The Aviators find themselves with a two-game lead in the Pacific Coast League's Pacific Southern Division with five games to play in large part because they're loaded with talented players. But an unsung reason for the Aviators' success in their inaugural season has been the guiding hand of manager Fran Riordan.
No, Riordan hasn't taken a single swing, thrown a pitch or made a diving catch - and he'd be the first one to remind you of that. But he's certainly had a hand in developing the players who entered Thursday's final road game of the season in Albuquerque with an 81-54 record, which is tied with the Round Rock Express for tops in the PCL. And having managed in the Oakland A's system for the past five years, Riordan has worked with several of those players for multiple seasons.
What's more, Riordan has his team on the brink of a playoff berth despite dealing with an ever-evolving roster, the result of nearly 150 transactions related to callups, demotions, players going on the injured list and players sent by the A's to Las Vegas for rehab assignments.
His deft handling of a roster in constant flux, along with being more than 25 games over .500, explains why Riordan this week was voted as the PCL's Manager of the Year. It was the third time in franchise history that a Las Vegas skipper won that prestigious award, but the first time in Riordan's 19 seasons as a professional manager that he's been honored as a Manager of the Year. But this is hardly the first time that the Buffalo, New York, native has enjoyed success on the bench.
In fact, during the first two full seasons in which he was put in charge of a ballclub, Riordan led the Richmond Roosters to consecutive Frontier League championships in 2001-02 - and he did so while putting his own name on the lineup card as a player-manager. After ending his seven-year playing career following the 2003 season, Riordan became a full-time manager, spending his first 13 seasons as a skipper in the independent leagues (where he also spent his entire playing career), eventually compiling the most victories (625) in the history of the Frontier League.
Then in 2015, the A's came calling. After two seasons managing Oakland's Single-A affiliate in Beloit, Wisconsin, Riordan was elevated to Double-A Midland (Texas), where he guided the RockHounds to the 2017 Texas League championship. Last year, Riordan was promoted again, this time to Triple-A Nashville, and when the A's signed a player-development deal with the Aviators last fall, he officially became the 25th manager in Las Vegas' franchise history.
We recently caught up with Riordan, who this week celebrated his 44th birthday and managed his 2000th game, to discuss his long and winding road in professional baseball, as well as the complexities of his other job (coaching third base), his new-found affinity for Las Vegas and being on the doorstop of reaching the big leagues.
How does a guy who grew up in hockey and football country become a baseball lifer?
I started playing baseball when I was young and couldn't get enough of it. It was just one of those things you try, fall in love with and can't get enough of. When I was a kid, I wanted to play baseball as much as I could, I wanted to watch it on TV as much as I could and I wanted to learn about the game as much as I could. It was a love that started at a young age, and it hasn't stopped.
You played in 501 games, finished with a .281 career batting average and made the All-Star team three times. How would you describe your skills as a player?
I was a pretty good first baseman defensively and I didn't strike out a lot, but at the same time I didn't walk a lot. So I had the ability to make contact, but I didn't have the ability to wait for pitches that I could really drive. In that way, I was inconsistent. But I'd like to think I got the most out of my abilities. If I didn't, it wasn't for a lack of working.
When did you first get the itch to become a manager?
I was playing independent ball in the Frontier League during the 2000 season, having a decent year, and we were on the road outside of St. Louis heading back home. When we got there, I got called into the office of the stadium, and when I arrived, the team's owners were there and they told me they had just fired the entire coaching staff, as well as the general manager. They asked me if I would be interested in being a player/manager for the last six weeks of the season. At the time, I was making $1,100 a month, so I looked around at these five people sitting around this circular table, thought about it for a second and said, "Would I make any more money?" They weren't expecting the question, so after an awkward pause, one of them finally spoke up and said, "Yeah, we'll give you an extra thousand dollars." As soon as I heard "an extra thousand dollars," I couldn't have said "yes" quicker.
