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Rookie managers return to their roots

Sandberg, Kapler lead quartet of familiar faces debuting in '07
April 4, 2007
It seemed as if no time passed at all between the moment when veteran outfielder Gabe Kapler announced his retirement from baseball and his move into the dugout as a manager.

That's because no time did.

In one fell swoop of a press conference in mid-December, the 31-year-old Kapler ended his nine-year playing career and began a new facet of his baseball life. And in the nearly four months since then, he has not had any second thoughts or regrets.

"None then and none now," he said without hesitation, sitting on a bench by a backfield in Fort Myers as his young charges finished up a workout one sunny Florida morning last week. "I haven't had one moment where I've questioned the decision. In fact it's been reassuring to come down here and see the faces and strategize on how to best reach them individually and collectively. It's reaffirmed my beliefs."

Now Kapler heads north from Spring Training in Fort Myers, Fla., with a squad of young prospects, as the Greenville (S.C.) Curve of the Class A South Atlantic League begin their 144-game season with Kapler at the helm.

He is one of a quartet of familiar names that will be starting their managerial careers this spring, joining Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who takes the mast of the Peoria Chiefs (Cubs) in the Class A Midwest League; former second baseman Tommy Herr, who will join the Class A Hagerstown Suns (Nationals) in the South Atlantic League; and former third baseman/outfielder Darnell Coles, who also begins his managerial career in the Washington organization with the Vermont Lake Monsters of the short-season New York Penn League when that circuit starts up in mid-June.

Kapler was originally a 57th-round draft pick by Detroit in 1995, and his brief Minor League career included a breakthrough 1998 season at Double-A Jacksonville where he hit .322 with 28 homers and 146 RBIs to earn Minor League Player of the Year honors before making his Major League debut that fall with the Tigers.

He hit .270 in his nine-year career, signing with the Red Sox in 2003 and serving as backup outfielder and a clubhouse leader on the World Series championship squad in 2004. After a brief foray to Japan, where he played for Yomiuri to start 2005, he returned to Boston but suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon that fall which saw him spend much of what would be his final season rehabbing that injury. He finished with a .254 average, two homers and 21 RBIs in 72 games with the Sox in 2006.

As a player, Kapler was respected not just for his prodigious talent but for his intelligence and demeanor, so it's no surprise that he seems a perfect fit for his new job as mentor and teacher. But he admits that he is so recently removed -- not just from playing but from being a "young 'un" -- that one of his biggest challenges will be treading that fine line between friend and authority figure.

"It may take some time for me to figure it out because I have already begun to develop personal relationships with these guys, and I question how far I can take that at times," Kapler admitted. "It's not that long ago I was standing in their shoes, not just as baseball players but as people, and remembering that freshly gives me a really great perspective."

It also means he remembers the heartbreak as well as the glory, and that really was brought home to him in the last few days of Minor League camp when the inevitable pink slips had to be handed out to some young players.

"The hardest part of my job, by far, has been feeling for the guys who aren't in the lineup, guys who aren't going to be in the lineup, and remembering what that felt like, to come in and check lineup cards, remembering what it's like when someone gets released," said Kapler, who had just finished saying goodbye to one of his players who had been released that morning. "Being on the end where I may have to give somebody that news, that's the toughest part."

The new chapter of Kapler's life begins Thursday when Greenville opens its season at Charleston, S.C. Ironically, among his players will be left-hander Jon Lester, who begins his comeback from lymphoma with the Curve. The two were teammates on the Red Sox last year.

And while Kapler admits to being a little nervous about his debut, that's nothing new for the northern California native.

"Every time I've stepped on a baseball field since I've been 5 years old, I've been nervous in some way, shape or form, whether it translates as adrenaline or anxiety," he said. "In this case it's much more adrenaline whereas early on as a player it was more anxiety."

You can bet that there will be a huge surge in attendance at Peoria Chiefs games this summer as Cubs legend Sandberg makes his managerial debut with that organization's Class A club. He'll be charged with the development of some of the Cubs' top young prospects, among them outfielder Tyler Colvin, their first pick last summer, and southpaw Mark Pawelek, their first-round pick in 2005.

The club opens the 2007 season on the road at Wisconsin with its home opener, sure to be a huge event, on April 13 against the visiting Burlington Bees.

