OaklandClubhouse: Let's start with a synopsis of the Cougars squad as it stands right now with only a few weeks left to go in the 2010 season.
Aaron Nieckula: This team is in a position to qualify for the postseason in the second half. Although we have lost six in a row (as of Wednesday, Kane County would go on to beat the Kernels Thursday night, ending its losing skid) it still doesn't take away from the fact that we played quality baseball throughout the entire year.
We did start off a little slow offensively, but we have grinders on this team that have a knack for playing the game and improvement. This has been a joyful year, in terms of the personnel that I've been around. I see young men, both offensively, defensively, pitching-wise and base-running, making adjustments and getting better to have success at the next level. Ultimately, that's what I get paid to do.
OC: As a manager, you were promoted one level to Stockton last season. Being that you were a former catcher in the A's minor-league system, is it safe to assume one of the reasons you ended up back at Kane County for 2010 was to work with fourth-round draft pick Max Stassi?
AN: I believe that's the reason why, coming back to work with a young catcher to get him developed. We also had a catcher up in Stockton named Ryan Ortiz who was having a good year until he hurt his arm. Regardless, it was a good situation to be back home with family and especially with a young daughter. You don't really have that opportunity very often in minor league baseball.
You count your blessings and go where they tell you go. I accepted my assignment to Kane County. It's nice sleeping in your own bed, getting home cooked meals by your wife and having your laundry done. But the bottom line is I have a job to do and do well every single day.
OC: What were your impressions of Stassi coming into 2010, his first full season of professional ball?
AN: I knew of Max's pedigree before he even stepped foot on the baseball field, and his background, what kind of young man he was, and what kind of skills he brings every single day. I knew what to expect. He's a very attentive young man that asks the right questions. He has an outstanding work ethic, wants to learn and get better, and make the adjustments if something's wrong.
OC: After having much of this season to tutor the up-and-coming backstop, what type of improvements have you seen?
AN: The biggest adjustment that he's made, at least on the defensive end is two-fold. One has been with his leadership and ability to handle a staff. Run the staff on the field and in pre-games, in terms of staff meetings, scouting reports of the opponents and tendencies of the hitters. Secondly, his throwing and footwork are much improved. He started the season 0-for-22 and now he's at about a 32-percent clip.
OC: Switching gears, it sounds like tutoring young baseball players has become a year-round passion with the offseason camps and clinics (http://www.nieckula.com/index.html) you run in suburban Chicago.
AN: Working with young men that want to learn, get better and make the adjustments certainly makes our jobs as coaches much easier. I've been very fortunate the several years to work with young men in the tri-cities area of Batavia, St. Charles and Geneva, as well as in Naperville, Aurora and Wheaton. It's been a very enjoyable part of my off-season.
OC: Which types of players do you work with during the fall and winter?
AN: They range in age from 8-18. I've worked with little leaguers and kids that are about ready to go off to college. I find it to be a very rewarding experience, whether it's hitting, catching, infield, base running, or just general knowledge of the game. Kids at that age are so eager to learn and improve. You have their full attention.
I don't discriminate. If it's a young man that doesn't have all the talent in the world, but is eager to practice and play, then I work with him. If it's a young man that has the ability to be a first-rounder, I'll work with him as well. I just enjoy teaching the game and seeing the young men get better, and the joy it brings to their lives.
OC: Does this commitment take up your entire off-season, or do you take some time off after a grueling summer in the minors?
AN: I have some die-hards that like to get started in November and December, with hitting and catching lessons. It starts to pick up in January with small group lessons, individual sessions, larger camps, and team clinics. My wife has been very accommodating with my passion for the game and the desire to work in the off-season. I enjoy what I do. Maybe there are a lot of people that can't say they enjoy waking up and going to their place of work, but I honestly do.
When the season's over with, I usually take a month off and get things done around the house. But once January and February rolls around, that's when it picks up and I'm gone quite a few hours during the week.