TROY, NY -- It's hard not to have fun at the field when Aaron Nieckula is around. The Oakland A's minor league field coordinator and short-season Vermont manager has an infectious personality and a love for the game of baseball that is easy to see. Nieckula played five seasons in the minor leagues for the A's and Giants before retiring after the 2002 season. He joined the A's minor league coaching staff in 2004 as a hitting coach for the A's Low-A affiliate at the time, the Kane County Cougars.
Since then, Nieckula has been a key member of the A's minor league coaching staff. Since 2006, Nieckula has served as a manager within the A's system. Last year, Nieckula guided the Double-A Midland RockHounds to the Texas League championship. This year, he added another role to his job description as the organization's minor league field coordinator. As the field coordinator, Nieckula ran the A's minor league spring training and extended spring training programs. He will have a similar role during the A's fall Instructional League.
Donald Moore caught-up with Nieckula in late July to talk about his new role, his time in Vermont and more...
Donald Moore: Hi Coach, how is everything going for you in Vermont?
Aaron Nieckula: Things are going very well. It's been an exciting season so far. I've got a great staff to work with: Carlos Chavez, the pitching coach, Tommy Everidge, our hitting coach, our trainer Toshi Nagahara, our strength and fitness coach Matt Rutledge. We have a great staff, so that where it starts and combine that with great kids, and we have a good group this year. Both the kids I had in extended and the draftees come in very coachable, high aptitude, play hard, work hard, like to have fun and just go out there and play the game everyday. It's been a good season so far up to this point.
DM: How do you feel the team has performed for you?
AN: I think we have performed fairly well. I'd like to see us perform a little bit more on a consistent level. We kind of had an ebb and flow, up and down, win and lose, win, win, lose, lose. We really haven't hit that consistent streak yet, but we have played good ball overall. I'm pleased with the pitching, with the defense, with the offense and base-running, for the most part, but there are little things we obviously have to tighten up. Obviously this is the development league at the lowest level, so kids come in and all we ask of them is to come in and play hard, listen to what we have to say and create some dialog. We tell them we are going to learn just as much from them as you from us. We want to make sure this communication is a two-way street and that is how we are going to develop a relationships and build up trust needed to get better and improve at this level.
DM: What expectations do you have for the club overall this year?
AN: You know, just to learn the game. Learn how to play the game the right way, be professional in all that you do, both on and off the field, and learn the A's way to prepare and manage your routines and play the game. At the end of the day, our job as a short-season staff is to improve these player's skills and so they can go out and play ball in Beloit, in Stockton, in Midland and some day in Nashville and up to the big leagues. The end goal is not that far away, so we keep reminding these guys that. You may be at the lowest level in the minor leagues, but the end is not that far away. Just keep grinding and keep plugging, make your adjustments and look to get better each and everyday.
DM: What do you feel is your team's greatest strength this season?
AN: I'd have to say our power. It's a pleasant surprise. We didn't think coming in we were going to be as powerful as a team, but I think we're right up there in home runs and runs scored and slugging percentage [as of Friday, Vermont is tied for first in homers]. We have a good approach, good selectivity. I think we are up there in walks and on-base percentage [third in the league in walks], and that is indicative of the amount of runs we scored. Offense has been our biggest strength up to this point, I believe, and maybe our bullpen. Our bullpen has done an outstanding job, as well.
DM: Are there any glaring weaknesses that you see with this club?
AN: Probably our stolen base percentage. Looking at our stolen base percentage is well below 50 percent I believe [currently just above 50 percent], so I think we need to tighten that up a little. Although the stolen base is a little bit overrated, it's still important for these kids to understand what a good jump is, what a good read is, what counts to run in and so forth, and be aggressive on the bases and be intelligent at the same time.
DM: Are there any standouts you'd like to mention on this club?
AN: They all stand out, babe. Every single one of them. All of the guys we have on our roster stand out to me. I'm sure certain guys are having quality seasons number wise, but I think at the end of the day, all of these kids done a great job and they all stand out in terms of what they are doing both on and off the field and have success.
DM: Off-season plans?
AN: It's a few months removed but once the season is over here, we get a week to 10 days off. We go home, do some things around the house, and then head back out to Arizona for the Instructional league from the end of September to about the end of October. And then once that is done and over with, come November I'll probably just start doing my baseball lessons and camps I do every off season in the Chicagoland area.
DM: Coach, you have dual jobs in the Oakland Athletics organization. One as a short-season manager of the Vermont Lake Monsters and the other as the A's minor league field coordinator. How do you handle both of these tasks at the same time?
AN: I love it so far. It's a newly created position, I have never done it before and I don't think the A's have had a field coordinator per se, or an official title, so it's new role and I have enjoyed this far. Obviously managing and scheduling and leading spring training was cool and a lot of fun and very challenging professionally and how you can run a program with Rueben Escalante down there and obviously now I'm managing, so I'm not really field coordinator at this point in time. Come instructional league, I was talking with Keith Lieppman the other day, who is our farm director, and I will probably be coordinating the instructional league as well, so I am looking forward to the challenges and opportunities at this position year round.
DM: Coach, you have a long background as a player, coach and manager in the minor leagues, and you are very passionate about the game. Do you see yourself doing anything different besides baseball in your future?
AN: It's just life and being a good father. Being a good husband, being a good man, both on and off the field, and try to set a good example for these kids and the kids that are older and even younger ones, but at this point it time, I have no plans to take myself out of the game. I'll probably coach for as long as I am able and healthy. I love working with kids. I love what I do. It's an opportunity to learn something new everyday.
DM: Coach, thank you so much for your time and I truly appreciate what you do for the A's minor league players and personnel, and what great role model and teacher that you are.
AN: My pleasure and I really appreciate it, Don.