Currently at the helm of the Vermont Lake Monsters, Washington’s affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League, 45-year-old Darnell Coles has joined the managerial ranks 27 years after being selected sixth overall in the 1980 draft by the Seattle Mariners. A lifetime .245 hitter who played for eight teams over a 14-year big league career, Coles is best known for twice hitting three home runs in a game.
David talked to Coles about the challenges of being a first-year manager, who he learned from in his playing-days, and what the Nationals expect from their minor league managers and players.
Baseball Prospectus: You’ve spent over a thousand innings sitting in a dugout. How different is it now that you’re a manager?
Darnell Coles: Before, I was both an everyday player and a bench player, so I know the thought processes and preparation that goes into each role. I also played a lot of different positions, so I have a pretty good idea of what goes into handling each one. Now, it feels almost like I’m playing through my players. As a manager, I’m trying to instill in them that they should be students of the game. And while baseball is the same game between the lines, there are certain ways the Nationals want you to do things–it’s my responsibility to see that that happens.
BP: What is the biggest challenge for a first-year manager?
DC: I think the biggest thing is that you’re seeing the players for the first time. You’re getting to know them, and they’re also getting to know your game–the way you like to do things. It’s important to know what your players can do, and while I know what I have with some of the guys, we’re only four games into the season. But you’re always learning. That goes for every aspect of the game. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in June, during the first week of the New York-Penn League season.]
BP: Why do you think the Nationals hired someone with no managerial experience, and limited coaching experience, to manage their short-season team?
DC: That’s a question you’d have to ask them, but I think I bring some qualities they like. One is a belief that the organization always comes first, and they trust that I can help them accomplish the goals we have for our players. They recognize the fact that I’ve been there, so I know what most of these guys are going through–I’ve been in their shoes. Another thing that’s important is character. I feel that I can help young players learn how to play the game the right way.
BP: What do you see as the primary roles and responsibilities of managing a short-season team?
DC: To teach the new guys in the organization how the Nationals organization does things. That doesn’t mean we change how they play the game, though–we let them come in and do what got them drafted, because we want to let them get acclimated to pro ball, and we also need to see what they can do. If what they’re doing doesn’t work at this level, then we help them to make adjustments. But we don’t tweak right away. My objective is to get them ready to play at the next level. It’s not to try to get them to the big leagues in 70 games.
BP: Do the Nationals have a specific managerial philosophy that their minor league managers have to adhere to?
DC: As far as what we do strategically, no. We have free rein regarding things like the running game or whether we bunt or not. But there are certain expectations for the players that we need to enforce. They need to be on time, run balls out, understand the signs, know how to hit the cutoff man, things like that. We have an organizational manual that has to be followed from the lowest level to the highest. It all starts with Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden, and works its way down. We’re instilling their way of playing the game.
BP: All minor league players have a goal of climbing the organizational ladder and reaching the Major Leagues–are you a managerial prospect?
DC: I would think so. I’m three-and-one so far this season! Of course, maybe in a few weeks I won’t be, if we start to lose. But seriously, I feel I have qualities that will make me a good manager. So am I a managerial prospect? I think so, yes.
BP: Which managers and coaches did you learn the most from during your playing career, and what impact did they have on how you’ll manage?
DC: I played for great managers like Sparky Anderson, Cito Gaston, Joe Torre, Jim Leyland, and Don Baylor, and I learned from all of them. How I manage will be a combination of how they did it. I’m a stickler for getting your work done, like Sparky was. And he wouldn’t hesitate to call you into the office if he had something to say, either; Sparky was big on details. If the on-deck circle was two inches off, he’d notice. Cito, Joe Torre, and Don Baylor had more of a calm, cool approach, where they’d let you go out and play. If you were going through a slump, they’d let you play through it, and if it went on for awhile they’d give you a few days off if they thought it would help. Jim Leyland was more hands-on and fidgety in the way he went about things. He was also very knowledgeable, and very, very close to his players. Maybe not to the extent of a Dick Vermeil, who would cry on the sidelines, but he cared about you. Something I do here is make sure that I talk to every player, every day, even if it’s just to ask them how they’re doing. I want them to know I’m there for them, because many of them are away from home for the first time. In a way, I’m their mom and dad here.
BP: To what extent do the numbers your players are putting up matter to you?
DC: The organization will look at them, but they don’t matter to me–development is more important. That said, I will look at averages to try to get the right match-ups, because I’m definitely here to win games. Part of the learning curve–part of developing as a player–is in knowing how to win.
BP: With teaching and development being the primary goal, can you see yourself sitting in your office after a game and thinking, “I’m glad we lost, because I think my players learned a valuable lesson from what just happened”?
DC: No. I’d much rather win a close game than lose one. In my mind, a loss is never good. You can learn just as much from winning.
BP: Phillip Wellman, a manager in the Braves system, had an infamous meltdown on the field earlier this season. Can you picture yourself doing something like that?
DC: No, but he did what he did based on the game, and you can’t fault a manager for protecting his players. There are times you need to go out there to have your say, or to make sure one of your players doesn’t do something to get thrown out of the game, like bump an umpire. And every situation is different. You’re not going to react the same way on a close play at first base that you will on a play at the plate that loses the game for you. I’ll go out there and say my piece when I have to, but as for commenting on what someone else did, I’d rather stay away from that.
BP: It is likely that very few of the players you’re managing this season will ever reach the big leagues. When you someday learn that one of them has, what will it mean to you?
DC: It will mean that I helped develop someone into a big league player, so it would be a proud day for me. Helping to develop players is why I’m here. I’m part of an organization, so I do my job; the next guy does his, and so on. I’d call to congratulate the player, because he’d deserve to be recognized; then I’d get back to working with the next guys. If they have the talent to play in the big leagues, my job is to help them get there.