YOUNGSVILLE — Ricky VanAsselberg couldn’t wait to watch his first NASCAR race in person.
The year was 2006, and the current Acadiana Cane Cutters general manager-skipper was big fan of stock car racing. VanAsselberg had packed up his pickup truck for a weekend trip over to Fort Worth, Texas, because he had scored some tickets for the Nextel Cup Series race (Samsung/Radio Shack 500) at Texas Motor Speedway. He couldn’t wait to sit in the grandstands with a cold beer or two and hear — and feel — the thunderous roar from the cars circling the oval track.
Yet, VanAsselberg never made it to the track to see Kasey Kahne take the checkered flag from the pole position. Instead VanAsselberg watched race highlights from his hotel room in south Florida. VanAsselberg had received a phone call, one that ultimately would lead to a longtime career as a skipper.
“Dan Schwam had been hired as the head coach for the Alexandria Aces and he hired me his hitting coach,” recalled VanAsselberg. “That weekend the team and league were having national tryouts down in Clearwater, Florida. Schwam had decided to not take the job due to health reasons and the owners asked me if I could please get on a airplane, get down to Florida and help them with the tryout. So I flew down there and I just did that my thing.“
“I remember that something happened with the field manager so they called up Ricky and told him that he had to go down there,” former Aces General Manager Chet Carey remembered. “Ricky got down there and just took over the camp. Longtime baseball man Doc Edwards told me ‘You have your manager. That guy right there.’ He was pointing to Ricky.”
VanAsselberg never got around to seeing a NASCAR race in person. That’s because for more than a decade since that fateful weekend, the Louisiana native has been spending his down time in ballparks far and wide.
From roofer to player to skipper
VanAsselberg grew up in the small unincorporated rural community of Hineston, located just outside of Alexandria, raised by adoptive parents Richard and Patricia. The self-described “country boy” grew up with a passion of hunting and fishing and an undying love for baseball. But to be fair, that love for America’s pastime may have been pushed along by his father, who owned and operated his own roofing business.
“I can promise you that I didn’t spend my childhood playing Nintendo,” laughed VanAsselberg when remembering those early years. “I started playing baseball because I got tired of waking up at 4 in the morning and and getting on the roof helping my daddy. Even after I started playing, I would work with him on the roofs, didn’t take no naps or anything and then play a ball game that night.”
VanAsselberg was a natural ballplayer and one who possessed work ethic. By the time he got to Oak Hill High School, VanAsselberg had turned himself into a star catcher and spent his final few seasons being coached by the legendary Denton “Dobie” Perkins.
After graduating in 1992, VanAsselberg went on to play college ball at Baptist Christian College, a small program in Shreveport, a city he described by saying “back then you said Shreveport it was like living in New York City.” VanAsselberg turned down playing at Louisiana College in nearby Pineville because in his words he “needed a little separation from home. He wanted a change.”
VanAsselberg thrived at BCC and was named National Small College All-American in 1995 and 1996 and the NSCWS Most Valuable Player in 1996. He also helped BCC claim the National Small College World Series Championship in both 1995 and 1996.
“I never got that Academic All-American honors,” laughed VanAsselberg.
Despite being heralded as a dominant player, VanAsselberg’s size — 5-foot-11 — and playing for a small school played a role in him not being selected in the Major League Baseball Draft.
VanAsselberg, though, would soon get his shot.
After signing to play independent baseball in the spring of 1996 with the hometown Alexandria Aces, VanAsselberg found himself at a massive tryout in Sarasota, Florida, for big league teams.
“I worked out with the Twins, Cubs, Phillies and Orioles,” VanAsselberg said. “I met Tom Trebelhorn (former third base coach for Orioles) and felt comfortable. I remember I was out there working out and he came over and just really pumped me up. We had a couple of first rounders out there and he would say ‘by the end of the year Ricky is going to be Wally Pip.’ I remember calling my mama on the pay phone. They were excited and I was excited.”
He soon signed as a free agent with the Orioles.
VanAsselberg went on to play for the Bluefield Orioles and helped the team claim the 1997 Appalachian League Championship. His time in a big league farm system was short-lived. ‘I caught a lot of bullpens back then,” he said.
