MOUNT VERNON – 30 minutes before the Mount Vernon Nazarene University baseball team squared off with visiting Miami University-Hamilton on Wednesday afternoon, Toni Veale planted a dark green lawnchair between the metal bleachers and the home dugout, just behind the fence on the first-base line.
She greeted her husband at the fence, wishing him good luck, and then mingled with old friends and university officials as the Cougars warmed up. It was a normal day – Veale said she tries to attend every home game she can – except it wasn’t. In just a few moments, her husband would be honored for a feat accomplished by only eight active NAIA coaches.
GALLERY: Keith Veale honored for 1,000th win
On Wednesday, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University athletic department honored baseball coach Keith Veale for reaching the 1,000-win plateau in a victory over Indiana Wesleyan earlier this week. Veale has coached baseball at MVNU for 40 years, spending the last 30 as head coach. He is one of just eight active NAIA coaches to reach the 1,000-win mark.
MVNU held a ceremony before the game to recognize Keith Veale for his 1,000th win as the school's head baseball coach. He reached the milestone on Monday afternoon when the Cougars came back from a 2-0 deficit in the eighth inning to defeat Indiana Wesleyan on the road.
Veale became the second current MVNU coach to reach the 1,000-win mark, joining volleyball coach Paul Swanson, who recently completed his 32nd season at the helm. It took Veale 30 seasons, although he’s been coaching MVNU baseball for 40 years, as he began as an assistant.
On Wednesday, Veale received a base-shaped plaque with “1,000 wins” inscribed on the front as a gift from the athletic department. Veale was accompanied by former players and assistants on the field before the game.
A raucous applause broke out after the PA announcer read his career accolades at MVNU – nine conference championships, four conference tournament titles, five National Christian College Athletic Association national championships, and two trips to the NAIA World Series.
“The beauty about baseball is you never do much of anything on your own. It’s a team game, and the same thing is true with a career,” Veale said before the game, quick to deflect credit. “You know, there’s so many people that go into having a lengthy career – family, wife, players, alumni, school administration, coaching fraternity – I mean, just a lot of people that go into those things.
“So like I said, you don’t do much out here on the baseball field on your own. It’s a collective effort and I’m very appreciative of that.”
Players past and present marveled at Veale’s consistency on Wednesday. To coach one sport for 30 years, and to win consistently – his teams have won 66 percent of their games, which ranks third among active NAIA coaches with 1,000 wins – is no easy task.
“Some coaches might have a good year here or there, but it comes in cycles,” said Andy Heimbach, a starting pitcher at MVNU from 1997-2000. “Coach is pretty much consistent and you can’t get a thousand wins unless you’re doing things right time after time, year after year. So yeah, a thousand wins is unbelievable, but it’s a testament to coach.”
Heimbach made the three-hour drive from Wheelersburg, where he teaches and coaches baseball, to attend Wednesday’s pregame ceremony. He said it was “the least I could do” to pay homage to one of his biggest mentors, on and off the field.
“He was a great baseball coach. His attention to detail was very impressive,” said Heimbach, who starred on two NCCAA title teams and was named NAIA National Player of the Year in 1999. “But just so many things where you knew that his main concern was what you do in life to impact others, and what you do when you leave this campus – being a man of faith, leading families, just being a positive role model in your community.
“And so I came here because faith was important to me, but it also had a great baseball program. I feel like, honestly, it was one of the best decisions of my life. And I’m just so happy that I had a chance to play for him for four years because his leadership is just top-notch.”
Veale said he could see the thousand-win milestone coming, but he tried not to focus on it. As the eighth inning approached on Monday, and Veale sat at 999, senior catcher Drew Ritchey said the team felt compelled to pull through for its leader.
“The whole game, we just stayed in it, we battled,” said Ritchey, a marketing major from Zanesville. “This team, this year, our confidence is through the roof. We never get down mentally. You know, the scoreboard might say we’re down, but that doesn’t mean we’re down mentally. So we just knew it took one big inning.”
Down by two runs, MVNU began the inning with a walk from Nick Moser. He got into scoring position with one out on a Jake Glover single. Then Ashton Myers, another senior from Zanesville, drove in Moser with an RBI double that cut the deficit to one.
With two outs and pinch runner Kobe Miller on third, Aaron Saal hammered a two-run single to give MVNU its first lead, 3-2. The Cougars never looked back; they scored four more runs in the eighth and four in the ninth to win, 11-3. Gustavo Fuentes, a sophomore from Mexico City, Mexico, got it done late for MVNU on the mound, allowing just one run on three hits in the final two innings.
“We battled the whole game, kept them just at two runs. We knew we had an opportunity. And hitting’s contagious, so once we got a couple hits that inning, we just had a little bit more extra energy going into the dugout and I think it just got everyone pumped up,” Ritchey said. “It felt good – it felt really good to come back and get that win.”
After the game, the Cougars gave Veale the game ball. As is tradition, the ‘player of the game’ gets to wear a gold chain; on Monday, the players gave it to Veale. He wore it, which surprised Ritchey.
“He doesn’t wear jewelry,” the senior said with a laugh. “But it was pretty cool to see him put the gold chain on and scream with us. It was just a prideful moment I think.”
Toni Veale said she became emotional after the final out was recorded. She met Keith when he became an assistant coach at MVNU in the 80s, and she was a student. They married two years later and have been together for 37 years. Baseball has always been a consistent part of their lives, she said, and her family has grown up around Keith’s teams. To see decades of hard work pay off in this fashion made her sentimental.
“I just remember, ‘One more out, one more out, one more out,’ and then it happened. It was fun,” she recalled. “The team really celebrated with him and that melted my heart.”
Veale said he’s received congratulatory messages from alumni, university administration and fellow coaches since Monday’s win. He thanked his family and the MVNU community for their support. Veale said he’s stayed at MVNU through the years because of the relationships he’s formed there and because the university “has afforded me the opportunity to integrate my faith into my journey here with baseball.”
“It’s just something that’s probably a reflection on a long perseverance, a long process. I’m probably particularly proud of the fact that we’ve done it all here, at one place,” said Veale, reflecting on the milestone.
“We’ve done it with whatever resources we’ve been given and we’ve just gone out and competed. We haven’t always had the most talent – we typically haven’t had the least talent – but we’ve gone out and definitely come out on top plenty of times.”
So, what does it take to be this consistent over 30 years of coaching? Veale believes it all comes down to “having good people.”
“We’ve put a premium on trying to make sure we have good people in the program. I feel like if you get good character people, good families around the program, the winning kind of stuff takes care of itself,” Veale said.
“And the good Lord has blessed me beyond measure. There’s many things that you just shake your head and say, ‘That’s probably a God thing.’ You don’t have an explanation for it, it’s something that you can’t put down on paper and rationalize. But I just know that he’s definitely been gracious in my time here, so that’s been awesome.”
As players past and present spoke of Veale's accolades, the coach prepared for Wednesday’s game like any other. He took a metal field rake from the dugout and meticulously manicured the dirt surrounding home plate. He swept one row after another, until it looked just right. Then he spray-painted the batter’s box lines himself, hunkering down to lay on a thick, white coat, then popping back up as fresh as ever.
This was game 1,518, less than 48 hours after a victory that cemented his name into college baseball lore. Judging by Veale’s demeanor, however, it very well could have been game No. 1.
“I think he is definitely a humble man. It’s ‘team,’ it’s not about him,” said Toni Veale, reflecting on why her husband has been able to maintain such success. “He really believes that he’s here to impact young men – not just to teach them baseball, but life.”