The power of sports to bond people of diverse backgrounds, outlooks or personality types is a real thing.
Just this week, I’ve seen multiple parents publicly supporting athletes from rival schools whom they’ve come to know through athletics. Both in person and — gasp — on social media. In basketball season, it was a 16-year-old basketball star connecting with season-ticket holders in their 70s. Kudos to all of them.
But there is something visceral about the bond between fathers and sons and baseball.
At IU Southeast, baseball coach Ben Reel has several highly qualified assistant coaches who have spent their careers in baseball. But he’s got an assistant who doesn’t discuss things like launch angle or front-side action or infield footwork.
“I worked as a maintenance supervisor for American Electric Power for 39 years. I was a welder and machinist most of my life,” said Ben’s father Brian. “When you retire from something like that — and I’ve got hobbies, we love to do things together — you want to be a part of something bigger than you. I didn’t play baseball at the level that Ben played. I played all my life, but I’ll never know what my son knows about baseball. I just wanted to be a part of the group, a part of the organization.”
Brian joined Ben’s staff as a volunteer assistant coach in an official capacity for the 2018 season following his retirement from American Electric Power. But he’s been around since Ben took over the IUS program in 2009 as a 25-year-old. His role in Ben’s early years as head coach at his alma mater was to help his son improve the facility.
“Everybody that’s played for me knows Pops. The school dedicated the dugout to [Brian] because of all the work he’s done,” Ben said.
The Grenadiers open NAIA national tournament play Monday in Lawrenceville, Georgia, with an appreciation for “Pappa Reel.”
“He’s done everything from working on the field to sponging water off the outfield. He loves everyone of us unconditionally. He’s on the coaching staff, but he’s more like a father figure to everyone,” senior pitcher Kyle Hawkins said.
Senior Cody Maloon said when Brian speaks the IUS players tend to take notice.
“He gives us a lot of wisdom throughout the year. When we’re going good, it’s always ‘keep pushing harder, because it’s harder to stay on top,’” Maloon said.
Brian enjoys being one more added voice of positivity in a culture his son has created. Ben surpassed 400 career wins this season — averaging over 35 wins a year — and has IUS set to play in its ninth NAIA Tournament in his 11 years as coach.
How does Brian Reel view his role?
“I’m a groundskeeper. I make sure everything’s done. I’m a morale guy inside the dugout. Baseball’s a game of failure. You have to learn how to cope with failure to succeed in life,” Brian Reel said.
Wisdom and life experience are one reason Ben loves having his dad around. For him and his players’ benefit.
“I grew up loving the game of baseball but a big part of that was from dad. It was something we had in common from when I was a young kid,” Ben said.
At the NAIA level, the Grenadiers aren’t churning out hot Major League Baseball prospects, although they’ve sent several players on to play some pro ball. The Reels are hoping that they’re preparing their players for success after baseball.
“Less than one percent of these kids all across the nation will ever play professional baseball. What you're trying to do is teach them how to be men; how to work hard as a group; and you want them to be able to give back to the community and be great people; be good dads, good husbands. Those are the things that are the most important, the education,” Brian Reel said.
Brian is proud of many IUS baseball alumni that he’s had the chance to get to know over the years, but he’s definitely got a favorite. His son’s success comes as no surprise.
“He recruits character. My son truly cares about people and wants to see them succeed in life. If they can succeed in baseball, that’s great, but life’s the key,” Brian Reel said.
Craig Pearson is the sports editor of the News and Tribune. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CraigPearsonNT.