Dispatches From The Heartland: Kansas State

MANHATTAN, Kan.—There’s an old joke around the Baseball America office about the Kansas State Hype Machine. The joke is that there’s no such thing.

It began in the fall of 2010, when Kansas State emailed us a minimalist list of its incoming recruits, rather than filling out a full recruiting questionnaire. While other recruiting coordinators annually talk up how great their recruiting classes are, then-KSU recruiting coordinator Sean McCann wrote that head coach Brad Hill “doesn’t like hyping guys up that haven’t done anything. It’s a good class, though.”

There you have it—the Kansas State Hype Machine in action.

Kansas State coach Brad Hill

Kansas State coach Brad Hill gives his coaches a lot of credit.

McCann’s matter-of-fact summation was right on, though: it was a good class. Maybe the best in school history, in fact. Jared King, Ross Kivett and Shane Conlon became stars who led Kansas State to its first-ever Big 12 title, its first-ever home regional and its first-ever trip to super regionals as juniors last year.

And they did it as a team picked to finish seventh in the nine-team league in the preseason coaches poll. Kivett, an avid blogger, wrote in a November post that K-State assistant Mike Clement promised him the team would dog-pile at the end of the season. “‘Hey, we’re gonna win this league, book it,'” Kivett quoted Clement as saying. “And you know what, for some God only knows reason, I believed him.”

No one outside the program did. Kansas State has always operated outside the limelight—partly a function of its lack of a winning tradition (the Wildcats made their first regional in program history in 2009, and have been back three times since), and partly a product of Hill’s understated approach. College baseball coaches, by their nature, tend to be a self-promoting lot, constantly pumping up their programs—and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not how Hill operates.

“My coaches, they do a lot of the coaching,” Hill said. “I try to manage what I can, try to establish a style of play and things like that, make sure kids are representing the university the right way. But it’s not about me. It’s all about the players, and moving them in the right direction toward getting them a degree. And if they have the opportunity to play pro ball, they get to do that. But trust me, it’s not about me at all.”

Casey Scott is quick to agree with that sentiment. Scott, a senior associate athletics director, is in his 14th year at Kansas State, and he has been the senior administrator in charge of baseball since he arrived in Manhattan. He and former AD Tim Weiser (the deputy commissioner of the Big 12 and a former chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee) targeted Hill for their head coaching vacancy in 2004, when Hill was coming off a Division II national championship at Central Missouri State, where he led the Mules to seven College World Series trips during his nine-year tenure. A native of Galva, Kan., and an alumnus of Emporia (Kan.) State, Hill inherited a K-State program that that had posted just one winning season in the previous six years.

“When we hired Brad, he was right off winning a national championship at Central Missouri, I think he thought he could just come in and go,” Scott said. “And he got punched in the mouth pretty hard that first year in the Big 12. I remember telling Brad we’re right there with him, and it was going to be a five- or six-year process, just because of where we’d been and no tradition.”

When Hill arrived in Manhattan, he didn’t start making bold proclamations about how fast he was going to turn the program around. That’s not in his makeup. He just quietly went about the business of turning K-State into a winner, just like he does today.

“That’s the way he’s been since the day he got here,” Scott said. “Tim Weiser and I consider ourselves baseball guys, so we targeted Brad, he was our guy. We thought he’d be a great fit, we liked the way he approached the game. We still play the game that way, that blue-collar—I don’t want to steal the ‘dirtbag’ tag, but that kind of baseball.

“He’s never been ejected from a game at Kansas State. There might be times I wish Brad would get out there and be a little more vociferous. But when we talk about his style, that’s who he is. Very grounded, even-keeled. Not that he won’t go out there in the post-game huddle and let them have it at times, but to me baseball, the best teams are the ones that stay even-keeled; there are so many games. Brad really embraces it. I think that’s why last year’s team was so good—that team could discipline itself, coach itself, and Brad didn’t have to be that guy. He loves that kind of team.”

The Heart And Soul Of The Wildcats

Ross Kivett

Ross Kivett describes himself as a ‘high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy.’

No player embodies Hill’s blue-collar ethos better than Kivett, whose leadership qualities were as responsible for his 2013 Big 12 Player of the Year award as his .360/.440/.483 batting line and 26 stolen bases. An opposing coach who played the Wildcats last year described Kivett this way in our anonymous scouting reports of super regional teams last year: “That Ross Kivett is a really good baseball player, a super aggressive, hard-nosed player. He gives them an identity. He comes to play, now—that kid’s not backing down from anybody. He’s a ballplayer . . . He gets them going.”

A Cleveland native, Kivett was lightly recruited out of high school in the Cleveland area, and he has a drive to prove doubters wrong. It’s easy to pick up a Dustin Pedroia-ish vibe when you talk to Kivett.

“I’ve been told my whole life that I wasn’t going to play Division I baseball,” Kivett said. “I played hockey growing up, I’m a high-energy, intense, in-your-face kind of guy. No one ever gave me a chance to play baseball when I got here, no one ever gave me a chance to get drafted. When I got drafted, people still doubted me. I hate to say that the haters motivate me, because they don’t. My teammates motivate me, my family motivates me. Playing this game and getting to the highest level motivates me. But yeah, I feel like I play with a chip on my shoulder, because I feel like I have a lot of respect to earn. But I will never disrespect my teammates, I’ll never disrespect the game or my opponents. Sometimes I get a little lippy with the umps, I’ve got to cool off. I’m not afraid to put my nose in any situation.”

