Results tagged ‘ Craig Counsell ’
If you’ve been following the blog, you know that I recently finished reading Brewers TV announcer and former player Bill Schroeder’s new book, “If These Walls Could Talk.” It is a fun, light read that will make you laugh out loud.
The second book on Cait’s Summer Reading List was also written by a member of the Brewers staff; however, it is on the opposite end of the baseball book spectrum.
That’s because new Brewers Pitching Coach Derek Johnson has quite literally written the book on pitching.
Published in 2013, Johnson wrote “The Complete Guide to Pitching,” while serving as associate head coach and pitching coach at Vanderbilt. The book is divided into three parts: the science of pitching, the art of pitching and total body conditioning. The book is aimed at kids as young as 8 up through college and is at times, heavily technical; Johnson talks mechanics, pitch selection, fielding, and mental strategies.
While I’m not really the intended audience for the book, I still wanted to read it before sitting down with our new coach for an interview. I was surprised to come away with not only a new perspective on a very complex part of the game, but also some great insight into Johnson’s frame of mind as a coach.
After reading the book, I had so much I wanted to talk with him about that our interview lasted almost an hour. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed picking his brain!
FROM BARN BALL TO THE BIGS
Johnson, 44, was born in Illinois and graduated from Eastern Illinois University, where he was a lefty pitcher, earning All Mid-Continent Conference honors; majored in P.E. and minored in English; and would later get his first job as a coach.
“I always liked to write and I liked literature; I like to read,” Johnson said, of his choice to minor in English. Johnson said that he has also always wanted to write a book, but it wasn’t until an opportunity came knocking that he had the chance. But we’ll get to that.
Johnson has always had a strong passion for the game. He grew up in a small town called Arrowsmith, Illinois. His grandfather had a farm and Johnson spent a lot of time there.
“It was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring. I spent a lot of time by myself, too, and I kind of gravitated toward something I could do on my own. I threw a lot of balls up against the stoop, I threw a lot of balls up against the barn, I threw a lot of fly balls off pitches of roofs. I read a lot about it. I knew all sorts of stats when I was little. So growing up, that pretty quickly became my favorite.”
Like many little boys, Johnson dreamed of making it to the Major Leagues and, even though he had success in college, he decided to go the coaching route instead.
“I likely would have been a one or two year minor league player; I would have been released. Then I would have had to start my career. As it turns out, I started my career out right away. I was coaching the year after I was done playing. Looking back, it probably worked out for the best that way because I started coaching right away.”
Right out of college, Johnson coached for his college team, where he found himself in a similar position to Craig Counsell when Counsell stepped into his role as manager last season—he was now coaching some of his former teammates.
“The trick of that was to be able to separate yourself because most of the guys on the team were your friends. So you’re walking a fine line. Even the first three or four years, you’re not that much older than the players. So, you had to really do a good job of separating yourself,” Johnson said.
From there, he coached at Southern Illinois University (1995-97) and Stetson University (1998-2001) before making a home at Vanderbilt for 11 years, serving as associate head coach in addition to pitching coach over his final three seasons at the school.
At Vanderbilt, Johnson received many accolades—he was named college baseball’s National Pitching Coach of the Year (2004) and National Assistant Coach of the Year (2010)—and helped lead the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance in 2011, guiding a staff that featured eight pitchers who were selected in the First-Year Player Draft.
To date, as a college coach, Johnson has guided the collegiate careers of 11 pitchers who have played in the Major Leagues, including David Price and Sonny Gray. Although Price and Gray are very different pitchers, Johnson says that his coaching style stays constant.
“You root yourself in fundamentals and fundamentals don’t necessarily change across the board,” Johnson explained. “Your personality doesn’t change. Some of the things that you say are the same. Some of the ways that you go about it are different. That’s really the trick of coaching…to try to push the right button and try to figure out what makes this guy work compared to this guy. Every situation is different and every guy is different, so we have a lot of layers that we’re dealing with all the time.”
Johnson graduated to pro ball in 2013 when he took the position of Minor League Pitching Coordinator with the Chicago Cubs. In that role, Johnson was responsible for all of the minor league pitching in the Cubs organization—from their academy in Venezuela to their Triple-A team in Des Moines, Iowa.
