By Jonathan Hodgson for Canadian Baseball Network
When I first asked Rob Cherepuschak if he would share the spotlight with his star pupil, Andrew Albers in a Canadian Baseball Network feature, I got the type of response that I’ve come to expect from the man affectionately known simply as ‘Coach C’,
“It’s a great idea, although I’m not sure I deserve any credit for his success.”
Never one to accept any accolades, this response did not surprise me whatsoever.
If you try to pay the Regina, Sask. coach, teacher, and genuinely good guy any sort of compliment, expect to be told, “You are too kind, sir.”
The problem this time though, is that Coach C didn’t grasp the type of story this is. Andrew Albers, whom he coached as a young hurler at the 2001 and 2002 Canada Cup, has had many stories written regarding his success on the mound by many more knowledgeable, accomplished baseball minds than myself.
This is a story on the impact a coach can have on the careers and lives of their players and others around them, and why the cliché ‘baseball family’ is very real.
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North Battleford, Sask. native Andrew Albers, 28, got the call this August from the Minnesota Twins summoning him to the majors. He posted a 4.05 ERA in 60 innings over 10 starts for the Twins in 2013, but rewind over a decade, and you would find a young Albers toiling under the guidance of one Rob ‘Coach C’ Cherepuschak, with the Saskatchewan Selects.
To say Albers speaks glowingly of his 2001-02 Saskatchewan Selects pitching coach would be an understatement,
“Playing for the Saskatchewan Selects was the first time I had ever really had a coach other than my father. For me, that man was Rob Cherepuschak,” said Albers. “I was very privileged to get the opportunity to spend those two years with Rob. The way he handled himself was amazing. He was always encouraging and positive and would offer you his input if you asked for it, and had a grace about him in doing this that made you feel like he wasn’t telling you what you should or shouldn’t do.”
Albers said one of the great things he noticed about coach, if you spend any time around him is the way he treats the people.
“Even as a 15-16 year old kid, he had a way of making you feel important and respected,” said Albers. “He was always willing to listen to you and actually valued your ideas and input. I have never seen Rob have anything close to a negative interaction with anyone and I think that speaks volumes to the man’s character and what kind of person he is.”
One lasting impression?
“It wasn’t the baseball advice that he gave me or talking about this pitch or that pitch, it was the way he treated people around him and the amazing role model he was to any of the young men he interacted with,” said Albers. “He was a joy to be around because of how he handles himself and how he treats those around him.
Rob epitomizes so many great qualities with his work ethic, his patience, his humbleness and his willingness to help people any way that he can. I really enjoyed the time that I got to spend with Rob and they are fond memories for me.”
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You can see how Cherepuschak, now a fixture with the Regina Red Sox of the Western Major Baseball League, has endeared himself so well to his players, coaching colleagues, organization, and fans.
Since the addition of Cherepuschak, Regina’s WMBL squad has transformed from an organization trying to find an identity, to a league powerhouse.
The Red Sox qualified for the WMBL playoffs with Cherepuschak as an assistant coach in 2008, but the culture shift began to fully manifest in wins when Cherepuschak was handed the reins as head coach in 2009. The Red Sox won 82 games in three seasons under Coach C, made back to back championship series appearances (2010-2011), and won the 2011 WMBL Championship.
“Coach C was definitely a mentor for me and all of the players he has been in contact with,” said Regina native Chris Untereiner, who spent three summers behind the plate for the Red Sox, “Day 1, he talked about us leaving as not only better ball players, but better individuals.”
Coach C emphasized community involvement says Untereiner, “We would do school visits and host camps as well, but it’s the on field that has the biggest effect. Our victory lines [which young fans were encouraged to join] were always the highlight it seemed, but even when we lost, we made sure to stick around for the kids. At the beginning, he did say it was required, but by the end of week one, every guy loved the experience.”
Untereiner, who now owns two rings from his Red Sox career, remembers Coach C being very easy to play for,
“He is an honest, genuine guy,” said Untereiner. “There was always a mutual respect between coach and player which was key in our successes. He makes sure everyone knows their roles and sticks to the plan. Having that approach gives a definite comfort to players.”
Even among his coaches and players, Coach C’s self-deprecating personality never left the Red Sox leader, according to Untereiner says he’d “constantly say that he relies on his assistant coaches because they likely know more than he does,”
Red Sox supporter Aaron Murphy, a Curry Field regular with exclusive access to the team, echoes the catcher’s sentiments that Coach C’s impact is visible in the personality of the Red Sox teams,
“Players always take Coach C’s message to heart,” said Murphy, “and it’s never a task to do it ‘the Red Sox way’ because of the respect the players have for the organization and the life lessons learned along the way. Red Sox teams are always a reflection of Coach C in that they treat fans and the community with class and respect as he does. ”
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Following the Red Sox championship run of 2011, Cherepuschak decided it was time to step down from the role of ‘Coach C’ to spend more time at home with wife Natasha to better focus on his role as ‘Dad’ to sons Tyan, 10, Kael, 6, and daughter Meela, 2.
Get to know him for more than five minutes, and you will hear all the latest on the three young ones’ baseball or hockey seasons, and the story of why the Cherepuschak’s are the biggest Jordan Eberle fans in Saskatchewan.
The physical education teacher at Thom Collegiate High School in Regina stayed as director of player personnel while handing on-field control over to his assistant coach, and former Red Sox player, Justin Eiswirth for 2012.
Having been on Cherepuschak’s staff throughout his tenure in the dugout, Eiswirth kept with the ‘Red Sox way’, and the results kept up as well, as he led the team to another title.
