More than 20 months after he was officially hired, Kyle Krustangel finally steps foot on the Yakima County Stadium field as the second field manager of the Yakima Valley Pippins this summer.
It’s been a long wait.
At the same time, though, Krustangel has been keeping busy. His “other” coaching job — head coach for the Yakima Valley College Yaks — concluded just five days before the Pippins’ 2021 opener. Despite no postseason tournament in the Northwest Athletic Conference this year because of the lingering effects of COVID-19, his Yaks completed their season at 27-7 with an 18-game winning streak.
Through the course of the spring season, Krustangel noticed the changes after a year of COVID shutdowns.
“I think the one thing that has really stood out to me in my 10-ish years of coaching, including seven at the college level, is how much more grateful the players are,” Krustangel said. “I mean grateful in terms of they almost needed to have it (baseball) taken away. It’s always talked about, coaches always tell players ‘What if you get hurt and can’t play again? Don’t take baseball for granted.’ A lot of times players are so good that the message is interpreted just as coaches talking and that it doesn’t happen.
“But then to have it ripped away from them is something different. A lot of players once they get to the college level realize that baseball is a full-time job, it’s more than a full-time job, and many have been playing and going to school since then were 5,” he continued. “To have half their lives just taken away, plucked away, is obviously devastating. When they did come back, I saw a bigger enjoyment of the game, the passion and just truly being grateful for the opportunity to get back out there every day.”
That greater appreciation of the game is something that Krustangel believes will continue through this summer and beyond. It also fits well into his coaching philosophy and expecations for players coming to the Pippins from around the country.
“We definitely tell guys when they come in that we want to win the WCL championship,” he said. “We always want to win. But under that winning umbrella, development is a key piece. You don’t win every game, but you can develop and improve every game.
“Each athlete is expected to play hard at any level of college baseball, and just because it’s summer ball doesn’t mean that the expectation is any different. Our guys will play hard — run on the field, run off the field, hard 90s all the time. Play hard and play fast. That’s just been the style of our coaching staff since we’ve been together. As the wear and tear of the season sets in, the teams that play the game the right way and have a good culture are the teams that ultimately emerge and are successful in the long run.”
Krustangel and assistant coach Cash Ulrich have been on the field together for the past six years — “450 to 500 games,” Krustangel said.
“Coach Cash is as good as it gets,” Krustangel said. “We’re the exact same style, and we’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs together in the college ranks and in summer ball. He has the same standards and pushes the guys in the same way I do. I know that if I’m not around, I know exactly what he’ll do. He pushes me in the same way that we push players, and we all benefit and grow because of that.”
Rounding out the staff is the “two-headed pitching coach duo” of Kelly Fitzpatrick and Jordan Cameron. Fitzpatrick played baseball at both YVC and for the Pippins, and Cameron was a Pippins intern in the 2014 season. They also share pitching coach duties at YVC.
“They complement each other well,” Krustangel said. “Kelly is very into how the body moves and performs. Jordan is very mechanically sound. Those aspects and the new-school type of pitching that is top tier right now in pro ball and upper-level college programs is right in their areas of expertise. It’s a blessing to have all of them. They are phenomenal.”
It’s those types of coaches and philosophies that have benefitted Krustangel with his teams in previous seasons coaching the WCL’s Wenatchee AppleSox.
“My first year with the AppleSox, you’re making those coaching relationships with other programs and it’s kind of like college coaches are testing the waters with what kind of program you will run and what your approach to development is,” Krustangel said. “Once they see that you’re not just talking the talk, but you’re also putting in the effort to build your program and improve the players that we’re sent, and if guys have a great experience, then 100 percent you’re going to start getting higher-caliber players the years after that.
“If you don’t help them improve their skillset, if you don’t hold them to the same level of accountability and standards that players are held to from September through June at their schools, then that’s going to hurt the program and hurt those relationships.”
Because of COVID, all five Canadian teams — including three new programs that were expected to start this season — will have to wait until 2022 to begin again. But that doesn’t mean the WCL experience this season will be lacking in talent or opportunity.
“The WCL is a great change for guys to get playing time,” Krustangel said. “Scounts want to see these guys play. College coaches have expectations that they will play and that they will get better from the day players get here through the day they leave. The game continues to advance — with tools like TrackMan and Synergy and other platforms that help expand learning and coaching opportunities, we have the responsibility to help players.
“It’s a win-win for everybody.”