Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview with Huntsville Stars GM Buck Rogers

- You're from Neenah, WI. How much does that mean to you that you're a part of the organization that I assume you followed and watched?

When you work in Minor League Baseball the last thing you’re concerned with is the MLB affiliation.  Deep down you have your wish list and hope for a team that you love, but in reality you work for the Minor League club first and support the MLB team no matter what the affiliate.  Sometimes that’s tough as I grew up in Wisconsin and took a job with a Chicago Cubs affiliate.  My parents almost disowned me for that one.  In fairness, the Cubs do a great job and I enjoyed the three years in that organization.  There are a lot of friendships between organizations, believe it or not, the Cubs and Brewers organizations have some friendships off the field.  But being a part of the Brewers organization is really special.  I’m not saying that because I’m from Wisconsin; I’d be saying it if we were a Royals or Angels team.  The front office of the Brewers are people oriented first.  It really is a unique organization to be a part of; to watch things evolve. I hope the people of Wisconsin never take for granted the Brewers organization and how hard they work to be competitive in a smaller market.  It really is a special situation.  But I have to admit that watching Don Money play as a kid and then working with him now is fun.  The Bambi’s Bombers, Harvey Wallbangers, and teams along the way make the relationship more enjoyable because you know how long Wisconsinites have waited for playoff teams and now you get to see ‘em before they get to the show.

- Who on the Stars roster excites you the most to watch in 2014?

I have to hold out here because I don’t know who will be on our roster.  It’s easy to assume that certain guys will be here, but spring training injuries change lineups real quick, e.g., Mat Gamel.

- To elaborate more, who do you see/have you seen recently that could make a quick climb in the minors to the Milwaukee Brewers?

There have been quite a few guys in the past couple years, if I name anybody I’ll catch hell from those I don’t name.  When you get to AA the players know that they have crossed the hump and if they play their cards right they can make it.  There will be hills and valleys and as long as the guys realize that and not get discouraged they’ll make it.  The downside is that we can root for the guys but know that deep down they could be the player-to-be-named later.  For example, the CC Sabathia trade in 2008 had us losing Michael Brantley and Mat LaPorta, two guys on the rise.  You originally picture them at Miller Park, but in the end there they are in other uniforms.  But you have to salute Doug Melvin, Gord Ash, and the guys for pulling the trigger on those decisions to get a playoff team.  Last season we had a number of younger guys, and while we didn’t have a lot of wins, there was personal improvement.  To me, watching guys move up, getting the call from Scott Martens with the roster changes is heartbreaking at first, but once they hit Milwaukee it’s all worth it.

- What is the hardest part about dealing with a roster that can change in an instant because of trade/injury/promotion? (from Jason Jenson)

To me, trades are the hardest because you have a player that everybody loves and now you have to tell him to clean out his locker and get out of our clubhouse.  In Brevard County we had a pitcher named Steve Garrison who was best friends and roommates with Lorenzo Cain his whole baseball career.  Steve was part of the trade with Will Inman and Joe Thatcher sent to San Diego for Scott Linebrink.  When our manager (John Tamargo) told Steve he was traded Steve went into the clubhouse and broke down.  Lo Cain did also.  The clubhouse was stunned because Steve was family.  He cleared out his locker and said his goodbyes to the team.  He sat in the crowd for the game because he was no longer part of the organization and wasn’t flying out until the next day.  I think we got shelled that night as everybody was down.  He personally worked the seating bowl all night giving hugs, shaking hands, thanking fans for their support.  I thought it was one of the classiest moves by a player.  Steve was with the Mobile BayBears this past season and I had the chance to get caught up with him after a game.

Watching a player who is driven day-in, day-out, get hurt is tough.  You get to see these guys pour their heart and soul into the game and an injury can end it all.  I never want to see a career end on our watch; we want all players to move up the food chain, but every now and then a player retires and it’s really emotional as you try to console a guy on the ride to the airport or as you help him pack up his things.  There is life after the game, but you don’t want to explain that to a player whose career just ended.  It’s tough.

- How is the job of running a AA/minor league ballclub different from that of a major league team? (from Joey Grundl)

Great question.  I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people think I have control over our roster.  I had a player’s girlfriend rag on me one night because I hadn’t promoted her boyfriend.  She didn’t understand that all player moves are done by the Brewers.  The Minor League Baseball GM is not involved with transaction decisions, training, etc.  Our job is the business of running the organization, the stadium operations, logistics, etc.  The MLB GM’s role is completely different.  Doug Melvin is not going to be concerned if an outfield wall sign gets hung in the right location or is PA announcements are broadcast in the right inning.  The MLB GM has way more on his plate; it’s all baseball related where the MiLB GM is business related.

- How do you decide to groom prospects. Is it your call or are there instructions from above that a guy needs to improve in a certain area. Are there mandates on certain things, for example "no cutters" (from Derek Harvey)

Like above, all training and grooming is the responsibility of Doug Melvin and his plan.  It’s worked through Gord Ash, Reid Nichols, the rovers, and our coaching staff.  They have years of experience and know that a game in Huntsville won’t be in anybody’s memory bank for long unless they push a player too hard and he has a career-ending injury.  In 2002 in Daytona Beach we had a pitcher named Carmen Pignatiello.  Piggy was way past his pitch count one night and had a no hitter going.  Our farm director (Oneri Fleita) was called and gave the OK for Piggy to go no more than 20 more pitches.  Piggy got thru the 8th inning intact and our manager (Dave Trembley) finally had to pull him.  The crowd went berserk.  But it was in Piggy’s best interest. The closer came in (Jared Blasdell), walked the bases full before retiring the side to thankfully complete the no-hitter.  Big sigh of relief as it averted a mutiny in the stands.  But Piggy’s future trumped the no-hitter.  Farm directors, managers, all rovers all have the big picture in mind and that always supersedes whatever is happening in the game.  Nobody will remember that no-hitter, but everybody will remember the career-ender.

