Life in the Minor Leagues: Part 3

The success of a team depends a great deal on its leadership. No matter how much or how little talent you have on a team, decisions made by the manager and coaches can win or lose a game. In the minor leagues, the manager and coaches are responsible not only for decisions that affect the outcome of a game, but they are also responsible for player development.

The leadership, along with roving instructors, strives to help each member of the team become the best athlete he can be. Aside from a month in which Tom Brookens, manager of the Oneonta Tigers (short season A) was able to fill in, and the occasional roving instructor helping out, the Whitecaps have been short-staffed most of the season. Early in the season, the hitting coach made the difficult decision to set aside his love for baseball to make his very young family a priority. Since then, strength and conditioning coach, Kenton Hill, has added to his already heavy work load by picking up some of the responsibility

Motivation and Reward

Like the team, the coaches put in many long hours for low pay and very little job security. When asked why they do it, the motivation that drives these coaches was unanimous. "For the love of the game," Kenton responded without hesitation. Kenton played baseball all of his life until college when he did a lot of the athletic training. He found himself getting more and more into strength and conditioning, and fell in love with that aspect of the game.

A.J. Sager, pitching coach, really enjoys helping the pitchers and seeing them develop. "That is where the pay is. The reward is in watching the players get better." In the five years that AJ has been pitching coach at West Michigan, the Whitecaps have always been near or top of the league in pitching.

"I really like what I do," stated Matt Walbeck, manager of the West Michigan Whitecaps. "I love baseball. I like coaching. I don't do it for the money. I do it for the enjoyment of being on the field everyday, the competition, and trying to make these players better as the season goes on. I get more reward and satisfaction out of knowing they are getting better than from the money. I know if I do a quality job and make the people around me better, then, in the long run, the money will come. I am not as focused on the money as I am the job." In the three years that Matt Walbeck has been manager of the Whitecaps he has led them to the post season all three times, and the Championship once. They are presently the favorite to win the championship for 2006 with, at this time, the best record in all of minor league baseball. This speaks well of not only the team, but the coaching staff as well.

Coaching routine

The coaching staff arrives at the field each day ahead of the team to get organized for the day. For AJ that means arriving at the ball park around 12:30 each day to prepare the charts and the work load for the pitchers. He and Matt like to have everything organized before the players start arriving.

Matt likes to have charts for almost every aspect of the game. He has the coaches, as well as some members of the team, working on these charts as the game goes on, and is often pulling a lineup sheet out of his back pocket during the game to make notes. This gives him material with which to analyze each game and the players.

He also uses a "reward and punishment" system to get the most out of his team. A lead off batter can earn a quarter of Matt's own money if he extends the at bat to 7 or 8 pitches. An out that moves a runner along will earn the batter a quarter. Two out RBI's cost Matt fifty cents. There are several ways the guys on the team can make money off Matt, but certain plays and mistakes can cost them money as well. A quarter and fifty cents may not seem like much, but in a month's time with many opportunities, it can add up to a decent meal in good restaurant which is plenty of motivation for baseball players who make very little money. Needless to say, each of these details is carefully documented by the coaching staff. After the game, Matt must fill out a game report and send it in to the player development department of the Tigers organization.

Kenton Hill puts in 14 hour days. He is up every morning between 8 and 9 AM. He has breakfast and is off to the YMCA with one or two of the pitchers for their scheduled work out. Certain days are Mandatory lift days for the whole team which will be scheduled from 10-11. After the team or pitchers leave, Kenton does his own workout. He will then go over to the ball park about 1 PM, have some lunch, and begin getting the conditioning stuff ready for when the players arrive.

At about 3:45, Kenton goes to the bullpen to work with the pitchers on their conditioning—especially those who will not be pitching that day. When BP starts, the bullpen will do their running. Kenton will then go up to the clubhouse and get the game reports, the charts and the lineups ready and change into his uniform for the game. He is kept busy charting during the game. After the game he has all of his paperwork regarding strength and conditioning to finish and turn in to his bosses. On the road, it is much easier on him. There is usually only one mandatory lift per series and if the gym is fairly close he will get his exercise in by running to the gym. "I am probably the only one on the team that likes road trips." He commented with a twinkle in his eye. Along with the hitting charts and game reports, Kenton helps fill in the void of having no hitting coach, by giving soft toss for the guys at the batting tees. There are limits to what he can do to fill that void--he does not try to deal with batting mechanics, but leaves that to the other coaches.

Staying fit mentally and physically

Each of the coaches has their set routine for staying fit physically. Kenton usually works out at the gym after working with the team each morning. Matt Walbeck described his routine for staying fit in all areas of his life. He walks 20-30 minutes, 5 days a week while listening to music on his iPod. He makes it a point to practice his guitar 10-20 minutes each week, and spends some time reading every day. He will read books on management and leadership, as well as books on history and the Civil War to keep his mind fresh and creative.

Family relationships

The most important part of Matt Walbeck's routine is his family. His wife Stephenie and two children Lucas and Olivia are able to spend a good deal of the summer with Matt while he is coaching. They come after school lets out and stay until mid August. Matt enjoys spending time with them and being involved in their many activities. Keeping that relationship strong is one of his biggest priorities in life. "Sometimes it is quality time instead of quantity time. We can be together and not say a lot, but will have a lot of eye contact."

AJ Sager's family is not able to stay with him during the season, but since they live just 3 hours away, he is able to see them fairly regularly. It is difficult for him to be separated from his wife, Dana, and his daughter, Emerson, but points out that on the positive side, he is with his family all the time for half of the year. The separation can be difficult for his family, "the wife understands the daughter doesn't." For Matt's children it is much easier. "They don't know anything different."

Survival on Road Trips

For AJ, road trips have been a part of his life for over 25 years. He enjoys riding the bus but admits that some of the bus trips get a little long and motels get old. Kenton has a hard time sleeping, so cannot catch up on sleep in a moving vehicle. He usually reads or does some work on his computer while listening to music on his ipod.

For Matt, bus trips are a time for him to lead by example. He always has a book along and spends the time reading, listening to music, and getting a little sleep. "I concentrate on breathing and staying calm. I want to set an example to the team of staying calm to keep them from getting too fidgety. It can get a little stir crazy at times."

During the 2004 season, the team was heading out on the road for a series when the bus broke down. The team had to wait at the side of the highway for an hour or so for a replacement bus to arrive. Seeing that he could have a situation on his hands, Matt pulled out his guitar and began playing some contemporary songs. Pretty soon, the whole team began singing along to pass the time. Jason Knoedler, a member of the team that year, told his host parents, "We probably looked like the Partridge Family."

The Team's Lives through the Eyes of One Who has Been There

Walbeck spent a little time comparing life in the major leagues with life in the minor leagues. In the minor leagues the guys have more fun together playing the games because they have a goal in mind—of reaching the major leagues. In the major leagues there are no goals left, so it is not as fun anymore. It becomes a hassle to do interviews, and to go to the park. It is draining mentally and not as much fun. It is more about the "individual" when you reach the major leagues. "These guys, whether they know it or not, are having the time of their lives," Matt commented at the end of our interview. "Someday they will look back and know it was the time of their life. They don't have much money, they room together, and they play games together. The camaraderie is so tight-knit down here they don't realize that when they get to the major leagues, it is not the same as it was."

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