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E-Twins, D-Braves rule Appy League08/14/2009 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com
"Nothing is certain but death and taxes" goes a well-worn proverb, but followers of the Appalachian League could be forgiven for adding a third certainty to the list -- the presence of the Elizabethton Twins in the playoffs.
The Rookie-level franchise's 21st century track record is astounding. Over the past nine seasons, Elizabethton has won its division seven times and the league championship five times, including in each of the past two seasons. They currently maintain a five-game lead over Johnson City in the Appy League's West Division, and despite a lackluster August, their 33-16 record (through Wednesday) is tied for the best in the circuit.
To the surprise of few, the Appalachian League's other first-place team is the Danville Braves. While the D-Braves' recent track record isn't quite as impressive as Elizabethton's, they have nonetheless made a habit of appearing in the postseason. Three of the last four Appy League seasons have culminated in a Twins-Braves showdown, a perennially repeating small-town version of the 1991 World Series.
Sustained success is tough to achieve at any rung of the baseball ladder, but it is particularly rare in Rookie ball. There is near-complete roster turnover from year to year, meaning each successful season exists independently of the one that came before. Players are often in their first year as professionals, and in many instances, winning takes a back seat to development.
So what makes Elizabethton -- and Danville -- so special?
When reached by phone Wednesday morning, Elizabethton Twins general manager Mike Mains was more than ready to discuss the reasons behind his team's success.
"It's funny, I just came back from a staff meeting this morning, and that was the first thought on my mind," said Mains, who is in his 11th season as Elizabethton's GM. "People often ask me, 'What have you guys got going on that makes y'all so successful? Is it because [the roster is comprised] of older players? Is there some kind of feeder program that's going on?'"
Here Mains paused.
"I attribute a lot of the success to the importance that the Twins' place on their Minor League structure," said Mains. "[Minnesota general manager] Bill Smith was here last week, and all of the top individuals in the system -- the guys that make the decisions -- make the trip every summer."
One of those "top individuals" is Minnesota's director of Minor Leagues Jim Rantz, who is currently enjoying his landmark 50th season within the Twins organization (He began as a pitcher in 1960, when the franchise was based out of Washington, D.C.).
"Of course, I give credit to the scouts for signing good players," said Rantz. "And continuity with the staff is a big part of it, to have the same people [in Elizabethton] year in and year out ... To have very little turnover is a big part of our philosophy."
"It all goes back to the coaching staff," added Mains.
A terrific triumvirate
Ray Smith has become an Elizabethton institution. The veteran skipper first set foot in the city as a 21-year-old Twins prospect in 1977, and since 1987 has served on the E-Twins staff as either a coach or a manager. He even doubled up as the team's general manager for a number of years, while serving as the city of Elizabethton's parks and recreation director. In short, one would be hard-pressed to find a skipper as synonymous with a city as Ray Smith is with Elizabethton.
"I played for 10 years, and as sometimes happens, I went from a prospect to a suspect," said Smith, who has not experienced a losing season as a coach since 1988. "So when Jim Rantz presented me with the opportunity to manage, I took it. I had always liked the area, and had kept friendships here. Plus, it provided stability for my wife and daughter."
Smith is joined on staff by a pair of equally committed individuals. Pitching coach Rick Shellenback is in his 16th season with Elizabethton, while hitting coach Jeff Reed in his 12th. Both individuals are baseball lifers with extensive Major League experience.
"If there was a Mount Rushmore for pitching coaches, then Jim Shellenback would be on it," said Smith. "If I was a young pitcher, I'd stay as close to his back pocket as I could and hope to get some of that knowledge, maybe absorb it through osmosis. And the same thing goes for Jeff [Reed] ... H's a family man, and didn't want to get back on the road [after his playing career ended]. But he loves working with hitters and has a tremendous vault of knowledge. He wants to stay involved and just keep working with these kids."
Smith has plenty of his own baseball knowledge to impart as well.
"We want [our players] to win and to learn how to play fearlessly as opposed to fearfully," he said. "We attack the opposition, play hard and work hard ... There are no off days in Elizabethton, we're going to emphasize the fundamentals and teach them to make the most of their abilities."
"Ray and his staff know how to teach," echoed Rantz. "They are very dedicated and loyal people, and there's no place they'd rather be than the ballpark. Sometimes we might even have to tell them to slow it down a little bit."
Meanwhile, 400 miles away...
As in Elizabethton, much of Danville's success can be attributed to excellent scouting and a consistent organization-wide approach to player development.
"We've been very fortunate to have continuity in the coaching staff," said Danville general manager David Cross. "Paul Runge has been a coach since 2004 and a manager since 2005, and he is able to mold them in the Braves way. ... And I think it helps that we [the Danville Braves] are owned and operated by Atlanta. We all work for the same team, we all have the same goal in mind. Their problem is our problem."
First place has become a familiar position for Danville, which has come out on top in the East Division in four of the past five seasons. This has coincided with Runge's time at the helm. The New York native, who began his Minor League managerial career in 1993, played for the Atlanta Braves from 1981-88.
"When there's a winning atmosphere, guys look forward to coming to the park, getting here early and putting in that extra work," said Runge. "It creates good chemistry, helps everyone to get along well, breeds confidence and facilitates the overall development of the players."
Runge, who now lives in Florida, often gets the chance to work with some of his players in extended Spring Training before relocating to Danville for the Appalachian League season. Therefore, when the season starts in mid-June, he and his charges are ready to hit the ground running.
"I think that the guys here are aware that Danville has had some success, so that makes them want to be a part of that. You never know when these opportunities [to win] are going to come along, so all you can do is give it your best shot."
Fan base expects success
Of course, both Runge and Smith emphasize that player development is always the first priority and winning is merely a fortunate byproduct.
"[The emphasis on development] allows everyone on the team to contribute," said Smith. "We're not going to be playing the same nine guys all the time. Everybody's going to get at least 100 at-bats, and our pitchers are going to get their work in no matter what. ... We may be in the hunt, but when the dust settles, it's all about development."
That said, a culture of winning can't help but create expectations within the community.
"There's a sense of tradition here, similar to college football," said Mains. "The fan base here, they expect to win, and the players realize that. Our community is very proud of the team we have. And with Elizabethton being such a small city, the players really get a chance to interact with the fans and to get to know them."
And there are bragging rights at stake when it comes to the championship, as both teams have a shared postseason history.
"Ray Smith and I used to play against each other, so it's been neat to bang heads with him these last few years in the Appy League," said Runge. "I specifically remember the 2006 championship ... We went ahead in the ninth inning of Game 3 on a solo homer and [current Atlanta Brave] Kris Medlen retired the side in the bottom of the inning. That was the highlight of my stint here."
The tide has since shifted in the Twins' direction, but neither team is going to take anything for granted. Baseball, after all, can be a fickle game.
"We do have a tradition of success, but what it boils down to is that our scouts do a great job combing the world, finding players blessed with ability and quality work habits," said Smith. "If they're not out there doing that, then we could find ourselves going from the penthouse to the outhouse in a hurry."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.