Diamond greats get their due

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Sports

August 21, 2015 - 12:00 AM

In 1983, the Allen County baseball team made a statement at the Junior College World Series.
Well, there were two statements really.
One was made on the field. The other was made during the tournament’s formal reception — on accident.
“We go to this banquet and everyone is all decked out and we walk in with our Allen County sweats on,” said Dan Christie, a first baseman for the 1983 Red Devils. “I mean everyone else was dressed up, you know? So I think after that, everybody just kind of thought we were a bunch of normal guys.”
And just like that, there was a new player in the elite world of college baseball: The sweatpants wearing “normal guys” of Allen County. The Red Devils didn’t have any future first-round draft picks, pitchers that threw 100 mph or sluggers that could crank 450-foot home runs.
Those guys are hard to pick up at the junior college level. So longtime head coach Val McLean took what he could get: The normal guys.
Guys like Tom Price, a 5-foot-10 pitcher who almost exclusively relied on his curveball and yet still found a way to record the seventh-lowest ERA in the country in 1980.
Guys like Marty Rankin and Joe Bidinger, whose efforts on the mound and behind the plate, respectively, helped earn Allen a 33-6 record in 1978 — McLean’s first year as head coach.
Guys like Dan Christie, who knocked 13 homers for that 1983 JCWS team after nearly flying under the radar of any colleges following his high school career.
But on Sept. 12, those four players will be remembered as anything but normal when they are inducted into the Red Devil Diamond Club Hall of Fame.

Back when John Masterson took over as Allen’s head baseball coach in 1973, scholarships were more of a privilege than a right. It wasn’t until he petitioned to the athletic director that he was able to snag just 12 scholarships for his squad.
“So I was able to go to the Wichita and Kansas City and Topeka schools and be a little more competitive than when we were in the past,” Masterson said.
With his new scholarships in tow, Masterson was able to pick up a couple of key recruits from those areas: Rankin and Bidinger. But after coaching the duo for just a year, Masterson decided to leave Allen County baseball in the hands of 23-year-old Val McLean.
“I wanted to get us somebody that was pretty darn good because I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into developing the program and we started to have a reputation in the state that we had a decent program going,” Masterson said.
McLean did more than keep it going. With Rankin on the mound and Bidinger catching, the 1978 Red Devils set a new school record by posting a .846 winning percentage that season.
Nearly 40 years later, that single-season team winning percentage record still stands.
“I wouldn’t say we had a lot of guys that were good athletes,” Bidinger said. “But we had a lot of key players. We came together as a team.”
With McLean being just a few years older than his own players, both Bidinger and Rankin said they were able to relate to him better than most coaches. But it also gave the team some laughs on occasion.
“It was kind of funny because he was so young, the umpires would come over and ask him, ‘Son you need to get your manager out here for the umpire conference,’” Rankin recalled. “And he’d go, ‘I am the coach.’”
But they never called him “coach.” John Masterson was always “coach,” while Val went by his first name.
“It was almost like having another teammate,” Rankin said. “That’s the way we treated him.”
McLean would play his guitar for the team and they’d sing along after a couple of beers (remember, the drinking age was 18 until 1984). It was a dynamic that was unusual between coach and player, but McLean made it work.
To this day, McLean calls that 1978 team one of the two best squads he’s ever coached.
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By the time Tom Price joined the Red Devils in 1980, McLean had established himself as a premier coach in the Jayhawk Conference.
“Back then, it was known that if you were good at baseball, you wanted to go to Allen County,” Price said.
But without a high school baseball team to showcase his talents, it was difficult for Price to attract any suitors — until McLean came along.
McLean relied heavily on his own players to help with recruiting. So when a few of the 1979 players tipped off their coach about this southpaw from Topeka, McLean took a chance.
It worked out well for both sides.
“Tom was one of those players who was always in the game,” McLean said. “Even if he wasn’t playing, he was always in the game.”
And when he was in the game, Price delivered. During his freshman campaign, he went 9-2 with a 1.37 ERA, which was good enough to rank seventh in the country.
And when he wasn’t on the field, Price still delivered. McLean used Price as one of his best recruiting tools during the offseason.
“I went on almost every recruiting trip with Val McLean both years,” Price said. “We went to Oklahoma, we went up to Topeka, we recruited Scott Vondemkamp, who was an All-American that went to the University of Texas, one of the best players that ever played at Allen. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year.”
With Price’s help, the Red Devils would snag players from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Texas, Minnesota and beyond. Of course, Price’s “nasty curve,” as described by McLean, didn’t hurt either.
Even after moving on to Grand Canyon University and Washburn University to finish up his baseball career, Price still had high praise for Allen.
“The two best years of my baseball life were at Allen County,” he said.
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Team chemistry doesn’t just happen, but is made.
“On that same trip, over the mountains in Colorado, we literally had to get everybody out of the van and push the van the last mile up over the pass,” McLean said. “I was driving, they were pushing.”
That’s how much of the season went for Allen County: The players did the grunt work and McLean just needed to steer them in the right direction.
Only, his steering could get a little harsh.
“We hit a little bump about three quarters of the way through the spring season,” Christie recalled. “We had just gotten swept and we were heading back when he takes us to a McDonald’s and gives us two hamburgers and a water. He said, ‘Once you guys start winning, I’ll start feeding you again.’”
It worked.
That 1983 squad became the first for Allen County to reach the JCWS in Grand Junction, Colo. Eventually, McLean was able to replicate that success in 2000 when he made that trip for the second time.
McLean calls that team and the 1978 team as the two best at Allen. Price, who founded the Red Devil Diamond Club, was a little more definitive with his opinion.
“The ’83 team was probably the best team ever, which I would have loved to play with,” Price said.
Christie, who actually did play on the 1983 team, went on to play for Kansas following his time at Allen. But like Price, Christie found himself longing for that team chemistry he had while with the Red Devils.
“That team really worked together, won together and lost together so when I went to Kansas, I tried to instill that work ethic and that will to win,” Christie said. “That’s a huge part of it. I got that from Allen County.”
None of those four future Red Devil Hall of Famers went on to play in the big leagues. Rankin actually signed a minor league contract with the Kansas City Royals after college but never saw action in a major league game.
Still, those four have something that bonds them that extends beyond the white chalk lines on the field.
“There’s nothing better than being with fellow teammates in that competitive environment,” Bidinger said. “When you get out in the real world, it’s just different. You don’t have that teammate to lean on.”
With the Red Devil Diamond Club, players like Price, Bidinger, Rankin and Christie are able to reconnect, which is exactly why Price founded it.
And now the club that he started will return the favor by inducting him and the others into the Hall of Fame alongside McLean, who was inducted in 2013.
But before the induction ceremony at Miller’s on Madison on Sept. 12, there will also be a special commencement for McLean. About two years after he resigned, McLean will have the Allen County home field named after him so that his name will forever be synonymous with Red Devil baseball.
And following all the formalities, speeches and ceremonies, McLean will have the chance to be what he was nearly 40 years ago: Just a normal guy with his normal guy team.
“I’m sure after the program is over,” McLean said, “we’ll sit around and tell old stories all night long.”

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