- Most unique player you've ever coached. (from Alec Dopp)

I’ve never coached baseball, but there have been a few I’ll never forget watching and enjoying having them on our roster.  I want to apologize in advance to some of the guys that I’ll think of later and forget to mention here.  With an Expos team in North Carolina in 1998 we started the season 15-0, the best start to this day in affiliated MiLB or MLB history and surpassing the ’87 Brewers 13-0 start.  It was magic for two weeks and a day as every call, every swing, every hop, every throw, every bounce, every fly ball went our way.  We had a lineup with Jorge Julio on the mound, Brian Schneider behind the plate, (a very polite of the field) Milton Bradley in center, and a couple more guys…15-0 and we didn’t even clinch the first half pennant, but what a run.  In 2000 I had Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee, polar opposites that really pushed themselves.  I had Brewers Pitching Coach Rick Kranitz as our manager in Daytona Beach (yep, Kranny was with the Cubs) in 2003 in one of the most tumultuous situations I’ve ever had to deal with and he was the total professional.  We had a Korean player who threw a baseball at an osprey overlooking batting practice.  I won’t get into the details but Kranny helped us thru a very difficult week that included death threats from fanatics, lawyers, fish and game personnel, and more.  The event train-wrecked the season and all the goodwill that the players did, but Kranny kept the ship afloat in a very difficult situation. In Brevard County Tim Dillard busted out a guitar and sang some very interesting tunes that kept the guys loose.  Alcides Escobar…to this day I can’t confirm that he even had a skeleton the way he bent and twisted at SS.  Darren Ford ran down a deep fly ball in CF while at Palm Beach one night.  The Cardinals’ runner at first took off for 2nd, then 3rd and was rounding for home when Darren surprised everybody and caught the ball running towards deep centerfield.  Then the weird happened, Darren realized that he could have an unassisted double play if he ran the ball to first.  The runner started back around the base path and Darren was sprinting towards first.  You have to understand that Darren was probably the fastest guy in the Brewers entire organization at that time.  Him and Lo Cain used to run sprints and it was neck and neck, but Darren always was a couple inches ahead at the end.  But it was clear Darren would reach first before the runner and the runner just gave up.  Darren played it classy and flipped the ball to the 1B for the out even though he could’ve pulled it off and stuck it in the guy’s face.  I’ll never forget Hunter Morris and his feats of the 2012 season (Gold Glove, League MVP, etc.).  Darnell Coles as manager and his total appreciate for all parts of the game.  There are more.  Unique?  I couldn’t pick one.  That’s the beauty of Minor League Baseball, it happens every night right in front of you.

- Talk about your involvement in the move from Huntsville Alabama to Biloxi Mississippi. Seems like there is a lot upside in the Biloxi community.

The team was just sold a week ago and will transition to Biloxi at season’s end.  At this point we are really focused on the upcoming season as they still haven’t broken ground on the new stadium in Biloxi.  I know the new owner (Ken Young), as his company ran our concessions at Space Coast Stadium in Brevard County.  Once we get together we’ll get the game plan for the move, but our focus now is the 2014 season here.  As most teams do, we have a lot on our plate.

- Favorite memory you'll take away from Joe W. Davis Stadium?

The 2010 All-Star Game was memorable.  The city really came out and showed their support.  We had 7,700 here for a wonderful game that saw the South Division give up a pitcher (Arizona’s Josh Collmenter) because the North Division was down two bodies.  Josh started the game in a gray road jersey for the north (home white jerseys) pitching against his teammates and got the win.  The crowd was wondering what the heck was going on as they had never saw anything like this before.  Bizarre situation, but it was an exhibition game when you get right down to it. Then League President Don Mincher was still alive then and he got to see one last All-Star game in the stadium where he was the GM and owner before becoming league president. Don was a fantastic guy and the baseball world misses him and I’ll never forget that night.

- Any current talks to extend the player development contract passed the 2014 season?

The discussion for renewing the PDC is between the Brewers and Ken Young, the team’s owner.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: the Brewers are easiest going, happy-go-lucky organization I’ve ever been affiliated with.  They treat all their Minor League affiliates with respect, courtesy, and friendship.  If I have a problem a phone call fixes it.  If there’s a situation coming up like a trade that will affect our club, the Brewers always keep us in the loop.  I would hope that we continue on with Milwaukee for years to come; there’s no better organization in baseball.  I wish everybody that has sat down to watch a Brewers game at Miller Park could have an inside view – just for a day – of what the Brewers do to build that roster…all the work from the draft thru the Minor Leagues, the travel, training, caring, patience, everything that happens to compete.  You’d really appreciate the Brewers more than ever.  Don’t take my word for it, ask the guys in Helena, Appleton, Brevard County, and Nashville.  But from the top to the bottom the organization really is phenomenal and I’d hate to think of being in another organization.

- Your thoughts on the whole Alex Rodriguez situation...

Honesty is the best policy.  Nobody’s perfect.  But there are posters in all the clubhouses explaining the gambling, tobacco, and drug guidelines.  Players sign statements saying they have read and understand the policies set forth.  Read ‘em, learn ‘em, live ‘em.  Nobody is above the game of baseball.  Nobody.

- If you can speak on it, what are your feelings on Major League baseball posterizing it's talent for using PEDs and ultimately turning the fans on the players who are caught and test positive.

My feelings are simple: rules are for everybody.  Nobody’s above the law. It’s black and white, cut and dried.  Respect the game, do the right thing, and don’t mess with stuff you shouldn’t touch.  That’s what we preach to our kids, right?

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota

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