Army assistant has knack for molding pitchers
It takes a special brand of baseball player to embrace the challenge of a West Point education. It's difficult enough to balance Division I college baseball with a standard academic workload, but Army players must make a heightened commitment to the classroom and endure the physical rigors of U.S. Military Academy training while devoting themselves to serving their country. But for those with enough mettle for it, the West Point experience also comes with a top-notch baseball education.
Nick Hill and Milan Dinga are testament to that. The pair of pitchers became the first two Army players ever to be drafted in the top 10 rounds in June, as the Mariners selected Hill in the seventh round and the Angels nabbed Dinga in the 10th.
That's a credit to their talent, but it's also a credit to Black Knights head coach Joe Sottolano and pitching coach/associate head coach Fritz Hamburg. Under their leadership, Army has developed talent and enjoyed Patriot League success at a rate unmatched in the program's history. For Hamburg's work with the Army pitching staff, his eye for talent on the recruiting trail and his strong, steady leadership in the clubhouse, Hamburg is the Baseball America/American Baseball Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year.
"It's great when you work with a man who treats the program as if it's his own, and it is his own," Sottolano said of Hamburg. "We do everything together, and we're very, very fortunate to have Coach as part of it, and a big part. He's very conscientious, he works hard, he's dedicated to it, and he believes in the players—that's a big part of it. He believes in them, and they believe in him. He's as much committed to developing them as people as he is to developing them as players."
It should come as no surprise that Sottolano says he and Hamburg do everything together in the program, because they've been working very effectively together since their playing days at Ithaca (N.Y.) College in the late 1980s. The batterymates led Ithaca to the Division III national championship in 1988 when Hamburg was an all-American catcher and Sottolano was a lefthander who captured Most Outstanding Player honors at the D-III College World Series.
"Our expression is, we shared the same sweat as players, and now we're sharing the same sweat as coaches," Hamburg said. "That experience as players was very gratifying. Everybody's trying to win championships, and it's a tremendous feeling to accomplish that ultimate goal."
Hamburg and Sottolano played for ABCA Hall of Fame coach George Valesente, whom Hamburg regards as a second father figure. Valesente was the greatest influence in Hamburg's baseball life, helping shape his strong core values and distinctive ability to teach, as Sottolano put it.
"We played for a man who taught us more about life than he did about baseball, and he taught us a ton about baseball," Sottolano said.
Hamburg and Sottolano went their own ways after leaving Ithaca. Sottolano worked briefly as an assistant at Drexel and Ithaca before joining Army as an assistant in 1992, a role he held until becoming head coach in 2000. Hamburg, meanwhile, tried his hand at professional ball, catching for one year in the Phillies organization before beginning his coaching career as an assistant at Cornell in 1992. He served stints as an assistant at New Mexico State, Cal Poly Pomona, Georgia and Ithaca before becoming Sottolano's pitching coach when his old friend was elevated to head coach at Army.
Since then, the Black Knights have gone to their first three NCAA regionals in school history. They won at least 30 games for three consecutive seasons from 2004-2006 after never winning more than 26 games in a previous season. Pitching had a lot to do with the success, as Hamburg's staff finished among the top 12 teams in the nation in ERA in each of the 30-win seasons.
"One of the first things we do with our guys when they get in here is get them to understand, whether they're a power guy or a front-to-back, in-to-out kind of guy, we want them to be able to pitch with rhythm and slow the game down," Hamburg said. "Our pitching staff, we sit down and establish our own goals as a staff so they can take ownership. We're a staff that throws a lot of strikes, and I think our numbers have kind of backed that. We want to try to work down and focus on getting ground balls, so from that standpoint we've done a really good job with that. The kids see the success we've had in the past, so it's kind of an easy sell with the incoming guys."
Hamburg isn't afraid to give his young pitchers some distance and let them fail or succeed on their own for the sake of the learning process. He said when it comes down to it, the game is about the players, and the coaches can't be out on the mound holding their hands in crucial moments. But that doesn't stop Hamburg from taking personal satisfaction from the success of players like Hill and Dinga.
"(The 2007 draft) was a dream come true for me as a coach, but I was certainly more excited for those guys to be able to accomplish what they did and fulfill the dream," Hamburg said.
"I think being able to communicate with the kids has been one of the most enjoyable things. I think one of the reasons why I've been in coaching my whole career is just being able to share my time, and the guys at West Point are unbelievable to work with. To see these guys have the success that they've had is very gratifying to me."