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Offensive standout earns Hall of Fame status : Sports : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
Offensive standout earns Hall of Fame status
Schuler reflects on 13 season with Oswego Cats

by Laura M. Medina


Team lineups in the Chicago Suburban Baseball League change often. Whether it's graduation, full-time jobs, families or moves, each is often faced with the same prospect of not knowing which players will return for another season.

It's rare, then, a club to return the same player year in and year out. Count Clay Schuler, a 13-year veteran with the Oswego Cats, among the exceptions.

Schuler has established himself as a seasoned CSBL veteran and leader at the plate, in the field and in the dugout. But it wasn't that long ago that he was the face of youth and inexperience.

Before Schuler graduated from Minooka Community High School in 2002, he began looking for a local team with which he could work as he prepared for his playing years - and his civil engineering degree - at Valparaiso University.

When the Indians matched up against the hometown Panthers that season, teammates had discussed playing for the Cats, so Schuler used this opportunity to speak with manager Ken Pickerill about joining the team for the summer.

"It took me about two weeks to crack the starting lineup, and I started playing consistently from then on," Schuler said.

Schuler's varsity experience at Valparaiso might have been limited, but his success with Oswego has been abundant, featuring five American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) Illinois State Championships, one North Central Regional title and two Stan Musial World Series appearances, including a fourth-place finish in 2012.

Individually, Schuler has ranked among the top offensive contributors in the CSBL for the last three seasons, and before the recently-concluded summer season, he was recognized league-wide with a Hall of Fame nod.

He joined the likes of other Cats who have earned Hall of Fame status, including field manager Todd Miller (2012), founders Ken Pickerill (2008) and his late wife Jackie (2011) and former player Dave Schoeberlein (2011). Pitcher and infielder Kevin Loukota, a CSBLer since 1997, earned honors in 2012, a few months prior to joining Oswego.

The league's highest honor was not lost on Schuler, who discussed the award with humble gratitude.

"Having the respect of the other managers in the league and having them make that commendation, you always appreciate that," he said. "To me, though, the reasons I keep coming out is because of my teammates, the love of the game and (coach Pickerill). That's part of what happens with the Hall of Fame. If you can be productive, that all comes together.

"I love baseball, and as nerdy as it sounds, as cliché as it sounds, that's why I play. I try to play as hard as I possibly can, I try to play the game a certain way, I try to go 100 percent, and if that ends up getting recognition, then great, but I'm really here to try and win games with these guys."

Wins came in bunches for the Cats in 2014, as they racked up 21 victories overall and reached the title contest in the North Central Regional before falling to the Lombard Orioles at Madison Meadows on Sunday.

Had Schuler been asked a few years ago what the most important aspect of baseball was, he'd likely emphasize that results were of the utmost priority. These days, however, his perspective is a little different.

"The big contrast is my seriousness," Schuler said. "When I was just out of high school and in college, I was very serious, probably too much so, probably to a fault. As you grow older, you learn to relax a little bit and just enjoy it.

"My whole life, I've wanted to be a baseball player. I enjoy practice, and I enjoy trying to get better, even at 30. With not playing in college, (Pickerill's) done a lot for me in my life to play, and he's done a lot for everybody. You can't help but appreciate that and want to play for someone who's as good of a person as Pick is. And these guys - I've got a ton of friends on this team, and that's another piece of the puzzle."

While Schuler might downplay his importance on the Cats, his leadership is not lost on Miller, who has been with the team since it was founded in 1986.

"Clay is just one of those guys that you can count on. He plays hurt, he plays through a lot of adversity sometimes, he was banged up a little bit this year with his leg, but he was here every day," Miller said. "He's kind of a mentor to some of the younger guys, where maybe earlier in his career he was more 'lead by example' and now he's a lot more vocal with the guys.

"It's been more of an evolution the last couple of years. I know it's not professional baseball, but he's that consummate professional. He comes to play every single day, and no matter if he's 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he's the same guy. He loves being here, he loves to play, he understands the game and steps up with the younger guys."

Schuler has been with the Cats during the lean and successful years, citing 2012 as his most memorable and complete season. Even though they were unable to reach the same level of achievement this summer, he's optimistic about the future of the team, particularly with its current roster and bevy of local prospects.

"From when I started until now, we've really added a lot of talent, so as an older guy, you get to help these guys out and give them some tips," he said. "This is probably the largest amount of young guys - mostly freshmen in college - that we've had on the team.

"We're not a team that's going to hit 10 home runs a game and have pitchers that throw 95 miles per hour every time. We need to all come together as a team and play as a unit. That's what we focus on, and so far, it's going good with these guys. I think we have a really good group, and they really want to be good, so that's a big step."

Schuler has an evaluative eye when it comes to the Cats, noting the changes the squad has made over the years and citing Miller's in-depth scouting and recruitment processes.

"He's really pushed for us to have guys," Schuler said. "You have to have bodies, you have to have people here that can push everyone and you have to have competition. Todd's done a great job finding local talent. He's put us in a good position that way."

But don't expect to see Schuler in Miller's managerial shoes any time soon. Instead, the 30-year-old hopes to remain on the field for as long as his will - and his body - will allow him to do so.

"After college for a couple of years, I kind of pulled the old Brett Favre, where I said, 'I'm done this year; this is the end of it,'" Schuler said. "Then, spring rolled around, and I was thinking baseball, and I kept going.

"Now, it's just one of those things where I enjoy being out there, and I'm fortunate that I like fitness sand keeping my body in shape. If that didn't happen, I don't think I would do this."

There's no doubt that Schuler has passion for baseball, and his abilities on both sides of the ball speak for themselves. So long as all of those aspects hold up, Cats fans can expect Schuler and his number 37 to remain in the lineup for many years to come.

"In terms of playing, I'm not sure that I have a ton of years left," he said. "I don't want to be that career guy at 45, hanging around just to hang around. I want to play the game at a certain level, and if I can't do that, that's probably about the time I'll call it quits. I don't think I'm there yet, so we'll see what happens."

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