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Extra Innings
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Extra Innings

Kevin Graber ’09MEd makes it to the big leagues

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Late afternoon showers are lifting when I snake up the hill to the Tennessee Smokies baseball stadium. The legendary mist rising from the Great Smoky Mountains is on full display as Kevin Graber ’09MEd—manager of this AA affiliate team for the Chicago Cubs—meets me, his sunglasses propped casually on the back of his ballcap. Graber leans his tall frame in for a handshake and hands me a Smokies T-shirt and spicy sunflower seeds in welcome. Instantly friendly, with an old-school Northeast reserve, he looks a bit younger than 54—though the smile lines around his blue eyes attest to some decades. Kevin (as he insists, not to stand on ceremony with “Coach”) shows none of the ego or bombast I expected from a major league coach. He’s uneasy about the weather’s effects on his team’s mental readiness. When the game time gets pushed back like this, “You keep having to shift your mindset,” he says, thinking of his antsy crew in the dugout.

How does a guy who went back to school at 38 to become a high school English teacher wind up coaching for the Chicago Cubs?

The ground crew peels back a giant white tarp and pulls out rakes to carefully regroom the infield. Kevin’s wife, Tina, and I find seats near the dugout. The smell of popcorn and hot dogs wafts through the humid air as a lilting Southern accent pipes through the speakers: “Folks, welcome to Smokies Stadium, home of your Tennessee Smokies.” Play ball.

How does a guy who went back to school at 38 to become a high school English teacher wind up coaching for the Chicago Cubs? According to Kevin, none of this would have been possible if he hadn’t met the love of his life, shed his old identity, and relocated his entire family to spend a couple nontraditional but pivotal years in the right place: UMass Amherst.

A baseball-style card with a graphic of Southern Minny Stars

National pastime

Graber has played baseball his entire life. Legend has it that his parents even stopped at a ball game on their way home from the hospital with baby Kevin. Baseball was firmly in his sights throughout his undergrad experience at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where he admits to not being the best student: “I was like, ‘What’s the bare minimum I need to do to be eligible to play my sport?’” On second base and shortstop he was quick, smart, and on the radar as a prospect.

After a lymphoma diagnosis at age 21, surgery, chemo, and radiation stripped 30 pounds from his frame. “I also lost my identity,” he says. Baseball “was the only thing I had. And now all of a sudden, I didn’t have that thing.”

Kevin’s life, health, and dreams were crumbling. He was “trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing—that’s when Tina came in.” Tina Busch knew of Kevin before she knew Kevin—she was from the same town but a few years younger. “I think we met and re-met several times,” Tina says. She captained the cross-country and track teams in high school and then in college, also at Saint Rose. As Kevin fought his way back to baseball, first as a coach and then returning as a player, their relationship deepened.

I’m going to be an adult now.

I find Kevin welcoming and easygoing, but by the end of a single meal together, Tina’s instant warmth and liveliness has my photographer and I feeling like we were all longtime confidants. She looks at me conspiratorially and says, “We started dating, but then he went to Australia.” Wait, Australia? Umm, let’s rewind. Yep, playing baseball in Brisbane, Australia.

“I fancy myself a writer, so I would write these long letters,” Kevin chimes in.

“I have every letter,” she says, reaching to touch his arm.

He laughs and shakes his head. “It’s a lot of letters, man!”

Those letters must have sealed the deal. The two married in 1998 and Kevin looked for “something grown-up to do” as their clan expanded; Katie, Kyle, and Kelly were born between 1998 and 2002. Kevin took a position at Amherst College as sports information director. Baseball had been a big part of his life, but now Kevin felt nearly burnt out on it—and all that travel just didn’t feel compatible with a young family. “I’m going to be an adult now,” he remembers saying to himself. “All the guys I played with and all the friends I grew up with, none of them were still putting on a baseball uniform anymore.” (But baseball wasn’t done with Kevin Graber quite yet.)

In stepping away from the game, Kevin was able to discover new things about himself. “I formed an identity that was a little bit new for me, that wasn’t so narrow.” To baseball player and coach, he had added husband, father of three, academic administrator, writer, and community member. In short, at 31, Kevin Graber became a grown-up, though he was still learning new tricks.

