Q&A With Kane County Mgr. Steve Scarsone, P1

In 2009, the Kane County Cougars welcomed a new manager, former major league infielder Steve Scarsone. Scarsone, who was also in his first season as part of the Oakland A's organization, led the Cougars into the Midwest League playoffs. He then served as the manager of the A's Instructional League squad. We spoke to Scarsone last week for an extended Q&A.

After years out of the game, former major league infielder Steve Scarsone returned to baseball in 2009, joining the Oakland A's organization as a manager for the team's Low-A affiliate, the Kane County Cougars. Scarsone came to the A's with 13 years of professional playing experience, including seven major league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies, Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, and several more years of experience as a coach in the minor leagues with the Phillies and the Arizona Diamondbacks organizations.

The Cougars had a strong season under Scarsone, going 76-64 and winning the Midwest League Western Division's first-half title. After the conclusion of the season, Scarsone returned home to Phoenix, Arizona, where he acted as the manager of the A's Instructional League team. We spoke with Scarsone last week about his first season with the A's organization and the Cougars and his impression of some of the players he worked with this season. This is part one of that interview…

OaklandClubhouse: What were your thoughts on the Kane County season and on your first year as a part of the Oakland A's organization?

Steve Scarsone: Organizationally, I feel very fortunate to be with the A's. I really like what their mission statement is all about. It's about development first and doing whatever it takes to help the players get to the higher levels. Not that other organizations don't try to do the same thing, it's just that there is a sense [with Oakland] of listening to new ideas and trying to apply new concepts and not being stuck in the old ways of doing things and being stubborn about this is the way it's going to happen or it isn't going to happen – a ‘my way or the highway' sort of attitude. With the A's, it seems to be very much like ‘well, let's see what other ideas we have and present them and see if we can figure out a way to have these new ideas mesh with some of the old concepts and create a good atmosphere for everyone.'

As a coach, especially after playing quite a bit and having a lot of experience in the game, you kind of hone in all of the different experiences that you have built with all of the years prior. You are trying to throw a coaching philosophy together and it is hard to do if you are having to draw a line in the sand. Instead, you are able to take a little here and a little from there and blend it all together into a good coaching style in an effort make the players better. That seems to be the A's approach, at least from a minor-league standpoint.

I appreciate as kind of a new guy coming in being able to voice my opinion and present some of my ideas that I felt were important and useful. They were received in a manner of ‘okay, let's talk about them and see if that will work,' as opposed to ‘how dare you bring up something new, we'll tell you what to think.' I really appreciated that and I feel like that really fits well with my personality. Hopefully they feel the same way.

OC: Bay Area baseball fans will remember you from your playing days with the San Francisco Giants, but how did you get connected with this opportunity with the A's? Had you been coaching since your playing days ended?

SS: I spent a couple years coaching after I got done playing. My final season playing was in 1999 with Kansas City. After that, I coached for a summer with Philadelphia with their Double-A team in Reading. I wanted to manage and the Phillies didn't have any managing spots open, so I jumped over to the Diamondbacks. That was sort of a dual-purpose move – both to get an opportunity to manage and to get out here in Arizona for spring training, being that is where we make our home. That went well for a couple of years, but then my kids were of the age where they had to start going to school, so we had to make a decision based on that. I decided to step away from the game for awhile so that I didn't have to be apart from my school-aged kids and miss out on that activity and leave all of that to my wife.

We took six years off and I came back this year with the A's predominantly because of some of the relationships I had with some of the other coaches with the organization. Greg Sparks, the A's hitting coordinator, he and I played against each other coming up and stayed in touch and had seen each other doing some baseball stuff here in Phoenix. He was actually the first guy I called just to say ‘hey, I'm thinking about getting back into the game. What do I do?' He basically said, ‘you're doing it. You talk to people you know and let them know that you are thinking about getting back in.' That conversation led to a couple more and that wound-up getting me in front of Keith Lieppman and we seemed to interact well enough for me to be considered for a spot in the organization. When a spot opened up, I jumped at it. It was really good timing and a couple of good people who were willing to go to bat for me. It's a pretty good situation.

OC: The Cougars have one of the bigger fanbases for an A-level team in the minor leagues. Was it fun to manage in front of relatively big crowds like the ones they often draw at Elfstrom Stadium?

SS: Yeah. That was one of the things that I considered when I was talking with Keith Lieppman about where I might fit into the organization. There was talk about staying here in Arizona and doing extended spring and then staying in Arizona all summer. That would have gotten me back into the game and I would have been able to stay home, which has its advantages, but one of the things I really enjoy about the game is the connection with the fans and getting a chance to know people in different communities and make new friends and that sort of stuff. So I wanted to go north and spend the season outside of Phoenix. Kane County is a unique situation because it is so close to Chicago and it tries to compete with major league ballclubs. They go above and beyond most A-ball teams in terms of the mentality of trying to get people into the ballpark.

When they put together a good crowd, it's a lot of fun. There is a lot of energy in the park. As a manager, or just a uniformed person on the field, you draw from that and you want to give it everything that you've got to please the home crowd. I thought we got a lot of good energy from the Kane County supporters and I think the team played better at home because of that. That is something that these kids enjoy, especially the kids just out of high school who have never played in front of more than a couple dozen parents and now they are out there in front of 14,000, that is a big charge. That gives them a chance to realize that this is something they want to do because the crowds are only going to get bigger as they move up. I thought it was a great experience for the players, as well as me and my staff.

OC: You guys put together a good season at Kane County. What were your overall impressions of your team and were there any players who really jumped out at you as having good seasons?

