John Birtwell is seeing the minor leagues from a different perspective this summer. The 30-year-old Harvard grad spent six seasons as a pitcher in the Detroit and Oakland organizations, plus two more in independent ball, and now he is a first-year coach in the Marlins system. As he has come to learn, the economics, politics and priorities of life on the farm look different from the bench than they do from the mound.
David Laurila: How did you become the pitching coach of the Jamestown Jammers?
John Birtwell: During the off-season I was looking into front office positions and this opportunity came up. There was an opening here, with Florida, for a short-season, entry-level position for coaching, and it’s not very often that you get a chance to be on the field, getting this perspective, so I jumped on it. They were nice enough follow through and offer me the job, and things seem to be working out so far.
DL: What was in your background that interested the Marlins?
JB: I think that a lot of it was the fact that I’d hustled; I went out to the winter meetings and it was a good forum to get some interviewing in. I had some Triple-A background [as a pitcher] and a Harvard degree, and basically everyone that I talked to was helpful. They told me what was expected, and it seemed like I was up for the challenge, and the Marlins were nice enough to extend the offer.
DL: Coming in with no professional coaching experience, did you really know what to expect when you took the job?
JB: You always have an idea, but I guess that it’s similar to the Wizard of Oz in that when you see behind the curtain it’s a little bit different. You definitely get an opportunity to see the way things work on the other side of things. You’re usually on the receiving end as a player, and as a coach you’re on the receiving end as far as the front office goes, but you have a greater understanding as to the method behind the madness.
DL: Having played as recently as two years ago, was it a difficult transition to begin thinking like a coach rather than a player?
JB: Yeah. I think that the hardest part for me has been…you have to understand that you can’t do it for them. As much as you want the kids to do well, you have to accept the fact that they’re going to make mistakes and they’re going to fail, so I make it a point to empathize with what it was like when I was in their position making the same mistakes. No matter how much they figure out, they have to make the mistakes first, before they can learn from them.
DL: What is the primary role of a pitching coach at this level?
JB: It’s a mix. We have a mix of young players coming up from the Gulf Coast League who have already been in the organization, along with an influx of players from the draft and free-agent signings. I would say that my role here is pretty much to give them an introduction as to what is going to be expected of them in pro ball, and about how they have to take responsibility for their own place in their own careers.
DL: Would it be fair to say that your job is as much psychologist as it is technician?
JB: I would say that it’s probably more at the level of psychology in that we have an organizational policy where we can’t do an awful lot with brand new guys, for at least a month. And being that it’s a three-month season, there’s really not a lot of time to do a whole lot of changing of mechanics or physical things. I spend most of my time trying to get them mentally prepared, so that whenever they get out there they feel like they’re in a position to succeed — they feel confident and aren’t afraid of failure.
DL: Have there been many surprises, either pleasant or unpleasant?
JB: I would say that, similar to any job, the stuff that tends to get me the most is the stuff that is non-baseball-related. It’s guys not showing up on time, here and there, or forgetting a piece of equipment — those types of things. But those things are to be expected in any job. I would say that the pleasant surprise has been that I have a bunch of hard workers; I have a bunch of good guys. I have guys who are wanting to learn and get better. You always fear that your first job is going to be such where you have to make do with what you get, but I think I’m pretty blessed to be surrounded with the coaches that I am, and the types of guys that I have to work with.
DL: There’s obviously not a lot of money at this level.
JB: Well, I would say that there’s not a lot of money in my pocket at this level of baseball. You’ll get a few players here and there who have a little more money invested in them, but at this level it’s really about development, regardless of how much money any player has invested in them. The goal is to get everybody better and as long as everybody is moving in the right direction, no matter what their backgrounds and personal situations are, they can all offer something to the organization whether it be in the minor leagues or the major leagues. So even though money isn’t necessarily an issue, it’s definitely there. But I’ll say this, I don’t see much of it.
DL: What is the pay range for coaches at the short-season level?
JB: I don’t really know what it is for everybody, so I’ll just say that when it comes to me, I’m not in this for the money and I think it’s relative to the particular organization and the level of experience that the coaches have. Some organizations just have more money to play with. Don’t get me wrong, of course I’d always appreciate a little more money here and there, but this opportunity was more for the experience than it was for the padding of my wallet.
DL: What has it been like working for the organization?
JB: The Marlins organization has been fantastic. So far I’ve been really impressed to see how much they do with so little, because financially speaking they’re a low-budget major-league organization. Most of their concentration tends to be on development, so it’s been a pleasure to actually work with some of the coaches that we have here. The caliber is pretty impressive and you can see why some of the players have turned out to be as good as they have at the big-league level after coming through their system. The difficulty is when you get away from the Marlins and to the affiliates, like Jamestown. There are definitely a lot of positives, but at times there can be a disconnect where tight budgets, and tight-fisted people, tend to neglect some of the necessities that are important in taking care of players, like travel and basic needs. Unfortunately, you just have to make do with what you’ve got. As far as the Marlins go, it’s been fantastic, but there’s another place and another set of problems, I suppose.
DL: Can you clarify what the organization and affiliates are responsible for, respectively?
JB: That’s where we often get clouded, because the parent club, the Marlins, seem to take care of our guys pretty well. They pay the players and offer a lot of our equipment, and things like that. But [with the affiliates] when it comes to hotel arrangements and maintenance at the ballpark, sometimes those things leave something to be desired. The uniforms might be too tight; most of the uniforms we have are very old. Again, it’s not lack of effort from some people, but then again, today for example, we had to leave at one o’clock in the morning for a game that we’re playing on the same day. There was some kind of disconnect, because I don’t think that was the Marlins decision as much as it might have been an affiliate decision.
DL: How long was the bus ride?
JB: It was between 11 and 12 hours, and for a lot of these guys…I think that’s part of the problem. There’s a lack of understanding that this isn’t just a game for some of these guys, to travel 11 hours to go somewhere, especially in your first professional season, and be expected to compete on a low amount of rest. It doesn’t say that in the box score. I think that it’s important that there is a greater amount of consideration put into the players and understanding that it’s our job, as basically leaders, to take better care of them. I think the Marlins do a good job of that, but you can’t guarantee it from everybody, given their own agendas.