Sandberg, 47, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005 after a career that included 10 All-Star nods and nine Gold Gloves. After retiring in 1997, he recently decided to return to the game in a managerial capacity and was even in consideration for the Chicago opening that was filled by Lou Piniella this offseason.

Realizing he needed more seasoning to aspire to that job, he met with the Cubs and has launched his new career in that Cubs outpost three hours away.

Sandberg, not surprisingly, was a big draw on the organization's winter caravan in the last few months. And with Peoria so close to Chicago, that boost in visibility he gives the Minor League system should continue.

"This is big," Rocky Vonachen, the Peoria Chiefs' team president and general manager, told "It's exciting every day. People are talking about it -- the buzz is unbelievable around town."

In fact, even the city of Peoria itself is getting into the act, as the visitors' bureau has put together travel packages for Chicagoans to come for the weekend, watch some baseball at O'Brien Field and do some local sightseeing.

Big crowds to see the big names are not exactly new for Peoria, though. The club has welcomed rehabbing Major Leaguers in the past.

But for Sandberg it will be about more than just meeting and greeting the fans. The 2006 club finished 75-64 under manager (and former Cubs teammate of Sandberg) Jody Davis in the latter's managerial debut, so Sandberg has some big shoes to fill. And he's ready.

"Peoria is a great baseball town, and it has a history of players who have come through and made it to the Major Leagues and helped the Cubs out," Sandberg said. "I look at this opportunity for me to help develop those players -- teach them how to be professional on and off the field and teach them how to play the game -- and all of us have fun doing that.

"The location couldn't be better for me to start my career at this," Sandberg added. "I couldn't think of a better place to start, with avid Cub fans here. The attendance is excellent here, and that's good for baseball, good for the young players to play in front of crowds here in Peoria."

While Sandberg and Kapler are both staying with the organizations for which they played, such is not the case for Herr or Coles, who both join the Washington Nationals this season in their managerial capacities.

Herr made his name as the scrappy starting second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1979-1988 and played with five teams total before finishing up his career with the New York Mets. In that span he played in three World Series (1982, 1985 and 1987). While he is not exactly a stranger to managing, having spent the last three years in the independent Atlantic League, this will be his affiliated Minor League debut as he takes over in Hagerstown (Md.), just an hour's drive from RFK and the home of the big-league club.

The Suns, who become a Nationals affiliate this season after two seasons as a New York Mets farm club, open the 2007 season at home against the Hickory Crawdads on Thursday evening.

Herr has already made his peace with the fact that today's players are different than they were in his day, due largely to the technology and new training regimens that are available to the youngsters.

"They're stronger, faster, weight train all year and there is also a lot of video and instruction available," he said. "If that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure. It's good because knowledge is helpful, but baseball is a game where you have to keep your emotions level and having too much information might counter that."

It's that personal side of things where the young Suns players will have a good leader to turn to and one who can relate well to them. Herr left baseball for 15 years to be with his family and now that his two sons are grown up, the 50-year-old may find himself with a whole clubhouse full of surrogate sons all over again. The difference is that this time the whole lot of them will be working towards the same goal: a Major League career.

He's also making sure to get his writing hand rested up.

"The fans are always good," he said. "They're very plugged into the game's history and you'll always find your autograph seekers and those who have memorabilia signed. That's a part of the game that will always be there."

Also joining the Nationals' field staff is Darnell Coles, a 14-year Major League veteran, who played with eight different organizations including the Toronto Blue Jays when they won the 1993 World Series. A first-round draft pick in 1980 by Seattle, he spent the first six years of his career with the Mariners before becoming more of an itinerant but always valuable team member. He finished his playing career in 1997 with Colorado.

Coles spent the 2006 season as one of the organization's roving Minor League hitting instructors after spending the previous three years coaching high school baseball in Florida.

But he well remembers his early days in the Minors and the struggles he went through, going from hot high school prospect to the pros. He hopes to use those memories to help his players.

"I was the Southern California Athlete of the Year, all-state in football and baseball, I had all these accolades," he recalled, "and then I went to being a struggling shortstop trying to bat above .214 my first year. It was an eye-opener."

Now, as a manager and instructor, Coles is happy to be giving back to the game and working with kids to teach them to play baseball the right way.

"It's really about giving back to the game. At some point, yeah we made money, but along the way someone had to teach you how to play the game right," he explained. "We all understand, to be good, you have to be coached and that's sort of the mindset."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for Sapna Pathak and Carrie Muskat contributed to this story.