“That was obviously a new experience for me. I was a college coach for a long time and was used to having 15 or 16 pitchers. Now I have a 100. I couldn’t be with those 100 every day. I had to develop relationships with guys on the run. So again, just in terms of my education about how people work and how this pro game works and what my role, what my function was, I was learning a lot of things on the fly. It was a lot of fun. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to do it,” he said.
And in 2016, after college ball and spending some time in the minors, here Johnson is, pitching coach for the Brewers, fulfilling a dream he had as a kid.
“It took me 45 years to make it to the Big Leagues,” Johnson said with a smile.
Every new position has its learning curve and pitching coach is no different.
For Johnson, he’s working at a different level of the game, getting to know each individual on his pitching staff, and shifting back into game mode after traveling extensively in his role as Minor League Pitching Coordinator.
“Probably the biggest (difference between college and the Major Leagues) is that these guys are already kind of made in some ways. In college they’re very impressionable. You can almost do whatever you want. They’re that ball of clay, so to speak. In college you kind of have to teach them every aspect of the game. Here they know a lot, about all the parts of the game, so you don’t have to teach them as much. It’s more nuance, so your eye has to be even keener on some of the smaller details. At this point, too, it’s taking what they do really well and trying to make that great. In college you’re taking what’s okay and making it good. It’s further refinement in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Johnson said.
Coming into this new role, just as Johnson had to work on developing relationships with all the pitchers in the Cubs Minor League system during his time with that organization, Johnson has also had to get to know all of the Brewers pitchers in a fairly short period of time. Over his career, he had run into a few of them in college or the minor leagues, but he had never worked with any of them directly.
And, after spending a couple of months with them, Johnson says, he’s still building those relationships.
“I know these players but I don’t know everything about them. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to get in the heat of the moment. We haven’t gone through every scenario yet. The season is—it’ s almost cliché to say—that it’s young, but at the same time, my relationship with them and my understanding of them…I’m still trying to get there. And it takes a while. I can even remember at Vanderbilt. The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores and part of that is just because you’ve had a year to get to really know them. You know what makes them tick, you see what they’re like in the heat of battle, you see what they’re like in adversity, you see how they recover from something bad happening to them. We’re still kind of in the early stages of that. It’s easy to know someone as a person, like I’ve known them for 7-8 weeks, so I kind of know what they’re like, but I don’t know them and that takes awhile,” Johnson said.
As Johnson mentioned, at this level, it’s more about refinement. As part of the getting-to-know-you process, Johnson says he had conversations with all of his pitchers after first taking the position and then, once Spring Training rolled around, it was more about seeing what he had to work with—not necessarily making any major overhauls at this point.
“You’re not making any sort of wholesale changes with these guys, especially in Spring Training. You’re just kind of watching—what do they do, what’s their routine like, how do they work— and just try to figure out from there where we’re going,” Johnson said. “It’s been fun so far. I mean a real education, no question.”
And it’s an on-going education. With the team in rebuilding mode and the roster also in flux due to injuries, it’s only been a little over a month into the season and already Johnson has seen 19 pitchers make an appearance on the active roster.
On game day, you’ll find Johnson at the ballpark well in advance of the game watching video from the previous day, to try to confirm scouting reports or help make any sort of adjustments. He’ll also talk about that day’s game plan and make his notes on that.
“I’ve been doing a lot of quality pitch stuff with our starters, so it’s going back and determining how many quality pitches we’re throwing. That’s preparing us for whatever side work we have that day,” Johnson said.
Then it’s a matter of preparing the side work, going through it with the pitchers, and then it’s game time.
On a daily basis, Johnson works with both the starters and the relievers.
“Obviously the bulk of my time is with the starters, but I try to get out and watch the relievers play catch and kind of talk through different things that I saw the night before, or we have a pre-series meeting for scouting, so of course I’m there and (Bullpen Coach) Lee (Tunnell) leads that, but I chime in as much as possible.”
Johnson said his relationship with the relievers is one that he works hard at maintaining.