Life was busy, but it felt stable. “I really started to understand the value of education by being around amazing students at Amherst College,” he says. He took a night class at UMass called The Work of the Middle and High School Teacher that really struck a chord.

A baseball-style card with wedding photo

The 19-page proposal

“I really believe in the value of hitting the brakes, assessing, and having a do-over,” Kevin says. What if he could become a high school English teacher, combining his love of writing with his dedication to coaching young people? Should he get a master’s degree? His transcripts were woefully unimpressive, and he still needed scores of prerequisites. His UMass advisors broke it down. He could do his master’s in education, but “I basically needed to take all the coursework for the [undergraduate] English major too,” he says. One night class at a time? It felt impossible, but he kept strategizing.

How do you convince your wife to move your not-so-small-and-very-young family into a college dorm so you can work as an assistant resident director, get your master’s degree, and pivot to a new career? Tina laughs, recalling the unusual proposal. “It was a 19-page presentation,” she says. “He had it all worked out.”

“I wanted to be convincing!” Kevin adds with a laugh.

…for about three days, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?!’

“I also felt that maybe if the kids saw me placing importance on academics and schoolwork, and the life of the mind, I thought that might turn a little something on in them as well, whether they knew it or not,” he says.

“Oh, that was in the presentation,” Tina says, grinning.

He grins back and continues, “What I kept saying was, ‘This is going to lead to something cool.’”

The teasing way they trade parts of the story back and forth reveals a powerful kind of give-and-take, a sense that this story, and their accomplishments, is deeply shared. I wasn’t expecting to have such a window into their remarkable unity and equilibrium as a couple.

Tina remembers her reaction to Kevin’s presentation. “I take it in and I’m like, ‘Okay. It seems like we could do this.’ And then for about three days, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?!’ I freak out. And then by the fifth day I’m like, ‘All right, what do I got to do to get this done? I need a list.’”

“Every major thing with our family,” she says, “we go through the phases. We complement each other because if I’m in freakout mode, he’s just like, ‘This is going to be great. This is such an adventure.’” The Grabers have learned to process it as a team, and to kick into gear.

“We go where the opportunities are,” Kevin says, and Tina nods.

“Everything we do, we do it as a family,” she says. “All our adventures.”

Tina is certainly Kevin’s “ride or die,” but she’s no passive passenger. While Kevin angled for better positions, she used her graphic design degree to help support the family with freelance work, taught preschool, coached cross-country, and worked as a medical advocate for students. There were bumps along the road for sure, the Grabers admit. But when Tina’s all in, she’s a force of encouragement. “I pack the lunches,” she says, embracing a very humble metaphor for all the logistics and mental gymnastics she performs.

So in fall 2006, Kevin, Tina, Katie (7), Kyle (5), and Kelly (4) moved into the assistant resident director’s apartment in Washington Tower (officially Washington Hall), in the Southwest complex on the UMass campus, and Kevin dove into courses like Modern American Drama and Teams Tutoring. This time around, he was “taking notes like a court stenographer” and getting As in every class.

A baseball-style card with a graphic of Superhero Dad

Growing up in Washington Tower

For 7-year-old Katie, the move to the dorm was exciting. She remembers thinking, “These college kids are so cool, and I get to live in a dorm with them!” The kids played school in the classroom across from their apartment on the fifth floor and made mazes and fortresses in the storage room using recycling bins and extra mattresses. “All of my friends from school always wanted to come over and play because there was an air hockey table,” Katie says. Just riding the elevators up the 22-story high-rise was a novelty. Katie sold thousands of boxes of Girl Scout cookies to the Washington Tower residents, delivering orders in a wagon she wheeled door to door. Kelly was so young that she would often ride in the wagon.

Kyle, too, has fond memories of the legions of college students. “I always looked up to them as if they were my older siblings,” he says. “They were always so nice to me and my sisters. I was just happy to be using their campus as a big playground.”

Kelly remembers their many meals at Berkshire Dining Commons, with its vast offerings. “We would sneak away from the table, my brother and I,” she recalls, “and we’d be like—’You go that way, I’ll go that way, and we’ll meet at the ice-cream machine!’”

