June 23, 2013 in Sports

Van Tol would do this for free, and has

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Former GU coach and player and current Hawks manager Gary Van Tol throws batting practice, which he used to do as a volunteer.
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Unpaid interns are going all Joe Hill on America these days.

Which is to say they’re hitting The Man where it hurts, in court. A judge in New York just shame-shamed Fox Searchlight Pictures for exploiting freebie help, and now a couple ex-interns are suing Conde Nast after living out a “The Devil Wears Prada” existence, only without the trip to Paris and the designer hand-me-downs.

Adding insult to insult, a recent study shows salaried interns are almost twice as likely to land a real job.

As a rebuttal witness, let’s swear in Gary Van Tol.

For the last five summers, the former Gonzaga University player and coach has thrown batting practice for the Boise Hawks, hit fungoes, charted pitchers and tendencies, helped fill out organizational reports and counseled a few teenagers through oh-fer months and homesickness. He’s shown up at the ballpark early and left late, and saddled up for the 600-mile bus ride to Vancouver, the longest in the Northwest League.

And he’s done it without a paycheck.

It’s not your usual baseball arrangement. The franchises of Major League Baseball are hardly so strapped that they have to rely on local volunteers to man the minor leagues. But a job opportunity for his wife, Chrissie – she’s a senior administrator in Boise State’s athletic department – took the family from Spokane to Boise in 2008, and with nearly 20 years of college coaching behind him, Van Tol needed an outlet for his baseball jones.

With the parent Chicago Cubs going through a regime change last year, Van Tol was just hoping to get a chance to work for free again. So he had his fingers crossed when Brandon Hyde, the Cubs’ player personnel chief, called over the winter.

And floored him by asking him to manage.

“I said yes,” he laughed. “I didn’t even have to call Chrissie and ask her.”

That’s Van Tol in the dugout and the third-base coaching box for the Cubs at Avista Stadium this weekend as their series with the Spokane Indians continues. He’s still doing most of the same things he did as a volunteer, but now he gets to fill out the lineup card, too.

It’s also a little more of a business trip. In summers past, he’d leave the team and he and Chrissie would pile their four kids into the car for a return trip – the Van Tols still own a house here, and his in-laws are Mark and Marcy Few. But this year, the family will come later when Dad is on some 10-day bus odyssey.

As it happens, Van Tol isn’t the only Boise year-rounder on the Cubs staff, nor the only one with a Spokane connection. Hitting coach Bill Buckner – the 22-year major leaguer with 2,715 hits – was, of course, a mainstay on the 1970 Indians, still among the best minor league teams in history.

“I remember the Quasar sign,” Buckner said. “Every time you got a hit, they put a light up, and if you got four hits, you got a TV. I went home with about six TVs. Everybody got a TV for Christmas.”

Now fans get free pancakes at IHOP. It’s a different ballgame.

For Van Tol, too. Though his roots are in college baseball, he hasn’t had any withdrawal pains.

“In the pros, it’s just baseball,” he said, “and that’s been kind of refreshing. You don’t worry about the NCAA’s clock and that big rule book. And coaching at places like Gonzaga and Portland, so much time is spent recruiting because, well, you don’t have the luxury of being in Orange County with six Division I shortstops in a six-block radius. It’s all teaching here, and that’s kind of re-energized me.”

Maybe more than he first realized.

The development-first aspect of the minors can be maddening to every-night fans watching an overmatched prospect in the lineup game after game ahead of another player who might be a better producer now. Van Tol, meanwhile, has seen a win-now, win-big mentality take over in college, to the point that Auburn’s John Pawlowski just got fired because he hadn’t made the NCAA tournament in three years – and replaced by a guy who’ll make $650,000 a year.

“The pressure to win is so great that as a coach, you’re calling every pitch,” Van Tol said, “and telling every runner when to steal and when not to. I see college pitchers coming to this level standing around looking for somebody to call their pitches for them. They’re 22 years old and never called their own game.”

He’ll try to strike a happier medium in his first pro managing job, even if he’ll be learning as he goes.

A rookie he might be, but he’s served his unpaid internship.

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