As a player, Rafael Neda will always have a place in Timber Rattlers history. As a catcher, he was behind the plate and caught the season's final pitch as Brent Suter struck out Fort Wayne's Lee Orr to clinch the 2012 Midwest League Championship. He came back to play 85 more games for Wisconsin in 2014 and two years later he was back in the Midwest League again, making the transition from playing to coaching.
"It's been different, but it's been fun," Neda said. "It's a different perspective. As a player you're looking to perform better, but as a coach you're looking at the game from the outside, obviously, and you're just looking for ways to get the players ready and in a good position. You're looking for ways to advise them the best you can so they can perform better."
Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan said there are "a number of factors" that made Neda a good candidate to become a coach once he was done playing.
"He checked a lot of the boxes in terms of the basics: work ethic, mindset, temperament, the way he could possibly reach players or teach players, which is obviously a big key for us at this time. It's always a key, but especially now," Flanagan said.
Neda spent the first half of the 2016 season as an extra coach with the Timber Rattlers, shadowing manager Matt Erickson during his pre-game preparations, then going out to the bullpen to help some of the organization's youngest pitching prospects face the challenges of preparing to enter a game in relief.
"We're big on the tandem pitching philosophy, so we always have a starter that starts the game and then at some point, due to pitch count or how the game's progressing, we'll have to get that next pitcher ready," Flanagan said. "So a lot of times, you've got a lot of quality arms down in the pen that have never relieved before, they've been starters their whole amateur career and last year at Helena they may not have done it. So we thought that was a valuable position."
Neda spent the second half of the 2016 season with the Rookie-level Helena Brewers in a similar role, then spent time through the fall and winter at the Brewers' offseason camps in Arizona and the Dominican Republic. Finally, on January 26 the Brewers officially announced him as the new manager of the organization's Arizona Summer League team. Neda said he never expected to be a manager someday, but he's excited for the opportunity.
"I found out about it at the end of Instructs (the Brewers' fall Instructional League camp) last year," Neda said. "When I found out about it I was really excited. It was going to be a new step in my career, so I was really excited for that new announcement."
As a former catcher, Neda is the latest example of a trend of former backstops becoming managers in professional baseball.
"I think catchers always have a little bit of a leg up, just because they've been educated by the staff and worked so closely with the pitching coach and the manager on how they're going to attack guys on the field," Flanagan said. "So I think they're a little bit more advanced, and in Rafael's case specifically he was just a guy that always left a good impression on the staff in terms of the way he worked and the way he went about his business. I think it was a natural progression for him."
Neda noted that catchers get a different perspective during the game that could be beneficial as they move into coaching roles.
"I'm still kind of learning a new role, so I'm pretty sure I will learn more as I go on," Neda said. "But I do like that you can see the game from different views. So it's similar to the role of a catcher, you get to see the field in front of you and you have different views. So I can relate to that."
Neda will also be able to relate to his players in another way: As a native of Mexico, he'll be able to converse with his Spanish speaking players in their native language. It's a skill Helena manager Nestor Corredor (a native of Venezuela) also has, and Flanagan described it as "a bonus."
"Obviously both gentlemen are bilingual, so that's a big factor that helps just because direct communication is so key," Flanagan said. "I think being able to talk to people in their native language… at the lower level you get quite a few Latin players at those entry levels."
Neda, Corredor and many of the Brewers' roving instructors and coordinators will work together closely this spring. Because the Arizona and Helena teams play abbreviated seasons, both managers and their coaching staffs remain in Arizona for extended spring training after minor league camp wraps up in April. It will be the next step in Neda's learning process.
"The good thing about the Arizona Summer League is that it's a half-season league, so he'll have all of extended spring to manage and he'll have Nestor with him," Flanagan said. "He'll have our rovers down here with him, and he'll have a lot of people that have already been giving him guidance and will be able to do that in the spring. So he'll have a lot of experience to draw on up until the season and even during the season with people that are experienced on his coaching staff."
Neda is doing his best to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of the coaches around him.
"I'm just trying to get the best information I can get from all of our coaching staff," Neda said. "All of our pitching staff, all of our hitting coordinators and hitting coaches, I'm just trying to get the best information and put everything together. I'm just trying to learn from everyone, because they have more experience in that field than I do, so I'm just trying to get as much information as I can so I can have a broader feel for the game."
Neda will have a lot to learn in the months ahead, but Flanagan stressed that the learning process for coaches and managers is constant, even for those with more experience.
"Just as we say with players, the development never stops, with the staff we feel the same way," Flanagan said. "So regardless of whether he's managed before for a number of years or not, it's a definite learning process but more of that will take place this year."
Once the Arizona Summer League starts, Neda will be tasked with helping some of the organization's newest and youngest players make the adjustment to life in professional baseball. Flanagan said that development of a routine is one of the keys for players at that level.
"I think the biggest thing, the first year, is being able to facilitate the proper work day for the players," Flanagan said. "At the end of the day, at this level everything gets down to instruction and getting the correct amount of work done and done correctly."
Minor league players will frequently tell you that their primary goal is to keep getting better every day. A lot has changed for Neda since he became a manager, but that goal remains the same.
"I'm just trying to learn. Trying to become the best manager I can be and keep learning from every game, and just make the adjustment from game to game and keep improving," Neda said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.