Interview with Kane County Mgr Aaron Nieckula

Former Oakland A's minor league catcher Aaron Nieckula is about to begin his first season as the manager of the Kane County Cougars. Nieckula spent the last two seasons as the Cougars' hitting coach. We caught up with Nieckula earlier this week to find out what his thoughts are on becoming a manager and get his scouting report on a few of the best Cougars from 2005.

When Aaron Nieckula was a kid, he probably dreamed that he would be in the major leagues by age 29. Nieckula appeared on that path in college when he was a three-time All-Big Ten selection at Illinois. However, after five seasons in the minor leagues, Nieckula's days as a player came to an end and his coaching career began. Now, a mere two years later, Nieckula is beginning his first season as a manager and could be on the path to the big leagues once again.

Nieckula is following the path of a number of former catchers who have made the transition to being coaches or managers. Nieckula was drafted as a catcher by the Oakland A's in the 22nd round of the 1998 draft. The Illinois native spent four years in the A's chain, reaching as high as AA-Midland, before moving on to the San Francisco Giants organization in the minor league Rule V draft. He spent one season with the Giants, finishing the year in AAA in 2002. It would be his last season as a player.

However, Nieckula caught on with the A's organization at the tail-end of the 2003 season, getting hired as the Kane County Cougars' hitting coach. He would spend the 2004 and 2005 campaigns in that role for the Cougars. As Nieckula spent more time as a coach, his interest in managing increased.

"Like every kid, I always dreamed about being a major league player, but once that wasn't going to happen, I had an opportunity to become a coach," Nieckula said.

"I developed an interest in managing after I started coaching. I enjoyed being out on the field and interacting with the younger guys and teaching them different things."

Making the transition from player to coach took some adjusting for Nieckula.

"My first season as a coach really opened my eyes to how many responsibilities the coaches have off of the field, with player evaluations, scouting reports, goal sheets," Nieckula said.

"There was so much behind the scenes that I had to get familiar with my first year. The second season, I knew what to expect, so it was easier to manage all of the responsibilities."

After two seasons as the Cougars' hitting coach, Nieckula got a chance to go to the A's Fall Instructional League this fall to gain some managing experience. While at the Instructional Leagues, he spoke with A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, who told Nieckula that there was a managerial opening at short-season-A Vancouver and that he was being considered for the position. Nieckula was excited about the opportunity to take the reigns for the Canadians, but he was even more excited when he was called a month later and told that he was going to be managing close to home in Kane County.

"I was really excited. It couldn't be a much better situation for me. Having been able to be a coach near my home for the last two years and now managing near home this year makes the transition to coaching so much easier," Nieckula said.

"Playing in Kane County is fantastic. Second to none. The facility is beautiful, the area is beautiful, the fan-base is incredible and the location is great. We are right in the center of the league and the furthest we travel anywhere is six hours. I think it is one of the best places to play in the minor leagues."

Nieckula believes the skills that he developed as a catcher will help him as a manager.

"As a catcher, I had an opportunity to manage the game from out on the field. It's part of the job description of a catcher to be an extension of the manager on the field. A lot of the communication skills and thinking ahead about the game are similar skill sets between being a catcher and a manager. I think that's why there have been so many successful managers who were once catchers," Nieckula said.

Although Nieckula says that this off-season hasn't been dramatically different then past winters -- "a few more interview requests, but that's about it," Nieckula joked -- he has been doing a little extra reading to prepare for his new leadership position. His reading list has been heavy on motivational and leadership books. One of the titles he finished this winter was a required title from the A's brass, a book by UCLA coaching great John Wooden. Nieckula says that the A's as an organization invest a lot of time developing their coaches, something he believes strengthens the entire system.

"I think that one of the things that makes this organization so successful is that they not only spent the time developing their players, but they also take the time to develop their managers," Nieckula said.

He said he also believes that the character of the players the A's bring into the system contributes to the organization's success.

"Guys who come into Kane County, it seems, all want to learn, want to work hard and want to make adjustments. You don't any hardly any egotistical guys who think they are too good to learn anything here," Nieckula said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to the scouting department for finding guys like that and I believe it is one of the reasons we have had so much success here lately."

Nieckula is chomping at the bit to write out his first line-up card.

"I'm really looking forward to spring training. I can't wait to have my own team and to be ‘top dog' as they say. Hopefully, it will be a great learning experience and that we'll have a lot of success," Nieckula said.

Scouting Report

During his time as the Cougars' hitting instructor last season, Nieckula got to work with some of the A's top prospects. He gives us his impression of three of the Cougars' best hitters from 2005:

On Tom Everidge:

"Tommy Everidge, the 2005 Cougar of the Year, by far was the most improved player. At one point during the season, Tommy was set to go back to Vancouver. Eddie Kim was coming back [from extended spring training] and since Eddie had been here last year, it was his spot. [Former Cougars' manager Dave Joppie] told Tommy the news and he was pretty disappointed, understandably.

I believe the morning that he was supposed to leave [for Vancouver], Tommy got a call to stay in Kane County. It was like a light-switch went on from there and he never looked back. He has a great approach at the plate and even though he can occasionally get away from that, as any hitter can, I think his approach really allows him to have success. He gained confidence as the season went on and that only helped him to hit with more authority."

On Javier Herrera:

"Javier Herrera is a five-tool talent, no question. He has a ton of potential, but he just needs to bottle it all up. He is a very young player and he needs to mature, but he has a great attitude and he is a hard worker. The more he plays, the better he is going to get. The sky is the limit for him."

On Kevin Melillo:

"It was no surprise with Kevin [that he succeeded at Stockton and Midland]. Kevin is just Kevin, you know. He's a gamer. He has a great attitude, he works hard, commands respect from his teammates and is a solid player offensively and defensively. He had the best approach of any of our players day in and day out. He really understands his role and his swing. He wasn't hitting all that well at the start of the year, but he was having great at-bat after great at-bat and hitting a lot of line-drives, so we knew it was only a matter of time before he broke out. We definitely saw [his big season] coming."

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