• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Ed Kozar.
Top-flight athletes rarely rise to prominence without either inheriting good genes or being blessed with a support system and family environment conducive to constant evolution.
Even less commonly do star athletes evolve from a perfect blend of nature and nurture.
Jack (J.T.) Yard is one of those exceptions that had baseball ingrained in his DNA and in his culture.
Yard had eyes like an eagle, tremendous arm strength and bat speed and the type of patience at the plate that tormented opposing pitchers.
He also possessed a work ethic, a will to win and a baseball IQ that made him the total package on the diamond.
Baseball wasn’t just a passion for Yard — the son of a former standout college baseball player and the older brother of a former IUP star who played for six seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor-league system — it was a way of life.
“I played all three sports growing up,” Yard said.
“I was a pretty decent football player, and I loved playing basketball, even though I wasn’t very good. But from the time I was a little kid, we would play baseball all summer long. Everyone had a love and a passion for it, and although that way of life has unfortunately fallen by the wayside, my love to compete and be involved in the game has only grown over the years.”
Long adoring America’s pastime and utilizing his resources and natural abilities enabled Yard to evolve into one of the most accomplished and versatile college and Indiana County League players the county has ever produced.
He could easily be remembered for his lengthy catalog of individual achievements, as his feats at Point Park University alone made him a Hall of Famer, but Yard prefers to go down in history as a well-liked and respected teammate and a winner.
Yard has never lacked humility, and he loves the thrill of victory just as much as he loathes the agony of defeat.
“I’ve always been a team guy, and I was never satisfied unless we won,” Yard said. “I’m probably one of the worst losers you’ll stumble across. I played hard and fair, but I expected to win.
“I’ve been lucky enough to receive some pretty special accolades, but I would take all those awards and give them back just to win a World Series. It’s all about the team, especially in the game of baseball. There’s no one individual that will ever supersede the team.”
J.T.’s father, Jack, played baseball at Bryan College (Tenn.) in the 1960s before winning a USSSA Class B world championship with Negrich Brothers in 1975 in Detroit.
Jack proudly passed the competitive gene down to J.T.
“I see so many qualities in J.T. that I had myself,” Jack said. “Any time I went out on that baseball field, or in any sport I played, I was always sure we’d win. If we didn’t win, I was upset because I just didn’t believe we’d ever lose. Even when I looked at the odds and saw a team that was clearly better than us, I still felt that we’d win, and J.T. was exactly the same. If I took (J.T.) to play against the Pirates at PNC Park tomorrow, he’d say, ‘Maybe if this happened and that happened, we could win.’ That’s his mentality. He never went out on that ballfield and didn’t expect to win.
“In the ballgames they lost, if he individually had a good game, you had to let him sit by himself for about 10 minutes. I was the same way, and my wife, may her soul rest in peace, she always knew to let me alone for about 10 minutes when I lost a ballgame. J.T. could have had the game of his life, but the most important thing was his team. It was a good trait because if you want to achieve great things you have to be team first.”
Yard's storied life on the diamond began in McIntyre, a small, rustic mining town that’s nestled in between Saltsburg and Indiana.
Yard constantly mirrored and sponged off his father, who helped him develop a base before he ever started playing pickup games around the flat areas of the mine fields. Yard also constantly squared off with his younger brother, Bruce, in highly heated one-on-one games in which they used plywood as a bat and fashioned a ball with electrical tape and a crumbled up newspaper.
Yard polished those early acquired skills in daily backyard games against rivals like Coal Run and Kent, and by the time he played under his dad in Little League, J.T. was one of the best young players in the county.
Jack never let J.T. take an easy route or rest on his laurels, not because he wanted to make his life more pressure-laden, but because he could clearly see his extraordinary potential.
To illustrate how critical he could be on J.T., Jack reminisced about a Little League game in which J.T. struck out 17 of the 18 batters he faced and cracked a solo home run to drive in the game’s lone run in a 1-0 win that clinched the league title.
“He played an almost perfect game, but I chewed him out afterward because he was horsing around on the bases and got picked off in the sixth inning,” Jack said. “He said, ‘I don’t know what to do to make you happy, dad,’ and that was one of the many times in my 18 or 19 years of coaching that I heard someone say, ‘You’re too hard on your boys.’
“But the thing of it is, when your skill level is a little better than most, and you don’t have to go 100 percent to be better than the average guy, you need reminders about discipline every now and again.”
