Phillip Wellman's enthusiasm of being named the Missions' manager a year ago was evident.
After all, Wellman was away from baseball the previous season for the first time in 31 years. So having the opportunity to return was warmly-welcomed. In his case, the situation was even more special since it meant returning to the town where he lived during his younger days.
Now, Wellman, who worked in the Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Los Angeles Angels' organizations prior to joining the San Diego Padres, is more excited about being back in his old stomping grounds.
"It is always exciting for me," said Wellman, who stopped for a visit at Wolff Stadium with his wife Montee prior to heading to spring training in Peoria, Ariz. "It is truly like coming home. I was really excited last year. I'm more excited this year.
"When I go to spring training I will at least have a clue of the names of the players. Last year I had to depend on Jimmy Jones (pitching coach) because I didn't know any of the pitchers. I didn't know a lot of the position players, either, but (hitting coach) Johnny Washington (now first base coach with the Padres) helped me. It will be to our advantage to at least know who the players are and what they're capable of doing."
Missions president Burl Yarbrough is happy to have Wellman returning. He was impressed with the way the former Madison High School baseball player ran the show last year and his fan-friendly approach. As an extra bonus, he likes the idea of having a manager, who grew up in the area.
This is the second time for Yarbrough and the Missions to have that luxury. Prior to becoming skipper at Toronto, former MacArthur standout John Gibbons managed the San Antonio squad in 2012.
"This is an exciting time," Yarbrough said. "Last year were fortunate to have Phillip join us. We're excited to have him back another year. He grew up here playing high school baseball. I know this is a great situation for him. He has two brothers living here and they're out here a lot. Another brother lives in Austin and comes to the games. His parents live in Marlin, but they come back to watch every homestand. So, it is a good situation."
Yarbrough is equally impressed with his baseball knowledge and knack for getting the best from players.
"He is a guy who played minor league baseball and knows what it is all about," Yarbrough said. "He had all those great years with the Atlanta Braves. There was nobody better developing players than the Atlanta Braves in the 80s and 90s. He was with that system a long time and I know he learned how to do things the right way. That experience helps."
Although Wellman enjoyed being back home, the 2016 season was filled with challenges. Not only was the new Missions manager trying to get to know the players on the run, the majority were getting their introduction to Double-A baseball.
Making the jump had its growing pains as the Missions sputtered through a 22-48 record in the first half. However, things picked up in the second half.
Quality players from Single-A joined the team and made major contributions, including Franchy Cordero (.306 with six home runs,19 RBI), Ryan Miller, River Stevens and pitchers Rafael De Paula (4-2, 2.44 ERA) and Kyle McGrath (1-2, 1.29 ERA). In addition, players like Nick Schulz (.282, 10 home runs, 50 RBI), Gabriel Quintana and Nelson Ward began to mature. That combination led to a 36-34 showing.
Because the roster is uncertain at this point, it's too early to tell how the Missions will fare in the Texas League this year. However, Wellman expects several of the players from last season to start the season in San Antonio. Their experience, plus talented prospects moving to Double-A could lead to a better start.
"We were outmanned in the first half last year," Wellman said. "But I enjoyed the kids even when we were getting our rear ends handed to us. They came to work every day. They came to get better. They bought in to what we were doing and got better. Hopefully, we're through that little lull and we'll come out the gates better."
Through it all, Wellman learned a great deal last season. But that's nothing out of the ordinary. His baseball education is ongoing.
"I still have a passion for the game," Wellman said. "I learn something every year. The day I stop learning is the day I leave, because for me the most dangerous people in the world are those who think they're smarter than everybody.
So, what was the main lesson last year?
"I learned the importance of staying the course," Wellman said. "You keep with the message and theme that you lay forth from day one. You don't panic and try to change, because you're not winning. Guys knew what to expect every day. I think because we didn't go out of our way to change things, they bought in and respected it. We didn't panic and they didn't panic."
Being in Double-A brings added incentive. Wellman has worked at that level 20 years and loves the opportunities that come with the territory.
"I still think Double-A is the best," Wellman said. "I think that level has more prospects than even Triple-A. I really think the kids who show up here are still anxious and hungry. They want to learn. They want to get better. They run balls out. They play the game hard. I enjoy and admire this level for that reason. They're very enthusiastic."
So is Phillip Wellman.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.