It's been a seamless first year for Gary DiSarcina.
With a week left in his inaugural Triple-A season, the Pawtucket manager has his team in first place again in the International League North Division, poised to reach the postseason for the third straight year. Like Arnie Beyeler before him, DiSarcina has guided Pawtucket through some storms, including near constant personnel changes and difficult injuries.
What's been the key to DiSarcina's success? His handle on the clubhouse.
"Out of all the managers I've had for the last 12 years at any level, he has the best feel for what the players are going through," said reliever Ryan Rowland-Smith. "I've seen managers who say they're in control and put themselves on a pedestal. He doesn't do that at all. He walks in here and he's one of the guys."
Indeed, to anyone thrown in the middle of the McCoy Stadium clubhouse in the hours leading up to first pitch, it might be hard to tell DiSarcina apart from the players. He wears the same batting practice jersey, untucked over shorts. He often saunters through the clubhouse, sandwich in hand, the gray tinge to his hair about the only giveaway that he's not the guy playing short.
DiSarcina and his players have established an easy rapport over the course of the season - not the simplest development for someone who hadn't managed in three years and who had never managed more than a handful of games above Low-A. The job DiSarcina had with teenagers in Low-A Lowell in 2008-2009 was distinctly different from the one he has now, with players at various stages of their professional careers.
"Looking back on both experiences, I've been much more comfortable at this level," DiSarcina said. "I'm a lot closer to their age. I was 33 years old when I was here coming back from an injury trying to play again, so I share some similar experiences with them. I can connect with them. It's a lot harder for me to connect to a 17- or 18-year-old kid.
"It's a totally different style. It's like teaching elementary school [as opposed] to college."
DiSarcina's experience as a player - a dozen years as a shortstop for the Angels, ending in 2000 - made the transition to Triple-A easier, lending him instant credibility in the clubhouse.
"He's been there," outfielder Bryce Brentz said. "He knows what it takes to get there."
"It's not just having [major-league experience]; it's how you go about your business," said DiSarcina. "The credibility comes from how you handle yourself in the dugout on a daily basis. They just see someone who's trying to be consistent.
"On the off-field stuff, when you move a player or when you have to talk to a player about playing time, going about it in a compassionate way connects with them. That goes back to being near their age and being through what they're going through."
Similar to Red Sox manager John Farrell, DiSarcina returned to managing after spending time on more of a front-office track with the Angels. Being on that side of the business has helped him know what to expect from this side.
"It polishes you up a little bit on the player development side and on the staff side to have patience," DiSarcina said. "You can't expect everything to happen now. You can't expect every player to be great now."
DiSarcina always wanted to end up back as a manager, but he didn't think it would be this quickly. Pawtucket, though, represented a perfect fit, offering him the chance to come back to a familiar organization close to his home and family in Massachusetts. He's reconnected with players he managed in Lowell, such as Will Middlebrooks and Alex Hassan, and with a front office with whom he carried a mutual respect.
"I really feel that this is where I belong," DiSarcina said of managing. "It's with one group of guys, it's being in the dugout, it's talking the game with your pitching coach. When you're on the front-office side of things, when you're a coordinator, you don't get those things."
Obviously, the minor leagues aren't just about wins and losses; player development is crucial. So how does DiSarcina judge the job he has done in his first year with the PawSox?
"Your report cards are the players," he said. "I evaluate it on how many guys have gone up there and helped the team up there. That's the bottom line."
That makes for a good bottom line for DiSarcina. Middlebrooks has hit well since returning to the Red Sox. Brandon Workman has become an important part of the Boston bullpen. Ryan Lavarnway, Brock Holt, Brandon Snyder and Steven Wright, among others, have helped Boston win games this season.