Yard continued to mature with the Apollo-Ridge baseball team, and although he played in just one playoff game in his high school career, he was a WPIAL Class 3A All-Section 3 selection during his junior and senior seasons.
Yard graduated from Apollo-Ridge at the age of 17 in 1986 with the dream of being recruited to play baseball at IUP.
He waited optimistically for an offer from IUP, but that phone call never came.
Frustrated and slightly confused, Yard didn’t enroll in a university until he received a pleasantly surprising offer from the winningest skipper in Point Park history, Mark Jackson, to play for the Pioneers after the 1987 season.
Yard envisioned himself leading that star-studded Point Park team to great heights, and despite the fact that he had to wait a year and take on a new position to do it, his goals came to fruition his sophomore year in 1989.
A year after scrapping for sparse playing time on a Pioneers’ team that qualified for the NAIA World Series for the third consecutive season, Yard returned determined to win a starting role, and when an opportunity arose at first base, he seized his moment and never looked back.
Yard, a third baseman and shortstop in high school, smoothly transitioned to playing first base as a sophomore. That season, Yard blossomed into one of the best hitters in the District 18 Conference and was ultimately named an honorable-mention All-American first baseman.
Garry Wurm, a 2016 inductee into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame who played against and alongside Yard at West Lebanon for a plethora of years in the Indiana County League, talked about a few variables that separated Yard from other greats of his era.
“J.T. had the arm and the bat. He definitely had the physical makeup of a great ballplayer,” Wurm said. “He could hit with anyone, and that wasn’t only because he had such great vision and power. He was disciplined. You wouldn’t catch him chasing, and at the higher levels of baseball discipline becomes a major factor. Even guys at that level chase pitches out of the zone. I used to like to throw that slider out of the zone, but it was so hard to get him to bite. I’d have him in an 0-2 count and the next thing you know the count would be full, and that’s the kind of guy he was and that’s what the better guys at the pro levels did.
“You weren’t catching him with a high fastball in an 0-2 count. He was just too patient. You might get ahead in the count, but if you try to finesse and hit some spots, that son of a gun will turn that pitcher’s count into a hitter’s count before you know it.”
Yard continued to improve and began garnering the attention of Major League Baseball scouts during his junior season, a magical year in which the Pioneers reeled off the then-longest winning streak at any level in collegiate baseball. It’s still the third-longest.
Point Park won an astounding 41 games in a row and another District 18 Conference title during the 1990 season, a year in which it finished 49-5.
But the Pioneers’ streak ended unexpectedly when they dropped a pair of games in the Area 8 regional tournament.
Yard wanted a College World Series ring, but instead had to settle for winning the District 18 Player of the Year award and being named a second-team All-American.
Shortly after falling a step short of advancing to the College World Series, Yard accepted an invitation for a tryout for the Cleveland Indians at Point Stadium in Johnstown.
He put his myriad of skills on display, even clubbing a home run, in an impressive tryout that prompted the Indians’ representative to offer Yard a free-agent contract.
Yard briefly considered the offer but ultimately chose to turn it down in favor of chasing a College World Series ring and a possible spot in the 1991 MLB Draft in his final season of eligibility with the Pioneers.
Yard fulfilled his expectations of amassing even better numbers during his senior season, a year in which Point Park dominated the District 18 Conference and the Area 8 tournament.
But the Pioneers went two-and-out for the third straight year in the College World Series. Point Park lost 5-3 in the first round to South Carolina-Aiken before being nipped 14-13 by Lubbock Christian (Texas) in a first-round consolation game.
In Yard’s first two years the College World Series, the Pioneers fell in the opening round to the juggernaut that claimed its fifth straight title in 1991, Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho). The NAIA World Series was held in Lewiston, Idaho, for eight straight years between 1984-1991.
While Yard fell short in reaching his team goals, he made good on his promise to himself to outshine his performance from his junior year.
Yard set an NAIA World Series record that still stands by stroking six singles in a 6-for-6 performance against Lubbock Christian. Yard singled in the game prior to that, finished 7-for-10 and was a first-team All-College World Series pick.
Yard was also named the District 18 Player of the Year for the second straight season, the Area 8 Player of the Year for the first time and a first-team All-American.
When he graduated, Yard held seven of the eight major offensive school records, including home runs with 22, batting average at .396 and RBIs with 177.
He never played against Yard in college, but Wurm experienced the frustration pitchers routinely felt when facing him in the ICL with the Creekside-based Bouma Chiropractic and the Blairsville Colts.
