BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – For some, Sept. 2, 2014 seems like an eternity ago. It was on that date that Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight announced that minor league baseball would return to the city for the first time in 54 years. Nine short months later, the Kokomo Jackrabbits of the wood bat collegiate Prospects League is set to take to the synthetic turf of Kokomo Municipal Stadium for the venue’s – and team’s – inaugural season.
“I believe Kokomo will be one of the premier franchises in all of summer college ball,” said Prospect League founder and Chillicothe Paints owner Chris Hanners on the day of the announcement. “The city is a perfect spot for a franchise and we see it as the showcase for our league going forward.”
With the stadium nearly complete and players in town, Greg Van Horn – the first manager of the Jackrabbits – said he is excited to be in Kokomo. The Princeton University assistant baseball coach is no stranger to the Prospects League – he was a coach and player in past seasons. The skipper said he is thrilled to finally get the Jackrabbits program off the ground after months of behind-the-scenes work.
“This is so cool,” said the Cranford, N.J. native. “We as a team are going to have a lot of fun this year. And the fans will have just as much fun watching these guys; some of them may end up in the Major League someday.”
Van Horn’s route to Kokomo came via two years at Princeton in The Ivy League and the College of Wooster – a top liberal arts college. Thus, he may be one of the smartest men in the league.
“I played in the Prospect League for the Chillicothe Paints and we won the league title in 2010,” said Van Horn. “Dr. Hanners owned Chillicothe and that is how all of this came full circle. I also played for Dr. Hanners Frontier League team in Rockford for three years after I wasn’t drafted. Dr. Hanners is as loyal as they get, and he said he would help me get into coaching when my playing career ended. So I called him last year and he made me an assistant coach for the Paints, where we lost in game three of the finals. He then called and told me about the Jackrabbits – and here I am.”
Despite a prestigious education, the baseball junkie is down to earth and all smiles when talking about the game he loves – especially when he talks about the new stadium and starting a team from scratch.
“This is a great experience for me because you get an appreciation of the whole process,” said Van Horn. “It is unbelievable how much goes into starting an organization like this. All of those man hours – you have to appreciate the guys putting down the concrete and the turf and the plumbing and the electric; I mean, wow.”
Putting together the Jackrabbits
Van Horn said the Kokomo squad got off to a slow start in forming a roster due to the timing of the September announcement. Most teams begin looking for players when school starts, so the Jackrabbits were two months behind the curve.
“Most coaches start placing their teams in September and I got the job in late October,” he said. “So we had to start from scratch when most teams were already filled up. So our challenge was to find quality players when most were already on teams. You don’t want to just take anybody to fill the roster; you have to be patient. I think we have done a great job and we are just now putting the final touches on our last guy. It is a long process.”
Since Van Horn has not had a chance to see a lot of the players in action, he did not want to comment on them individually. Several players play NCAA Division I baseball at schools like Rutgers and Northwestern (Big Ten Conference), Valparaiso (Horizon League), Kent State and Western Michigan (Mid-American Conference), Saint Joseph’s (Atlantic 10 Conference), Cincinnati (American Athletic Conference) and Indiana State (Missouri Valley Conference).
The squad will have a local component as well. Western graduate and Morehead State freshman Evan Warden will be an infielder while Eastern grad and Earlham College junior Bryce Rainey will be on the pitching staff. Warden will not arrive back in Kokomo until after playing in the NCAA Tournament after the Eagles won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
“I have actually already met Bryce and he seems like a good kid,” said Van Horn. “We put him in a uniform for a photo shoot already. We are excited; I think they will both be able to compete right away.”
Van Horn admits the players will have a quick transition from college baseball to a summer league – especially having to switch from metal bats to the Marucci Sports wood variety.
“You kind of throw them right into the fire, right off the bat,” said Van Horn with a laugh. “The kids get to town on Monday (May 25) and the first game is Wednesday (May 27 in Terre Haute). We will have two light practices and try to get to know each other. For them it can be tough. The wood bats are an adjustment, but it is summer ball – a time to have fun and just play ball.”
The Prospect League
The rookie head coach said fans should come to Prospect League games ready to have fun and watch excellent baseball. With a classic crack of a wood bat, the game is more traditional and follows the lines of the Major League.
“The league is on par with the best summer leagues out there,” said Van Horn. “You treat summer college leagues like pro ball. You want to prepare the players the best you can for pro ball and give them every opportunity to get better.”
Van Horn said he would match the quality of the Prospect League players to any other collegiate summer program in America.
“The competition is amazing with the (NCAA Division I) guys, and the D2 and D3 guys are some of the best in the country,” he said. “So it is as highly of a competitive league as there is out there. Last year, there were probably 20 or 30 guys who got drafted who played in the Prospect League. It is not called ‘Prospect’ for no reason.”
The Jackrabbits organization say they formed a team that should be competitive, despite being a first-year franchise.
“We are coming in with the expectation we are going to compete with everyone else in the league,” said Van Horn. “We put together a team to win. We are trying to create a team where the kids want to come back the following summer.”
The Kokomo Jackrabbits open its home portion of the season on Saturday, May 30 at 7:05 p.m. The Danville Dans will play the Jackrabbits in a two-game series in downtown Kokomo. For ticket information, visit www.kokomojackrabbits.com.