Because Cherepuschak would strongly object to being the sole focus of a story, this summer is where we pick up the Andrew Albers story. A former youth star under Cherepuschak, Albers lived in eight different locations in the first four years of his pro career.
Despite the uncertainty, the Saskatchewan southpaw’s passion never wavered, his desire to reach the pinnacle remaining strong.
Coach C knows why,
“His coach with the [University of] Kentucky Wildcats, his dad, and his faith are what carried him through,” said Cherepuschak.
Albers was a University of Kentucky Wildcat from 2005 through 2008, winning 20 games and saving 13 over his career in the SEC. He remembers his college days in Kentucky being an impactful time, particularly because of Gary Henderson. Henderson, the head coach at Kentucky since the 2009 season, was the associate head coach during Albers’ time.
“I was very raw and had not played ball at that kind of level,” said Albers. “I had a few tools but Gary Henderson was able to help me mould those into becoming a pretty successful pitcher. Gary was extremely intelligent and saw the game a little differently than anyone I had ever encountered before.
“He was a tremendous baseball mind but what I feel made him such an amazing coach was his ability to relate to his players and get his message across in ways that his players would understand. Gary had an incredible way of starting off with a regular everyday story and relating it to baseball or to life. It was by making his points in that manner that they really stuck in your head. He taught you lessons about life that were related to baseball and he did that in a very engaging manner”
Albers notes however, that before Rob Cherepuschak or Gary Henderson, there was Bernie Albers,
“It all began at home with my father Bernie. He has been there from the beginning and it was because of him that I became interested in baseball,” said Albers. “He used to play for the North Battleford Beavers back in the day and I can remember being a young buck and going to his games at Beaver Lions Stadium.
“He was my coach, my catcher and my batting practice pitcher for as long as I can remember. His coaching and knowledge in those early years opened up opportunities for me to play at higher levels of competition later on in my career.”
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Having reached the top of his craft, with his name forever etched in the record books as a Major League Baseball player, Albers has never lost sight of the fact that there are much more significant things in life than throwing a sphere over a pentagonal plate.
While he now has Joe Mauer putting down the fingers behind the plate, Albers leans on his faith to keep him on track outside the white lines,
“I remember Rob asking me what helped get me through the challenges in my career and for me it was my faith. My mom had played a huge role in my faith development as a kid and it stayed with me.”
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Albers recalls undergoing Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2009,
“I still didn’t have full range of motion four months after surgery, but if I was meant to play, God would show me the way, and if I wasn’t, then he had different plans for me,” said Albers. “Accepting that realization and putting my faith in God really helped change my perspective on baseball and life.
“Going through surgery and rehab, almost having the game taken away really helped me realize how fortunate I was to get the chance to play. When I was finally able to come back and play I had a different perspective. I realized that in the grand scheme of things if we won or lost wasn’t a big deal. That doesn’t mean you don’t do everything you can to win but if it doesn’t happen you understand that there is always a tomorrow.”
After surgery, his career was sent on another unplanned detour, but Albers acknowledges it was the right route for him,
“I was released by the San Diego Padres that spring and wasn’t even sure if I was going to play organized ball again. I figured I would give it one more shot,” Albers said.
He ended up with the Quebec Capitales in the independent, Can-Am League and said “that was such a blessing. I had more fun playing ball that summer than I had in a long time. It helped re-energize me and I enjoyed the game again.”
Bottom line for Albers,
“I didn’t know what direction baseball would take me but I trusted that God would give me a sign one way or another,” said Albers. “If it wasn’t playing baseball, I would be ok with that.”
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Well as it turns out, being a ball player was part of the plan for Andrew Albers.
Getting the call, buttoning up his Twins jersey for the first time, and yes, receiving that first Major League paycheque this summer was of course appreciated by a young man who went to great lengths to keep his dream alive for the hope of living this moment, but it didn’t erase the memory of where he came from and who got him there.
Coach C was able to fly to Minneapolis with his father Ernie to see the Twins play the Rays at Target Field in mid-September. To Albers, this wasn’t a ‘look at me’ moment to show off his fancy new office, rather, it was a chance to share the moment with an influential coach, and a lifelong friend.
“It was very apparent to me that Rob was the same man that I remembered.” Albers recalls of the visit,
“We had a great conversation over dinner with his father. We talked about everything from old memories to what it was like to be in the big leagues to teaching and his fantasy teams. The conversation flowed easily and it was like talking to an old friend. Nothing had changed and I really appreciated that.”
Albers reserved Coach C tickets to the Tampa Bay Rays series and on Sept. 14, the day of Albers’ next start, he took his former coach out for lunch, they walked to the stadium together, and as Coach C says, “He even got me his discount in the team store!”
Albers spent about three hours of his day with his old ball coach, and then climbed a mound to face the Rays with Coach C smiling on from his front row seat. The lefty allowed four runs on six hits and one walk as the Twins were blanked.
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‘Baseball family’ is a very real thing to Andrew Albers and his old ball coach from the Saskatchewan Selects. Those who have come into contact with Rob Cherepuschak, and those who are privileged to call him a friend know that Coach C takes the concept of baseball family to heart.
Upon announcing his return to the booth for 2014, legendary baseball voice Vin Scully was quoted saying “I would have been happy with a line in the game notes.”
That is the attitude of Rob Cherepuschak … though he would never ask for that much.
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“The great thing about Rob is it doesn’t matter if you’re a big leaguer or you’re a 15-year-old-kid with braces and a terrible looking hairdo; he’s going to show you the respect that he shows everyone.”
– Andrew Albers