NEW YORK - It can be gut-wrenching to witness what a toll pennant-race pressure takes on a manager, particularly one who has never been through it before. Just last week on an off day before the season’s final road trip, Rocco Baldelli, clearly reeling from the burden of leading a team two days from clinching, succumbed to the strain by …
Falling asleep. On a park bench. In Detroit.
“Yeah, he’s about as chill as it gets,” reliever Trevor May said.
Chill is good, Twins players say. Chill is calming. Chill is restorative. But more than that; chill is empowering and confidence-building.
“Players play their best when they’re comfortable and confident. And he made it clear on Day 1 that you were going to be welcome here if you’re on this team,” May said. “Just do what you do when you’re here, and you’ll be fine.”
Baldelli has created a pervasive aura of trust in his team, players say, a culture that has only a couple of tenets: Give your best during each day’s nine innings, and take responsibility for whatever works best to prepare for them. The specifics are up to the individual, and the restrictions beyond that are minimal.
“He’s done a very good job of letting this be the players’ clubhouse. He believes you can’t try to manage a clubhouse from above, you have to let the players do that,” said Derek Shelton, Baldelli’s bench coach. “If something happens, we’d deal with it as a staff, but we’re big believers in letting people be themselves.”
Including the manager, at 38 the youngest and perhaps most mellow in the majors, a man who talks about the “love inside that clubhouse” and describes his relationships with players as “beautiful.” Not exactly the archetype of a demanding, vein-popping screamer.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him raise his voice,” second baseman Jonathan Schoop said with a shrug. “Maybe he gets mad on the inside.”
Yeah, he is probably a cauldron of stress under there. Baldelli once spent an off day sitting on a rock, listening to music, and watching the workaday world pass by. He is motivated by a couple of things, notably exceptional roasted coffee — he will drive a considerable distance, friends say, to drink his favorites — good sushi for dinner, and getting extra sleep.
Next time you’re in a coffee shop — a small local roaster, not one of the big chains — take a good look at the lanky bald guy in sneakers and a T-shirt, peering into his laptop in the corner. It just may be the leading candidate for American League Manager of the Year.
“There’s something he loves about coffee shops,” Shelton said. “They fit his style.”
Well, in a decidedly decaffeinated way, perhaps.
“The way he treats people is definitely not how I was treated as a player,” said Jeremy Hefner, the Twins assistant pitching coach whose own career as a major league pitcher ended just five years ago. “It was always, ‘You need to do this and this and this, or you’re going to be out of here.’ And here, it’s not like that. Giving guys space to grow and even space to fail is important.”
One Twins official pointed to the blossoming of Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano, two cornerstones of the lineup and two of the biggest personalities in their clubhouse, as a consequence of Baldelli’s trust. Coming up through the minors, they encountered plenty of conflict as they chafed at restrictions, dress codes and appointments placed on them. Removing the supervision — relaxing daily practice requirements and arrival-time deadlines, for instance — helped them feel trusted.
“A lot of rules,” Rosario said. “Not so many now. Rocco wants you to be yourself.”
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Baldelli was hired without any experience as a manager, a trend that has become commonplace in the game today. The responsibility didn’t intimidate him, Baldelli said — but it informed his approach to the job. Rather than obsess over every detail of every duty and every player, he realized that he didn’t even know how much he didn’t know.
“Rocco doesn’t feel like he has all the answers. And he has put people around him that have great expertise in certain areas,” Hefner said. “So why would we not tap into those people with those answers?”
Baldelli studied in-game strategies, but made Shelton his second-in-semi-command and hired Bill Evers, with three decades of experience as a manager and coach, to advise him. He immersed himself in pitching knowledge, but empowered pitching coach Wes Johnson and Hefner to determine schedules and coaching priorities. He has ideas about lineups and shifts and player usage, but holds multiple daily meetings to get input from those around him.
“Tactical decisions are still part of the job, a huge part,” said Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, who hired Baldelli last October after firing 2017 AL Manager of the Year Paul Molitor. “But understanding how to utilize a bullpen, get them up, get them down, how often you can do that and keep them healthy and playing well, he listens so well to the support system he has around him, and it’s given him an understanding that’s so far ahead of where you would expect a first-time manager to be in those areas.”
But even Baldelli doesn’t pretend that writing out lineups and challenging calls on the bases is the reason he was hired, or the reason he has been successful. He is a “manager” almost as much in a corporate sense — seeing to it that his employees are taken care of so they can succeed — as in a baseball sense.
“We spend a ton of energy on [game tactics], but that is nothing compared to the conversations you have every day, the interactions you have with everyone and keeping an entire team in a good frame of mind every day for an entire season,” Baldelli said. “Keeping everyone ready to play, and with a smile on their face and ready to compete, that’s really the goal here.”
That doesn’t mean talking with every player every day. Said May: “We really don’t talk that much. … Neither one of us are guys who are interested in leading conversations, so there are a lot of pauses.”
With a roster that’s nearly half comprised of Spanish speakers, Baldelli asked that Elvis Martinez, originally hired as an interpreter to smooth media interactions, be assigned to the clubhouse and dugout.
“It showed them that he wants to hear from them. That communication is too important to let language be a barrier,” Shelton said.
And Baldelli is unfailingly supportive of his players and staff, especially in public. Shelton said he has witnessed Baldelli delivering bad news or negatively critiquing a player, always in a way that makes the player appreciate the honesty.
“If anything, he’s a tremendous encourager,” third base coach Tony Diaz said. “Nobody here feels like you have to look over your shoulder when you’re doing any teaching or motivating a player.”
When Diaz sent runners home and watched them tagged out at the plate in back-to-back games in August, he learned firsthand to trust in Baldelli’s faith.
“He didn’t second-guess any decision. He backed me up, and in fact he encouraged me,” Diaz said. “He said, ‘Next time that situation comes up and plays out in front of you like that, let’s take a shot again.’ I appreciate his trust. We all do.”