Family is more than a group of individuals bound by blood or marriage. It's a meaningful connection, it's an unbreakable bond -- and for the Reiher family, that bond is baseball.
Jerry Reiher, the family patriarch, recalls playing softball from a very young age. He attended a two-room country schoolhouse in Gehring, Neb., where every recess involved a game of softball. After school, he and his younger brother headed to the park to play catch until the 6 p.m. whistle signaled it was time to head home for dinner.
Jerry played third base until he began pitching at the age of 14, and he held that position through high school and college at Nebraska Wesleyan. After earning a degree in education, he taught science and coached baseball at Fowler High School, in the southeastern corner of Colorado.
In 1973, Jerry and his wife Sandy moved to Delta to open a State Farm insurance agency. Two sons, Jeff and Steve, completed their family. As time allowed and the need arose, Jerry coached his sons' youth baseball teams.
A long affiliation with the youth Babe Ruth Baseball League began in Fowler and culminated with appointment as district commissioner for western Colorado. In 1985, Jerry was named state commissioner, a position he held for six years. He was later responsible for organizing playoffs and state tournaments throughout the Midwest, and in 1998, he was inducted into the state Babe Ruth Hall of Fame.
For Jerry, baseball was much more than a summer pastime. His passion for the sport reached beyond his wife and their two sons. Before her two sons were born, daughter-in-law Lori also became involved in Babe Ruth -- an offshoot of working in Jerry's office. "I kind of married into it when I married Steve," she said. She worked closely with Roger Bynum at the local level, finally stepping down in 2012 after over 20 years with the youth baseball league.
By then, her sons, Keaton and Blake, were into sports of all kinds, including, of course, baseball. From a young age, they tagged along with their dad, Steve, to the ball field, baseball gloves in hand. They hung out in the dugout and raced around the bases at the conclusion of each game. Although there were some lean years, the Delta Panthers have gradually become known as one of the winningest baseball teams in the state.
"That's something the kids in the program take a lot of pride in," Steve said. "Nobody wants to be that team that drops the ball, so to speak. I think that's why we get kids working hard in summer ball and kids working hard in the weight room and competing all year, because we preach that. I want my kids being two and three sport athletes. I don't want them just doing baseball."
Lori, who has followed her kids from the golf course to the basketball court to the baseball diamond, agrees that year-round play hones a player's competitive edge. "If you put them on the free throw line, it's no different than a 10-foot putt for birdie in a golf tournament. You can take those situations from one sport to the next, using them to be competitive and successful in each."
Sons Keaton and Blake have both graduated from high school and are now helping out with Steve's summer baseball teams. Keaton has a full-time job and lives in Grand Junction, but has either been coaching or playing club ball since he graduated.
While his coaching style differs from his father's and grandfather's, he takes the same approach when it comes to teaching his players to be men, instead of just good ball players. "From the time I was little, I was taught to handle myself with poise," he said. He learned to take setbacks as a life lesson, rather than just a sports lesson, a philosophy passed from Jerry to Steve to Keaton and Blake.
After taking a year off, Blake is headed to Lamar Community College, where he plans to play baseball. This summer he's been the "live arm" for batting practice.
"One of the things I've taught these guys is that baseball is a game of failure, and you have to learn to deal with those failures and grow from those failures," Steve said. "When you stop and think about it, .400 is a good batting average for a high school baseball player. That means you're failing six out of 10 times, but you're still considered a better-than-average baseball player.
"When you fail, you have to learn to put those things behind you and get ready for the next play. That's one of the things we always talk about -- next play, next play. It doesn't matter whether you made the play or you didn't make the play, the next play is the most important thing. That's been a driving philosophy for me."
Another of his favorite sayings, "Respect the game," came from Steve Moralez, one of several former players turned assistant coach. "Respect the game" means play the game the right way, Steve explains. "Respect your opponents, respect the officials. Keep your mouth shut and just play the game."
Lori said it's interesting to see the assistants Steve has surrounded himself with. Like Moralez, many are former ball players who still have a heart for Panther baseball and want to be involved, even if it's just for one day a week. There are several Reihers on the roster -- including Keaton, Blake and nephew Brandon, who coaches the freshmen.
Baseball is truly a family affair. Lori posts updates to the DHS Panther Facebook page, and Jerry tracks each play in the official scorebook. Jerry said he turned to scorekeeping so he had something to concentrate on other than the calls the umpires were making during the game. He also likes having stats to refer to when he reviews the game in his head.
There's been no let-up for the Reihers this summer, with not one but two teams to coach -- the 18 and unders and the 16 and unders. During the month of June, they played more games than they did during the entire high school baseball season, Steve observed.
But summer play definitely benefits the program in the long run.
"Since we've gone to this format, playing against ballplayers from Central and Fruita, we've really upped our ability to compete," Reiher said. "Having seen better pitching during the summer, we're not intimidated when we get to league or to state."
Note that it's not a matter of if, but when, they get to the playoffs. This year, the Panthers won the Western Slope League title and earned a trip to state. A disappointing loss there brought the high school season to an end, prompting Steve to respond not with, "Next play, next play!" but "Next season, next season!"
Several people from the North Fork were present to provide input.