Managing in Minor League Baseball, it's sometimes easy to overlook the importance of a manager to the overall success of the parent Major League team, particularly when one is managing at the lower levels of the minor league system. While fans might not notice the daily impact that managers, coaches, and instructors have on prospects, it's this impact that's eventually reflected, in the Orioles' case, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
With players sometimes as young as 18 when they begin their Orioles careers with the IronBirds, the club's manager fills a crucial role, being able to relate to some of the game's challenges; challenges like long, overnight bus trips and stays in hotels that couldn't quite be called three-star. At home, players often live alone for their first time, away from family and friends. It's the manager's responsibility, as the captain of the IronBirds' ship, to provide a semblance of comfort so our future Orioles can focus their attention where it's needed most; on the field.
In Kevin Bradshaw, the Orioles are fortunate to have a seasoned skipper at the helm of their short-season New York-Penn League club, the Aberdeen IronBirds. Bradshaw has coached or managed in the lower levels of Minor League Baseball for a decade-and-a-half. That's in addition to his four-year playing career in the minor leagues. Bradshaw credits his ability to relate to young players to his playing days. "You can never forget how tough the game is. It can be a real struggle for these guys; there's a lot of travel and often personal issues that they have to deal with off of the field," he stated. "I've been very blessed to have the opportunity to coach at this level. It's probably the most important level in baseball--you get these guys right out of school and you get to mold them into the future players for the Baltimore Orioles."
On the field, the purpose of Minor League Baseball is clear--develop young talent and give players the chance to sharpen their skills in lower pressure games. Once these players have developed, they're able to help the major league club, ultimately to win a World Series championship. While wins and losses do matter in the minor leagues, the manager's first responsibility is to help mature these young players into eventual major leaguers. This begs the question--if minor league clubs exist primarily to develop young talent, how do managers judge their own success? According to a reflective Bradshaw, "I keep track of all of the guys who I coached who made it to the big leagues that I know I had a part in helping them reach that milestone. At the end of the day, it's about developing these guys for the next level, and making them the best players that they can be."
Bradshaw mentioned that many players start playing professionally right out of high school or college programs that prioritize winning over all else. As a result, players who have played only one position for their entire high school or collegiate careers, but who project to play a different position professionally, might have to learn a new position for the first time at the professional level. With players at new positions, it's not a question of if mistakes will be made, but when. Bradshaw hopes to win every ballgame but, at the end of the day, he and the other members of the IronBirds' coaching staff want their players to see live game action and work hard getting experience playing new positions, sometimes in front of thousands of fans each night. This is where the development occurs.
Heading into the 2017 season, his second in Aberdeen, Bradshaw is very optimistic regarding the club's outlook on the field. "We've got a lot of young guys in Spring Training that are pushing each other. Most of them reported (to camp) early because they want to work hard and they want to get better," he said. "Whenever you have players like that, it makes coaching a lot easier. I'm anticipating a lot of these guys will be coming up to Aberdeen to start the year." Following Spring Training and June's MLB First Year Player draft, the IronBirds' roster will take shape in time for the club's June 19th Opening Night.
Regardless of which players comprise the IronBirds roster this season, one thing is for sure; they're in great hands and lucky to have such a seasoned manager at the helm.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.