Letters from Springfield is a biweekly report from the Cardinals’ AA affiliate in Springfield. The writer, Matt Lemmon (itsalemmon1019), is the editor of GO Magazine and the web editor for 417 Magazine in Springfield. If you have suggestions for AA post topics or interview subjects, leave them in the comments.
My second installment on the AA Springfield Cardinals is, for all intents and purposes, my first actual post --- it’ll probably be another three years before the hoopla surrounding a Springfield game is as pitched as it was a couple of weeks ago when the St. Louis Cardinals came visiting. Barring, of course, an Albert Pujols rehab assignment, which none of us wants to see.
So it seems fitting to begin with an interview with Ron "Pop" Warner, Springfield’s manager, who led the team to a Texas League North Division championship last season and marvelously developed some top organizational talent like Colby Rasmus, Chris Perez, and others. Though the market for managing prospects in the minors is nowhere near as high-stakes as that for players, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the know who doesn’t regard Warner as a rising star in the minor-league managing ranks. As you’ll see, he’s a Cardinal through and through. Warner, only 38, has managed at both Johnson City (2002) and Palm Beach (2005-06), alternating with stints as hitting coach at (then AA) New Haven and Peoria.
Warner’s playing career began when he signed with the Cardinals as a shortstop in 1991. He slowly worked his way up through the system, but hi playing career stalled at AAA (Louisville 1997, Memphis 1998-99). In 2000, rather than spend another year as a utility player at AAA—albeit a productive one: Warner hit .290 in 1999—he opted to spend a year a bullpen catcher in St. Louis and start his coaching career.
Pop let me into his office before a recent home game and we chatted for 15 minutes or so. My impressions: Very businesslike, but pleasant. He’s got a young face, wears dark sunglasses and has one hell of a nicely done soul patch on his lower lip (Speezer would be jealous, I kid you not). Pop is tall, at least 6-3 (that’s what he’s listed at on his Baseball-Reference page); he wears number 57 and coaches third base. For all his youth and un-LaRussa-like congeniality with reporters, I think there’s a good chance you could see Warner as the next manager of the St. Louis Cardinals --- he appears to have been groomed for it, though all bets would certainly be off if Mo’s tenure is a short one (but so far, so good, eh?). Warner is what you call a "company man," and if the legacy of the Schoediensts and Kissels still means anything in DeWitt-ville, that could give Pop a leg up; though I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the career track of AAA manager Chris Maloney.
I’ve written enough. I’ll let Pop talk now.
So how long have you been managing, and how did that begin?
When I came to spring training in 2000, halfway through they asked if I wanted to start my coaching gig. Actually, they’d asked me after my ’99 season, and I expressed to them that I wanted to play another year, because my goal was to make the big leagues. They said "Alright, you’ll be a utility guy again at Memphis, and we’ll talk to you at the end of the season." I went to spring training [in 2000] and a couple of the big league coaches got hurt; Dave McKay had surgery, he had one of his ribs taken out, and Jose Oquendo had arm surgery, so we needed someone to throw batting practice, and they only had one bullpen catcher. So they asked me to spend the whole year in 2000 in the big leagues. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would really be a help to them and to [my career], for me to start coaching. So I retired, halfway through spring training, and spent the whole year in 2000 with St. Louis, and it was a great experience. We made it to the NLCS, and got beat by the Mets. The year after that I started my coaching career. I started as hitting coach at New Haven; from there I went to the NY-Penn League, where I was a hitting coach… then one year I managed at Johnson City. In 2005 they asked me to manage again in the Florida State League, so obviously I accepted. I managed a team in Florida State League and won a championship there [in 2005]. And then in 2006 I was back there again, we made the playoffs and got beat in first round. And then last year was my first year in AA.
So I have to ask: You were with the Cardinals in 2000, so you got to see Rick Ankiel’s well-documented battles. I know you didn’t manage him last year, but you were in the system…
I played with him.
Wow. What’s that been like for you to watch him do what he’s been doing?
It’s been great. I can’t be happier for the guy. To see him go through what he went through, I was there for it, to see the struggles that he had, it hurt me because he was my friend. You hate to see your friends struggle like that, mentally and emotionally, he was down. It was tough for him and for the people around who cared for him. He put it aside and decided that … he was going to try [the outfield] and he was convicted to trying to do it. I said "Go for it man, that’s great. If you can stay healthy and do your thing there’s no question in my mind you can do this."
Now ,I didn’t think he could do what he’s doing now; but there were some people who did. Our manager that spent to years [in Springfield, now AAA manager] Chris Maloney, told me, "Pop if this guy ever puts it together, he’s going to be something special in the big leagues." And I was, you know, kind "Okay, you know, I think he can probably make it there." But [Maloney] was dead on with Ank. He had him [at AA], and he saw what the guy was capable of, and the rest is history now.
Would fans be surprised, at this level, how well many of the pitchers can hit? Or was Rick sort of a freak with the bat and his arm?
You don’t see that too much. Every once in a while you’ll see guys you’ve got to be real careful with, but what an athlete [Ankiel] is… he’s one of a kind that’s for sure.
You’re a Cardinals lifer. Is that a rarity? There can’t be too many guys at your position who have spent their whole career with one team.
Probably not. I mean, I’m sure there are, I haven’t taken notice of anybody. One of my idols in this game was George Kissell, who was in this organization 60 some-odd years, and he really explained to me when I played the importance of being a team guy, a guy that’s involved in the organization. Plus, it’s all I know. I’ve been a cardinal my whole life and believe the philosophy we teach here, and I’m family with the people around here. It’s important to me personally to be here and try to make it to the big leagues with the team I came up with. It’s a goal of mine.
A lot of people would say you’re a rising star as far as minor league managing prospects go. What do you say to that?