VanAsselberg, though, earned the respect of his peers by being a tough-nosed player.
“Baseball is the only sport in the world where you can be called a dirtbag and it is a compliment,” VanAsselberg said. “I would start the game clean but by the end I would have dirt in my teeth, my chin and my hair. I always had my teammates’ respect.”
Injuries began to mount up for VanAsselberg but he continued to play — and play well through the pain for independent league outfits like the Aces in 1996, 1998 and 1999 — helping the Alexandria franchise win the 1998 Texas League Championship.
“I knew early on,” VanAsselberg said. “I could never stay healthy. It seemed like every year I would have a knee surgery, or a wrist surgery or another knee surgery. Every year for four years I was having surgeries. I knew I was going to be in baseball but it was going to be as a coach.”
So VanAsselberg took full advantage of any time he spent with managers, hitting coaches, pitching coaches — absorbing as much knowledge about the game as he possible could.
“So anytime the infield instructors would work with the infielders I would catch for him,” VanAsselberg said. “I wanted to learn what the infielders were learning. When the outfield instructor would work with the outfielders I would do the same thing. I can’t play outfield but I can tell you how to play it.”
“Ricky has always been a student of the game,” said Carey, who has worked with Ricky in Alexandria, Shreveport and now Acadiana. “You have some field managers or coaches and they go by the book. Some go by matchup or go by gut. Ricky does both.
“He’s had former players call him up and ask for help,” Carey added. “Now mind you he has not seen what is going on but he is able to diagnose what is wrong and give them instruction. Next day or day after they will call him back and say that worked.”
In the early 2000s, VanAsselberg began to transform himself into a player-coach. First was the two years with the Rio Grande Valley White Wings and then with the Ozark Mountain Ducks. During that same time, he served as an assistant coach for his alma mater Oak Hill as they won a state championship, and then became the head coach at Forest Hill, leading them to the Class C championship in 2003, and he was named coach of the year that year.
“I tell everybody that being a player-coach is one of the hardest things to do in the world,” VanAsselberg said. “If you are hitting .220 it is difficult to tell someone that is hitting .340 what to do.”
Title runs, setbacks and comebacks
That unexpected flight to south Florida gave VanAsselberg the opportunity to coach a professional ball club — and one he had played for and helped win a championship for to boot.
Between 2006-2008, VanAsselberg served as the field manager for the Alexandria Aces where he was awarded Manager of the Year in both 2006 and 2007. The Aces would win back-to-back United League Baseball (ULB) titles and played for a third in his third season at the helm.
VanAsselberg embraced managing with ease and figured out early on how to deal with personalities of both former big leaguers and aspiring ones.
“The big leaguers are always the easiest to manage,” VanAsselberg said. “They know what it takes to get there and want to get back there so you don’t have to tell them to be at the ballpark on time. The hard ones are the single A guys who got released after hitting .220 and they come in there thinking they have done something. Dude, you got released for a reason so don’t come in my clubhouse like you’ve done something.”
Those Aces teams also embodied the same personable but tough-nosed approach to the game of their skipper.
“Ricky is a naturally funny guy,” former Town Talk Sports Editor Randy Benson said. “His clubhouses were loose without him ever losing control. That’s a pretty tough needle to thread. My favorite Rickyism was ‘hitters are ignorant. They’ll get themselves out if you just let them.’”
VanAsselberg left Alexandria to become the field manager of the Shreveport-Bossier Captains where he led the team to an impressive 112-87 combined record in two seasons, including playoffs.
From 2011-2014, VanAsselberg served as the skipper for the Grand Prairie AirHogs and led them to a pair of division titles (2011, 2013) and the overall league championship in 2011.
VanAsselberg hasn’t been without setbacks and heartache.
On Decemeber 16th, 1998, VanAsselberg’s parents died in an automobile accident on Highway 28 East in Alexandria. His little sister Mackenzie was also injured during the wreck and was in a coma for more than a month due to the accident.
In an instant, the 23-year-old had his whole world turned upside down.
“My dad was the best man in my wedding,” VanAsselberg said. “That day in 1998 we all went squirrel hunting. I remember my daddy was so excited that we had new squirrel dog. We had killed like 27 squirrels that morning.