SS: We had a very, very good first half. We got off to a nice start. We had some players coming out of spring training that we were concerned about their health, whether they were coming off of injuries from previous years or where we weren't sure how far along they were [with their recoveries]. Steve Kleen, who had played at that level previously but had had an injury and had rehabbed through the previous season, was a guy who was a year removed from playing. We were hoping that he would get stuff done and play well enough to move him up. That was kind of a temporary thing from the beginning. At the All-Star break, he did move up, but before that he did some great things for us.

Outfielder Grant Desme, who is now playing in the Fall League and is making a very good name for himself – he's had a great year of baseball. He was coming off of an injury at the start of the season, as well. He was kind of untested. We didn't know what we were going to get from him. He not only did some great things on the field, but he proved to fill that mature leader role on our team. Not so much the guy who was yelling and screaming and telling people what to do and what not to do, but more of a guy who played hard everyday and gave his maximum effort. Some of the younger guys were able to feed off of him. That is an important aspect of a player. It's not necessarily teachable. It's just something that he naturally has. He's obviously continued to do so. It's nice to see him continue to have success.

We also had a couple of pitchers who were kind of coming into their own. Pedro Figueroa, a left-handed pitcher, he pitched extremely well. We also had Kenneth Smalley, and he really established himself as a consistent starter. Those are four players right there that I think you are going to continue to see move up in the system. We lost three of those guys at the All-Star break, so that kind of made the second half of the season a struggle starting out. You lose your three top players and you have to battle through that, but that was why we had kind of a drop-off at the start of the second half. We played better after that and were a little more consistent at the end of the season.

OC: When they were healthy, what were your impressions of infielders Dusty Coleman and Jason Christian?

SS: Dusty Coleman is just a good professional player in the sense that he went about his work and gave his maximum effort. His goal everyday was to play the best that he could. As the season went on, he found himself getting into some slumps and getting frustrated. At that age, that's going to happen. These guys come out of college where they have always had success and now sometimes you have to see how they deal with their first adversity, so to speak, and how they can battle through. He had to make adjustments to continue to be successful at the professional level and he continued to work hard. I imagine that he is working hard this winter and I expect to see him next spring in an even stronger position to move up. I like him as a person, and that makes it all that much easier when you are a coach to have players that you just like as people. Christian is the same way. They are just good people who are willing to work hard to do whatever it takes to move up and to play this game as long as they can.

Jason Christian was kind of similar is some respects in that he has some real talents, but his game was really made on hustle and headiness to anticipate situations and take advantage of things as the game went on. An example of that was just him being on base and catching the infielders with their heads down and he'd take a base without the ball even being pitched. This happened several times and as a coach, you sit back there and go ‘wow.' It's great to have a player who can give you an advantage during a game like that. These are both quality people and I think the A's should be proud of their scouting that there were able to find those guys.

OC: Another infielder who came up for you later in the season was Nino Leyja. He was one of your youngest players. Was it hard for him to fit in being only 19 years old or was he able to handle the level in your opinion?

SS: He acts older than he is. A lot of times we would be evaluating him and going back and critiquing the game to see what could have been done better. He would have some games, especially defensively, where he could have made plays differently. You'd have to remind yourself that he is only 19. He's got so much time to learn this stuff, and yet because he shows some great promise and ability, you get to where you have to catch yourself because you expect more from him because of the way he has proved himself up to this point. You have to remind yourself that he is young and has time to learn it. That is a compliment to him.

He's a guy who will be given plenty of opportunities to grow and progress. He'll probably repeat the Midwest League level. I think that will be a big advantage to him, coming into the league with some experience. He should be able to get off to a great start and I would think that he has an opportunity to play a lot of baseball in his life.

OC: Did you see any improvement with Leyja between when you saw him in Kane County and when you saw him in the fall at Instructs?

SS: I don't know if it was because he had done the Instructional League the year before or because he had spent some time at extended spring training that he was comfortable with that setting, but it appeared that he played more comfortable in the Instructional League as opposed to the regular season.

He came to us at Kane County and then he got injured. He actually had a freak injury where he was cut in the arm with spikes. It was just a really crazy play. He went to make a tag and the runner's foot popped up and there was just a freak accident. He ended up with some stitches in his arm, and that set him back some. Then we had some other players who were stepping up like Leonardo Gil. He was playing well, so when [Nino] got back, he had to split some time with other players. Unfortunately, he didn't really get a chance to get anything going after that. But at the time we were trying to get ourselves playoff-ready and I was playing my hottest guys, so that's just how it works sometimes. But I thought he made some great progress in Instructional Leagues and once he gets his confidence and builds up his comfort level, you are going to see him continue to get better.

OC: You had two guys join you in Kane County pretty much right from the draft – Michael Spina and Stephen Parker. Do you feel like it's more difficult to make that transition from college right to a full-season league?

SS: I think they made as good a transition as could be expected. They both did some very good things to make you realize that they had some special stuff to bring to the table. Still it took time for them to build confidence and they had to struggle a little bit. They had to make the adjustments that come with going from college to the pro game. Not only that, they went from college to the Midwest League, which is traditionally a tough hitters' league. To be thrown in that mix and play in a league that, like I said, is traditionally a tough league to hit in, that adds a little bit to the frustration with the transition.

But both of them have great work habits and they were in a good frame of mind and were giving it their max effort. I didn't see any quit out of them, which is a good sign. Stephen Parker was with us in Instructional League and he was one of the highlights of the camp. He played very, very well. I'm sure that he will show up in spring training with the same level of play that he showed at the Instructional League. Mike Spina will likely be in just as good of shape. You are going to see good things from both of those guys. They are good ballplayers. They know the game and they are not afraid to work and battle through the tough times. They will become pretty good assets to our organization.

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