A sharp hit comes off the Sumner High School baseball player’s bat and a voice booms from the Spartans dugout.
“That’s the way to hit the pelota!”
Sophomore Quinton Schneider makes a nice play.
Then Kyle VanHout.
This story is not about the man behind all that racket, Chris Snelling. He would be unhappy if it were.
But wouldn’t that story be extraordinary?
It could start when Snelling was born in Miami, and grew up in Australia. Or when he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners, making the majors as a 20-year-old, but had a promising career derailed by a series of injuries that would take its own story to completely document.
It could mention how he married a fifth-grade teacher in the Sumner School District. Or how soon after he was discovered by Sumner baseball coach Casey Adcox, who asked Snelling to become his assistant varsity coach in 2010.
It could even go into his return from a two-year professional baseball absence to play in the Australian Baseball League in 2012 before playing for the Australian national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Or it could report how he was back at Sumner shortly after that, took a job working in the school district’s maintenance and operations department (mowing grass, maintaining fields, fixing roofs and the like), and for the past two years has been a paid member of the Spartans staff as coach of the junior varsity team.
But Snelling made it clear that he wants no story about him. On every occasion I spoke to him after his JV games, he was fine talking about anything except a potential story.
Not even Adcox, his players or the team manager could get Snelling to budge. And there’s something to respect about that.
“He’s kind of a hermit,” Adcox said.
“If he finds out the story is all about him, he’s going to get weird and probably (mad) at me,” Adcox later said in a text message.
Adcox said Snelling seemed more accepting if the story was about the program and if he happened to be mentioned as part of that. But he told Adcox to prank text all the other Sumner assistant coaches and tell them he was quitting because of this.
So this story won’t be about Snelling.
It will be about all the upgrades made to the program as Sumner enters the Class 3A state tournament for the sixth time since 2010 (which happened to be the first year back for Adcox and the first year coaching for Snelling). Before 2010, Sumner’s previous state appearance was in 1985.
Sumner will play Eastside Catholic at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bannerwood Park in Bellevue.
“I’M NOT HERE TO LOOK PRETTY”
Many things in the Sumner program have changed over the years.
The concession stand goes through a lot more Rockstar energy drinks. It apparently has got to the point where Snelling has the team managers delivering them to him during games.
“I think he goes through at least three in a game,” said Sumner sophomore Nate Baespflug. “And he’s not just sipping them, he’s chugging.”
The team is aware of its mojo as much as its strategy.
If things aren’t going well, Snelling’s been known to kick over bats, change the order of where they are propped up against the wall, or demand that players stand in different places in the dugout.
“If we don’t score after that, he’ll throw a chair or something at the wall — not out of anger, but to mix up the mojo,” senior Elijah Evers said.
And almost every player now has a nickname.
There’s Quinton “Tarantino” Schneider. Connor Filleau is “Sheriff” because his father is a sheriff. Kyle VanHout’s is “Marshall Eriksen” — a character from the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.”
Here’s how VanHout recalled his first meeting with Snelling.
“Hey, who are you? What’s your name,” the coach said.
“Kyle VanHout,” the sophomore responded.
“Nice to meet you, Marshall,” the coach said.
“What?” VanHout said.
“You look like Marshall Eriksen … you’ve never watched ‘How I Met Your Mother’?” the coach said.
“No,” says the player.
“Go look it up, it will change your life.”
Also, the coaching staff has a much-improved tennis reputation.
Evers and VanHout qualified for the doubles tournament at the 3A state tennis championships for Sumner, and Snelling overheard Evers talking about tennis on the way home from a JV baseball game last year.
Snelling challenged Evers to a game.
Snelling grew up playing tennis in Australia and his father is a former tennis coach. Evers didn’t know this.
“Somebody Googled on their phone and was like, ‘Oh, he used to play tennis … like well,’ ” said Evers, whose nickname is “Harvard” because of the philosophical conversations he and Snelling get into.
So how’d the tennis game go?
“Not well,” Evers said. “His serve is significantly harder than how hard he throws, which is like almost 90 (mph).
“The only game I got off of him was because of his knee (which has been surgically repaired multiple times). I was just trying to make him go back and forth.”
Evers said he even got a personal lesson from the coach’s father later on.
“I had no idea he was a tennis coach, though,” Evers said. “I just thought he was this old Australian guy with a thick accent I could barely understand. But I learned how to hit a forehand well.”