“My mom and daddy liked to go to Pitt Grill and drink coffee. By 9 or 9:30 I still hadn’t heard from him. I called up there and they said ‘baby he’s been gone.’ This was before everyone having a cell phone so I couldn’t just call them up. I remember we were sitting at the table and playing Scrabble and I saw it on the news. By the time we got to the hospital the nurses and doctors were crying. It was something you would see on TV.”
In the months that followed, VanAsselberg spent his free time sleeping on the couch of his sister’s hospital rooms and playing baseball. The sport his daddy in a roundabout way pushed him into helped with his grieving.
“I think baseball saved my life,” VanAsselberg said. “I don’t know how I got through it. I still to this day don’t really got over it, just bury it in dark place and forget about it but baseball helped.”
VanAsselberg also overcame a nearly devastating physical injury.
During his lone season managing the Bridgeport Blue Fish in Connecticut — where he had to start season with a few feet of snow in the dugouts — VanAsselberg began feeling severe back pain.
“It had been bothering me for a few years and it got to the point where I couldn’t throw batting practice anymore,” VanAsselberg said. “I couldn’t hardly get out of bed. So when I got home after the season I went and saw the Texas Rangers team doctor.”
That’s when the doctors gave VanAsselberg the bad news — his L4 and L5 vertebrae were herniated and he had a six-inch crack in his spine.
“The doctor had no idea how I had been walking much less throwing BP,” VanAsselberg said.
VanAsselberg needed to have major back surgery in which they cut him open, took out the vertebrae, inserted artificial ones and installed two rods and screws along the spine. The rehabilitation therapy alone took 18 months.
“I thought I was done because you have to be able to throw BP in the minor leagues especially in independent ball because you only have a two-man coaching staff,” VanAsselberg said. “I didn’t think I would ever get to coach again.”
VanAsselberg did get another shot, not in professional baseball but coaching college players. The Texas Marshalls of the Texas Collegiate League desperately needed a skipper for the 2018 season and VanAsselberg was warned about the state of the team that he was taking over.
“They were honest with me,” VanAsselberg recalled. “I remember talking to them and saying ‘you want me to coach a 50-game college season and you’re telling me it is going to be a mess?’ My wife is sitting there saying you have been at home too long so you need to do it.”
The season was a mess. The owner filed for bankruptcy during the middle of the season, and the team became a team with no home. The rest of the league owners came together to pay his salary so the season could be completed. By the end of the season, he had only 12 players but he was back coaching.
Acadiana Cane Cutters owner Richard Chalmers was throughly impressed with what he saw from VanAsselberg and after the season offered him the same position with his ballclub.
“Ricky kept that team together,” Chalmers said. “After the season, we were looking for a guy and he was on the top of that list. He is a people person. We need a Mr. Baseball in Lafayette. He is a baseball guy and that is what we wanted.”
There was only one problem — Ricky didn’t want the job.
“I called him to turn it down,” VanAsselberg said. “Instead of me turning it down it ended up him inviting my wife and me down for dinner. He knows that I am sucker for Zydeco music. So he takes us to Randall’s and they have good food, live music and dancing. I was hooked.”
Soon VanAsselberg sold his ranch and relocated to Acadiana to take over the Cane Cutters. After his first season, Chalmers then hired him to serve as the team’s general manager as well.
Now, not only does he need to deal with setting his lineup but he also has to “make sure the concession stand is stocked and tickets are printed.” VanAsselberg says he loves “wearing both hats.”
VanAsselberg admits though that he did have to adapt to coaching college players after spending the majority of his coaching career dealing with professional or semi-pro ballplayers. His old friend Carey, though, says VanAsselberg has made the transition very well.
“He is a baseball guy,” Carey said. “He is old school but he is adapting to the different generations. You have to deal with these kids a little differently than how we were coached all those years ago. Trust me, he is intense when it comes between the lines but he will be the first one to wrap his arm around them even after he chews them out.“
So what about getting back into professional ball?
“All my friends keep asking me when I am going back to pro ball,” VanAsselberg said. “I tell them that I am happy as I can be right where I am at.”