I just try to get better and learn. Every day, every year is a new challenge and I try to coach it like that, regardless what people say. Some people might say you’re horseshit, some might say you’re a rising star. Whatever. I try not to think about it or listen to it, just go about my business and try to learn and prepare these guys to play in the big leagues.
If a AAA or major league call came form another club, is that soemthing you’d have to consider.
It’s absolutely something I’d consider. I have goals to get to the big leagues, and it would have to depend on whether it was something that fit for me and my family [Author’s note: The Springfield Cardinals website says Warner lives in St. Charles with his wife and son]. I think I’m in a pretty good spot, for my family and myself, in this organization. But if it was the big leagues I would definitely consider it. More than consider it.
If you’ve been with the organization since 1991, you’ve been through not just one but sort of two regime changes in St. Louis management. The new GM, John Mozeliak, coming in was kind of a big deal. How has that manifested itself at the AA level? Are there any different lines of communication?
No. Walt and Mo, they were on the same page. When Mo stepped in, it was pretty much the same thing. Walt was great and Mo was great and now Mo is in his position and Mo is great. The lines of communication have been open. It’s comfortable; they were both good communicators, and let me know how things are going. I haven’t seen any negatives.
How often do you talk with St. Louis, and what’s the back and forth? Do you have a daily dialogue?
We communicate every night from the computer. I send reports in, and that’s basically how we communicate. Our minor league operations director John Vuch, I communicate with him every other day and let him know how things are going.
There’s been a boom in baseball interest, particularly minor league baseball, on the Internet and blogs, and all that stuff. Does the increased attention on AA baseball, make your job harder? Are there situations where there’s more scrutiny?
No, I don’t think so. Whatever pressure you put on yourself you put on yourself. You’re right, the info out there is huge, but I’m just trying not to pay attention to it, try to make these guys better and trying to get better myself.
Interview continues after the jump . . . .
Did anybody really catch your eye down in Jupiter? Anyone that’s here now?
Yeah, there were quite a few guys. Our first round pick last year, Peter Kozma; he’s young kid, 18 or 19 years old and a really solid looking player. I look forward to seeing his progress. [I also like] some of the pitchers we have here. Adam Ottavino has a power arm and I’m really interested in seeing how he develops. From our position players: John Jay, Allen Craig, Mark Hamilton, Tyler Greene, Bryan Anderson… we’ve got guys that have the ability to play in the big leagues. It’ll be nice to see them develop.
I hear Bryan Anderson is working with Mike Matheny some on the side. What can you tell me?
Mike came down to big league camp and worked with some of the catchers alongside our minor league catching coordinator, Dan Bilardello. He and Jeff Murphy, the bullpen coach up there who’s kind a catching coach the big leagues, and Yadi and all those guys put their heads together and worked with some of those young guys. Matheny took an interest in some of our younger catchers and basically taught them fundamentals, and was telling them what it takes to catch in the big leagues every day, and all grind he went through and all the things he had to overcome to be in a position to do what he did, which was win Gold Gloves. It was great for these guys to hear his wisdom and hear what he did to prepare every day… and how he took care of himself and the nuances of catching every day.
What’s it going to take for someone like Anderson to get to AAA… or beyond?
Experience, just playing. I talk about experience—you get experience through learning form your failures. There’s only one way you can do it, that comes with playing. If you play you’re going to make mistakes and learn form them, and you get better and you don’t make them again. [Anderson] is only 21 years old; he played here the whole year at 20. He needs to play and get familiar with his body. It’s difficult, but he knows what the certain things are he has trouble with and that he needs to get better with.
In Cody Haerther, you’ve got a guy who, for whatever reason, has spent parts of four years or so at the AA level. What do you do, as a manager, to motivate and keep them fresh.
It’s been tough for him because he had a good spring training, and he was rightfully upset he had to come back here. [Players’] goals are to move up. I just sat and talked him, let him know it’s just another obstacle in your career to the big leagues, and you can’t control anything that’s basically out of your control on the field. It’s no good worrying about it. It’s hard for some kids to buy into that. At the end of the day, you have no control of the decisions that people make for you. You’ve got to go out there and perform. On the field, if you do, you’ll get yours. It’ll come to you.
This spring there was a concerted effort to bring some of the top pitching prospects to camp early and work on "classic mechanics." What do you know and do you have any role in instituting that here?
Not personally, I don’t. I don’t know much about it; they’re trying to get people to stay injury-free. If there’s something they look at and analyze on film, that could become a problem, they try to address that. People have been doing that forever, but we’re just taking it another step with the video and trying to break down something that might be a problem area and really know what looking at.
So it’s almost as much an injury-prevention method as a performance-enhancement program?
That, but it can and lead into performance, too. The cleaner you are mechanically and the more times you can repeat a good delivery, the more consistent you’re going to be with the pitches you throw.
It’s early in the season, and you guys are sort off a slow start. [Author: At the time of the interview the team was 0-4. The slide got to 0-6 to start the season, and after last night’s 10-inning win Springfield’s record stands at 2-9.] At what point at the AA level do start to get worried and say, "Okay, we gotta get off the schnied"?
Every night. Being a competitive person and a person who loves to win, last night I was down on myself. I feel like as a manager you’re the skipper of the ship, I feel like when you lose it’s on you and rightfully so, it should be on you, you’re the manager, at the end of the day you know that’s not the case because you’re doing the best you can, but when you’re losing you ultimately take that responsibility. I keep myself grounded and my wife keeps me grounded, and keeps me upbeat. I try not to show [the players] if I’m a little down in the dumps, I try to keep it positive with them. Baseball’s a real streaky thing and you try to eliminate the losing streaks. Last year I don’t think we lost more than three in a row, this year we’ve gone four and we need to right the ship and get off this little bad streak we’re on.