Sunday Conversation with Chris Barney

Vincennes University baseball coach Chris Barney | Photo Courtesy of Vincennes University
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 12, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Aug. 12, 2018 12:46 am

Chris Barney was 28 years old and just getting his life started as a baseball coach when he made a decision in 1996 that would benefit him and the city of Quincy for many years.

He was named the first manager of the Quincy Gems, an expansion summer baseball team in the Central Illinois Collegiate League.

Barney went on to lead the Gems to a 150-85 record in five seasons, winning two CICL Tournament championships and two CICL regular-season titles. Of the 87 players who played for Barney, 24 of them were drafted by a Major League Baseball organization or went on to play professional baseball. He was fired after his only losing season, a 24-26 record in 2000.

He continued as an assistant coach at the University of Southern Indiana, staying in Evansville, Ind., from 1993-2006. He also managed the Springfield Rifles of the CICL and the Vermont Mountaineers of the New England Collegiate League. Now 51 years old, Barney recently completed his 10th season at Vincennes University, a junior college in Vincennes, Ind. He and his wife, Cindy, were married 18 months ago.

When you interviewed for the job as the manager of the Gems, had you heard of Quincy?

We played the Hawks when I was at Southern Indiana. That's about all I knew, where the university was.

What kind of a player were you?

I grew up in Orlando, Fla., and when I was 17, I went to Tennessee Wesleyan in Athens, right off I-75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville. I was very average at best. You figure it out real quickly. Everybody thinks they're pretty good when they go off to college, but instead of being one of the top two or three guys like you were in high school, you're one of 30 guys. All of a sudden, reality hits you. You think you're going to play pro baseball, and now you're trying to figure how to stay in the game. I figured it out after my sophomore year that it wasn't in the cards, so you better figure out how to recruit or coach. I'll never forget after a year or two of being an assistant coach, my dad said, "When are you going to get a real job?" I thought to myself, I don't know. I have no other responsibilities yet, so I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I spent 19 years as an assistant. I still haven't found anything better.

What attracted you to the summer job in Quincy?

It was the first time to be a head coach at the college level. It was a good league. (Former Quincy University coach) Pat Atwell helped put me in contact with Jeff Jansen (the general manager of the Gems). I think I did most of my interviewing over the phone. Southern Indiana came over for a series in the spring at some point, and I met Jeff for breakfast in the morning and made the rounds. And there we go. They were late getting started. I don't even know if they got the franchise until January.

What made the job appealing?

Here's what it is. Jeff sold me on what's happening. He made sure to make me look at what you have now, and he didn't lie about it. But they got rid of the old press box, they cleaned it up, they put up new lights. I loved that old stadium. I loved the rock walls, the short right-field porch. I loved it before they revamped the old dugout and built the in-ground dugouts. With those old dugouts, the players had to hear everything they heard in the crowd. I tell this story all the time. It's the playoffs, and we're playing Springfield. You played everybody six, seven, eight times, so you saw everybody's pitchers twice. Josh Rabe, the first game, we killed them. He had been hitting sixth all year, but I think he was 8 for 9 against this kid from Springfield, so I moved him to the three hole. He went off. He had two doubles and a triple. The next game, he's back in the six hole. I don't remember the lady's name. I think it was Polly. She used to be my best friend. She brought us cookies and brownies every game, but she couldn't believe he was back in the six hole. She sat right behind the dugout, smoking a cigarette, and you could hear all of this stuff from her. I never forgot that. She had put a Barney the Dinosaur doll on a fishing pole and carried it around. That's the nature of the beast. 

Why was the team so successful out of the gate?

I was fortunate that I had a feel of what it was like to be out and about recruiting, and I knew what it was going to take. Let me backtrack. Jeff told me, "You're in control of the baseball side." He didn't want any part of it. It was an intriguing part, to go to the colleges and find guys. When you had host families, they made it easy. We were a brand new club. The games are on the radio. You could sell all that stuff to the guys. And of course, some of it was potluck. Some of it was we were very lucky the first year. After we got settled in, it was a lot easier. The first couple of years, you got players from guys you trusted or guys you knew who could send you guys. The rest was potluck. You roll the dice a little bit. There's always a little give and take with the bigger name schools. They'll send you a guy, but you also have to take this guy, too.

What was it like in your first attempt at being the manager?

The team played hard, and that's what you asked for. Guys always moaned about the stretching and long hours. I remember Chris Martin was a very good player for the Gems, but I also remember he didn't want to stretch. We did a lot of stretching. Then he got a chance to play pro ball, and I saw him later and asked him, "What did you think?" He said, "You were right. We spent all that time stretching." It's just an everyday grind, and you have to give yourself the best chance to be successful. When you don't have to worry about classes, and you know you're only there for 60 to 75 days, it was a whirlwind pace. The first couple of years, we made all the guys work. They didn't have an option. Some worked on the field, some worked at the Civic Center, some worked at Home Depot. They were all over the place. Some of the places were lenient about it after a late night in Danville.

