Epic Achievement: Bill Miller collects 500th win
Denmark coach Bill Miller became the 13th baseball coach in state history to win 500 games. His Vikings are two-time defending state Division 2 champs. Photo by Christine Schroeder
By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
DENMARK – Bill Miller wasn’t exactly coasting when he went from zero to 400.
The 26 years it took him to get there may sound like a long time, but it really isn’t at all. That’s still better than 15 wins a season and in those early years, high schools played 20-game seasons, not the 30 they play today.
Once Miller hit win No. 400, though, he really floored it. And in three days short of five years later (but only four seasons due to the canceled Covid year) – in an 11-0 win at Clintonville on May 9 – Bill Miller hit win No. 500, a milestone that strikes most of his fellow coaches as almost unimaginable.
Even more hard to believe? It took him only 117 games to add those next hundred wins. During that run, his teams have won three straight conference championships, two straight state championships and have to be considered the favorites again this season.
Miller became the 13th coach in state history to reach 500.
Making the accomplishment more special yet is that he hit No. 400 with son Brennen Miller and No. 500 with son Luke Miller as members of the teams. Luke, who like his brother Brennen before him has been a nearly unhittable presence on the mound these past two seasons, pitched the game that earned his father the milestone, a detail that almost makes the whole thing seem scripted.
“It’s super special being able to throw for his 500th win,” Luke says. “He’s worked so hard for it. Pretty much everything I’ve learned about baseball I learned from him from the time I was able to pick up a ball.”
The rarely effusive coach sums up his accomplishment with a shrug.
“It just means I’m getting older, I guess,” he says.
It’s A Fundamental Truth
The truth is when you hear such epic numbers you usually have in mind at the very least a septuagenarian.
Bill Miller is 56.
So the question becomes: How in the world do you reach those heights so quickly? It’s not like Denmark has a genetic predisposition to baseball talent and it’s not like Miller can recruit players.
Certainly dedication to the youth program from its coaches and organizers is always crucial to a successful high school program. Consistent, often great, pitching also doesn’t hurt. But ask former players, Viking assistant coaches and, especially, opposing coaches why Denmark has been so good for so long and a theme begins to emerge.
“He demands consistent fundamentals,” says former Luxemburg-Casco head coach Terry Jorgensen, who played in the major leagues and so knows the game as well as anyone. “Not just one season or one game but every game in every season. When I coached against Bill, I always remembered you’re never ever ever going to have a game given to you. You always had to beat them. They’re just not going to make a mistake. You have to be at your best.”
Anyone who has seen Denmark play knows what he’s talking about. The Vikings aren’t perfect but when they do make mistakes – forget the situation, throw to the wrong base, make the third out trying to go to third – Miller isn’t likely to let them forget it.
As a result you don’t see mistakes being repeated by that player.
“I think they realize how important the details are and see the results,” Miller says. “You do it every day in practice. Stressing the importance of making the right plays. We talk about playing the right way, not yapping on the bench. More and more kids seem to be yapping and it has nothing to do with the game.”
But he’s not a curmudgeon about it. He says he’s mostly okay when Viking teammates yell out “Baba Booey” when someone gets a big hit.
“As long as it’s not directed at the other team and they’re just having fun with each other,” he says.
So many of Denmark’s wins have been to one degree or another the result of the Vikings making the plays and doing the little things right while at the same time pouncing on the mistakes of other teams.
‘It’s One Hundred Percent Consistency’
Adam Fox at Freedom was the victim for win No. 400. He, too, credits Denmark’s relentlessness and dedication to fundamentals for what he calls Miller’s “amazing” accomplishment, comparing them to sharks swarming whenever a team grants them an opportunity.
“He gets the most out of his players by getting them to do things right,” said Fox, whose teams have had the most success against Miller over the past 10 years, going 6-9. “Even when you watch pregame, they’re throwing to the cutoff man, sizing up bunting situations, laying down bunts. They always have it all covered.
“And you hear the kids talk to each other to make sure everyone knows the situation. They just know baseball.”
Luke Kraschnewski, who has coached Denmark pitchers the past 15 years, says it starts the first day of practice, right down to how they play catch. Miller breaks things down into the smallest details, he says, and those details often add up to wins.
“His expectations of the boys is always the same,” he says. “They know if they follow his lead they will always have a chance even in those seasons when maybe people on the outside don’t think you are that good. They know that if they pay attention to those details, it makes a difference in the end.”
Eric Beard at Wrightstown saw what a Bill Miller team can do when it adds prolific hitting to fundamental baseball. On May 6, the Vikings beat his Tigers, 23-2. Much of Denmark’s 20-run fourth inning was sheer force as the Vikings cranked out 10 hits. But, as always, the Vikings made Wrightstown pay for every mistake or mental lapse, as well.
