November 7, 2010
Short-season Skippering, with Jim Pankovits
Jim Pankovits enjoys working with young players, and one of the reasons why is that he remembers what it feels like to be in their shoes. Currently the manager of the Tri-City Valley Cats, Houston’s short-season affiliate, the 55-year-old Pankovits has coached and managed in the Astros system since 1995. He talked about his responsibilities as a short-season skipper earlier this season.
David Laurila: What is it like managing at the short-season level?
Jim Pankovits: It’s a breath of fresh air. Having a chance to start out these kids in their professional careers -- a dream they’ve had for probably their whole lives -- and I get to share in it, is a joy. It really is.
DL: What are the challenges?
JP: I think the biggest one is just getting them acclimated to professional baseball. This is a different world from high school and college ball. It’s a job; it’s a business now. And every day is a grind. They have to learn all of the nuances of professional baseball, like living on your own, staying in hotels, how to dress, how to eat right. It’s a brand new world for them, and hopefully I can help make that transition a little bit easier.
DL: In other words, your responsibilities extend beyond what the players do when they‘re at the ballpark.
JP: Yes, it’s 24 hours here; there’s no doubt about it. I feel responsible for them almost to the point where I feel like they’re my kids. I have an open-door policy and I’ll share their experiences and problems, both on and off the field. I encourage that. I obviously don’t make all of their decisions. They’re on their own to some degree, but if I can lend some help, as far as advice, based on my personal experiences, well, that’s part of my job.
DL: You have experience managing at high-A and Double-A. How different is your approach down here?
JP: Baseball is baseball, but you have to be a little more specific, and conservative, with your teaching -- a little more of the basics -- down here. I think that you can start to tweak the kids, as far as their tools and the things they need to learn in order to win at higher levels, once you get to the high-A level.
But I think the players are a little more advanced than they used to be. They’re getting a lot more instruction, and they’re also getting a lot more publicity and a lot more information that they can use. And that’s 12 months out of the year for a lot of these kids, before they come to us. So they have a pretty good head start, but there is obviously still a lot for them to learn.
DL: Do you tweak at all at this level?
JP: A little bit, but our philosophy, early on, is to just let them get their feet wet and get comfortable playing. We get them used to the schedules, the policies and the rules, and those sorts of things. We let them play a bit to get comfortable, and then down the road we’ll start making some changes -- some adjustments -- that we think can help them play at a higher level.
DL: How many of the day-to-day decisions you make here are your own, as opposed to organizational decisions?
JP: That’s a good question. It’s pretty controlled down here. I’ll have some guidelines as far as my lineup. Obviously we have roving instructors who are in charge of every area, and they institute their programs, which dictate the guidelines for teaching in all of those areas. It’s less than 50/50; let’s put it that way.
DL: When you’re working with your players, how often do you think back to when you were in their shoes?
JP: Quite often, actually. It seems like there is never a day when something doesn’t come up that causes me to reflect on those days. Just the other day, they were…they weren’t complaining, but they were mentioning their housing situations and I had to share my first year in pro ball with them; I was living in a trailer in the mountains of Virginia.
But I have fond memories, no doubt about it. That is what I try to impress upon these kids. No matter how bad it might be, believe me, it could be a whole lot worse. They need to enjoy these days, because they will eventually look back on them fondly. I know that for a fact. Like you said, I used to be in their shoes.