Baseball is a game where the line between victory and defeat is as thin as piano wire. The most miniscule of mistakes can snowball into an avalanche of catastrophe.
Nate Perleberg has been on both sides of the score sheet. The game has provided Perleberg with some of his sweetest memories, but also left him heart-broken and defeated.
“It’s a cruel game, but it’s a very rewarding game at the same time,” he said. “A good hitter’s going to fail seven out of 10 times.”
The cruelty has a way of revealing character. The coach uses it as a vehicle to teach his players.
“We’re taught to play to win a game and he relates that to life. You play to win a game, but you want to win at life,” said Drake Kelley, who has been with the Roughriders since 2008. “Work hard. Don’t treat baseball any different than how you would treat a job.”
Building an institution
Like life, Perleberg’s career has had its share of ups and downs.
The seven-year coach has done everything in his power to transform a once embattled American Legion program into a shining success story. He is 343-165 as Gillette’s coach and has added two teams, the Junior ’Riders and the prep squad — which just wrapped up its inaugural season, to the Gillette program.
He’s made discipline and hard work synonymous with Post 42. He’s taken his teams to highly touted regional tournaments and resurrected ties with premier American Legion teams like Rapid City (S.D.) Post 22, who for many years didn’t play against Gillette (they play every year now).
In a sense, Perleberg has put a new face on Roughrider baseball. Perleberg gets his competitive streak and his intensity from Jerry Coulter, the former Broadus, Mont., Little League, whom Perleberg tries to emulate.
Drew Baier, who played under former coach Conrad Duffy and Perleberg and now is an assistant coach for the Roughriders prep squad, said it was a night-and-day difference when Perleberg took over.
Some players chewed tobacco. Others snuck girls into their rooms during road trips. There was no shortage of talent, but the veteran players ran the team, not the coach. Moreover, Baier recalled seeing teammates’ arms ruined because they pitched too many innings.
“The discipline just wasn’t there,” Baier said. “It was more of a program where things flew and you had a coach, but if you hid things from him, nothing really came of it.”
“It seemed like the coaches didn’t expect as much out of you. It seemed like they were more worried about how you looked doing it,” added Ryan Iliff, who also played under both regimes and is now an assistant coach for the Gillette Rustlers.
Perleberg did more than rein in an unruly bunch: He turned them into winners.
With just two seniors in his outfit, he coached his team to a fourth-place finish in 2006. In 2007, he got them to a runner-up finish at the state championship behind Cheyenne Post 6. In his third year as skipper, Perleberg took Gillette to the promised land, its first ever state championship, against Post 6.
“As a coach, the greatest feeling, the greatest reward is seeing your guys dog pile onto home mound,” he said.
But the period of celebration was short-lived.
The ’Riders finished at state behind Cheyenne Post 6 the next three years. The pain weighs on Perleberg. He chalks the last three Augusts up as failures.
His 2008 championship ring sits in his basement of Roughrider memorabilia collecting dust.
“I’m not wearing it until I get my second one,” he said.
An ongoing battle
For all the things the lanky coach has done right during his time sporting a Gillette uniform, he can’t stomach the heartache of playing second fiddle to Cheyenne.
Every morning he wakes up to a photograph of the rival squad celebrating its most recent state championship. Every second-place finish is followed with the arduous task of dusting off his pants and getting up for another round.
“We’ve won a state championship in 2008 and I truly believe to get that championship we had to go through a time when we failed,” he said. “In 2007, we came so close and I’d like to think the same thing this year. We’ve been heart-broken the last three years. It’s very, very tough to come back and keep working towards a goal.”
In an unfair game predicated on mental toughness, bitter defeat can be the strongest driver.
Like it or not, every ’Rider has become entrenched in the annual arms race. Many of them swallowing the same anguish Perleberg ingests in gulps.
Shortstop Westin Hinkel, who played on all three of the last losing teams, has the image of Cheyenne’s celebrations burned in his brain, too. Every year there are reminders posted throughout the clubhouse.
