RailCats Weekly: Brian Kolb, and his beard, grow into veteran role
By Mike Clark Post-Tribune correspondent July 20, 2013 9:06PM
Gary, 6/23/13--Third baseman Brian Kolb, tags out St. Pauls' Dan Kaczrowski, on an attempted steal. | Vincent D. Johnson~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 22, 2013 7:07AM
Brian Kolb is not just playing like a veteran — he also looks the part.
Kolb is the RailCats’ starting third baseman, and with a .315 batting average through Friday’s games, their leading hitter.
But the 25-year-old isn’t likely to be recognized away from the field because the picture the RailCats and other teams flash on the video boards when he comes to the plate is a bit outdated.
That shot shows a clean-shaven Kolb. The reality is something else, as he now has followed in the tradition of some current and former Gary veterans — including former third baseman Tanner Townsend and current Cats outfielder Mike Massaro — by letting his facial hair grow.
Kolb and Massaro share a host family during the season and one day they came up with an idea.
“We were talking about growing our beards the whole season,” Kolb said. “I don’t know how serious we were. (But) opening night was the last time I shaved.”
Now Kolb’s beard is as long as it’s ever been, but don’t expect a change. The RailCats, even after losing their fourth straight game on Friday, remain nine games over .500 (34-25), second in the American Association’s Central Division and leading the wild-card race.
“Baseball players, we don’t like to mess (with change) when things are going well,” Kolb said. “We both have kept it up, we both had a good start to the season.”
For Kolb, it’s been part of the growth process that has rewarded manager Greg Tagert’s ongoing faith in him.
Tagert signed Kolb out of Wheaton (Ill.) College in 2010 after noting the former NCAA Division III player’s success against high-caliber competition in Alaskan summer league play.
“A guy whose background was intriguing,” is how Tagert remembers Kolb then. “You could just tell he was a solid player.”
Kolb’s first stint with the RailCats was brief, lasting just a couple weeks before he was traded to Evansville of the Frontier League where he was able to play every day.
Tagert brought Kolb back in 2011, but initially he was the odd man out in a numbers game when the Cats had a number of more experienced players on the infield.
But these things have a way of working themselves out, and though Kolb began the season inactive the logjam eventually thinned out via trades and injuries.
“We thought, ‘We do not want to lose Brian Kolb,’” Tagert said.
Though Kolb was patient, it wasn’t the ideal situation.
“It was extremely tough,” he said. “It’s kind of a humbling experience too, a little bit. You never feel as a player that’s a move (off the active roster) that needs to be made. ... It did end up working out for me.”
Kolb wound up playing all over the infield in 2011 and emerged as a dependable hitter with a .280 average in 57 games.
“He became a right-handed bat for us against left-handed pitching,” Tagert said.
But what the manager liked as much as Kolb’s numbers was his approach to the game.
“He’s so diligent and committed to becoming as good as he can be every day,” Tagert said. “What’s a RailCat? He just epitomizes it.”
Kolb came into the 2012 season figuring to move around the infield again. But when former major leaguer Rico Washington retired early in the season, the regular third-base job opened up and Tagert tapped Kolb to fill it.
It’s been a great fit. Kolb adjusted to the position and hit .297 with 41 runs scored and 32 RBI over 81 games in his first season as a starter in the American Association. Despite a couple of injury issues (a fractured knuckle early, a groin problem lately), Kolb has continued to progress.
Tagert likens Kolb’s presence to that of long-time shortstop Jay Pecci, whose leadership was less by words and more by example.
Kolb wouldn’t mind being in a core group that brings championship baseball back to Gary.
“I definitely see myself as part of that,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’ve noticed in the RailCats clubhouse. I’ve heard it from others (also), the chemistry that was involved with the team. ... That’s why the RailCats have succeeded when nobody thinks they can succeed.”