It seems like an unlikely match, but instead, it might be the perfect one.
Former big leaguer Ted Kubiak will lead the Mahoning Valley Scrappers into New York-Penn League action this evening for the third straight season. The Scrappers open at Jamestown against the Jamestown Jammers at 7:05 p.m. Kubiak manages a team that has several players on it that weren’t born 21 years ago, when he began providing minor league instruction with the Cleveland Indians.
But, for a 72-year old who has two World Series rings and a 10-year big league career under his belt, Kubiak enjoys the challenge and development of managing the Short Season-A team.
“It’s different, we’re developing,” Kubiak said on Thursday. “We’re more or less letting these kids play. What I’m imparting to them is maybe a little bit of how to deal with the game. We can teach them all the fundamentals, but I think what they see in how we handle things can calm them down a little bit.”
Kubiak’s Scrappers are a copulation of players from extended spring training. For most players, this is their first professional team outside of the Arizona League. Players don’t just have to play the game, but ride busses and live with host families while trying to develop individually and win as a team. That growth and development is as important as winning in Kubiak’s mind and a challenge he graciously accepts. It’s one of the reasons he enjoys managing at Mahoning Valley.
“I manage the game differently,” Kubiak said. “I don’t manage the game to win—I do—I always want to win, but their development comes first. There may be situations where maybe I should be bunting or we should be hitting-and-running or stealing or something, pitchers are gonna have to throw through tough situations instead of pulling them out. They need to learn all that stuff, so they need to experience it. We need to see what they can do in that situation.”
Making that development work with winning is what Kubiak enjoys.
“It’s more of a challenge. I look at it more as a challenge, how do I make this work and still develop and I kind of like that.”
This season’s Scrappers will field a lineup mostly of players who have been with the organization for at least a year, if not longer, and have been playing together at extended spring training. Francisco Mejia will see a bulk of the catching time. The 18-year old, switch-hitting catcher hit .305 last summer in the Arizona League. Leo Castillo at first base, Ordomar Valdez at second base and Yonathan Mendoza at third base will welcome Austin Fisher to the infield. Fisher was selected in the 13th round last Saturday as a shortstop from Kansas State University. Already signed, Fisher is expected to be in tonight’s lineup.
In the outfield, D’vone McClure, Josh McAdams and Joel Mejia will see the majority of the time in the beginning. McClure was a fourth round selection in the 2012 First Year Player Draft out of high school. He turned down scholarship offers to play wide receiver at both Arkansas and Auburn. McClure has outstanding athleticism and has worked the last two years to develop as an outfielder and a professional hitter at the plate.
The outfield could have some new members once the Indians sign more of their 2014 draft class. Bradley Zimmer and Mike Papi are expected to join the Scrappers for their first taste of professional play once they reach a contract agreement. Zimmer was the 21st selection overall from the University of San Francisco, Papi the 38th overall pick is from the University of Virgina and a former teammate of Kyle Crockett.
Kubiak faces a new challenge this season, with the NYPL season beginning a week earlier. Cleveland still has many unsigned draft picks from last week’s First Year Player Draft. Players going from college straight to the professional game often are faced with challenges of their own—even if they don’t want to admit it, according to Kubiak.
“If you ask every one of them, probably to a man they will say that it’s not that different, but it is,” Kubiak said. “It’s not that what they’re seeing is that much better than what they’ve played against, but doing it every day against the top guys night after night, that’s hard.
“The game is very difficult to play as it is, I think. Just getting them used to playing every day, doing all the pre-work then playing the game, going to lift. It’s a culture shock.”
Like many things on the Scrappers, their pitching rotation will be an ever-developing work in progress. They’ll open with Sean Brady on the mound this evening in Jamestown. Brady, a left-hander, was 0-1, with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings and 10 starts last summer in the Arizona League. Brady was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 First Year Player Draft. Behind Brady will be right-handers Luis DeJesus, Juan Santana and Kieran Lovegrove. Concerns with pitch counts and how much stamina some college pitchers have remaining cause the rotation to always be a fluid situation.
Regardless of role on the field or the mound, the goal of Kubiak, pitching coach Greg Hibbard and hitting coach Phil Clark is to begin the growth of professionals. Learning to play the game the right way as they begin their pro career is the first step toward a long career. Having spent a lot of time with many of the Scrappers at the Indians complex in Goodyear, Arz., Kubiak looks forward to the next 10 weeks with the group and their maturation.
“They seem to be different here, but getting out of Arizona would be a joy anyway, but they’re just a bunch of good kids,” Kubiak said. “We always have a good bunch of kids here. I just want to keep them in a good frame of mind. I want them to enjoy the game.”
“I told them the other day, I said, ‘Here’s the way we’re going to play the game: learn how to play it professionally, do it right, stay on an even keel, push yourself all the time and you will find out what you can or can’t do and we’ll help you out.’”
Kubiak would know better than most about what it takes to stay in professional baseball. He was signed as an amateur free agent in 1961 by the Kansas City Athletics and had a 10-year big league career from 1967-76, playing seven of those years with the Athletics in Kansas City and Oakland. After his playing career ended, Kubiak thought he was done with baseball.
“When I quit playing, I was so angry at the game because of trying to fight for money and I wasn’t happy with the way I was playing any more,” Kubiak said. “I was out of the game for 12 years. I didn’t want to coach or anything to do with the game.”
But in 1989, Kubiak had a change of heart and living on the west coast, he decided to try and get back into the game as a coach.
“As the years go by, you change your thinking a little bit,” Kubiak said. “I had seen the way the game had changed. I had been reading about Oakland’s change in philosophy and I liked what I was hearing, so I sent a resume to Oakland and San Francisco and wound up getting a job in Oakland. Then, I came (to the Indians) and this is one of the best things that has happen to me.”
“Cleveland is a great organization and a good place to be. It’s been a good 21 years so far.”
Now, Kubiak has managed 2185 minor league games in his 20 year managerial career between the Oakland and Cleveland organizations. From 2004-2008, Kubiak was a roving instructor with the Indians, his only seasons of his coaching career he did not manage. Only two of his seasons, 1994-95 at Canton-Akron, have been managed above the A-ball level. Despite having played for legendary manager Dick Williams and playing with Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue in Oakland, his comfort level is more at home in places like Mahoning Valley. Rarely does he mention his playing career or discuss it with his players.
“I don’t think they know anything about it,” Kubiak said. “You’d have to ask them. I don’t really say anything about it.”
“They might like to know, but what matters to them is how I treat them and what I do for them. I think I’m happy to say I have a lot of them in there that kinda think I’m ok.”
Kubiak doesn’t focus on his past, just on his player’s present and what they can do to be better in their future.
“Just do what you’re doing today. Be better tomorrow than you were today. If you look at every day as a stepping stone, it all takes care of itself.”
Photo: Mike Brandyberry/DTTWLN photographer