“I’ve heard where some coaches really don’t do that, it’s mostly hang with their starters and let the bullpen guy take care of the bullpen pitchers. I’m not sure that would work for me personally just relationship-wise. I want to get to know those guys and I want them to know we’re here to help if needed,” he said.
So what does a pitching coach do during the game?
Johnson said he’s not calling the game from the dugout. That’s on the pitcher and catcher. Actually…
“Truly, it’s on the pitcher. It’s a suggestion. The catcher is giving a suggestion and the pitcher is nodding his head yes or no and that’s the way it should be. We have places to grow there, chances to grow there as a staff as this year moves on,” he says.
Johnson says what he’s most focused on is looking ahead to match-ups for the bullpen.
“A lot of it is trying to figure out matches for our bullpen, as it goes. Sometimes it feels like you have to have a crystal ball because you have to look 5-6 hitters in advance for that. And then it’s trying to put out little brushfires during the game. Maybe what we could do from at-bat to at-bat. I’m really fortunate. I’ve got two older catchers who take a lot of pride in the way they call the game and what they know. I’ve got a lot of younger pitchers out there who have to execute. It’s a premium thing and they’re learning how to do that. I can focus on maybe making small adjustments from at bat to at bat but then you think ahead to who we’re going to pitch if this happens or if that happens…. There are a lot of layers,” he said.
And what’s really going on when he does make a visit to the mound?
“Usually my thought on a mound visit is you’re looking for an out or you’re looking to slow the guy down; those are really the two reasons and they can both work together,” Johnson explained.
“He needs to slow down and you need an out. Again this is where getting to know guys and understanding their personality in the heat of the moment, or getting to know what his language is, so for me, that’s a really tricky one and it’s going to be different with every pitcher out there. I like to talk about what’s going to happen and kind of paint a picture of what’s going to happen with the next guy. Sometimes it’s just about saying ‘Hey I’m just out here to give you a break, that’s it. You’re doing fine. This hitter is… this is what we’ve done with him,’ maybe here’s a suggestion or two… in some cases, it’s going out and saying ‘Hey we definitely can pitch around this guy, this is what we have going on,’ so there’s some strategy things, too. Really the trick is, it’s sort of the contact and the human element of it. I want to see where his eyes are at. I want to see his mannerisms to say ‘hey this guy’s vibrating right now; we need to maybe think about getting him out,’” he continued.
Johnson stresses the importance of routine for a pitcher and we discussed what one might do between starts.
“Every guy’s a little bit different and they shape their routine differently, but typically, the day after (a start) is a pretty heavy recovery or starting the recovery process. The next day, a lot of our guys won’t throw. Some of them will throw, but just very, very lightly. I give them a choice, however they want to do that. So much at this level is kind of working off what makes them feel right. The key element of the whole thing is within four days they need to recover as best they can. As the season goes, that gets harder, so it changes and tweaks as the season goes, but typically that’s going to be his kind of day. The second day (after the start) is going to be a side day. He’ll throw 30-45 pitches depending on what they need and what we’re working on. One of the things we’ve tried really hard to do is evaluate the last game and pull things from it to be able to work on in the bullpen.”
Johnson doesn’t believe in doing the same thing in the bullpen every time. He likes to focus on what worked well and what can be improved.
He says that the next couple of days, there will be one or two strength sessions, with the day before the starter pitches being a lighter day.
“I have them work on some pick-off stuff on flat ground. Some guys choose to do a flat ground and then day five is pitch. So you’re getting a couple of strength sessions in, lots of arm care, the throwing varies from guy to guy and then any sort of skill work, drill work type stuff that we want to employ,” Johnson said.
Speaking of drills, it was obvious beginning in Spring Training that Johnson is a big proponent on working on fundamentals, an approach that should serve him well with a younger team.
“I think small things change everything. I think it’s easy to leave out details because there are so many of them. This game is great because it’s intricate. It’s great because there are so many nuances and ways to approach it, but I believe in the end that small things can change everything,” Johnson stated. “Really at this point in these guys’ careers, they’re obviously really pretty fine-tuned and they kind of are what they are in a lot of ways, too, so making wholesale changes, big adjustments, that’s not going to happen. But you can effect change through something small. It’s like the Butterfly Effect….That’s a big thing as a coach to do, to effect change positively and not negatively. So my feeling is you’ve got to keep it fun, you’ve got to keep it light, but you also have to take care of the detail parts of the game.”
