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Thursday, August 22, 2013

A mother's love lives on

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- The dazzling late summer days that greeted the more than 100 participants at last weekend's Perfect Game Midwest Top Prospect Showcase put a bit of a bounce in everyone's step. The talent on the field shined as brightly as the warm sun positioned high in the late August sky, and a nice gathering of parents, siblings, college coaches and professional scouts certainly took notice.

"Look at this," Tom Neuhaus, a top prospect's father from Bettendorf, Iowa, exclaimed as he spread his arms wide and looked out over Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium Sunday morning. "How can you not enjoy this -- it's just beautiful. It's a beautiful day, a beautiful park and I'm sitting around with some buddies talking baseball. It doesn't get any better than this."

The object of Tom Neuhaus' attention was his 17-year-old son Brock, a senior at Pleasant Valley (Iowa) High School. Brock Neuhaus, a right-handed pitcher, was attending his third Perfect Game showcase in Cedar Rapids in a little over six months, and after working his allotted three innings Sunday morning, the pure joy he felt being at that place at that time was evident in both his voice and demeanor.

"Only the top players are participating at Perfect Game events, and if you perform well here good things are usually going to happen for you," he said. "As a baseball player, this is exactly where you want to be. ... There's a lot of like-minded people in the dugouts. You can bounce ideas off of each other, and talk about things that work for you and pick up stuff from other people."

While late August in Eastern Iowa can be downright delightful, early February can be consistently cruel. Landscapes are cold, barren and lonely. Winter refuses to release its vice-grip and nature still seems pre-occupied with death instead of any pending rebirth.

It was on Feb. 10 of this year that Brock Neuhaus walked in the front door at Perfect Game headquarters -- across the street from Veterans Memorial Stadium -- ready to pitch at the 2013 Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase. He dutifully took his spot in that day's pitching rotation, and the 6-foot-2, 175-pound righty intently delivered 83 mph fastballs while showing a determined command of all of his pitches. He earned a solid 8.0 PG Grade for the outing.

Few, if any, of the other participants at the Pitcher/Catcher Indoor were aware of the circumstances under which Neuhaus pitched that day. The previous day, Feb. 9, Brock Neuhaus, his father Tom and his younger sister Kara, had buried their mother. Crystal Lynn Neuhaus, age 52, had passed away on Feb. 4 after a courageous 10 month battle with stage IV myeloid leukemia.

Brock, like everyone in the family, was devastated. He tells of still waking up in the morning and reliving some of the most "horrible" moments from those days in early February, but at the time he only needed an escape. Baseball and the Pitcher/Catcher Indoor provided that escape.

"At that point, I was living it; I was right in the middle of it," Brock said Sunday morning. "To get the opportunity that Perfect Game gave me to come and step out on the mound and feel a little bit of normalcy again, it was exactly what I needed at the time."

His father wasn't so sure.

"I asked  him, 'Can you really do this?' and he said, 'Hey, there's not any other place I want to be in the world; I want to be there and Mom wants me to be there'," Tom related. "He just went out and threw and he did well, but it was hard because he had struggled. It was hard for him to get out of bed in the morning, it was hard to go to school and take care of his studies, and he had to keep lifting, he had to keep throwing and he had to keep working.

"But he's got his priorities straight and baseball is the center of a lot of things that he does and it's been an escape."

TOM NEUHAUS, A DUBUQUE NATIVE, formerly coached with Perfect Game vice president of development Brad Clement in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was the sophomore baseball coach at Pleasant Valley before becoming the school's athletic director. He later was the head varsity coach at Davenport (Iowa) North High School before returning to PV where he is a guidance counselor.

Baseball was always a big part of the Neuhaus family's life. Vacations were planned around visits to big-league parks and the whole family enjoyed the experiences. Brock holds on tight to those baseball memories gathered with his mom; under the bill of his Pleasant Valley cap he wrote "CLN", his mother's initials.

"I think (Brock) got that message from her that life goes on and go do your thing, and have joy when you do it." Tom said. "I think Brock embraced that and he knew it to be true and I think when he gets out there (on the field), it's just an escape. When he's  on the mound and the game gets tough, you'll see him step off and take off his cap (and look under the bill) -- it's cool. I think at that moment he feels pretty close to her."

Brock Neuhaus credits his dad for any success he has enjoyed on the baseball field. He recalled serving as batboy for the teams Tom was coaching, while also learning the little things that make a ballplayer special and simultaneously developing a love of the game. While his father was instrumental in shaping young Brock into a standout prospect -- he is the No. 10-ranked prospect in the state of Iowa's class of 2014 -- it is also through baseball that he remains in contact with his mom.

"When I'm on the mound, since baseball has been such a big part of our family's life in many ways, that's where I feel closest to her these days," he said. "Anytime I get to step out on the mound I just look up to the sky and I know she's still watching."

