Kent State baseball coach committed to making difference on and off the field

John Conley

From his time at Kent State, former player Eli Kraus says about pitching coach Mike Birkbeck is, “You wont understand what I’m talking about until you’re on a team that Birkbeck coaches.”

“I have so many people that know of coach Birkbeck and Kent State that ask me how to explain how he is as a coach,” Kraus said.  “When you come to Kent, you’re not going in to make huge mechanical changes or become a different pitcher. Birky makes it very clear to pitch the way that got you to Kent.”

Birkbeck has been the Kent State pitching coach for 23 years and produced seven major-league pitchers, 13 All-Americans, and 18 All-Mid American Conference Tournament players. He is one of the reasons why Kent State continues to be a dominant mid-major program.

Kraus went through the program with Birkbeck and explained how Birkbeck not only helped him as a pitcher, but as a person. Kraus was selected in the 24th round of the MLB draft in 2018 and is in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

“The way Birkbeck handled himself was so professional, and I think the biggest thing about going through high school, through college and now into professional baseball, when it comes to coaches for the most part you look at them as coaches, but with coach Birky you looked at him with respect but also as a family member,” Kraus said. “It was somebody that you respected and were respected by.”

For Birkbeck, the journey to becoming a coach at Kent State was not on becoming a coach after his baseball career.

Back in 1996, Birkbeck was finishing up his career playing overseas in Japan and Rick Rembielak, head coach for Kent State men’s baseball at the time, knew Birkbeck from playing together in the major leagues. Dick Schoonover, the previous pitching coach, had left and Rembielak knew just who to call to fill the position.

“I lost my pitching coach at the time, which was Schoonover, and my first thought for someone to replace Schoonie was Mike because I knew he was just finishing playing in Japan and he was the first person I contacted,” Rembielak said. “It was a no-brainer on my part. So I just contacted him right away and started discussing the possibility of what he was doing, what our needs were and we had a couple discussions to talk about coaching at Kent State and that’s how it started.”

One of the things Rembielak knew was that Birkbeck was not going to just take the job off one phone call. There needed to be time for Birkbeck to think about his future.

“The head coach at the time, Rick Rembielak, called me out of the blue one day and explained the situation and asked if I had any interest coaching at Kent State,” Birkbeck said. “At the time I wasn’t fully convinced I wanted to continue my playing career, so we sat down and talked about it and it was something that intrigued me and that’s how it all came about.”

Over the course of his career at Kent State, Birkbeck has established a relationship with everyone on the team and those around him, including players who have gone into the major leagues.

Kent State senior starter Connor Wollersheim said Birkbeck changed him as a player, making him into a strong individual when it comes to the game of baseball and in real life.

“He is one of the most influential coaches I have had throughout my career,” Wollersheim said. “When I got here, he was the one that developed me from being a kid that just kind of threw the ball, to actually learning how to pitch. His knowledge of the game and how much he’s learned, he is able to give it back to us and explain it to us to try and help us further our careers. He understands the game well and understands what you need to do with each person, knowing that everyone’s not the same and something different is going to work for a different person.”

Wollersheim said Birkbeck guided him in learning different pitches and understanding certain situations he could be put under as a pitcher.

“He has helped develop my change-up a lot better and taught me how to throw a slider,” Wollersheim said. “He has added to what I already have and helped me with the mental side, understanding that you have to work the hitters. You can’t just throw it past them, you have to change eye levels and change speeds. He has actually taught me how to pitch since I’ve been here.”

Since his time at Kent State, multiple pitchers have gone through the system, learning from one of the best. Birkbeck understands how different pitchers can be when it comes to a new environment at the college level.

“I have spent my life around baseball,” Birkbeck said. “It is a great game to teach life lessons and these guys their 18-22 years old, they all have wants and aspirations and to be able to be in a situation where you can hopefully help them achieve their desires is very fulfilling. It’s really special for me to able to help these guys along the way.”

Birkbeck knew a stable relationship was needed for the team to cooperate, but he went a step further by making relationships with family member of players, knowing that’s how to make better connections.

“He meant a lot to me, but my family too,” Kraus said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for Birkbeck. My career took a huge turning point my sophomore year, we had some guys go down and couldn’t play and I was given the opportunity to be a weekend starter and Coach Birkbeck believed in me to make the most of the opportunity, and had it not been for his trust and belief, I don’t know if I would’ve been successful, or kicked around on the mound but he continued and continued to believe in me.”

Each season Birkbeck deals with around 12 to 13 pitchers on the staff. Birkbeck knows each pitcher is different and likes to build on what they already have.

“It takes time to develop a relationship and get to know them and what gets each individual to click,” Birkbeck said. “We try to work with them and bring out their strengths as individuals. We have always thought individual player development was a big part of our program and the success of our program. More so than trying to do every player the same way, we just try to get each individual to maximize their own potential. If you can do that collectively, you have a chance to have a special pitching staff. That has not changed much over time.”

Under the guidance of coach Birkbeck, the Kent State baseball program has become a powerhouse in the Mid-American Conference. Pitchers from all over come to Kent to work with Birkbeck due to his expertise.

Since Jeff Duncan took the head coaching job in the summer of 2013, Duncan and Birkbeck have continued to put Kent State at the top when it comes to on and off the field.

Knowing that Birkbeck had been part of the Kent State program for a while, Duncan relied on Birkbeck at first to get him used to the environment.

“Birkbeck taught me a lot about the program and the history of the program,” Duncan said. “He is very loyal to this program and to me as well, which I appreciate. He brings instant credibility with his experience and has been a really good teacher and coach, not only on the pitching side, but as a whole in the game of baseball.”

Former coach Rick Rembielak believes pitchers come to Kent State to specifically work with Birkbeck.

“Unequivocally, their decision on coming to Kent State was because of Birkbeck,” Rembielak said. “As a pitcher coming into the program, Birky was the one that sold them on the program and everything else. Every kid that came in and listened to him and did what he instructed them to do, developed in their career.”

But the game of baseball isn’t all that Birkbeck deals with. Birkbeck has been in their shoes and can relate to what is going on.

“He understands that when dealing with 18-22 years olds, we are still learning from a baseball standpoint, but also from a functioning member of society standpoint,” Kraus said. “He just understands what we are going through. There’s nothing you can’t talk to coach Birky about, you can always talk to him. Coach Birky and Kent State really set us up for life in baseball and life after baseball.”

Over the past 23 years, Birkbeck has offered his support to many players that have come through the program, leaving a mark that will stay forever.

“Kent State has done a lot for me and my family,” Birkbeck said. “My wife graduated here, my son graduated here and I’ve been working for 23 years. It’s a really special place and it means a lot to me.”