CALL TO THE PEN
Although I’ve seen Johnson’s unique and thorough approach to the game in action for just a short period of time, hearing him talk it’s easy to see why he was sought out to write his book by the publisher, Human Kinetics.
Johnson said originally, they thought the book could be done in a year, but instead, it took five.
“It took five because I wanted to do it right. It took five because I revised it a lot,” Johnson said.
He says that for the most part, writing the book came easy because he had a lot of the material already; however, the most difficult part was trying to appeal to such a wide audience of 8-year-olds to college players.
“Baseball is very incremental in a lot of different ways, so what you’re giving to an 8-year-old for them to understand is completely different compared to how you’re coaching a college kid. So to write that book is really hard….I had to cut a lot out. So, it’s a good book, but it wasn’t exactly the book I would’ve wanted to write. I would’ve left the 8-year-old out, to be honest. I would’ve wanted to be more technical, but still I’m very proud of it,” he said.
While the technical/mechanical side of pitching also didn’t apply to me directly, I did find a lot of the foundational and mental components of Johnson’s book to be fascinating.
I think that this passage in particular tells you a lot about what Johnson brings to the Brewers: “I believe that to be successful, a pitcher must first possess and exhibit four essential traits: (1) a work ethic that will not take ‘no’ for an answer; (2) the ability to prepare at a championship level every day; (3) accountability for himself and his career; and (4) a sense of humility for himself and the game. In turn, these traits create a mind-set, a mentality. The pitcher must have the mind-set of a champion—the mind-set of a warrior.”
At one point in the book, Johnson describes a hypothetical situation that he would give his college pitchers at the beginning of a new season, designed to help them keep the game as small and as manageable as possible:
“I first ask the pitchers how long it takes to deliver a pitch from start to finish….They usually respond by guessing 2 or 3 seconds per pitch, depending on the outcome. Next, I ask them how many pitches a starter would normally throw in a game to which they reply, ‘Approximately 100.’ I then stress that if each pitch and outcome takes approximately 2 or 3 seconds and the pitcher throws 100 pitchers, then the pitcher must be ready to focus intently and stay present for approximately 200 to 300 seconds, or 3.3 to 5 minutes per game. I point out that is this very obtainable! I finish by explaining that the pitcher can spend the rest of the time using positive self-talk, practicing white noise (nothingness), or planning for the next inning while sitting in the dugout.”
Fascinated by this (Hey! That’s pretty smart. I could even apply that approach to my golf game!), I asked him more about it. Johnson explained his thought process:
“You have to focus, you have to concentrate, you have to bear down. I’ve heard coaches say, ‘Three hours, that’s all it takes’ and I got to thinking about that one time and you know, it’s really not true. It’s not three hours. When you break it down to the small parts of the game, and say ‘I need to be totally immersed for five minutes,’ I think that helps pitchers manage it. If you’re ever tried to concentrate for three hours…that’s not easy. I don’t know many that can, so anyway, that’s where that came from,” he said.
Johnson also stresses the importance of catchers in his book and talked about how fortunate the Brewers are to have two great catchers in Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado helping the young pitching staff along.
“They both work really hard. They do their homework. They understand scouting. They’re looking at video of opposing hitters and trying to come up with a game plan of what we’re going to do. The toughest part about a game plan—number one is executing it and number two is to take the individual who is going to pitch that night and customizing it to him. So it’s really knowing our pitchers very well, what they can and what they can’t do on any given day. Unfortunately, you have guys who have A and B and C games and sometimes that C game is tough. You’re kind of wobbling through it. But our guys do a good job with doing their homework on the opposing hitters and trying to figure out things that we’re going to do against them. Then there’s the in-game part of it, too. You’re evaluating from at-bat to at-bat, you’re evaluating from pitch to pitch, because some of these guys will sit on pitches. Some guess. There’s always a little bit of cat and mouse going, but I think our guys are well-equipped. They work hard at the scouting part of it. I feel like our younger players are in very capable hands,” he said.
