Few things can evoke images of middle America as a city called Middletown. Middletown, Ohio, nestled in southwest Ohio between Cincinnati and Dayton, is such a place.
Middletown has seen its share of boom, bust and attempts at revitalization over the years. It also was central to a best-selling book of 2016, “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance, whose family migrated from eastern Kentucky to Middletown.
The Cubs feature a son of Middletown: outfielder-catcher Kyle Schwarber, who played baseball and football at Middletown High School and who has seen firsthand the effects of economic change in a rust belt city.
Schwarber speaks with pride of his home city and its more than 48,000 residents.
“I say that the town we live in, they’re a bunch of grinders, kind of like the term we use in baseball,” Schwarber said during Cubs spring training in Mesa, Arizona. “I think that was the good part of growing up there: You work for what you get. Everyone there are hard workers. It might not be much, but they’re going to work and support their family. I think that’s why that town is a special town. We’ve pulled out some good athletes from there, too. I think that (the work ethic) has a lot to do with it.”
Like Middletown, Chicago has blue-collar roots, and the hard-driving Schwarber has built quite a cult following despite having limited major league experience. Part of it no doubt stems from a now-fabled home run he hit to help the Cubs close out the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the 2015 National League Division Series. And part of it no doubt is based on the comeback he made from last year’s major knee surgery, as he willed himself into the World Series, won by the Cubs.
Schwarber’s accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed in his hometown.
The Middletown Historical Society will name its annual History Maker during a dinner April 8. Schwarber is one of the nominees for the award.
“He is a very, very positive role model for the younger generation,” said Sam Salmon, a trustee of the Society and its website director. “We’re very proud to have him. We’re just very proud of our past and our heritage and excited for the future and what history the younger generation will make for Middletown.
“Middletown, in my lifetime, has changed quite a bit. We hit a real downturn in the economy like everybody else did in the United States. But we have a lot of hardworking blue-collar workers with AK Steel and other manufacturing firms in Middletown,” Salmon said.
“Middletown was hit hard when the economy took a turn for the worse. But Middletown stayed strong, and right now, with the downtown Middletown area especially, you see a lot of revitalization, the members of the younger generation coming back in and starting businesses downtown and really revitalizing that area.”
In addition to family, Schwarber credits his former high school football coach, Jason Krause, for helping to shape him. Schwarber went on to play baseball at Indiana University before the Cubs took him with their first pick of the 2014 draft.
Krause since has moved on to Fairfield (Ohio) High School, where he serves as football coach and dean of students. He recalls Schwarber coming back from a knee injury in high school.
“He came back just in time for the tournament and hit a home run his first at-bat in the tournament,” said Krause, who had a chance to visit with his protégé this spring in Mesa. “Me being the head football coach at the time, I’m thinking, ‘Well, he’s committed to Indiana to play baseball. He’s had a knee injury. He may not play his senior year of football.’ He never wavered on that.
“He came out and was our team captain his senior year. We went 10-0 that year. Just an awesome example for kids – just his effort, his hard work, his tenacity, his no-quit attitude.”
Oftentimes it can be a stretch to call a professional athlete a “blue-collar” guy, but in Schwarber’s case, his former coach says the label fits.
“He appeals to blue-collar people, the fans, because he’s a worker,” Krause said. “He does his job. He’s not flashy. He wears his blue jeans and his cowboy boots. That’s the kind of guy he is, and that’s the kind of guy he was at Middletown. He was a leader for us in the entire building. He was in the core leaders. He was on the football team, the baseball team. He was team captain in both voted by his teammates. His dad was the police chief of the town. He’s definitely blue collar.”
Schwarber has witnessed the effects of hard times in his town, whether it be unemployment or the drug epidemic that has hit communities from coast to coast.
“It is tough,” he said. “It’s sad when you see in the news that maybe a friend that you know passed away because of a drug overdose or something like that. It is a shame. I guess it’s a part of how it is in the States.
“If we could clean that up, we set an example for the young kids growing up there and having dreams of being a professional athlete or something like that, whatever it is, a scientist. Let them have the best opportunity. Don’t bring that into their lives. I’ve had plenty of friends who fell into that trap, too, who were some of the best athletes I’ve ever seen, and just couldn’t really put it together and fell into the trap. You just wish the best for them. You just hate to see it.”
Schwarber was back in his hometown after the Cubs won the World Series. He said he didn’t want his talks to the schools to only focus on his baseball exploits.
“It was really cool because I didn’t want to talk about athletics,” he said. “I just really wanted to talk about life, how people face adversity. They’re going to have failure, and then they’re going to have success.
“That’s how it is (in Middletown). Things go up. Things go down. I just feel it’s a never-quit attitude there. Those people are always going to try to find a way. It can be tough on people there. It might not be ideal, but they’re going to try to find a way to support their family. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about, trying to give your kids the best possible chance to succeed. I feel that’s what they do.”
For Schwarber’s former football coach, that gets to the heart of something else.
“One of the big things that I noticed when I was coaching there was just the pride in being a Middletown Middie,” Krause said. “There’s a lot of pride. I haven’t seen it a lot of other schools that I’ve been at. Kids take pride in playing for the football team or whatever. There, across the board, the entire community, their kids grow up wanting to be a Middletown Middie. People would ask me, ‘What’s a Middie?’ People’s answer in Middletown is, ‘I’m a Middie.’ That’s all you need to know: ‘I’m a Middie.’ And I think that’s it.”