The Professor

On a balmy 34-degree afternoon on Super Bowl Sunday, while millions of Americans were preparing their snack trays and placing orders for pizza and wings, Coach Chris Hodil was running his charges through a practice session at the Extra Bases Training Center for a season that wouldn’t start almost four months to the date.

For Coach Hodil, the baseball diamond or any of its offseason iterations, is merely a classroom where the core of his instruction is anything but common. In fact, the only thing “common” about teams where Chris Hodil commandeers the dugout are victories and dramatic player improvement.

Hodil’s love of the game and blue collar work ethic were honed on the streets of Lackawanna, New York and polished in South Buffalo in the halls of Bishop Timon High School where the, then catcher, led a formidable line up that battle the Monsignor Martin division’s best before graduation in 1996.

In WNY coaching circles, Hodil’s reputation is one of a teacher. He’s known for taking the rawest of talents and putting as much credence into baseball IQ as he does wins and losses. More often than not, those two ideals are not mutually exclusive.

Starting with the then U10 Buffalo Wings travel team and now and integral part in the lightning speed turnaround of the West Seneca West scholastic baseball program, Hodil takes pride in the one of Western New York’s coaching buzz words, the “process.”

Hodil deflects praise that’s been heaped upon him since his West Seneca West modified team finished the season with a perfect 14-0 record. No team in the history of the modified program that dates back to 1985 ever finished with a better or perfect record since Hodil took the reigns. For those who know Hodil the best, West Seneca West’s success is no surprise.

“It’s about the kids, period, says Hodil. “As a coach you have a duty to get these kids excited. It’s just not about the games, but you want them coming to practice every day revved up and ready to go.”

Old school players and coaches might scoff. Excited about practice? Many of us can remember endless calisthenics, laps, or sprints. In baseball practice terms one may see some fundamentally routine drills, but in Professor Hodil’s domain it’s all about passing the torch of the great game of baseball.

“Players will get excited and not want to skip practices when they know they will learn something new every day, remarks Hodil pensively. “With our school team and travel team, we make sure we teach why we do things in certain situations as much as we practice how we do things.”

Before the season finale against Jamestown, for seemingly the thousandth time, West’s Mod squad is circled around the manager while he leads them through guided discovery. Instead of telling his players what to do or shouting commands from the dugout during at bats, Hodil asks, “What do we do when...?”

He purposely leaves his questions open ended so his players/students fill in the blanks. Various answers about pitch count, situations, positioning, and personal responsibilities flow out of the group like the final round of Jeopardy. All valid answers. All correct.

In the span of the next two hours, the West Seneca crew hits early and often en route to a 14-0 victory that is the coda to a perfect season. Two weeks ago, a game between the same two teams was much closer with West winning 8-5. The difference? It seems confidence is the answer as backed up from the shouts of more than one player from the dugout, “I TOLD you! We KNEW exactly what they were going to do.”

One might not know exactly that a team was on the cusp of a perfect season, but few people have a closer look into the inner workings of the mind of Chris Hodil than his assistant coach with the Great Lakes Gators travel team, Bill Rumley. An almost chance meeting led these two gentleman on the road to developing one of Western New York’s premier youth baseball squads, and the learning curve and growth of this lineup is far from finished.

“My son’s original baseball organization was in a state of transition,” said Rumley, “I was given my own team and basically only had my son on the roster. We were starting from scratch.”

Rumley added, “I put an ad in the paper and Chris answered looking for a tryout for his son Justin. In reality, that phone call was a ‘God send’ as we got a phenomenal catcher in his son, and a huge asset to our staff. Six years later, we are on the top end of local teams and always improving.”

Always teaching. When Rumley is asked about what makes Hodil different he quips, “That’s easy. He’s always teaching. He never criticizes a player. He has one of those old flip notepads and he’s constantly taking notes during a game. He must go through dozens of them in a season.”

Like a great teacher, the lessons Hodil gives are not just thrown into the ether with the hopes of great things to follow. No, Rumley see more, “Chris never checks out. No matter the score, no matter the situation, Chris stays in tune. When a play, game or situation is over, he always gives a player immediate feedback both positive and nurturing.”

For Hodil, mistakes aren’t fatal, but are merely opportunities for players to improve. Rumley says, “We aren’t here to win trophies, our time is done, but both of us have the responsibility to help these players move up to the next level, no matter what that level might be either on or off the diamond.”

Above all, Rumley says, “What sets Chris apart from other coaches at any level, is his vision. He just doesn’t see the game from one angle. He’s into every facet 120%, but beyond the field his is a role model and is passing his knowledge of the game forward.”

Vison. Knowledge. Passion. Passing it forward. Like the mythical Crash Davis in the iconic baseball film “Bull Durham,” who dispenses wisdom to eager and wild rookie Nuke LaLoosh, Hodil is part coach, shaman, and guru whose unique love and perspective of the game is refined by his own years crouching behind the dish.

He’s dealt with the highs and the lows. He’s suffered the broken bones and scars of the most physically demanding position in the sport and now he’s holding a master class on diamonds around North America dispensing what he’s learned along the way.

When asked why it seems so many catchers, like himself, end up in managerial positions from little leagues to the big leagues, Hodil waxes eloquently, “People say you have to be a little crazy to be a catcher, but I think it’s the exact opposite. You need to be methodical and level headed in your approach.”