Goal-setting is something else that Johnson talks about in his book, and that’s something he has emphasized now at the Major League level as well. (You’ll also recall new Brewers Bench Coach Pat Murphy also spoke about the importance of goals in his interview, too.)
“I talk about ‘double vision’ in the book and that’s having your eye on today and your eye on the future. That’s to me a really important part because these guys are trying to stay in the game as long as possible. So you do have to take care of today, but you have to understand the broader picture and the future part of it, too,” Johnson said.
Johnson also discusses the concepts of team unity vs. team chemistry in his book and he believes that the dynamic of our team has been pretty good so far.
“Chemistry happens in my mind as a result of a process, as a result of things that happen along the way that bond, or don’t. But unity can happen just in terms of it all pulling in the same direction. We talked about that in Spring Training. There are going to be some rough patches, but I think we’ve had some older guys who have really stepped up, both on the pitching staff and on the position side and I think it’s held the boat together. I mean, we’ll see, because chemistry is a process of things that happen over time, but I think right now we’re unified enough and we’re trying to stay on the same page. I’ve had really good looks at that and it’s good,” Johnson said.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
While his staff has had its share of pitching struggles so far in this young season, Johnson has acknowledged this publicly and believes better days are ahead.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to do right by these guys and try to help them perform as best they can. I feel as responsible for his as they do. That’s just the way I am…. I want to believe there will be better days ahead…. I’m not the one throwing the pitches, but at the same time, I’m the one responsible for it or partly responsible. I’d like for it to be going better. It sure would help me out a lot. But that’s what I’m here for,” Johnson told Journal Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt in a recent interview.
With a young team and a lot of new faces, it can be difficult to build the team chemistry, but Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff have clearly brought this team together in a short amount of time. Now, it’s a matter of further fine-tuning those skills of the pitching staff through a focus on routine and fundamentals.
Tonight, following the Brewers-Padres game, many Brewers players and coaches headed over to the Hitters Baseball Academy in Racine to take part in a special event benefiting bullpen catcher and Racine native Marcus Hanel’s charity–and raised over $55,000 in the process.
Marcus has always had a desire to help children and so, about 12 years ago, he formed “Koos for Kids,” a charity focusing on helping terminally ill and disadvantaged children in the area.
Fans attending tonight’s event received dinner, autographs from Brewers players, entertainment from the Jesse White Tumblers, and the opportunity to participate in auctions and raffles. Of course proceeds from the event went to the Koos for Kids organization, where they are used to give back to the community.
Over the years, Koos for Kids has been able to help numerous terminally ill children by purchasing them laptops, iPads, zoo passes, airline tickets, animals…whatever it might be that makes their days a little brighter.
Hanel was also excited to announce that Koos for Kids is offering a scholarship program: “ We’ll be giving $2500 each for college to two kids of need in Racine. They will get an opportunity to advance and go to school. It’s a pretty cool thing so we’re excited to implement that.”
Here are some photos from tonight’s event:
Koos for Kids has also purchased over 3000 winter coats for disadvantaged children in the local area, as well as organized and run the Challenger Baseball League, where over 60 children with special needs can come and be part of a team and learn the game of baseball. And there are countless other ways they have helped the local community, thanks to the support of many businesses and caring individuals.
To learn more about Koos for Kids, keep informed of upcoming events and find out how you can help, click here.
Comedian Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias, along with fellow comics Martin Moreno, Alfred Robles, and G. Reilly, came out to Miller Park early this afternoon to take a little batting practice and to meet with some of the Brewers players and coaches.
Iglesias, who was not at all camera shy, documented the afternoon with photos, video, tweets and Snapchats, much to my pleasure as Director of New Media:
Here are some additional photos from their afternoon at the ballpark:
Iglesias, who also has a show called ‘Fluffy Breaks Even’ on Fuse, is in town for three shows at the Riverside (last night, tonight and tomorrow) and Coach Pat Murphy raised a good question:
For those of you scoring at home, Iglesias also joined us on the field for a first pitch back in 2014:
Everyone from the group was so kind and seemed to have a really great time. It was nice to get the chance meet them and spend some time with them this afternoon. Good luck with the shows!
