Saturday’s Playoffs an important test in Hiche’s long-term plan for Herts U17 team

Cris Hiche was playing in the National Baseball League Championship final for the Herts Falcons last week. He hasn’t had much time to absorb the experience of reaching the final as his attention is now firmly on his role as manager of the Herts Under-17 team which is about to go into the 2012 Youth Playoffs this Saturday. We had the opportunity to talk with him about the Herts U17 team as well as other Herts and British baseball topics. Before looking at the upcoming British Youth Playoffs, it is a good opportunity to ask you a few questions about the Herts Falcons and the National Championships in the senior leagues played last week. The Falcons made the news with a series of high-profile player acquisitions at the start of 2012. You moved to the UK from Arizona this year and were one of the first high profile arrivals before the wave of big player trades. How soon after you joined the Falcons did you start to feel that something special is happening at Herts and the team has a chance to compete for the title?

CH: Very early on after just 2 or 3 workouts. Robbie Unsell, Jordan Farkas, Kevin Niedringhaus, and Jake Michels were in those workouts and I mentioned it in my first interview that if we had the pitching we were going to fight for the title. Later seeing Dave and Jeff (The House Brothers), Ryan Bird, Phil Clark, Mike Osborn, among others confirmed my early intuition. The Falcons went so close going to game 6 of the Championship series. The Nationals won it and over the course of the 2012 season won 4 and the Falcons 2 of the 6 games between the two teams. The difference between the two teams was not big, but in what areas were the Nationals superior to the Falcons?

CH: Consistency. We had too many ups and downs as a team. You can see it in the scores where 1 inning we would score 5-8 runs and then get blanked for 3-4 innings. Defensively it happened too. When it comes to batting it really hurts because you leave too many men on base and those opportunities can’t be wasted against a strong team like the Nationals. You arrived in the UK this year and probably didn’t know what to expect from British Baseball. You have now played for the Falcons in the country’s top league and have managed in the youth leagues. What is your general impression of British Baseball?

CH: At the club level it is fantastic with some good organizations (Herts I think being one of the top ones) and people who want to improve baseball. There is room for improvement at the governing body level. If they would just make a few, but critical, adjustments, British Baseball at all levels could improve massively. Obviously Great Britain is far behind the leading baseball leagues in the world. Which aspects of British Baseball do you think can be targeted for improvement in order to make some quick gains and start to catch up on countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Italy?

CH: Unfortunately there are no ‘quick’ solutions (besides recruiting new “British” citizens from the US and the Caribbean countries but that’s a risky solution). However, the big gain would be in heavy involvement of Youth programs. London Mets seem to have a strong program and we are developing a very strong one here at Herts and there are one or two others but besides that I don’t see many other strong British programs. There’s so much which can be done I could talk forever. If you ask me, one suggestion would be to impose that every NBL team must have a youth program (of course giving current NBL teams who don’t have youth programs 2-3 years to create one).

Cris Hiche in the Falcons' NBL game at the Essex Arrows earlier this year (photo by Jim Garnett of British Baseball Magazine) Apart from playing for the Falcons you have a busy schedule working for one of the Formula 1 teams. Despite a difficult timetable you decided to take on the role of managing the Herts U17 team. What made you make this extra commitment to Herts Baseball Club?

CH: I saw a lot of potential but also a lack of fundamentals of our kids (and most British baseball players). This meant that by changing and improving these things, the team could improve in leaps and bounds. We are doing that, a bit slower than expected but that’s because the rain didn’t help much this season. I hope we are going to be stronger next season and I have already many plans for spring training. If other players from the adult teams are considering managing one of the Herts youth teams and ask for your advice, would you recommend it to them and why?

CH: Of course, because you learn as much as the kids. Being a coach means observing (not merely watching) baseball from a different perspective and that would make you a better player. Two examples: 1) hitting good ground balls to players (hard, soft, to the player’s left and right side, etc) isn’t that simple but by doing it, you’ll have better hand-eye coordination and bat control which will translate to being a better hitter playing in the adult team. 2) Being a 3rd base coach deciding when to send the runner for a steal or going home on a single and making mistakes in the process, would allow you to then make better ‘intuitive’ decisions as a player running the bases. What is the hardest part of coaching the next generation of British baseball players?

CH: As I said lack of fundamentals and with that comes motivation. In the US, a 10yr old already knows how to catch, field, and throw and thus you can work with them in more advanced drills that would entertain a teenager. However, when they lack the fundamentals and they do drills that a 5-6yr old ‘would do’. I say this because kids here think MLB players practice must be so much ‘fun’ but don’t realise MLB players also hate spring training because they work on fundamentals like crazy and doing the same “boring” drills we do. The difference is that in the US every player knows they have to do them to get better so they set aside the “boring” part and work 100% to execute them perfectly. Here they believe they don’t need to do them. Also, every kid in the US works hard and goes through the “painful” drills because the motivation is to reach the big leagues, earn good money, and make a living playing the sport you love. Unfortunately for British players there’s no reference, or end goal, to motivate them to get better every day. That’s why I try to tell them and motivate them to become at least the best players/team in the NBL. Turning our attention to this Saturday’s massive National Youth Playoffs, Herts will face the Forest Glade Redbacks in an elimination game first. The two teams met in exactly the same scenario 12 months ago and the Redbacks won it in extra innings. Will that play on the minds of the players or is there sufficient confidence in the team to go into this game with belief that they can do it this time?

CH: I wasn’t here 12 months ago so at least I’m not concerned! This is my very narrow opinion but I think with my presence as a manager, the kids hopefully feel this has been a new beginning and thus this is a very different team than last year. I think they have the confidence we can win this game (although it’ll be tough). The Herts U17 team had a 1-11 record last year and a 4-8 record this year which is a significant improvement, but the team is seeded 4th and very much one of the outsiders behind the giants of the U17 league, London, Cobham and Horsham. If the team overcomes the Redbacks, Herts will have to face the top seed London Mets. Are the Mets unbeatable and can Herts cause a surprise?

CH: The Mets are not unbeatable but I’m realistic and know it would be very hard to win it (I don’t want to call it a miracle but the famous ‘Miracle on Ice’ comes to my mind). The main reason is similar to the ‘Miracle on Ice’. They are vastly more experienced because most of them are 2-3 years older. This makes a huge difference in terms of physical attributes but also how much baseball they have in their bodies. If we win against the Mets (first we need to win against the Redbacks!) it would be a highlight in my baseball life. Just to clarify, the 4-8 record is a bit misleading since early in the season I gambled a bit to see players perform in different circumstances. Our record should be more like 6-6.


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