Thondup Tsering, the resident director at the time, says, “The children would stop by our office to greet us as they returned from their school bus at the end of the day.” Cheerleaders would spot Katie at a football game and work her into one of their pyramids. The kids would go with Kevin on his rounds through the building, spending time with Dad while he was on duty.

We were trying to open up doors and change the path of our lives.

Tina loved “the melting pot of cultures” on campus and seeing the ease with which her kids approached almost anyone. “The kids would just go up to a table of college students and start chatting.” Kelly, now 21, credits that experience with giving her the ability to freely approach and talk to strangers now—a skill that comes in handy for her nascent career as a sports photographer. “I don’t think I would be who I am today without growing up like that,” she says.

Rebecca Redondo ’09 was a resident assistant in Washington Tower when the Graber family lived there. “I think it made it feel even more like a community to have a family and to have kids around versus a weird bubble of 20-somethings,” she says.

Kevin patched together his residence life stipend with freelance writing for Amherst College’s alumni magazine, staffing the press box at football games and the scoring table at basketball games, and summers leading student painting crews, along with his schoolwork and Washington Tower duties. He didn’t sleep much. But he recalls with determination, “I’m really proud of that work that we did as a family. Our struggle was real, but we found that a large university became really small and family-centric and people really supported us. There was always someone there to help us. We were trying to open up doors and change the path of our lives.” In his graduation photos, the kids are beaming proudly, right alongside him, sharing the glow of accomplishment.

A baseball-style card with a graphic of graduation family photo

That Old Feeling

In his education studies, Kevin developed key insights that he still brings into his coaching work today. He studied the psychology behind effective tactics like discussion-based learning, having students teach each other, and cultivating strong, motivational relationships. “It’s true, that saying,” he points out: “No one truly cares how much you know unless they know how much you care.”

Still, somehow, baseball came calling. “I joined the coaching staff at Amherst College,” he says. With new energy and insights from his education, “I started coming back—like an airplane gradually ascending off a runway.” As a coach, he could turn his education knowledge into player development—for instance, letting a player run a particular drill and take ownership over teaching the skill—and translate it into wins. That old feeling was coming back. As he was finishing up his master’s degree, Kevin thought to himself, “Okay, we did the dorm thing. We have made sacrifices financially. Now I need a job.”

“I had experience now running a dorm, I had the athletics thing, I’m just about to finish my master’s degree in education, and I had worked in higher ed before,” he recounts. Phillips Academy in Andover offered him a position that tapped many of those skills, as a senior associate director of admission, varsity baseball coach, and academic advisor, with some residential life responsibilities thrown in. As with all their previous moves, Tina and Kevin weighed the opportunities. “They’re going to house us. They’re going to feed us. I get to coach baseball. This boarding school campus is 600 acres and it’s an unbelievable place for our kids to grow up. There’s a tuition remission benefit for our children.”

The family’s investment in Kevin’s education had benefits for them all; Andover renovated an 1830s house right behind home plate on the varsity baseball diamond for the family to live in. Tina planted a garden, Katie got to know other faculty kids on campus, Kyle could play every sport, and Kelly could visit her dad in the dugout whenever she pleased—which was pretty much all the time.

A baseball-style card with a graphic of Andover team with flags

Big Blue

The Grabers became intimately knitted into the Andover community. There was a constant flow of student-athletes at the house, doing schoolwork at the kitchen table. “We were always doing s’mores roasts in the backyard,” Kevin remembers. He even took on the role of Mother Ginger in the campus’s annual production of The Nutcracker. And he was coaching again, this time with a fresh perspective. In his 13 seasons there, the team took home five New England championships. “I don’t know if I anticipated building that baseball program into what it became. Every year it just got a little bit stronger, and it snowballed. Next thing you know, we have this nationally ranked team,” he says, with a bit of a shrug. But Tina isn’t satisfied with this version of events.

“You see?” she says to me, across the table at a diner in Knoxville. “He doesn’t give himself credit. Because Kevin, aside from being a great husband and a great dad, he is an educator, a communicator, a coach, someone who cares. And he puts that into every team and every player that he’s with.” Kevin opens his mouth as if to revise her estimation, but she insists, with mock exasperation, “You do. You’re like, ‘I don’t know how this happened.’ It happened because of you!”

