Youth served: Tri-City trio charts new course

Guillen, Godfrey, Kovalik -- all 27 -- comprise 'Cats' coaching staff

Sean Godfrey (hitting), Ozney Guillen (manager) and John Kovalik (pitching) are all in their first year as professional coaches. (Tri-City ValleyCats)

By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com | June 20, 2019 11:45 AM

They all realized it at some point over the last two years. They'd sweated and dreamed, played and scrapped, battled through injuries and held on -- then, for Ozney Guillen, Sean Godfrey and John Kovalik, it became time to let go.

But it wasn't the end; in fact, it was just the start of something new.

On Monday the Tri-City ValleyCats took the field for their opener and snagged the first win on the professional ledger for manager Guillen, hitting coach Godfrey and pitching coach Kovalik. Combined, the trio forms perhaps the youngest staff in pro baseball history. Three 27-year-olds, born within a month and 10 days of each other in the winter of 1992, hold the keys to the Class A Short Season affiliate of one of baseball's best farm systems and the New York-Penn League's reigning champions, but their age isn't the only thing that makes them unique.

The journeys that led Guillen, Godfrey and Kovalik to the Houston Astros are similar. Only Godfrey played affiliated ball, topping out at Double-A in 2016 after being drafted by Atlanta in the 22nd round two years earlier. Guillen was a White Sox 22nd-round pick in 2010 but didn't sign, instead going to Miami-Dade College. Kovalik, a Slippery Rock University product, never got his name called but, like the others, eventually found himself in independent ball. Guillen played in four different circuits from 2014-18, Kovalik in three from 2014-17 and Godfrey for two seasons after being released by the Braves in the spring of 2017. All saw action in the Frontier League, and soon arrived at their crossroads.

"Something I always told myself throughout my playing career was that whenever I finish, I don't want to have any 'shoulda, coulda, wouldas' or regrets that maybe I could've done a little more," Godfrey said. "I think probably the middle of the season last year, I realized I was at that point, not going to be making the big leagues, so I thought it was time to move on."

"I suffered with injuries my whole career, and it got to the point that it was too much for me," Guillen said. "I knew it was time."

Kovalik, who saw his playing days end a year earlier, was coaching at his alma mater as his future colleagues were arriving at their conclusions. All three were about to intersect.

Ozney Guillen grew up in the orbit of success. He was 12 when his father, Ozzie, took over as White Sox manager in 2004 and, a year later, watched as the Sox steamrolled to their first World Series title since 1917. The younger Guillen played 383 independent league games and 76 more in the Venezuelan Winter League over five years. Then his next step emerged.

Tweet from @ValleyCats: Special night for the Guillens, as @OzneyGuillen collects his first W as a professional manager. Congratulations, Ozney! Here���s to many more! #Family #VamosGatos! pic.twitter.com/dgtwBmb3y1

"I remember reading an article on Justin Jirschele with the White Sox, and it told me that 'Hey, it's OK to be a manager at this age,'" Guillen said. "It's kind of like if you don't see it, you don't believe it. It was nice for him, and it kind of opened the doors [for me]."

He talked things over with family and began firing off resumes.

"I remember one of them getting to the Astros, and Omar Lopez, the [Double-A Corpus Christi] manager, is a manager in Venezuela I've played against a bunch of times," he said. "I remember we had a day off in Maracaibo, and he gives me a call. He's like, 'Are you really interested in managing?' I said, 'Yeah, of course,' and being with the Astros even more because I really wanted to learn their system and the way they do things."

The Astros were interested, too. Guillen got an interview and spoke with Houston's director of player development, Pete Putila, and 2018 Tri-City manager Jason Bell, among others. Houston was sold.

Godfrey likewise had his eyes on the Astros. The former Braves prospect had been doing private lessons and working with Indiana Southeast University's program as a volunteer coach when his opportunity knocked.

"I heard about the hitting coach position opening up for the Astros," he said. "I knew they were doing some really cool stuff and kind of leading the pack with a lot of technology and player development stuff and thought that would be something really cool to be involved in."

Apply. Interview. Accept.

It was a similar track for Kovalik, who was already going through a dry run of sorts for his first pro gig while at Slippery Rock.