“I don’t want to go through it anymore. It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do,” the recent CCHS graduate said.
Gillette was 0-3 against Post 6 before the weekend started this year. But one win can wash out a string defeats.
The game’s design
Perleberg could have easily traveled down a different road.
He was a talented pitcher throwing for an understaffed team in a bantam-sized town during his playing career in Broadus.
The young talent had a handful of offers from NAIA schools to play college ball, but being the ace pitcher in a small town put Perleberg’s usage rate through the roof. His competitive nature took over and he answered every time his coaches called. He suffered an arm injury from the exhausting workload.
The right-hander could have rehabbed, or had surgery to repair his arm and take his chances at the next level. Instead, he dove headfirst into his coaching career.
“Playing collegiately is a great achievement, but how many guys make it to the big leagues?” he said.
At 19, Perleberg joined the staff for Broadus, working as an assistant coach with the Mudcats. The team went 0-32 that year. The next year he was running the show. It won 10 games. The Mudcats finished .500 in his fourth and fifth outing.
“If you could’ve seen what he did with the program at Broadus,” Art Perleberg, Nate’s father recalled. “He had 14 kids and some of them were fat and sassy and ate popcorn every day.”
Nate started teaching in Wright and applied for the vacant position leading the ’Riders. He got the gig. He was just 25 years old.
To this day, he feels pain after he throws to hitters during batting practice — which he still does regularly — and regularly wakes up with soreness.
Perleberg’s collegiate career didn’t pan out, partially because of the extra miles on his arm and partially because of his desire to teach the game.
He doesn’t dwell on “what if’s,” but takes solace in the fact that he’s sent 25 players on to play in the college ranks, two of whom have been drafted. None of them left his program with debilitating injuries.
“It’s something that I’ll never put a player through, because when you go through an arm problem, it’s more than just throwing batting practice and getting sore,” he said. “It’s something that you have to live with the rest of your life and no baseball game is worth injuring a kid for his life.”
Field work and life lessons
It’s one day out from the Hladky Tournament and Legion Field is bustling with activity, but the baseball diamond is vacant. The mercury’s flirting with 100 degrees, the sun is beating down overhead and Perleberg is in about the last spot you’d expect to see a coach 24 hours out from the team’s biggest home tournament of the year.
Today is a maintenance day and that means labors go from fielding fly balls and taking batting practice to whacking weeds, hanging signs and re-painting the rickety deep-green home run wall.
Perleberg scrapes paint chips at a leisurely pace, taking intermittent breaks to hand out chores to any of his players who stop by empty-handed.
“If a guy wants to play on our team, they have to take pride in our field,” Perleberg said.
The 32-year-old coach has worked around the clock to refurbish the program’s image and gone through great lengths to build the foundation of a winning program.
Yet here is, subjecting his players to manual labor and busting his butt right alongside them. This is perhaps Perleberg’s most overlooked — and most significant — contribution to Gillette.
He infuses his players with pride and preaches selflessness. To function as a cohesive unit, they must sweat together under the hot sun — both on and off the field.
“We talk every day about never being mediocre. I think if you allow guys to take days off, you’re failing them,” Perleberg said. “Not just in sports, in life.”
The coach brought a strict brand of discipline into the program the first time he stepped foot onto Legion Field’s confines. It extends beyond the clubhouse.
Players have learned plenty about the game under Perleberg and his coaching staff. But there’s always a bigger take home message.
“He tried to make us better people, not just better baseball players,” said Hinkel, who has been in the program for six years. “You’ll go and you’ll play other teams and you’ll see how undisciplined they are. How you are as a character, that’ll reflect how you are in sports.”
This year’s Gillette cast has plenty of talent plus a chip on its shoulder that’s been growing for three years.
Perleberg is confident his team has the resolve to get over the hump and bring back a state title.
But it could be another cruel trick. After all, that’s baseball. That’s life.