In fact, during an interview with a Gazette reporter in the mid-1990s, Wurm remembers bluntly describing his strategy when pitching to Yard by saying: “I just try to pitch to him when no one is on base, because if there are runners on and J.T. is up, it can be tragic.”
Yard's exceptional play in his last three years at Point Park didn’t go unnoticed, and just two weeks after his final college game, he earned a spot on Team USA during a tryout in San Diego for the IBF Presidents Cup, which was being held in Seoul, South Korea, in the summer of 1991.
Although Yard naturally brought his A-game to the tournament, Team USA lost by two runs in the bronze-medal game.
Sporting the red, white and blue in an international tournament in the game he worshiped proved the thrill of Yard’s life, but when he returned home, he quickly fell back to reality.
“I thought I was going to get drafted, and that didn’t happen, so reality started setting in when I got back home,” Yard said. “The time came for me to put my big-boy pants on, jump into the real world and find a job.
“But my passion for baseball never died, so I had to get back and play for West Lebanon. My desire to compete was still there, and the league was extremely competitive. It just felt right.”
He played on a relatively consistent basis for the Indiana County League’s most prolific team from 1987 to 1991, but when his college career came to an end, Yard became a fixture for that deeply talented West Lebanon club.
Playing alongside the likes of Wurm and other fellow Indiana County Hall of Famers Dave Hoff and Gary Zuchelli, Yard powered West Lebanon to 14 league titles, including 11 in a row between 1995 and 2005.
J.T. also had the privilege of playing alongside his brother, Bruce, for several years during West Lebanon’s golden era.
The Los Angeles Dodgers picked Bruce in the 42nd round of the 1993 MLB Draft. The shortstop spent four years in Class A and two years in Class AA before leaving professional baseball in 1997.
J.T. Yard finished his ICL career in 2010 with a .431 batting average and 102 home runs and 394 RBIs.
“Going through the years when they played baseball, even if it was just pickup games here and there, they’d always try to outdo one another, but there was never a problem,” Jack said. “They’d both step up for each other, Bruce at shortstop and Jack at third. When it would get down close to the end of the ballgame, Jack would holler to Bruce to get down and make sure to block the ball, and Bruce would say, ‘You worry about third and I’ll worry about short.’ It was a friendly rivalry, but that’s what made them both so good, and it’s the same thing in J.T.’s family. Brady (J.T.’s youngest son) may be the best athlete of the bunch, but from the time he was a little kid, he had to compete with Tanner and Mitchel (J.T.’s middle and eldest son, respectively).”
J.T. had the chops, but never got the opportunity to play professional baseball.
Bruce was drafted following his junior year at IUP, and although he has no bona fide regrets, J.T. often wonders what would have happened had he signed with the Indians following his junior season.
“I think about it, but if I had to do it again I’d probably do the same thing because I thought I had a better opportunity going back to play my senior year and taking my chances in the draft,” Yard said. “At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal or a tough decision, but of course it turned out to be a very pivotal moment in my career.”
Jack said a scout from the Kansas City Royals contacted him shortly after J.T.’s college career ended to relay the message that he had sent a letter to every MLB team in an effort to land J.T. more tryouts.
That same scout also told Jack that had J.T. clocked a 60-yard dash time that was a split-second faster, he would have had a future in pro baseball.
The what-if questions don’t haunt Yard, though. In fact, he considers coaching and watching his sons play the game he fell for as a child a much better payoff than any professional career could have offered.
Mitchel is a senior and at the tail-end of a breakout year for La Roche College, which is seeking its fourth straight Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title and its second straight berth in the NCAA Division III World Series. Tanner started his entire freshman year at shortstop for Saint Vincent, and Brady is naturally blooming into a superb player in his own right for Young Township in the Indiana County Youth Legion league.
“Everything I was able to accomplish in my baseball career was wonderful, but there’s absolutely nothing better than seeing my kids’ success in the game I love,” Yard said. “That’s where I get my payback. Being nominated is a tremendous honor, and I’m not downplaying that, but the payback I get from baseball is that time watching my kids. I was fortunate enough to play in three College World Series, and what an experience that was. But nothing compares to watching my son play in the D3 World Series last year. It was even more special than playing in it.”
Last year, Yard led Brunzies to their first Indiana Over-40 Baseball League title at the age of 47. Yard is also Brady’s coach at Young Township.
One of Wurm’s sons, Isaac, who plays for Penn State Altoona, faced off against Tanner and the Bearcats in a doubleheader on April 20.
Yard was enshrined in the Point Park Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Armstrong County Hall of Fame in 2008.