Once upon a time, you could find grizzled former major leaguers in almost every dugout in the Midwest League.
They served as managers and pitching coaches and hitting coaches. After putting in their time as players at the big league level, many of them went down to the lower reaches of the minors to take long bus rides and work in front of crowds sometimes numbering in the hundreds.
It’s not happening as much anymore for a variety of reasons. Now major league teams are starting to dip into the college ranks to hire coaches and managers, and it would appear the Houston Astros are on the cutting edge of that trend.
All four members of the current field staff of the Quad-Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Class A affiliate, were coaching at the college level just a few years ago.
Not only did manager Russ Steinhorn, pitching coach Drew French, hitting coach Ben Rosenthal and developmental coach Jason Bell all never reach the major leagues as players, Rosenthal is the only one who even played in the minors. And he wasn’t there very long.
“I think the Astros are just reaching out to find the best coaches they can find at any level to help develop their players, people that are innovative and will teach the information that we believe in as an organization,’’ said Steinhorn, who coached at Delaware State and UNC Greensboro and who has a bachelors degree in middle school mathematics education as well as a masters in business administration.
“It is unique that we all come from the college level, but we’ve all had a lot of experience from those levels and we’ve been able to translate it over to the professional side,’’ he added.
This really makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Managing at the Class A level isn’t about winning games so much as it is about teaching young players the right way to do things.
Winning is window dressing. Development is No. 1.
So why not hire guys trained as teachers to do the teaching?
“In college, there’s a lot of other things that guys need to focus on,'' Steinhorn said. "But at this level, this is their career and they have one goal. That’s to get to the big leagues. We’re always teaching, we’re always showing.’’
The other members of the Bandits’ field staff are even newer to the pro ranks than Steinhorn.
French, who has coached at Alabama, Florida International and Lee University, joined the Astros’ organization last season. Rosenthal and Bell are in their first year as minor league coaches. All of them are under the age of 40 and almost indistinguishable from the players with whom they work.
Steinhorn said he’s not sure, but he doesn’t think other major league teams have gone quite this far in importing college coaches.
But there are clearly fewer former major leaguers in Midwest League dugouts these days.
Of the 16 teams in the league, only five have managers who ever played in the majors.
The only one who made much of a mark at that level is Kane County Cougars manager Butch Hobson, who was a star third baseman for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s. Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson played four whole games in the majors. Cedar Rapids manager Tommy Watkins played nine. West Michigan’s Mike Rabelo and Burlington’s Adam Melhuse spent a little more time in the bigs, but both were backup catchers who didn’t see that much playing time.
Steinhorn and Clinton manager Pat Shine are the only managers in the league who didn’t play minor league baseball.
To some extent, the shortage of former major leaguers working in the low minors comes down to money. If a player makes it to the majors these days for more than a year or so, he’s a millionaire. The idea of earning a much smaller salary while taking 8-hour treks through the night from Dayton to Appleton isn’t very appealing.
But these college guys aren’t set for life. And the idea of helping young players on their first steps toward the major leagues is pretty rewarding.
“I think the Astros really value the development at the collegiate level …’’ French said. “We can see that they value that a lot and the experience at that level has obviously proven to be a nice commodity at the professional level.’’
French, like Steinhorn, doesn’t see a big difference between college coaching and Class A. The players are about the same age. If anything, they might be more motivated to learn so they can reach the point where they can earn those millions in the majors.
“I’d say the only difference is that in college it’s your program,’’ French said. “You develop the program. Whatever you want to do with the pitchers, as long as your boss is on board, you do what you want to.
“Now it’s coming from my boss and my boss’s boss. We’re just trying to do the best we can at being a one-voice organization to where when they hit a different level they’re hearing the same things that they would here. I think that’s really the most important thing in terms of their development is that one voice throughout.’’