Then in an odd string of events, at the end of that season, I ended up releasing myself. I'm not sure, but I may be the only manager who's ever released himself as a player. But I'd had a good year and I was now a free agent, so I was able to sign with whatever team I wanted in the Frontier League. I got a few offers, including one from the Richmond Roosters, a team I'd previously played for in 1997 and 1998. The general manager called and asked me if I wanted to be the player/manager for that team, and I jumped at the opportunity.
I did that in 2001 and 2002, we had two very good ballclubs and we won the league championship both years. That's when I really got interested in wanting to become a better manager. But at the same time, I was still playing, still trying to get to the big leagues. But the managing aspect was really attractive.
What was the most challenging thing about being a player/manager?
For starters, managing guys who were older than me. Also, there was a certain expectation of my level of play and my effort, because I played first base and hit in the four-hole every game for two years. And independent ball is about performance and winning, and if I wasn't helping the team perform well and helping us win, then I would have to make a decision about how I would use myself. So there were times I had to wear a manager hat and times I had to wear a player hat, but once 7 o'clock rolled around, I was a player and a teammate. I had a good coaching staff around me that could help run the game when I was out there, and it worked well.
Did your experience as a player/manager in any way help you become the manager you are today?
Oh, it absolutely helped. I learned so many things on the fly and so many things about relationships with players. Having a managerial relationship with a teammate is a pretty delicate thing that requires balance. That helped me greatly when I switched to managing full time - just understanding how difficult this game is, and more importantly, never forgetting about the struggles I went through [as a player] and the struggles these guys face every day.
How would you describe your managerial style, and which famous manager past or present exhibits a similar style?
I want guys to feel free to be themselves. When guys are comfortable in their own skin, that's when you get the most out of their ability and when their talents tend to shine. And if you can get a group of 25 guys to that point, ideally, you get the best out of them every single night.
I enjoy talking about the game and teaching in ways that relate to game performance and preparation, both mental and physical. But mostly, I'm a giant fan of the game. I like to see really good baseball, I like to see guys perform well, show their talents and improve. At the end of the day, that's the most important part of my job: developing guys to be good, solid major-league players.
As for comparing myself to other managers, I haven't spent enough time around major-league managers to make a comparison to myself. But I've paid attention to every manager I've ever been with, played for, managed against, seen on TV or interacted with in spring training. I try to take something, good or bad, from all of those managers.
This season is your 19th as a professional baseball manager. Looking back, what are some of your most satisfying accomplishments?
Starting my managerial career by winning two championships as a player-manager - I'll never forget those two years. Also, managing so many years in independent ball and getting to see guys get signed by big-league organizations and have success as they moved up the ladder has been satisfying. And signing with the A's and getting an opportunity to manage with a major-league organization and winning the Texas League championship in 2017 [while managing at Midland] were really exciting moments. Also, developing relationship with players over the years - relationships that remain to this day - is something that's really important to me.
You're in your second season as a Triple-A manager, and you've also managed in Double-A, Single-A and independent ball. Do you have a favorite level?
This is by far my favorite - I love Triple-A, I love the Pacific Coast League and I love having however small a part in the development of these guys to become [first-time] major leaguers or get back to being major leaguers. The mental side of playing in Triple-A is a fickle beast, so seeing what these guys go through, the work they put in and the pride they take in that work, is a lot of fun to watch.
What's the most difficult part of your day-to-day job, and what's the one thing about being a Triple-A manager that most fans don't understand?
The most difficult part is managing the different things that are going on with our roster, whether it's guys here on rehab assignments or moves being made by the organization at the major-league level that affect us and vice versa. Also, making sure that the right things happen during the game - that we're putting guys in the proper situations where they can succeed, and they're getting the right work in, playing the right positions, hitting in the right spots in the order. That's the day-to-day challenge just because of the volatility of a Triple-A roster. Sometimes it's like puzzle, and sometimes you look at the pieces and they don't seem to fit.
And that's something that jives with the second part of the question: What don't fans understand about being a Triple-A manager? Well, sometimes I have two guys [available] in the bullpen for the entire game, so I can't take a pitcher out. Or sometimes I have to take a pitcher out who's doing really well because he has a pitch limit. There are all sorts of things that happen that affect how I manage that casual or even serious fans would never know. Sometimes from the outside, it may not look like the moves make a lot of sense, but there's always a crystal-clear reason behind every decision I make during a game.
