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July 14, 2015

Field Generals

Managing Talent Aggregation

by Ian Frazer

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Since Major League Baseball’s All-Star teams play with eight position players and a pitcher, on a field with a mound, batter’s boxes and foul lines, they also have coaches.

Coaching an all-star team may seem an odd job, because they are teams assembled in a generally arbitrary fashion, playing one game more for the public’s enjoyment than a real incentive. What is there to coach? The guys all know how to play, and nobody’s going to be getting pointers on their swing before the game. Managers can basically make the lineup and step out of the way, and that task could probably be delegated to the fans as well.

Some all-star teams play more than one game, though, with stakes as high as national pride, and coaching those teams involves a unique set of challenges and adjustments.

The most relevant example to the majors is the Arizona Fall League, which begins in October and ends in mid-November, with six teams each composed of representatives from five MLB clubs. Nearly every crack prospect in Double-A and Triple-A participates: Guys like Addison Russell, Byron Buxton and Corey Seager played in 2014, and Kris Bryant was the league MVP in 2013.

Each team’s coaches are selected from the five representative organizations, with each rotating into a certain position each year. In one year, a certain team will assign a pitching coach; in the next, they’ll send a manager; and so on. I spoke with two Triple-A managers who headed up AFL clubs last fall: Andy Haines of the New Orleans Zephyrs (Marlins) and Delino DeShields of the Louisville Bats (Reds).

Haines and DeShields both spoke very highly of the experience, expressing appreciation for having been selected and for being able to see the best young talent in the game. But it was also clear that their roles as managers were greatly reduced.

“Basically, I was a spectator a lot of the games,” DeShields said. “I just sat back, I made the lineups, made sure guys who were supposed to play played the amount of time they were supposed to play.”

The huge number of actors in the process largely characterizes coaching in the AFL. Minor league coaches already have to communicate and maintain relationships with one set of coordinators, front office personnel and scouts; with teams made up of players from five organizations, the number of game reports, phone calls and general check-ins multiplies accordingly. A general manager might be flying in on Wednesday to check out a certain outfielder, so he’ll call the manager and ask for him to give the guy some at-bats. Of course, they weren’t rude about it.

“I was almost shocked how courteous they were as far as asking,” Haines said. “Because here they are, the general manager of a major league team, and they would just ask, ‘we’re going to be here the next two days, would you play our guys?’”

For players, it is a stickier subject. It’s all about “finding a balance,” coaches will say, because it goes against one’s instincts to sit back and say nothing if he sees something wrong, but he also has to keep an organization’s plan in mind and respect their handling of a player. It’s more about being available to help when asked, rather than taking a proactive role at every misstep.

“Coaching’s in your blood,” Haines said. “You still want to make an impact. There’s no way around it. It’s still hard to watch something and not say, well, it’s our guy, so we’re not going to worry about it. I don’t think any quality instructor’s going to have that mentality.”

When it came time for game management, the AFL manager mainly just sets things in motion. The league effectively has no extra practice time apart from pre and post-game work, so a manager has to get a feel for his team based on game action.

That gives the league a strange dichotomy: Off the field, it’s a very scripted environment, with playing time, pitch counts and lineups often independent of on-field results, but on the field, it’s all about the players showing their skills, rather than executing plays more for the sake of the team. It isn’t entirely exclusive of small-ball and base running shenanigans: The league strives for a competitive environment, unlike instructional league, so in late-game situations and when league standings started creeping into vision, anything’s in play. But early in the schedule and in accordance with the showcase-type atmosphere, it’s mostly about players showing their skills.

Haines said his most important role as a league manager was that of a messenger: To make sure players understood the gravity of the opportunity they had, being on a field with future stars of the game and playing in front of general managers and team presidents.

“It was my job and my coaching staff’s job to send the message that, hey, this is a very good precursor to what you’re going to go through in the major leagues,” Haines said.

A different type of spotlight is playing with your country’s name across your chest. Every summer, USA Baseball pulls the country’s best college baseball players together for a series of exhibition games in the summer against national teams like Cuba and Chinese Taipei. Dansby Swanson, this year’s top draft pick, played on the Collegiate National Team in 2014. So did Alex Bregman, this year’s no. 2 pick.

Former Tulane head coach Rick Jones managed the team in 2009 and was an assistant on squads in 1989 and 1990, managed by Miami head coach Jim Morris, who was then with Georgia Tech. In contrast to the AFL, winning was Jones’ top priority with the CNT. He had reports on the opposition and, apart from slightly more delicate handling of pitchers, managed each game like he would any regular season matchup.

As Jones saw it, every player on the team had already proven his worth as a draft prospect by virtue of talent. And by not letting that star status consume him, he could get extra points for makeup.

“If I ask you to put down a sacrifice bunt, and you do it, you didn’t do anything except help yourself in the pro draft,” Jones said. “Because those types of guys in the stands, they already know you can hit. They already know that you’re a talented hitter, but now they know that you’re also a team guy.”

Jones had to walk the same tightrope as AFL coaches in trying to coach players to make them more productive, but also respecting the philosophies and cultures of their respective programs. He wanted them to use the Team USA experience to better their schools, rather than to claim individual superiority or take it as anything that superseded their head coach’s advice.

But he also had to pull the team together in shape to deal with the pressure of international competition. Jones knew the best way to build chemistry and camaraderie was just the day-by-day routine of baseball, of batting practice, pregame drills and games. He had to replicate that shared competitive atmosphere in a tiny time frame.

In 1989, the team convened in Los Angeles, had a day or practice there, then took a plane over to Taiwan for the Presidential Cup. The team would get just one more day or practice before starting to play games.

Texas head coach and all-time college wins leader Augie Garrido, then coaching at Illinois, had the idea of getting a competitive batting practice together. He divided the team’s position players and pitchers into divisions to compete in a simulated playoff structure. Win the division, and you advance to the league championship. Win that, and you advance to the World Series.

The competition would be of executing whatever scenario Garrido put on: Hitting behind a runner, driving a guy in with a drawn-in infield, putting the ball in play on a hit-and-run. Players would be scored with a plus or minus for each scenario.

The twist came in that the losers would be penalized, having to buy something for a teammate or doing extra pushups. And by advancing to a certain level in the competition, players could take away all the penalties for everybody in their own division. This created an environment, Jones says, of players cheering on teammates, getting in a competitive mood, and generally engaging in the type of bonding atmosphere that takes place over a long season. The exercise was such a success that Jones used it again in 2009, on a team with players like Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray and Kolten Wong.

With teams like the Collegiate National Team and those in the Arizona Fall League, the environment requires an adjustment, whether players are under the microscope of their entire organization or under the flag of their country.

The game, however, remains the same. Coaches just have to trust their knowledge and adapt it to the situation, like they always do.

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