UPDATED: This story has been updated to state the league will not play an actual All-Star Game but rather Kokomo will host all-star festivities.
BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – For the third time in three seasons, the Kokomo Jackrabbits are hiring a new field manager – but this time for a good reason. After the first manager was fired after 30 games, Matt Howard took over for the next year-and-a-half and led the squad to the Prospect League playoffs. Now, Howard is the inaugural Indiana University Kokomo head coach and the Rabbits are ready for a new era – and this time, they are looking to a seasoned bench veteran.
On Feb. 13, the Jackrabbits ownership group announced several changes for the 2017 season while introducing former Austin Peay State University head coach Gary McClure as the Jackrabbits new skipper. The group also announced that with its expansion from the Milwaukee area to other locales – including Kokomo and Lafayette – they have changed its name from MKE Sports and Entertainment to ROC Ventures.
“We’ve enjoyed a tremendous relationship with the people of Kokomo ever since bringing the Kokomo Jackrabbits to town,” said Mike Zimmerman, owner of ROC Ventures. “It all began with citizens choosing the name of the team. When you create things that bring people together, it creates community and further opportunities for all. We’ve based all of our activity here on that basic formula – return on community.”
MKE was a direct reference to Milwaukee and the airport code for the cities General Mitchell International Airport (much like IND for Indianapolis). With the MKE Sports and Entertainment becoming more regionally known, it was time for the change to better identity its purpose. Zimmerman’s ROC Ventures is named to remind everyone of the thread unifying all of ROC’s projects: Create value by creating and strengthening community opportunities.
“It’s become more and more clear to us that developing and helping create a real ‘deep economy’ locally is the key to lasting success for the entire surrounding region,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the principle behind ‘return on community,’ and that’s our commitment.”
The first big announcement of ROC Ventures was the naming of McClure as the leader of the Jackrabbits. The longtime NCAA Division I head coach at Austin Peay (Clarksville, Tennessee) is the winningest coach in Ohio Valley Conference history. While leading the Governors from 1988-2015 (28 seasons), McClure compiled a record of 847-750, with a 363-276 record in conference play.
“I’d like to thank Mike Zimmerman for this amazing opportunity,” said McClure. “I look forward to not only shaping our young players into professionals but also becoming an integral part of the community with my wife Amy.”
McClure is already a member of the Austin Peay Athletics Hall of Fame and 38 of his players were selected into the Major League Baseball Draft. His squads won a conference record five OVC regular season titles and five OVT tourney titles. He coached 49 first-team All-OVC players, nine conference Pitchers of the Year and three conference Players of the Year. Last season, he coached the Battle Creek Bombers in the Northwoods League
McClure and his wife, Amy, have been married for nearly three decades and have one son, Alex, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, who played in the Royals and Marlins minor league systems.
“This guy’s baseball IQ and coaching talent is off the charts,” said Dan Kuenzi, president of ROC Ventures Sports and Performance. “We’re getting a pro who operates at an extremely high level, and the players are going to appreciate the excellence he brings to his job.”
All-star festivities and more in Kokomo
After rain washed out most of the 2016 Prospect League All-Star Game in Kokomo, the Jackrabbits announced a reformatted event would return to the City of Firsts on July 17. While the league moves away from an actual game, all-star festivities will include a Home Run Derby and a professional scout workout for league players at Municipal Stadium.
“This is an event that brings deserved attention to the Kokomo community, as well as a nice economic boost,” said Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight. “We’re proud to once again have been selected as host.”
Last year, the Home Run Derby was a major success with baseballs being sent off the scoreboard, into the Wildcat Creek and across Apperson Way. Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not cooperate with the All-Star Game as rain stopped action on the turf before a complete game could be declared. Howard was the skipper for the West Division and 10 Jackrabbits have dressed for the All-Star Game in two seasons, including 2015 ASG Most Valuable Player Mark Zimmerman.
In a move that should make fans happy, Kuenzi said ticket prices would remain unchanged for the 2017 Jackrabbits campaign and several special events are planned, much like in the first two seasons.
For more on this story, see the Feb. 14 edition of the Sports Journal of Central Indiana