Rocco Baldelli empowered his players to take responsibility for their own preparation, created a relaxed and supportive clubhouse atmosphere and led the Twins to a division championship and the second 100-win season in franchise history.
Is there anything the youngest manager in the majors didn’t get right in his first season on the job?
“Watching Rocco and how he dresses — he gets dressed in a dark closet, I think, every day,” joked Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash.
For everything else, however, Baldelli was honored Tuesday with the American League Manager of the Year Award, becoming the fourth Twins manager and third in the past decade to win the trophy.
A panel of 30 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, two from each American League city, chose Baldelli over Yankees manager Aaron Boone and Cash, Baldelli’s former boss, in an unusually close vote.
The Cardinals’ Mike Shildt won the NL award over Craig Counsell of Milwaukee.
Boone and Baldelli deadlocked with 13 first-place votes apiece, but a 13-9 margin in second-place votes allowed Baldelli to join Tom Kelly (1991), Ron Gardenhire (2010) and Paul Molitor (2017) as Twins managers to be named the league’s best.
“Nobody takes on a job like this for personal accolades,” Baldelli said on MLB Network’s broadcast of the announcement. “You take these types of roles because you want to do everything you can for your players and your staff and your front office and your organization. It really comes down to the players going out there and doing it. You need great players, and we have great players.”
Those players responded to the easygoing personality of their rookie manager by hitting an MLB-record 307 home runs, winning 101 games and capturing the team’s first AL Central championship since 2010. Baldelli, at 38 the youngest manager ever to be named Manager of the Year, emphasized communication and inclusive decisionmaking, and the team responded.
“It’s the people, it’s the respect, more than anything it’s setting a tone [by] how you’re going to treat everyone every day,” Baldelli said. “It’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to say this at the beginning of the year, but you’ve got to kind of act it out, live it every single day and treat people well. … You want everyone to show up every day with a smile on their face, and really enjoy what they’re doing.”
Twins President Dave St. Peter tweeted that Baldelli “does a masterful job of creating a winning, team-oriented environment. Not afraid to disrupt the norm with hopes of putting players in best place to succeed.”
Baldelli’s success in his first year as a manager might cost him some of his staff. Hitting coach James Rowson departed last month to take a job as bench coach with the Marlins, and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner interviewed with the Mets on Monday for their vacant pitching coach job. Bench coach Derek Shelton was a candidate to take over as Mets manager, but the job went to Carlos Beltran.
“Our staff was a strength this year. These are the people that matter most when dealing with our players,” Baldelli said. “Is it challenging to replace any member of our staff that we lose? It’s going to be incredibly difficult to do that.”
Two Twin Cities chapter members voted on the BBWAA award. Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune and Associated Press writer Dave Campbell put Baldelli atop their ballots, with Reusse putting Boone second and Indians manager Terry Francona third, and Campbell reversing the order of those two. Cash finished third with three first-place votes, Oakland’s Bob Melvin finished fourth, Houston’s A.J. Hinch (with one first-place vote) was fifth and Francona finished sixth.
The winner was revealed on live TV, but not before Baldelli and Cash, close friends from their days with the Rays, swapped joking insults on the air.
Asked what he learned from Cash, his mentor, Baldelli complained with a smile, “Do I really have to say this right now on TV? I really don’t like saying anything nice about him when he can hear it.”