Aside from a few modern upgrades, Attica’s baseball field hasn’t changed much since Rich Stoll first stepped on it in 1978.
Stoll left Attica more than 30 years ago in pursuit of a baseball career that eventually etched his name alongside some of the game’s greatest players. Until last spring, current Red Ramblers knew Stoll only from the hallway display outside of Lambert Gymnasium, with jerseys, news clippings and awards commemorating his playing career.
Last spring, Stoll’s non-athletic calling brought him back to his hometown when he became pastor at Wabash Valley Bible Baptist Church. When Attica’s baseball program suddenly needed a coach over the winter, Stoll felt compelled to accept that challenge as well.
“There’s a love of the school and the community, and a desire to see a real solid program that’s competitive year in year out,” Stoll said. “Being a person that believes in God’s providence, it’s like a little bonus. ‘Thank you God. I’m going to come down here to be pastor and oh, you’re going to open that door, too.’ “
As much as they have enjoyed his old baseball stories and improved under his tutelage, the Red Ramblers were also affected by his unassuming approach.
“Everybody respects him and I think that pushes everybody to work harder,” senior pitcher/shortstop Jordan Capps said. “When you have somebody who’s had that much success, you don’t want to let them down. I think everybody’s working that much harder just to try to do better.”
Stoll arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the fall of 1980 as a quiet kid from a small Indiana town. Michigan coach Bud Middaugh noticed Stoll’s withdrawn demeanor, and when a local pastor called to ask if he could be of any help to Middaugh or his players, the coach suggested he speak to Stoll.
It was a life-changing moment for Stoll, who was raised Catholic but had not committed himself to religion. During his sophomore year at Michigan, Stoll made the decision to become “saved.”
“My transformation, it was real, from the beginning,” Stoll said. “I was very outspoken. I had done some partying, some drinking, and never really felt very good about it, and that all came to a screeching halt. With my baseball, I began to have more success than I felt I was capable of at Michigan, especially that sophomore year. I give the Lord all the credit for that.
“I felt a lot of purpose now. I understood why I had the ability to play baseball –just to honor him.”
Stoll went on to one of the most impressive pitching careers in Michigan‘s storied history, compiling a 30-5 record and a 2.64 ERA. In 1983, he earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors and led the Wolverines to a third-place finish in the College World Series.
Peter Gammons, a longtime Boston Globe sportswriter, wrote a column for ESPN.com about the 1983 Major League draft. By his account, the Red Sox had planned to select Stoll with the 19th pick of the first round.
But the Montreal Expos beat them to it, taking Stoll with the 14th pick and reportedly setting off rumble of anger and profanity in the Red Sox draft room. Instead, Boston settled for a right-hander from the University of Texas.
His name was Roger Clemens.
Stoll was only the first athlete to break out of Attica onto a bigger stage. Navy football player Josh Smith and Purdue basketball player Brittany Rayburn later inspired other generations of Red Ramblers.
“You always have that sense that they’re cool; you want to be like them,” senior pitcher/infielder Austin Smyth said. “They worked really hard. They got good grades. They’re great role models for all the younger kids in grade school and junior high. I look up to them because they’re my role models too.”
Stoll began his first season of professional baseball at Class A West Palm Beach but ended in it Triple-A. Of Stoll’s 88 minor league games over the next four seasons, 58 came with the Indianapolis Indians, at the time the Expos’ Triple-A affiliate.
Yet the former phenom never earned a Major League callup, partially due to a labrum tear in his right shoulder. By 1987 he was back in A ball, and a year later, he was out of the game.
Stoll recalls his playing career with a sense of gratitude, not regret. He also knows it eventually opened the door for his true calling. While serving as the athletic director and baseball coach at Jupiter (Fla.) Christian School, Stoll felt called to join the ministry.
“The Xs and Os of sports, it has its place, and I love sports and the involvement in that has very much impacted my life,” Stoll said. “It wasn’t that that was not meaningful. It’s just that when you feel you want to be zeroing in on the mission that God has given to me and Christians, I sense that I didn’t want to be doing much else. I’d like to make that my target.”
That decision eventually brought him back to Indiana, where he became pastor at First Baptist Church in Kouts and an assistant baseball coach at the high school. Stoll, whose brother, P.J., previously coached Red Ramblers baseball, said he expected to be involved in athletics in some way in Attica. He incorporates sports into his ministry, and recently held an Athlete Sunday at Wabash Valley that featured Purdue football players.
When Theron Schmid resigned as Attica’s baseball coach over the winter, athletic director Matt Tuggle knew who to call first.
“One of the things I liked that he said was, ‘I don’t want to do this and only do it half way,’ ” Tuggle said. “He would only do it to be all-in. He has been a valuable asset to those kids. He can provide a mentoring role to additional young kids in the community.”
Smyth attributes the improved pitching mechanics learned from Stoll for helping himself and the other Red Rambler pitchers add velocity. Attica is 8-6 after Saturday’s doubleheader split with North Vermillion, and five players entered last week hitting .375 or better.
In the Attica locker room, Stoll posted the accomplishments of players like Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia and San Francisco pitcher Tim Lincecum, who weren’t held back by physical limitations. The Red Ramblers who once knew Stoll only from the mementos displayed in their hallway now benefit from the example of his humility.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t get too cocky about what you do,” said senior outfielder JR Dunwell, the team’s top hitter who, like Stoll, has come back from a labrum injury. “Him talking about himself, he doesn’t really seem to think it’s this big deal. To stay humble about it really says something about your character.”