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June 23, 2010

Minor Issues

Managing in the Minors, with Rick Sweet

by David Laurila

For Louisville Bats skipper Rick Sweet, it’s all about communication. Currently in his sixth season at the helm of Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, the former big-league backstop is a believer in straight talk, so whether you’re Aroldis Chapman or a minor-league journeyman, the door of his office is always open. A minor-league manager since 1987, Sweet was the International League’s Manager of the Year each of the past two seasons.

David Laurila: How important is communication in your job?

Rick Sweet: I think that it’s the most important part of being a minor-league manager, being able to communicate to all different types of athletes, and players, what they need to do to become a major-league player. My job is to get guys to the big leagues and communication is the best way to get it done.

DL: In your eyes, are all players created equally?

RS: They’re all created equally, of course. They start out equal. For the most part, I have no idea where my guys were drafted; I couldn’t care less. I don’t care where they’re from, I don’t care what college they played at, so when they come to me, yes, they’re all created equal, although some are listed as prospects and others as non-prospects. You’re in one of those two categories. But I know a lot of non-prospects that are playing in the big leagues right now, so I take that with a grain of salt, also.

DL: Do you try to communicate an equal amount with all of your players?

RS: I actually spend more time communicating with the guys that are struggling, who are maybe the guys who need more communication. It’s not about me. There are guys out there that I have to communicate with a lot in order to make them better. Some guys I don’t need to talk to very often; I may go a couple of days without having to correct, or say, or do, anything. My major in college was psychology; I wanted to be a high school counselor. I pick the guys who need the most communication. It’s maybe not the guys I would hang with, but my job is to pick the guys who need the most communication, and those are the guys that I’ll spend most of my time with.

DL: Is that a Rick Sweet approach or is it an organizational approach?

RS: Oh no, that’s me. The organization gives me no groundwork, really, for how I communicate or what I do. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve put together, I think, who and what I am over the experiences I’ve had. I’ve learned a lot and continue to learn stuff every year, and I try to improve on how I communicate with my players.

DL: Presumably, the organization does lead some of your decision-making. For instance, there would be directives as to how players like Aroldis Chapman are used.

RS: Yes and no, but everybody has done that. Every one of my pitchers has pitch parameters that I have to work within. Obviously -- and I’m honest with my players about this -- guys who are prospects are going to play. My leeway is my batting order; I have some leeway with that. Guys that maybe aren’t the prospects, and aren’t starters… very seldom, quite frankly and in all honesty, does the organization want me to play somebody that I don’t want to play. If we’re that far off base with who we think a priority is, somebody is really messed up. So that doesn’t happen very often. I know who my priority guys are; I don’t have to be told.

DL: Chapman doesn’t speak much English. How do you handle communication issues with your young Latin players?

RS: I’m lucky, because I’ve got two people here. Mario Soto, who works for the organization, is Dominican, and my trainer, Tomas Vera, is Venezuelan and he speaks both languages fluently. That makes it easier to communicate, and I do know a little bit of Spanish. Plus we’re teaching [Chapman] English. In a more general sense, by the time players get here, most of my Latin players speak English, or at least enough that my very weak Spanish communicates with them.

DL: How is Chapman coming along with his English?

RS: He’s doing fine. It will be a slow process, but it’s getting better; he actually tries to use words now. Still, it’s going to take awhile, because he’s got a lot of things going on. But even though he had played in Cuba his whole career, baseball is baseball. It doesn’t change that much.

DL: You played in the minor leagues [in the 1970s]. What was the level of communication between the manager and players at that time?

RS: It has changed a lot. When I played, nobody talked to us. We had no idea what was going on, because nobody would talk to you, or communicate with you. The old axiom about the door always being open -- when I played, the door wasn’t open. They didn’t want to talk to you. If you went in asking questions, they’d tell you to take a hike.

I have no problem with my players asking me what’s going on. I usually have three answers: I’ll tell them what’s going on, I don’t know what’s going on, or I know what’s going on and I can’t tell you.. I won’t lie to them. I won’t say, “Nah, I don’t know what’s going on,” when maybe I do know what’s going on. I don’t lie to them. And players are smart, and that’s where people get messed up. Players are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They know what’s going on. They know what’s going on in the big leagues, because at my level it’s about what’s going on up there, and believe me, they do know what‘s going on up there. Shoot, they find out stuff before I do sometimes.

DL: As a rule, people don’t like being told, “I know what’s going on, but I can’t tell you.” How do your players deal with hearing that?

RS: That’s just the way that it is. They’re smart enough to know that I can’t always tell them what’s going on. I can’t tell them everything, and they just have to trust the fact that I’ve got their back, which I do. I’m very honest and upfront with my players. Basically, what I do by communicating, being honest, and being truthful with them, is that I take it off my shoulders and put it on their shoulders. If they can’t deal with the reality of what I tell them, or deal with the reality that I can’t tell them something, which is just the way things are, then they probably need to go get a real job and get out of this profession.

DL: There are a lot of homegrown players on your roster this year. Does that make your job more fun?

RS: From the standpoint of more fun, I do like the fact that we have grown most of ours from within the organization. I’ve known them for years, through spring training. Very few of these guys came to me that I haven’t had before, and it allows me to develop a relationship with them. It also allows them to have talked to guys who have been here before. They know about me and know that they can trust me; they know that they can be honest and upfront with me. I’ve had players tell me things that maybe a lot of managers wouldn’t want to hear and wouldn’t take too kindly. But I give them that freedom and it works both ways. If they want to tell me something, like I’m full of crap or we don’t know what we’re talking about, I’ll listen.

I just got done releasing a guy [Jake Long] where I totally disagreed with [the decision]. I totally disagreed with it. I did not want to release him, but I work for the organization and do what I’m told. The organization also knows that I’m not going to lie to this kid, that I’m going to tell him up front that I didn’t think that he should have been released, and that I feel bad about it, and that I’ll help him find another job -- which I will. That’s what my job is. I can’t do everything that I want to do. We all have bosses.

DL: Big league managers often get too much credit when their teams win, and too much blame when they lose. What about minor-league managers -- do you have much control over wins and losses?

RS: I have some control over wins and losses. What I don’t have control over is my roster. One thing that Dusty Baker has control of is which players he has up there and which players he doesn’t have. I don’t have that luxury. I very seldom…well, like I disagreed with the release today. Most of the time I’m part of the organization and get players according to what the organization wants to do, and not always is that player the best player for my club to win baseball games. Dusty Baker wouldn’t have that problem. Dusty Baker is going to get every player that he feels he needs to help him win ballgames. That’s the only thing that makes it tough on me, at times. I don’t get to put together a 24-man club to win baseball games; my 24-man club is put together by the organization. My job is to develop winning baseball players. Development comes first. You need to get them ready for the big leagues.

DL: What input do you have when the parent club needs someone to come up and fill a role?

RS: Actually, I just had a long phone call today. They have an off day up there and they’re looking to make some changes, which goes on constantly. Maybe it’s not to make changes, but they just want to know how guys are doing. I’ll get a phone call and we’ll have a 15- to 30-minute conversation on players here, on who I think is ready for the big leagues and who I think can fill a role, whether it’s a starting role, or a back-up role, a pinch-hitting role - -whatever they’re looking for at the time. So I get to express my opinion. That is part of my job as well, and I’ll give them my opinion. I’ll give them an honest answer.

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