Neuhaus played in the 2012 Perfect Game Iowa Fall League and followed that up a few months later by playing in the 2013 PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League, shortly after his mother's death. That led into an Iowa high school summer season in which Pleasant Valley -- a member of the big-school Mississippi Athletic Conference -- finished 24-15; Neuhaus was 5-3 with a 1.93 ERA, and allowed 49 hits in 69 innings with 92 strikeouts against 22 walks.

"High school ball is great and this season went really well," he said. "I had a lot of fun with it and I had a lot of success individually and our team won a lot of games. It was a great experience and I'm looking forward to continuing it into the fall."

The 2013 PG Iowa Select Invitational tournament runs Aug. 23 through Oct. 20 and Neuhaus will play for Iowa Select Black . That squad is also expected to play at both the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) Sept. 20-23 in Goodyear, Ariz., and the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship Sept. 27-30 in Cedar Rapids.

"You get to run into good players from all across the state, and it's a chance to meet them and kind of see what they're all about," Neuhaus said of his involvement with the PG Iowa Select Invite. "It's also a chance to participate against top-level competition and rubbing elbows with guys like Jake Brentz and A.J. Puk  -- top-notch guys. That's only going to make you better and it's really a lot of fun."

BROCK NEUHAUS HAS NOT MADE A COLLEGE COMMITMENT YET. He temporarily dropped out of the PG tournament and showcase scene last fall as his mother's illness worsened and the family felt it was important to stay together as much as possible. That lack of exposure probably hurt him in terms of his ongoing college recruitment and made attendance at this spring and summer's events -- including the PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase -- all the more important.

In his three innings of work at Perfect Game Field Sunday morning, Neuhaus didn't allow a base-runner as his fastball sat at 83-85 mph while topping out at 86; he showed a 78 mph slider and 73 mph curveball.

"The decision-makers in college and professional baseball are always out here," he said. "At the first showcase you participate in you're a little nervous, the second time you're a little less nervous and now, today I was completely comfortable because I've been here and done that before. I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do and focusing on my mechanics, and my stuff turned out pretty well today."

Calls have begun coming in and Brock has received two offers from NCAA Division I schools. He's indicated that he would like to stay as close to home as possible so his father would be able to more easily attend his games, but also said if a southern school would pitch an offer, he might be willing to take a swing.

"You never really know the right way to approach that, whether to jump early or wait it out," Brock said. "You've got to get the right feel from the right school, and when I find that I'll be ready to pull the trigger and I'll be happy about that.

"Baseball is a process; no matter how long you play it you're never going to be a master at it until you're in Cooperstown," he continued. "There is always the next step and I think I've done a good job of continuing to take the next step, and I hope that continues to happen for me."

Added Tom: "We're just trying to enjoy the ride and I've told Brock that it's his decision. I told him I'd get him as much information as I can and feed it to him and then he'll have to clarify and crystallize what it is that he really wants."

Tom Neuhaus heaps praise on Perfect Game for the role it has played in Brock's development and its willingness to keep the young right-hander involved as much as possible. He pointed specifically to the work of PG Midwest coordinator and Iowa League director Steve James for helping to advance Brock's career.

"Steve has done some things with Brock fundamentally that are good things," Tom said. "He's kept it simple and given him some ideas and things to work on that have really elevated his game. ... The (PG) staff not only instructs the kids and help them get better but they're supportive and encouraging, and they're just a bunch of good baseball guys."

IN LATE 2012, THE EXTENDED NEUHAUS FAMILY experienced an initial tragedy. Ty Neuhaus, a highly regarded catching prospect from Tampa and Brock Neuhaus' first-cousin (Ty's father, Ken Neuhaus, is Tom's brother) was killed in a one-car traffic accident in the early morning hours of Nov. 30. He was 19 years old.

"I remember getting that news and it was just a shock because Ty was such a young, talented guy and a great kid," Brock said. "It's something that you never expect to happen to someone that's in your family and is so close to you. My mom was right in the middle of her illness (at that time) and it made me realize how short and how fragile life can be."

Crystal Lynn Neuhaus was a standout athlete in her own right. A native of Dubuque like Tom, she earned a full scholarship in volleyball to the University of Iowa, one of the first women to ever receive a full-ride athletic scholarship at the U of I. She was a kindergartner teacher in the Pleasant Valley School District at the time of her death.

"She had a great impact on Brock," Tom said. "Throughout the illness we knew she wasn't going to make it, that the prognosis was bad, and she talked to Brock and myself and (daughter) Kara about what she wanted for us: Go out and be happy; live your life."

Brock Neuhaus appears to be a happy teenager who interacts easily with his friends and teammates on whatever baseball club he's playing for at the moment. Ask just about anyone, and they'll say it's a reflection of his mother, whose life has been characterized with words like "humble", "devoted", "sincere" and "nurturing".

"In baseball and in life -- every aspect of life -- she's  had a tremendous impact on me, and to this day she still does," Brock Neuhaus said. "It's tough to put into words how much she really taught me about how to treat people and the right way to do things. That's made a lasting impact on me and it will forever be with me."

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