Coaching high-school players felt far from the major leagues, but Kevin kept honing his base-running and base-stealing techniques. He made videos to share ideas on YouTube, and in January 2022, he gave a baserunning presentation at the American Baseball Coaches Association’s national convention in Chicago. As fate would have it, the Chicago Cubs were watching.

Inside baseball

“I hate when people say, ‘This is a true story,’” Kevin says, “because it makes it sound like it’s not a true story.” Major League Baseball was about to introduce new rules that would make base-stealing a bigger part of the game, and the Cubs were on the hunt for an expert. “It was kind of like this perfect storm,” Kevin says. Base-stealing “became my thing, and then it became a thing.”

In addition to specific techniques for taking a lead off a base, Kevin wants his players “to have autonomy to go out and make plays. And so, I teach timing, distance and anticipation. And if those things fall into place in real time during that game, you take it. You don’t have to wait for a sign from me.” Graber developed drills to build this capacity in players, to give them practice making these judgments “until it’s time to roll it out in a game.” And then he started presenting at coaches’ conventions.

Giving autonomy and ownership to the players has further refined the technique, too. Graber explains, “A lot of the evolution has been stuff that players have invented or little wrinkles that they’ve added and shared with a group during drill work. Like, ‘Here’s what I like to do in this situation.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s brilliant.’ And then I incorporate it.”

That’s when Kevin began another proposal for Tina. The Cubs wanted him to join their coaching staff, in their minor league spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona, as a year-round coach and instructor. Andover had been good to them, but the kids were older—Katie had her degree in elementary education and had moved to Florida, Kyle was playing soccer at Saint Lawrence University, and Kelly had started working on her photography degree. Maybe it was time for yet another leap.

Tina was game, and Kevin found a house near the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa. The kids helped Tina pack up their longtime Andover residence. Kelly decided to make the move, too, and transferred to Arizona State University to continue her studies. Just two months in, Kevin was promoted to field coordinator, “and then, long story short, a vacancy arose in the manager’s position here with the Tennessee Smokies, and I slid into that. So, it’s kind of been three transitions in less than a year,” he notes. “But it’s been this really cool experience and sometimes I just hit pause and think, ‘Last year at this time I was a high school coach and now I’m managing in AA in the Chicago Cubs organization.’ Life is really freaking cool.”

A baseball-style card with Graber in Cubs uniform

Boys of October

Back in Smokies Stadium, the soggy fans are leaning forward in their seats. After singling on a ground ball, Smokies outfielder Bradlee Beesley steals second in a perfect execution of Kevin’s teachings. I remember reading how the introduction of the pitch clock this season freshly complicated the existing duel between pitcher and batter. The Athletic notes that “pitchers are at a greater disadvantage, making any advance in technique potentially more effective.”

Later, Beesley will score on a single from Smokies shortstop Matt Shaw, before Shaw steals second himself, keeping the pitcher off balance. It’s these sorts of tweaks that add up to make the difference—the Smokies will go on to win the game by one run, and later that month they’ll win the Southern League championship for the first time since 1978. One could be forgiven for thinking Kevin Graber has a magic touch. More importantly, the respect and empowerment that animate his entire coaching style will continue to pay dividends.

Where does he think he’ll be next season? “I am still learning so much about how things are done at this level,” he says. But even in the major leagues, his mission hasn’t changed: “I want to support these players, and be an important person in their lives, and treat them with love and respect. And whatever happens, happens.”

Tina also sounds remarkably flexible about the future. “The kids are older now,” she says, “so I can travel with him.” She’s ready to pack the lunches.

How can a person not only survive but thrive with so much change? The Grabers have found that for them, focusing on the present and doing their very best helps them not only weather a situation but be proud of how they dealt with it—and stay open to the next opportunity that arises. At the beginning of each new adventure, Kevin asks himself, “Okay, what am I doing right now? How can I do it really well and just get in the river and swim and see where it leads?”

In the dugout


A photo collage showing baseball players at a game.

Smokies Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee, September 2023


A couple standing together in front of a mural of Dolly Parton

Kevin and Tina Graber in downtown Knoxville