Besides being the manager, you're also the Aviators' third-base coach. What's the most challenging aspect of a job that your average baseball fan thinks looks easy?
The biggest thing fans have a hard time understanding is when I send and when I hold runners. Depending on the score, how many outs there are, the point in the game, how fast the guys are who are on base, who's coming up next - all of those things factor into my decision. It can be challenging, and it's where you're going to make the most mistakes - and have your most success - coaching third base. But I've learned over the years that, in most instances, it's better to be conservative and not run yourself into an out at home than to push the envelope when you really shouldn't, or you don't have to. Especially with an offense like we have, where the next guy up has a pretty good chance to drive that runner in from third.
Do you recall the first time you got to tell a player he was going to the big leagues?
It was [current A's relief pitcher] Lou Trivino, in Iowa outside of Fong's Pizza. I had been with Lou all of 2017 in Midland and then at the start of last year with Nashville. We were in Des Moines, Iowa, when I got word that he was getting called up, and I had to find him. It was his first callup, and the first time I was going to tell a guy he was going to the big leagues, so I didn't want to tell him over the phone. I texted him, found out where he was, walked over to the restaurant, told him and gave him a big hug. Just having had the relationship being with him for all of 2017 made it even more special, because Lou's a special kid and a special pitcher.
Telling a guy that he's going to the big leagues for the first time is by far the best part of this job.
What was your immediate reaction upon hearing the news that you'd be spending the summer managing in Las Vegas?
I couldn't have been happier. I had been paying attention to what was going on here with the new ballpark, and then to see the ballpark from where it was in the fall of 2018 to when we opened it up in April was just unbelievable. You have a certain expectation … but you can't prepare yourself for it, because it's so much better in real life. It's astounding. You start with the area - Summerlin is beautiful. Then you see all that was done with the ballpark - the care and the time and the money and the effort that was spent to make this the crown jewel of all of Minor League Baseball. It's a pretty great place to come to work every day.
How familiar were you with the city prior to arriving in April, and now that you've been here for several months, what's your impression of the place?
I had been to Vegas as a tourist three or four times in my 20s and 30s, so I was familiar with the Strip as place to relax, blow off some steam and have some fun. But I didn't know about Summerlin, so just being in this area and finding out how easy it is to live here and how close everything is, it's just a beautiful place to live. The one thing that's really impressed me is the people - everyone you talk to in the community, even outside of baseball, is very welcoming and open and kind. That's been a nice surprise.
If 22-year-old Fran Riordan had the chance to step into the batter's box at Las Vegas Ballpark, what would be his hitting approach?
I would try to hit the ball in the air really hard. [Laughs.]
What's the most Vegas thing you've done this season?
When my family was in town, I took them to a Cirque du Soleil show - we saw Mystére. That's about as Vegas as you can get.
As a player, would you rather have had Seth Brown's power, Corban Joseph's swing or Jorge Mateo's speed?
Jorge Mateo's speed. I have no idea what it's like to run that fast, and I'd like to know. To me, that would be the equivalent of having the superpower of flying, because sometimes that's what it looks like Jorge's doing on the bases.
What's one thing about you most people - maybe even your players - don't know?
I'm a really good cook. My specialty is Italian.
All of your players are one step away from making it to the major leagues, but so are you. How often do you think about being a big-league manager, and what would it mean if were to get that call?
I honestly don't think about it very often. I want to be the best manager I can possibly be, and I want to manage at an elite level. If I get the opportunity to do that in the big leagues, it would obviously be my dream. But I have an outlook where I'm happy where I am, I'm happy I have a job in baseball, and I want to continue to learn and improve. Hopefully, I get an opportunity to be on a big-league staff someday, and then hopefully get an opportunity to manage in the big leagues. But if that opportunity doesn't come, I will stay in this game as long as I can and try to have a positive impact on players wherever I am.
Beats getting a real job.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.