The baseball team’s players don’t worry so much about looking fancy anymore, given the coach’s example. Snelling is occasionally seen in the dugout sitting on a bucket, his cap tilted down, spitting sunflower seeds onto himself.
“It’s one of the funniest things I think I’ve ever seen,” Baespflug said. “He’s just sitting in the dugout, leaning back in his chair before the game and spitting seeds onto his chest.”
“We’ll say, ‘Hey, you have something on you,’ ” VanHout said. “He’s like ‘I’m not here to look pretty.’ ”
Then there are all the interesting noises projecting from the dugout.
“His big thing is ‘Yee-yapp!’ ” Adcox loudly impersonated. “He’ll be coaching third base in the middle of a game and one of his kids would hit a shot and you just hear this ‘Yee-yapp!’
“Or ‘No, you didn’t!’ Last weekend in our district game, one of our varsity guys hits a ball and he goes ‘That’s how you hit the pelota!’ ”
Pelota is Spanish for ball.
“Or he’ll yell ‘Cinnamon!’ to see if the other team will make an error,” said senior Nathan Harrell. “And when we score a run he will be bouncing back and forth like he’s hitting off of the walls.”
“Having him in the dugout — everything is always more exciting and fun,” VanHout said.
A WAY WITH KIDS
How the Sumner team prepares has changed a lot since 2010.
Hitting is coached differently. Players are often working on their bat speed with a one-handed small bat, or getting one-on-one instructions from Snelling.
“And when you square one up, he will get really excited,” said sophomore Ben Wilson. “He will be jumping off his bucket, ‘Oh, there it is!’ ”
“He wants to talk to you in private, one-on-one,” Harrell said. “He doesn’t like to talk in front of groups.”
Adcox said Snelling has a gift for working with kids.
“I think he’s really enjoying this,” Adcox said. “Especially now that he has some freedom to make his team his team, because he has some strong opinions about how the game should be played. He really does. He treats baseball like a religion. You do not disrespect the game with him.”
“Snelling loves baseball more than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Harrell said. “Anybody.”
Auburn Mountainview JV coach Ryan Dunham noticed something different about Sumner right away.
“I’m kind of a geek about the Mariners, so I kind of knew when I saw the name who he was,” Dunham said. “I thought it was pretty cool to see a guy who just loves the game. You don’t do JV unless you actually like the game.”
And Sumner is winning more pregame coach competitions these days, too.
Dunham said the JV coaches keep a running tally of sorts for who hits the better pop fly to the team’s catcher during pregame warm-ups, which Dunham calls Fungo Wars.
Snelling didn’t know this was a thing, so the first time he coached Sumner against AMV in a JV game he threw the baseball in the air for his catcher instead of hitting it.
“Then I hit mine and I actually hit it with the Fungo bat,” Dunham said. “It wasn’t good, but it was better than just throwing it in the air. I looked at him, gave him a little look and he looked at me like, ‘I see how it is.’
“The next game, I go through my pregame first and I completely botch my catcher pop. Then he goes up and hits one a mile high, right off the dish and gives me this ‘I won this round,’ look.”
Dunham says they went 1-1 against each other again this year.
The field looks better nowadays.
Snelling also works full time in the school district’s maintenance department, so he’s is frequently seen mowing grass and laying marking lime.
Adcox is a field geek, himself, so they get along well. The players have learned the value of a well-prepared field.
“(Snelling) tells us it’s his dream job,” Baespflug said. “He says putting the lines on the field is his favorite part. After every game we have to take care of the field, and if we don’t do it right we’re running.”
Another change is the alertness of those on Sumner’s football field, located just beyond the right field fence of the baseball field. Snelling has been witnessed launching baseballs to the home sideline on the football field with the alloy-barrelled Besr bats.
“I saw him hit one to the concession stands (past the football field),” Harrell said. “One hop.”
“There are balls he’s hit like going through the lights, like missing the lights by inches,” Adcox said. “The funny part is his day-job people would have been (mad) at him if he would have broken any bulbs.
“But it was like ‘The Natural.’ We are going ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
So why all these changes to the program over the years? How did this particular coach go from the Mariners to mowing grass and coaching junior varsity baseball at Sumner?
“I asked him that once,” said team manager Jason Holler. “He said it was for the love of the game, and he wants to inspire the future generation of baseball and keep it alive.
“Snelling is not normally a touching guy. But that was touching. I took it seriously.”