Brewers embrace rookie manager Roenicke
Crew's skipper displays trust in young players, and vice versa
MILWAUKEE -- If there were any doubt that the Brewers picked the right manager from their field of four, Ron Roenicke erased it in late August. He surprised some of his own players by endorsing a Western-style dress-up day for a flight from Houston to St. Louis, making for quite a scene on the tarmac.Think Nyjer Morgan in head-to-toe denim and Prince Fielder in a red silk shirt, a 10-gallon hat and sunglasses. If Fielder was going for a spot-on impersonation of Hank Williams Jr., then he nailed it. Roenicke dressed the part, too. He was one of the guys. "No one really expected that," said closer John Axford, whose attire included holsters, not for pistols but for a cellphone and wallet. "I think Ron has done a great job of embracing this team and embracing the atmosphere he came into," Axford said. "At the same time, he sticks to his guns, the things he believes in. He's not one to give into outside thoughts or perceptions." In that balance lies Roenicke's greatest strength, players say. Instead of imposing a new order, he fit right into the existing order. But that is not to say Roenicke, 55, is a yes man to the players, which comes as little surprise considering he cut his coaching teeth alongside headstrong Angels manager Mike Scioscia. Then-Halos general manager Bill Stoneman hired Roenicke before the 2000 season while assembling what would become an All-Star coaching staff. Roenicke was the third Scioscia disciple to get a team of his own, joining Rays manager Joe Maddon and Padres skipper Bud Black. The group won a World Series in 2002 during the third of Roenicke's six seasons as the third-base coach. When Maddon left for Tampa Bay, Roenicke spent five more seasons as Scioscia's bench coach. "It just feels like he was prepared for this," said Brewers veteran Craig Counsell. "You feel like he was ready."
Roenicke's own wife, Karen, joked that he was the "dark horse" of a Milwaukee's field of four finalists that also included Bobby Valentine, a former Brewers coach in Bob Melvin (now the A's skipper) and an up-and-comer in White Sox bench coach Joey Cora. But Roenicke won the job after a string of solid interviews with general manager Doug Melvin and principal owner Mark Attanasio, including a final interview at Attanasio's Los Angeles home. The 18th manager in Brewers history had a short honeymoon. Milwaukee's Spring Training camp more resembled a medical ward than a baseball complex, with three potential Opening Day starters (pitcher Zack Greinke, right fielder Corey Hart and catcher Jonathan Lucroy) felled by injuries. Then came the Brewers' 0-4 start followed by some early-season road woes, including a seven-game losing streak in late April and early May. It left the club in fifth place in the National League Central. "Early in the year, we were really disappointed in the way we played," starter Randy Wolf said. "But Ron was always very calm about it. He always said he knows we were going to get on a roll, go on one of those streaks and get in the right direction, because we're too good not to. "So we never doubted ourselves, which is really big. If we doubted ourselves or panicked at all, then it would have been tough to come back." Asked about that now, Roenicke said the slow start feels like forever ago. He insists his confidence in the club's talent never wavered.
"I think the guys who have coached a long time understand that communication is so important. I saw it when [current Brewers bench coach] Jerry Narron went from coaching to managing -- Jerry was a great communicator. Ron has a calmness about him, too. You have to be that way in this game."
|-- GM Doug Melvin, on Ron Roenicke|
Does Roenicke believe the players were equally confident in him?"I hope so," Roenicke said. "I guess what I really hope is they know I'm behind them, no matter what happens. Whether we go through a tough losing streak, the tough road trips in the beginning that we would always go on, I'm still behind them and I believe they are a great team. And I still believe in the individuals, too." It comes down to trust, in both directions. "That's probably the most important thing there is for me," Roenicke said. Roenicke's managerial mantra was developed over a 12-year professional playing career, including eight seasons in the big leagues with six different teams under eight different managers. He became a Dodgers coach in 1992 and then managed in the Minor Leagues from 1994-99. Roenicke said he was free to experiment with different tactics in more than 600 games as a Minor League manager. He learned how easy a comment meant to motivate a player could instead upset a player. He learned how to help players perform at their best. And that, Roenicke believes, is the essence of managing in the Major Leagues. He just happens to be a believer that positive reinforcement goes farther than a kick in the pants. "I just know how I performed when a guy was on me all the time vs. how I performed when [he was simply allowed to play]," he said. "I knew a guy would always get on me about mistakes, but I knew the difference between when a guy really cared about me and getting me better as a player."
Outfielder Mark Kotsay is 35 years old, a 15-year veteran of the Major Leagues who has played for seven teams and nine managers. So it seemed appropriate to seek his expertise for a story about a manager who inherited high expectations and lived up to them. "You need to talk to the other guys -- the ones who were here last year," Kotsay said. In that answer lies one of the things Roenicke had working in his favor when he took the helm last October, the new guy in a clubhouse of old buddies who have played together since they were bonus babies in the Minor Leagues. Roenicke was not Ken Macha, the man who managed the Brewers for the previous two seasons with a very different style. Macha played his Major League ball for no-nonsense skippers like Montreal's Dick Williams and led a club in the same way. Yes, the door was always open, but Macha was less apt to walk out into the clubhouse and find someone to pull in.
"Early in the year, we were really disappointed in the way we played. But Ron [Roenicke] was always very calm about it. He always said he knows we were going to get on a roll, go on one of those streaks and get in the right direction, because we're too good not to."
|-- Randy Wolf|
Roenicke is simply different, and he made it clear from the start."Macha did good by me," Axford said. "But the young personalities in here that form the core part of this team, Ron fits the mold quite a bit better. Everyone in the clubhouse has embraced him from Day 1." The key is communication, said Kotsay, who also played for Macha in Oakland. It's a trait of Roenicke's that players have praised all season. "There have always been personalities in the game, but what's new is a manager having to justify things more now, as opposed to, 'It's black or white,'" Kotsay said. "Players now always want more information, more reason for what's going on." The Brewers' clubhouse is full of players who operate under that mind-set, which is one of the reasons Macha did not necessarily mesh. Roenicke promised from his first news conference in Milwaukee that his philosophy was different. "I think the guys who have coached a long time understand that communication is so important," Melvin said. "I saw it when [current Brewers bench coach] Jerry Narron went from coaching to managing -- Jerry was a great communicator. Ron has a calmness about him, too. You have to be that way in this game. "This is a big job for him -- his first year as manager. I'm not down here, but whatever he's done, obviously, it works. We're having a very good season, we haven't had too many issues, and it appears things are working." Melvin's major concern was that Roenicke had spent the past 11 years in the American League and would be unfamiliar with even the Brewers' established players. Early on, Melvin said, Roenicke demonstrated an ability to read players' strengths and weaknesses and an ability to accept input. "Sometimes, these managers are not as willing to listen," Melvin said. "It's no different than a general manager's job -- you have to listen to all of your scouts and then make your decisions." Some would say Roenicke stepped into a difficult situation when he took over as the Brewers' manager last October. He was the new guy in a clubhouse of old friends. He was also a first-time manager without the usual first-time expectations. This was no building club. This was a contender. So, some would argue that Roenicke stuck his neck out in a way most rookie managers do not. Counsell is not among them. "If you ask any manager, they'll take the good players," Counsell said. "You can't win without good players. That's been pretty proven."