John Russell is in the Arizona Fall League teaching, coaching, and helping players who might get their shot as early as Spring Training, but Russell will get his shot Wednesday when he interviews for the manager's job in Philadelphia.
"It's exciting yes, because it is such a great opportunity, but I don't change my approach down here. My job is to help these players for the Pittsburgh organization, and really to help all the players down here." Russell said Monday at Mesa Hohokam Park.
Russell certainly has a big league ready resume. A former major league catcher and outfielder for the Phillies, Braves and Rangers he started his coaching career in the Twins organization where Baseball America twice named him the Minor League Manager of the Year. Russell says the experience in the Twins organization really prepared him. "I got to work with [former Twins manager] Tom Kelly and he was a really great influence. That organization is really all about attention to detail. They know they are not going to be bringing in a lot of high priced free agents, so there is a premium on developing players in the system. It's a really special situation that requires a lot of hard work, but rewarding work."
There are many former catchers not just becoming big league managers, but winning big league managers, and Russell doesn't think that is a coincidence. "There's definitely something to that, catchers just are so involved in the game. The whole field is in front of them, so you see positioning, you learn what works with pitchers, how they are effective, and then of course you go up to bat, so you can certainly relate and work with hitters too. Catchers are just so involved, and I learned a lot being a catcher that I can take into managing."
Does that mean that he might trust his catcher more than maybe a second baseman or pitcher? "I don't know if trust is the right word. I think you would certainly have a good relationship with your catcher. You know what they are doing, and I think maybe they believe in you more."
The Phillies have shown that they will spend money, maybe not Yankee money, but they will go out and pick up free agents like Jim Thome or Billy Wagner. Does that change the approach that Russell learned in the Twins organization? "No, because you want to make sure that the organization is strong. You want those free agents to compliment the players you already have. A team can't just go out and buy players all the time, eventually if you want to stay competitive you have to develop your own players."
As far as Russell is concerned the Phillies are ready to win right now. "You look at that team, and last year I got to watch them and coach against them as a third base coach with the Pirates, and you see a bunch of good players who really want to win. Thome, [Jimmy] Rollins, [Mike] Lieberthal, [Pat] Burrell, [Billy] Wagner, these guys are competitors, they have a will to win, you can sense it coaching against them. It's a yearning to win."
That lineup is impressive, and Russell thinks they can be successful, "I look at those guys, I don't know, players like that...I got to work with Jason Kendall, and I think those guys are a lot like him. They don't care about their stats, they want to win, they want team unity. All those guys, Kendall, Lieberthal, all those guys, they are tremendous players, and they want to win and win as a team."
Sounds a lot like the sound bites we've been hearing from the Boston Red Sox, and not a lot like the quotes we heard from former Phillies manager Larry Bowa. "Everybody has a different personality, I don't like to call it a style, but some people do. I'm a baseball person, I believe the game was meant to be played a certain way and Larry absolutely played the game the right way, I got to play with him and watch it. You just let the players play, I know money is a big part of the game today, but ultimately all these guys are playing the game because they love to play the game, so let them play it."
Russell's demeanor is calm, cool, collected. Gary Lance is the pitching coach for the Peoria Saguaros, where Russell is the bench coach in the AFL, and he's impressed with Russell. "I really have only working with him for a couple weeks now, but he's got a great baseball mind, and he is ready to make decisions. A manager has 100 decisions to make a day, and they all affect somebody. John seems to have a good mix of experience and a critical mind, and that's the key to being a great manager. It's a great opportunity for him."
Russell doesn't scream, he's not terribly animated, and that is exactly the opposite of Bowa, so does Russell think that's what the Phillies are looking for? "No, I think the Phillies are looking for the best man for the job. I bring consistency, I don't like to make big waves, I have taken a lot from other coaches and from the players I've played with and coached. I believe in discipline, but I think if you treat Major League players the right way, they will discipline themselves. Games are decided on the field, not in the dugout. I believe the Phillies are looking for the best person for the job, and I'm excited that they are giving me the opportunity."
Russell is scheduled to meet with the Phillies at 10:00am on Wednesday, and he'll be back in Arizona, he hopes, in time for Thursday's game in the AFL. "I don't change my approach down here, the only thing that changes down here is that I have to miss a couple games." If the Phillies like what they hear, he might miss a few more.
Editor's note: James Renwick is the managing editor of FutureBacks.com and is covering the Arizona Fall League for Scout.com. Photographer Eric Leach has provided photos for various baseball publications and is providing photographs from the Arizona Fall League action. Watch for his photos on various Scout.com sites.