He’s the kind of player who gets under opponents’ skin, but his teammates love him.

“He’s been such a great inspiration to our program, just an example of how to go about playing the game, every day grinding it out, playing hard, playing with enthusiasm and passion,” Hill said. “It’s just so great for our young guys to see him, and for him to represent us like that. And it’s contagious. We get more and more guys that have come in here, didn’t necessarily have that personality, now they start growing and gravitating toward what he does. And that’s exactly how we want to play. That’s what we want our style to be, and he is a great example of that.”

A 10th-round pick by his hometown Indians last year, Kivett admits that he “took it a little personal” that he wasn’t drafted higher after winning Big 12 player of the year honors, and after he ranked third in the Cape Cod League with a .336 average last year, several scouts lamented not taking a shot on him earlier in the draft. He figures to jump up several rounds this June, because he keeps on hitting—to the tune of .370/.496/.533 through 25 games, punctuated by hitting for the cycle Wednesday against Nebraska. His aggressive baserunning style and fiery demeanor jumped off the field that day, and so did his compact righthanded swing, which produces regular hard contact.

Ross Kivett

Ross Kivett admits he took personally not being drafted higher than the 10th round.

Kivett’s bat will carry him at the next level, but he has demonstrated valuable defensive versatility this spring by shifting from second base to center field to accommodate the team’s personnel. He demonstrated good reads in center field Wednesday, giving him solid range even though he does not have blazing speed. Kivett is happy to play center if it helps the team win, but he admits that he misses the infield.

“I hate to say that center field is less stress, but I like being in the game, man,” he said. “I’m high energy, I talk a lot, I like going in and talking to the pitchers, talking with (shortstop Austin Fisher) and picking people off, so I kind of miss that. I’m kind of lost out there, people forget about me. I think they enjoy when I come and talk to them. I have good jokes. I’m funny. I haven’t gotten to chew anyone this year, so I think they’re pretty pumped about that.”

Underdogs No Longer

The Wildcats might have earned a few tongue lashings in the first two weeks of the season, when they started 1-7 on the West Coast. Kansas State entered the season ranked No. 22—their first preseason ranking ever—and Hill said with a chuckle that they did not handle their newfound position as Big 12 front-runners very well.

“We really kind of lost some confidence, believe it or not—that early in the season we lost some confidence, we were trying to find ourselves, and all of a sudden you’re trying to play up to the expectations, what everybody’s expecting you to be,” Hill said. “Boy, we didn’t play very well—it wasn’t a lot of fun, I can tell you that. It is a different mindset. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell the guys. We’ve never really had a target much on our backs. I feel like everywhere we’re going, they’re saying, ‘Hey they were Big 12 champs last year.’ It is last year, but people still utilize that, and our guys are going to have to step up and understand that there’s a whole different level we have to get to when people are coming after us. We’ve got to make sure we go back to where we were when we’re on the attack and we’re trying to beat other people. We’ve got to stay aggressive and do what we normally do. We can’t ever think that we’ve arrived, because we have so far to go, and this is a whole different year and a whole different group of guys.”

Kansas State righted the ship with a 12-game winning streak after that 1-7 start, but Hill said almost dismissively of the final nine games of that streak, “Well, we were playing at home. When we’re playing at home, it makes a big difference.”

Tointon Family Stadium

Tointon Family Stadium received a $3.1 million facelift in 2002.

The Wildcats are 10-0 at home this year, and they were 27-7 at home a year ago. Plenty of pundits picked second-seeded Arkansas to go into Manhattan and win K-State’s regional last year, but those people underestimated KSU’s home-field advantage. Fans packed Tointon Family Stadium during that regional, and they were raucous.

Even in miserable conditions last week against Nebraska—with a 30 mph wind and chilling rain right up until first pitch—a decent crowd bundled up and supported the Wildcats. Tointon Family Stadium is a gem that received a $3.1 million renovation in 2002, making it a very pleasant place to watch a baseball game. And folks in Manhattan have been very supportive of Hill’s winning program.

“Kansas State is like that—they’re great, they love their sports here, they love supporting the guys here,” Hill said. “We’re fortunate to have the fan base that we have. We’ve always talked about that: you take pride in being at home. You have the fan support, the crowd. They want to come out and play good baseball. You want to protect your home turf.”

Scott said the 2,200-seat stadium has been a perfect fit for Kansas State’s program, but with the direction it’s heading, he suggested it could use another 1,000 seats—and there is room down the baselines to expand the seating bowl, which is filled with purple chair-back seats and topped by attractive suites and a comfortable press box.

But true to form, Hill’s favorite things about the facility are the weight room, the turf playing surface and the large indoor practice area. He prioritizes other upgrades over adding seats.

“What we’re trying to do is we’ve always been player-first,” Hill said. “So we’ve tried to make the facility and the things we have here more player-friendly: get our indoor fixed so our players have a great place to go indoors. Get the turf on the field, get a weight room. Everything was built around building players. And that was our first priority. I think some things we’d like to do would be to expand a little bit, but still some things we’d like to do—expand our locker room, do some more things for our players. Our players are first and foremost for me, we want to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

And that is a perfect encapsulation of Hill’s guiding philosophy. He’s all about his players—and in turn, his players believe in his leadership.