Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four articles about the rigorous endeavor to become a Major League baseball player. We spoke to scouts and college coaches and feature some talented athletes who had a taste of what it might take to be called a professional baseball player. The first article, Chasing the dream: The highs and lows of professional baseball can be found here.
In the golden years of Hiland basketball, in the days of Perry Reese, Jr. and the multiple runs to the state tournament, two special athletes teamed up to make the Hawks formidable, not only on the hardwood, but also on the diamond as well.
Matt Miller and Kendall Schlabach will be forever linked, not only for what they did while competing at Hiland, but also for taking their abilities to a higher level and excelling in college as well.
Miller and Schlabach were two of the more dynamic athletes to ever walk across Hiland’s graduation stage together, although one could argue they were eclipsed by the freakish ability of 2012 classmates Dylan Kaufman and the recently drafted Luke Burch.
The Miller/Schlabach tandem propelled the Hawks to two state basketball Final Fours (1999-2000) and one appearance as state runner-up in baseball their senior season in 2000. Burch and Kaufman bested that by not only driving their basketball team to Columbus twice, but also winning back-to-back state championships (2011-12) while also making an appearance in baseball and losing in the semis in 2012.
There is no doubt that both duos would mention that the teams built around them had more to do with that success than did their individual abilities. After all the 2011-12 bunch also had now-pro Seger Bonifant, which just adds to the ridiculousness of that class. But there also is no doubt that the raw ability of these guys was at the heart of the successful results.
Miller is the son of longtime softball legend David Lee Miller of Berlin. While the elder never was able to play baseball for Hiland, Matt Miller thrived in Little League and as he ascended through school. Schlabach followed in the successful steps of his brother Kyle, and you could tell there was something special in the future of this tandem as they approached being upperclassmen. Miller excelled at Hiland, playing shortstop for the Hawks, while Schlabach shined as a fleet-footed outfielder with a rocket arm. Both would go on to have very successful college careers.
Miller started all four years for the College of Wooster, where he would become the Scots’ all-time leader in at-bats and hits as a shortstop and second baseman. Miller hit .299 as a freshman before stroking it to the tune of .416, .440 and .460 as he progressed through the next three seasons.
“He truly is one of our all-time great players,” College of Wooster head coach Tim Pettorini said when Miller was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2016. “The fact that Matthew is our career leader in total at-bats and hits speaks volumes to how valuable he was on the field for us. Even though his name appears in almost every category in our all-time offensive records and the number of big hits he had for us in clutch situations was fantastic, his value to our program goes well beyond the baseball diamond. The leadership he provided on and off the field, plus the fact that he always cared more about how we were doing as a team than his individual accomplishments, speaks to the type of teammate Matthew was.”
And for all he brought to the Scots’ program, Miller wasn’t done as he played two seasons of independent ball in the highly respected Great Lakes League, which culminated in playing for the Columbus All-Americans, who were akin to the New York Yankees of the GLL.
“I had a good season, didn’t make an error, hit almost .400 against mostly D-I competition and was the starting second baseman in the all-star game,” Miller said. “I got to bat off of Jared Weaver and Huston Street when we played against Team USA. We had eight guys drafted off of that team.”
But not Miller.
After all of his success on the field in Wooster and against the best talent Div. I had to offer, it wasn’t enough.
“They thought Matt was too small, and they don’t want small guys,” Pettorini said. “I tried to tell them that he plays as hard as anybody and he would never embarrass their organization or get into trouble. But those things apparently aren’t at the top of their priority list.”
But for Miller, the lifelong dream came to an abrupt end when he received little interest from Major League organizations.
“To be honest, I wasn’t crushed,” Miller said. “It was a dream of mine, and I would’ve liked to have a shot, but I have a sense of peace about it. I feel like I put 22 years into being as good as I can be, and I maxed out as the player that I could be, so the rest was out of my control. And I’m OK with that.”
Miller now has a career in banking. For the last eight years he has worked as the vice president of commercial lending at First Federal Community Bank in his hometown of Berlin and lives near Sugarcreek with his wife Jen and two daughters.
“Life has a way of taking you in different directions, and looking back, that may have been the best for me,” he said. “I’m grateful for where I am.”
Meanwhile Schlabach was fresh off of a fantastic senior season in basketball, and furthering his baseball career was the last thing on his mind.
“Up until halfway through baseball season my senior year, I planned on playing basketball in college,” he said. “But I started to think about maybe playing baseball and began asking around at colleges, but at that time I was basically an unknown as a baseball player.”
But when the Hawks rode Schlabach and Miller to the state finals, Schlabach was no longer anonymous.
“I visited Wooster, and they knew me, but my break came when I was able to play in the Mizuno All-Star game after my senior year,” he said. “The Youngstown State coach saw me play and contacted me, and after they watched me play some for the Coshocton Legion team in the summer, they offered me a scholarship.”
Schlabach made an immediate impact for the Div. I Penguins as a freshman, and when he had a hot first half, he was moved from the bottom of the order to the lead-off spot, where he continued to thrive, leading the team with a .406 BA, a .478 OBP and 19 stolen bases. He was definitely on the radar now.
“As a kid you always have dreams of playing in the majors, but it wasn’t until after my freshman year in college that I thought I might have a realistic shot at having a baseball career if I continued to improve,” he said.
But Schlabach would never flourish as he did that year, and his window of opportunity closed when he failed to build on his fast start.
“The rest of my time at YSU just never quite clicked like my freshman year for whatever reason,” he said. “I had a Cincinnati scout contact me while I was at school, but other than that I never really got much attention. I’m not sure what I could’ve done differently. I guess just work harder.”
As for looking back, both former players would have enjoyed a crack at competing with the best, but neither is disappointed with the way their lives, seemingly ever connected, turned out.
“I was a little disappointed, mainly because I didn’t get the opportunity to see what I was capable of in the minors, how I stacked up against that kind of competition. Then I would know if I was overmatched or not,” said Schlabach, who now works as a project manager for Eurocase and lives near Sugarcreek. “In the long run I don’t regret it. If I had made it, I would likely not have met my wife Leslie or had my kids. They’re such a big part of my life, and knowing them now, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
As a player Miller laid it all on the line for the sport he loved so much. “I became the best baseball player I could be, so I have no regrets.” And as it should be with anything we are called to do here on Earth, no one can ask for more than that out of life.
Next up: Chris Miller right at home without baseball.