“You have to play perfect defense and be ready for anything really,” Beard said. “Bunts, slap bunts, first-and-third plays, baserunning. You have to be able to expect anything you could imagine. And consistency. Those kids all play the same. It’s one hundred percent consistency.”
Shane Michiels, a center fielder on Miller’s teams in the early 2000s says Miller’s athletic background and lifelong love of baseball is also key to his reaching the 500-win plateau.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” he says. “The fact that his own kids have been with him when he won those state championships is almost a fairy tale story. Especially when all of us old guys couldn’t get it done.”
(Denmark was state runner-up in both 2002 and 2005.) Michiels says Miller knew baseball and instilled it in his players.
“He had it all written down and let me tell you, those pages were yellow,” he says with a laugh. “And that’s because he’d been using those pages for years because you don’t change things when they’re working.”
Moving Up The Charts
Miller played at Denmark but not beyond that. He coached Denmark Babe Ruth teams while still attending Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In 1991, looking to become a teacher, he took the JV coaching job at Denmark. When George Ballard retired two years later, Miller took over the varsity.
His first two teams went a respectable 9-10 and 9-11 before he reeled off 12 straight winning seasons. Over 30 seasons, Miller’s teams finished under .500 only seven times and in only two of those seasons did they finish more than three games under. He has had seven 20 win seasons and a 30-win season in 2021.
In 2015, he was inducted into the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. On Friday, he won his 11th conference championship when Denmark beat Clintonville. Before the game he was honored with a plaque commemorating his 500 wins.
As for where he now stands historically, according to the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association website, Miller began the season with the sixth most wins among active coaches but has moved up to No. 4 and is nine wins behind Rib Lake’s Dick Iverson. All-time, Miller has moved up from 13th in all-time wins to 11th and is closing in on retired coach Larry Villiard, who finished with 510.
Abe Kapinos was a shortstop on last year’s state title team. He was also involved in a couple of critical plays that not only helped the Vikings win the title again but illustrate how sound – and opportunistic – baseball helped them achieve it.
In the semifinals against Pewaukee, Denmark rallied from four down in the seventh, taking advantage of two errors and scoring two runs on a double steal, with Kapinos coming all the way around from first when Luke Miller’s slide into home kicked the ball loose from the catcher.
Denmark won that game, by the way, when Kapinos gunned down the tying run from shallow left field.
In the championship game, Denmark scored two critical runs all because of situational baseball. Kapinos went from first to third on Ethan Ovsak’s bunt single when he saw no one covering third and Ovsak coasted into second when no one was covering that base. They scored on a wild pitch and a ground out.
Heads up baseball that produced two runs in what turned out to be a one-run win.
And when Jefferson tied the game with a double in the seventh, it was right fielder Nolan Perry’s throw to second baseman Miller and Miller’s throw to Rheis Johnson that cut down the go-ahead run.
“He sticks to the fundamentals, the situational stuff,” says Kapinos, who is teammates with former Vikings Brennen Miller, Logan Paplham and Owen DeGrand at College of Lake County. “It’s the little things in baseball. With Coach Miller if you mess up the first or second time, he might brush it off but after that he’ll really harp on you until you get it down pat.
“It’s unbelievable. Not many coaches get to 500 wins. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.”
‘I’m Just Thinking About Monday’
Rheis Johnson, a current Viking and a three-year starting catcher, counts himself lucky to have come along at the pinnacle of Denmark baseball.
“Growing up and knowing about Bill as a coach and then being a senior and being able to be there at the right time for him to accomplish this, it’s crazy,” he says. “It’s great.”
As he did with win No. 400, Miller deferred all credit to his coaches and players.
“The coaches have so much to do with it,” he says. “More importantly, I’ve been surrounded by great players over the years. Those are the guys who have done the work. This senior class alone has won over 75 games.”
Miller’s modesty may be an offshoot of his father, John, who according to Kraschnewski who witnessed it, told his son after the game, “What took you so long?”
Freedom’s Fox says he never had any idea in 2018 that Miller was on the verge of 400. He said Miller just didn’t seem to make too much of it.
It may be a little harder to keep his head when he hears a replay of Hall of Fame Milwaukee Brewers announcer Bob Uecker congratulating Miller on the broadcast that very evening.
“At Denmark High School, Bill Miller, long-time coach at Denmark …,” Uecker said between pitches. “... Bill Miller got his 500th win today. How ‘bout that? Five hundred wins. Nice going, Billy Boy.”
Miller said he started receiving texts about Uecker’s tribute on the bus ride back from Clintonville and thought, “what the hell are they talking about.” Turns out Miller has a friend who works in security at American Family Field who probably went through the radio booth and dropped Uecker a note.
After the second Clintonville victory on Friday – No. 502 after Denmark also walloped Kewaunee a day earlier – he was asked if he already had his sights on No. 600.
“I’m just thinking about Monday,” he said. “And Luxemburg-Casco.”