"I got interested in using tech to develop my pitchers, collecting data," said Kovalik, now enmeshed in one of baseball's most tech-heavy organizations. "I knew our pitching coordinator (Bill Murphy) a little bit, and he reached out and told me about a position, and I went through the whole interview process and everything. And now I'm here."

In 2018, Tri-City won the NYPL with a 28-year-old manager in Bell, flanked by hitting coach Jeremy Barnes, 31, and pitching coach Erick Abreu, 35. They shared a league with 25-year-old manager Blake Butera in Hudson Valley. Jirschele, the skipper whose story helped inspire Guillen, got his first gig at 27 with Class A Kannapolis. What once seemed like an option only for grizzled veterans with fading careers is changing drastically, and the Astros are helping lead the way.

"This whole experience has been extremely humbling for me and just an absolute honor to be a part of an organization like the Astros," Kovalik said. "Just being able to be surrounded by the kind of people that I am on a daily basis like Sean and Oz, people I work with in the front office, it's just been amazing."

"I remember when I was growing up, all the managers were older, vets, guys in their later stages," Guillen said. "It's hard for a young player coming from Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, to deal with somebody they can't relate to. I think that makes a big difference.

"Being younger, closer to their age, even just music, what they like to do, how to keep them interested -- we use a lot of technology stuff -- I think coming from a younger person, you take that information better. I think it's awesome what [organizations] are doing. They're giving opportunities to really smart guys who know the game, and they've proven that."

Kovalik is less than four years older than his oldest ValleyCats pitcher, Hansel Paulino, but sees value in that dynamic.

"From a player's standpoint, I think it makes us approachable," the pitching coach said. "I think it just makes it easier to build those relationships and those connections just because we really aren't that far removed from where they are right now."

Still so close to their playing days, all three ValleyCats coaches emphasized one essential premise: openness.

"I think one of the biggest things with the player-coach relationship has got to be trust," Godfrey said. "Personally, I know from a player's standpoint, if I don't have trust with my coach or somebody who's trying to work with me, it's really tough to try to have any buy-in for what we're doing. As far as that relationship goes, that's the biggest thing I think I have going. Even though some of these guys I'm only four or five years older than, it's really not my job to be here and sugarcoat things. I've got to give it to them straight and do the best that I can."

Guillen agreed, taking lessons from his past.

"I think the biggest impact was just seeing my dad's day-to-day basis with the players," he said. "You become more of a psychologist than a manager just because these guys are talented.

"What I got from my father is just be honest with these guys. As a player, you know when your coach or manager is not being honest with you. You put up a wall, and that's not what I want to have with my players. I want them to know that I'm going to be there at the good times, and I'm definitely going to be there at the bad times. The bad times, I'm going to criticize you to make you better, and that's something that we've opened up in our team and our locker room."

With all three coaches embarking on their careers at the same time, Kovalik lauded their cohesion.

"We have a really good dynamic, and I definitely think it helps that we're all very close in age," he said. "We have a great relationship, and we feed off each other. We challenge each other to work hard and to better ourselves on a daily basis. I think a good understanding that we have as a staff is that at the end of the day, everything we do here is to benefit the players."

"I think we're the first coaching staff to ever have three Frontier League players," Guillen added with a laugh. "That helps a lot. It's a grind, man. I think that prepared us for this situation. Us three being uniquely in that situation at the same time has helped us bond and helped us make our players better."

A wealth of opportunities could lay ahead for Guillen, Godfrey and Kovalik. Two-thirds of last year's Tri-City staff, Bell (fundamentals) and Barnes (hitting), have risen to coordinator roles in the system. Abreu moved up to Class A Quad Cities. But the new staff's focus is on the short term, even if they are inheriting a lofty standard as reigning NYPL champs.

2019 MiLB include

"Winning is always important," Guillen said. "We are here to develop players, and building a winning culture is part of that. I think our big league team sets the standard of winning, and if you see our Minor League system all the way through, they're always winning. I think it's always important because when you get players used to winning, they will hate losing if you build that character in them and instill that in them. At the end of the day, our job is to develop these players, and we just want to get the best out of them and hopefully we do that."

Godfrey concurred.

"We had our Meet the Team Night before the opening game, and the fans are obviously all about the championships and winning," he said. "Our number one priority here is developing guys for the big leagues.

"But it is kind of cool to be a part of a team that won it last year. Who knows, hopefully we can be there again in a couple months."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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