“You’re like a manger on the field,” Hodil adds, “You’re responsible for calling pitches, handling a pitching staff, knowing your pitchers and their different personalities is all part of the package.”

Part of that package is the wear and tear a catcher gets during each and every game. Baseball has instituted a pitch count for developing arms, but few notice that a catcher throws as many, if not more, balls during a game as the combined pitching staff.

That aspect all adds to the development of the managerial mind as Hodil states, “The physical beating you take (as a catcher) speaks to your love of the game. Another reason catchers transition into managing is, I think, they develop a better understanding of the game just seeing it from their perspective. They are the only players on the field that are looking out at the whole diamond. They see the big picture.”

Seeing the big picture is something that comes naturally to Hodil and is not going unnoticed by the parents of his players. The parent/coach relationship is often fraught with ups and downs, but West Seneca West parent Frank Calieri witnessed the development of his son and the team as the season played out.

Calieri says, “Coach Hodil led by example with strong character and belief that if his players were dedicated and determined they can be successful student athletes. He motivated while teaching teamwork, challenged individuals while developing skills. He was their biggest fan.”

“As a baseball family,” Calieri adds, “we might not remember everything he said, but we will remember that he made us feel great being part of the special experience we shared this season. It will never be forgotten.”

Hodil’s coaching and managerial skills have not gone unnoticed in the Western New York area. Special interest is taken by another local manager who has made some noise of his own in 2018 and is also in charge of one of the area’s rising local scholastic baseball programs.

Jeff Helmbrecht just managed the West Seneca West varsity to its best record in over three and a half decades. He led a team on an improbable run into the ECIC semi-finals and a coveted position in the Buffalo News Top 10 poll. Like the old saying, birds of a feather flock together, Helmbrecht saw immediately that he had something special with Hodil on his staff.

“Chris is a true baseball guy,” said Helmbrecht. “He’s about sticking to the process and develops and teaches kids at an extremely high level. He brings a wealth of knowledge to the kids of West Seneca and we’re lucky to have him.”

While teams and organizations are ultimately judged in the wins and loss column, Helmbrecht’s crystal ball knowing that his, the West Seneca program, and Hodil’s future are all wrapped together.

"One of the things that sets Chris apart is his willingness to accept failure as part of the development process. He’s willing to work within a program that’s in the process of rebuilding,” said Helmbrecht.

Exactly how is that continual process of development working at all levels Hodil has a hand in structuring?

Go no further than asking the players who have worked, learned, and won under his tutelage. West Seneca West modified player John McNulty says,

“Coach Hodil is the best I’ve played for in my career. He makes sure everyone improves but let’s us have fun doing it. He helps all the kids and checks in with them regularly to make sure everything is alright and not just baseball. He just makes practice and games fun.”

McNulty’s sentiments are echoed by the Great Lakes Gators’ Nick Cascia, “His is one of my favorite coaches. He never lacks energy. He knows the game in and out and he always has our back.”

St. Mary’s High School star freshman and Great Lakes Gators phenom Trent Rumley has been under the tutelage of Coach Hodil since his first pitch, and he’ll be the first to tell you that his manager has been a vital part of the player’s meteoric rise in baseball acumen and ability.

Young Rumley says, “I’ve been playing for Coach Hodil for six years now and it’s definitely been a pleasure. He doesn’t let anyone on the team get away with mistakes. He’s a very vocal coach and will let you know what he’s thinking in a situation. He focuses more on the mental part of the game than the physical side.”

“He explains how sometimes games are won or lost by walks or a runner getting picked off. If you’re not mentally tough and have the capacity to learn, you cannot play for Coach. That’s a fact,” emphasized Rumley.

Those who love sports will tell you that the most important game is always the “next game.” Hodil is no different. Less than 48 hours after wrapping up a perfect season at the scholastic level, he was back in the coach’s box witnessing his Great Lakes Gators squad open the travel season with an efficient 7-1 victory over KC Curve at Frontier High School.

Even before the dust settled after the last out, Hodil makes sure his jubilant squad does the little things that make up a championship squad by making sure all his players assist in cleaning up and getting ready to listen for the next set of instructions.

What’s next for Chris Hodil? Surely one of the area’s best baseball minds with a keen ability to teach must be in demand?

Hodil states, “I love what I’m doing. I’m really focused on the Gators and having a hand at developing West Seneca West’s players into a championship program with Pudge (Helmbrecht), and I’m really excited about that prospect.
Local athletic directors and college sports administrators take heed, “Ultimately, I’d like a varsity head coaching position and maybe get into the get into the JUCO or college ranks. I love this game and I never want to stand still or stop learning myself. I’m always looking to see what the next chapter holds.”

As for now it’s business as usual for Chris Hodil. As the last bat and ball is tucked away in the equipment bag after a big win, Hodil gives one last bit of advice to his team of rising stars from Western New York and Southern Ontario, “Be ready for practice on Sunday morning. Today’s win was great, but we have lots to work on.”

As Chris Hodil writes his last entry into his notebook and stuffs it into his back pocket with a smile, one sees that his lesson plans are already set for Sunday School baseball style.