for college games on the Big Ten Network and Sunday night pro football games on Westwood One. Kugler begins revving up his vocal cords in August, broadcasting the Houston Texans pre-season games. Come September, the pace picks up.

“I will leave on a Thursday or Friday, fly to my college site wherever that is in the Big Ten, meet with coaches, do my game, leave my game, go to the airport, hop on a plane Saturday night, fly to wherever my NFL game is Sunday night, do the game, and fly back home Monday morning,” the 42-year-old Lincoln native says, without taking a breath. “I’ll prep for the upcoming college game Tuesday and Wednesday [at home], transition to the NFL prep Thursday morning, then head out. Rinse and repeat.”

While most mortals would cry “uncle,” Kugler is just getting started. College basketball intersects with football in November, adding a middle-of-the-week Big Ten game to an already tight schedule. And, oh yes, Kugler tapes the popular Big Red Wrap-Up on Tuesdays in the fall for NET, the Lincoln TV station that gave a newly-minted UNL journalism graduate his first real job 20 years ago. “I was the sideline reporter for the Shrine Bowl, the high school football all-stars, and I was terrible,” Kugler admits, shaking his head. “I wore sunglasses and chewed gum. I was pathetic.”

Mentors along the way polished the rough edges, creating a versatile sportscaster who’s upbeat, enthusiastic, exciting to listen to—and dedicated. Kugler’s former Omaha radio partner can attest to that. “His plate is as full as any Thanksgiving meal you will see,” says Mike’l Severe, who teamed with Kugler for almost a decade on the popular Unsportsmanlike Conduct. “He is an extremely hard worker. When he got the Big Ten job, he followed all of college football—not just the Big Ten.”

In addition to football and basketball, Kugler calls baseball on the Big Ten Network, meshing his schedule with Westwood One duties, which include the NCAA Final Four followed immediately by The Masters golf tournament and, of course, the College World Series in his own backyard. Kugler has also traveled to four Olympics.

Kugler credits his wife, Michelle, an attorney, with enabling him to follow his dream while she raises their two daughters in west Omaha. But when college sports hibernate in July, Kugler’s favorite arena is home.

Strike Zone and MVP4Life

March 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Learning life skills through baseball.” This is the tagline for MVP4Life, a new nonprofit organization aimed at keeping Omaha’s youth in school and helping them succeed in life. MVP4Life has joined forces with Strike Zone Omaha to form school programs, camps and clinics, coaches’ clinics, and the Upper Deck League.

The goal of MVP4Life is to instill a sense of work ethic and teach kids about the importance of contributing to the community. It’s not just about baseball. It’s about producing a rewarding program that encourages kids to work together.

Joe Siwa and Teri Cissell, partners at Strike Zone Omaha, realized the need for after-school programs in the community. It was Cissell who thought up the idea behind MVP4Life. As the nonprofit’s director, she has been working hard on the program for about a year and a half and says it’s almost ready to launch. “We have it where we want it to be and now want to hit the ground running,” Cissell says.

Over eight weeks, the school program will teach life skills to fifth through eighth graders. The goal is for students to graduate from MVP4Life with a set of essential life skills. “This is a full-circle program,” Siwa says. “Everything is connected with helping these kids become more productive citizens in life. We are giving them that foundation to live upon.”

“We’ve put a lot of thought into this and have really built a strong program,” says Cissell. Cissell and Siwa have created a complete curriculum based on the HOMERUNS life skills: Handle diversity, Overcome challenges, Make good decisions, Encouragement and leadership, Responsibility and respect, Understand and accept situations, Nurture self-esteem and confidence, and Stay focused on personal goals.

“Research shows that if kids are kept in organized school activities, they do much better in school and in life,” Cissell says. “Douglas County Sheriff’s department did research that determined if we could keep just 10 percent of male students from dropping out of high school, we could save Nebraska taxpayers $65 million per year.”

The nonprofit also includes the Upper Deck League, a competitive league for college players in their offseason. These players mentor youth on how to be successful college athletes, as well as attend a leadership conference in exchange for playing in the Upper Deck League. Siwa stresses the importance of giving back to the community and hopes that these 120 college baseball players are passing on a strong work ethic to the kids.

“Our job is to get these kids involved and teach them how to listen to instruction, take criticism, and gain a work ethic. We want to put a desire into these kids…great things happen when you work hard,” Siwa says.

The program will begin in the Omaha Public Schools and filter out to the rest of
the community.

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