Why did summer baseball do so well so quickly in Quincy?

It was something new. It was brought back. Everybody wanted to see what was going on. You're two hours from St. Louis, five hours from Chicago. You brought in good people and good talent, and the atmosphere was great. At the time, when you had the team owned by the convention center, everybody had a piece of it. One person was in charge of corporate nights, one handled tickets, one did the accounting, one was in charge of the ballpark. There were probably six or seven people on the staff who had a part that allowed it to be successful.

How good was that 40-10 team in 1998?

(Laughs.) It was pretty special. I don't think people realize it, but there were 23 guys on the roster, and 16 or 17 of them were draft picks. The funniest thing about that team was that Ryan Duncheon, who was the three-hole hitter, the Mike Schmidt Player of the Year in the league, he never got drafted. Ryan was a great collegiate player, but he wasn't that athletic. He was kind of a man without a country, but golly, he could play. At the time, independent baseball wasn't as big of a factor. Had it been, Ryan would have gotten a chance to play. How good was that team? It was ridiculously good. We broke 17 records all-time in the CICL. That's unbelievable. Those are records that go back to the 1960s. Everybody remembers we were 40-10, but at one point, we were 35-5. At the end of the year, the kids didn't give a crap, but they did a great job at tournament time.

Does any player stand out among the ones you coached?

There are so many of them who made it special. That's a great question. Whether it was a guy like Duncheon, or from that first year, guys like Heath Bender and John Tompkins. They were special. They made it what it was. Chris Cabaj was pretty good. So was Jeff Urban. I remember him and the Giants going back and forth (after Urban was selected in the first round). He called me and said, "Can I come back and pitch? I just need to throw a little bit." I said sure, come over and pitch a little bit. He dominated. (Urban struck out 22 batters and allowed six hits in 13 scoreless innings before he signed with the Giants.)

Was there a player who you were just positive would make it to the big leagues and didn't?

The guy I would have put my name to was John Lackaff from Miami of Ohio. He played well, made it to Class AA or AAA. Until last year, he was coaching at the University of Cincinnati. You should see where some of these guys are. Cabaj is coaching in Chicago, Wes Carroll is at Evansville, John Kremer is involved with scouting with the Yankees. Scott Smith is an assistant at Ball State, Josh Rabe's doing great things at Quincy It's great to see what guys are doing, just giving back and still being around the game. 

You were fired by Jansen at the end of the 2000 season. Any idea it was coming?

I wasn't expecting it at the time. We hadn't been as good as we were the first three years, and they were looking to bring in a fresh face. It's part of it. You've got to expect it. I've been a couple of different places, and it's true. You're hired to be fired. I'm in my 29th season, and I understand it. You just never can become complacent. It's also been a great way for me to make a living the last 10-20 years. You wear multiple hats with a summer team, and that was all part of it. 

That didn't stop you from managing in the summer, did it?

Absolutely not. I went on to three years in Springfield (in the CICL). Money was tighter there, but to get it done at both stops was very gratifying. Then I went to Montpelier, Vt., and that was an awesome experience. They were very liberal with their money, they had tremendous support, and they had an old-time ball park. It was run the way you wanted it to run. I also coached one year in the Frontier League before I was fortunate enough to get into Vincennes.

How did you land that job?

I spent 13 years at Southern Indiana, so I knew the state a little bit. At the time, we were one of only two junior colleges in the state. I interviewed two years prior and thought I had it, but another guy with Southern Indiana ties got it. He had one year of Division I experience. Eventually he left, and I found out about it and called the vice president again. I called her on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and she said, "Send me your resume." She called me back the following week and wanted to do a phone interview, but it was the all-star break in our league, and I said I would just some over in person. By Wednesday morning, she called to offer me the job. I didn't even have to get on the next bus.

When was the last time you got back to Quincy?

Two or three years ago. We played John Wood in a three-game set. I've only been over once or twice since I left.

How has marriage changed things?

How about that? Things are completely different, I can tell you that. I told my wife the other day that I'm going to have to work another 20 years. I laugh about it, especially when I'm on the road for a few days. But I love what I do. It's never boring never the same day twice. In junior college, you get different kids all the time. It's a chance to learn. You're around them from the time they walk on campus until the first of November, then you shut it down and start up again in January, and we start playing the first week of February. I don't know if I could do anything else.