Grady Little: Change of Scenery

<B>PHOENIX</B> - The catchers in the Cubs' organization have a high-profile leader teaching them this season, as former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little is the organization's new roving catching instructor. <I>Inside The Ivy</I> caught up with Little for a one-on-one interview and got his thoughts on the Cubs' catching core, his new role with the organization, and more.

Little both played and managed in the minor leagues before becoming a coach and eventually a big league manager. The Cubs are hoping his expertise will help build catchers for the future.

"They (the Cubs) have got kids they think very highly of," Little said. "It has been a lot of fun working with these kids; they are a pleasure to be around. Some of them have a lot of talent."

After spending six weeks in Mesa for Spring Training, Little will begin his tour of the Cubs' minor league system this weekend. The journey begins in Daytona Beach with visits scheduled for Des Moines, West Tennessee and Peoria in the near future. This marks Little's second season with the Cubs. Last year, as an assistant to General Manager Jim Hendry, his duties were mostly scouting.

"This year I am going to be a little more hands on with all of the catchers in the system," explained Little.

Little has quickly gotten to know the Cubs' catching prospects. Last year's third round draft choice, Mark Reed, has already learned a lot from Little, and Triple-A catcher Geovany Soto has spent some time with the former Red Sox skipper as well.

"(Reed) is very impressive and Soto is not far from landing in the major leagues," Little said. "He (Soto) has a good future ahead of him."

Little himself was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 15th round of the 1968 draft and played in the minor leagues from 1969-73. In 1974, Little went into coaching and ultimately served as a minor league manager in the Braves organization for 10 years. He was of course highly popular with his former Red Sox team and is already well liked by the prospects that he is currently tutoring.

Little is not treating the return to the minor leagues as a demotion; instead he sees it as a great opportunity.

"With the addition of Jim Hendry and Gary Hughes, I have been shown a different side of baseball and I am enjoying it," Little said. "The Cubs have quality people that understand they have a lot of good things going for them. They give the players a good opportunity to do the best they can; the rest is up to the players."

Little does not reflect negatively on his tenure in Boston. The Red Sox went 188-136 in his two seasons as manager. The team finished in second place each year while earning a Wild Card berth in 2003 before losing to the Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

"I did the best job I could when I was there," Little said. "I know how good the Boston Red Sox were when I got there and how good they were when I left. All teams are different; there are different reasons why things happen. I was very glad to see them get it done last year."

Boston barely surpassed the .500 mark the year before Little arrived with an 82-79 record in 2001. Last season, the Red Sox were once again a Wild Card but came back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Yankees in the ALCS and then win the World Series. Before 2004, the Cubs and Red Sox were thought to be the two most cursed teams in all of sports.

"I see two teams that are the same," Little said. "The only difference is the Red Sox have a World Series title. But that's coming soon for the Cubs."

If the Cubs are going to make history this season, they will need a lot of production from two players that Little managed. Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Walker are the heart of the Cubs' middle infield, and Little knows them both real well. "Todd and Nomar are good players that do the things necessary to help a ballclub win," he said.

Little's mission this year will be to groom players to eventually catch Angel Guzman, Bobby Brownlie and many other future Cub pitchers. Little is already confident in the team's major league catchers.

"We have an awfully good catcher in Michael Barrett, and Henry Blanco is solid," Little said. "You have to go far to find as good of a catching tandem as that in the major leagues."

Communication with the pitchers and defense are the top two things Little is trying to emphasize.

"I am most concerned with the defensive skills and trying to get the pitchers to have confidence in themselves," Little said. "If they do, that would be the icing on the cake. Another priority is to keep the offensive part of their game separate from the defensive side. All we are trying to do is make these guys better. If the opportunity comes up, they will get a chance to play in the major leagues."

Just like a prospect, Little is not sure if he will return to a major league dugout, although managing is something he would eventually like to do if the situation is right. Little interviewed for the Philadelphia Phillies managerial position in the offseason before Charlie Manuel was hired. If or when Little is given a second chance to manage, he says he will certainly make the most of it.

"There are a lot of good people working in the minor leagues," Little said. "They are very qualified people. The opportunity may come to me at the major league level, and if it does I will enjoy it. I am fortunate to have been given that opportunity already."

Scott Sabin is the contributing editor of Inside The Ivy. Write to Scott at scott@insidetheivy.com.


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