You probably were already planning on it, but you’ll want to be sure to wear your Brewers player apparel to Miller Park now through May 4!
When you wear your player gear (past or present) at the Brewers Team Store, you will receive a coupon for an immediate $5 discount off of your purchase of player product, including player name and number t-shirts, player fashion tees, bobbles, pennants, jerseys, photos, etc. (Sorry– game-used memorabilia and sale items are not included.)
Your savings will be valid that day only at the following Miller Park locations: any of the four Brewers Team Store locations, Hank’s Hangout and Bernie’s Chalet.
In case you haven’t already seen some of the new player fashion tees for 2016, I’ve got a look at some of them here for you.
Craig Counsell’s shirt calls to his Wisconsin roots growing up in Whitefish Bay and later, his time spent as a Brewers player, including the Club’s most recent trips to the Postseason.
Taylor Jungmann’s player tee features the new Ball & Glove logo scattered inside his letters and numbers, a nod to the fans’ overwhelming support for the new alternate logo.
Jonathan Lucroy sports his trusty chest protector, also bearing the new Ball & Glove logo, as well his moniker – LUUUUC!
Ryan Braun’s tee is a play off of the popular home run call – “Going, going, gone!” – something Brewers fans hear often when the slugging outfielder steps to the plate.
I recently finished reading a new book about the Milwaukee Brewers entitled, “If These Walls Could Talk.” The book was written by Brewers TV announcer and former player Bill Schroeder (aka “Rock”) with Drew Olson, an on-air host for 540 ESPN and senior editor/columnist for ESPNWisconsin.com. The book also contains forewords by Bob Uecker and Craig Counsell.
Schroeder, who has been part of the Brewers family since he was drafted in 1979, chronicles the Brewers from his playing days through his current days as a broadcaster.
The book is broken up into five sections: Brewers Greats, Smorgasbord of Stories, Great Games, Behind the Scenes and In the Booth.
Divided up in such a fashion, the book is a quick and easy read.
In “Brewers Greats,” Schroeder talks about Brewers greats Bud Selig, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Bob Uecker.
In “Smorgasbord of Stories,” Schroeder provides answers to some commonly asked questions such as “What are you favorite restaurants in X city?” and “What are your favorite ballparks?” along with a firsthand account of the 1986 clubhouse explosion during Spring Training in Chandler, and a deep dive into Brewers nicknames throughout the years.
Schroeder then chronicles what he feels are some of the “Great Games” in Brewers history. There’s October 10, 1982 when the Brewers won the pennant; October 8, 2011-Game 5 of the NLDS; September 9, 1992, Robin Yount’s 3000th hit and many more, often giving a new perspective on some of the most memorable moments in Brewers history. In this chapter, Schroeder also picks his “All-Time Brewers Team.”
Folks who enjoy my “There is No Offseason For” stories will also enjoy Schroeder’s “Behind the Scenes” section of the book. Here, he sits down with members of the Brewers organization to give fans an inside look at Clubhouse operations, the logistics of team travel, the training room, plus video & replay. Along the way, Schroeder sprinkles in his own anecdotes; in this chapter, you’ll also learn more about memorable injuries and team pranks.
Finally, “In the Booth”is a look at how Schroeder grew up playing the game, played at Clemson, was drafted by the Brewers, played for the Brew Crew and the Angels and then transitioned in to a career in the broadcast booth. In this chapter, he talks about his relationships with his different broadcast partners over the years and provides a behind-the-scenes look at how a broadcast comes together.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan from the days of Harvey Kuenn and Robin Yount or a new supporter of the current team, you’ll enjoy this book. Even though I’ve worked for the Club for over 10 years now myself, I still learned a lot of interesting tidbits and read stories that were previously untold.
If These Walls Could Talk is currently available for sale in the Brewers Team Store by Majestic and at other booksellers.
Schroeder has also been doing some book signings in conjunction with the release. The next one is this Thursday, April 21, at Finn’s bar and restaurant in Wales at 7pm.
On May 14, Schroeder will also sign at the Brewers Team Store by Majestic in the Hot Corner on from 11am-1pm.
5/17/16 Update: Here’s a brief video from the weekend’s signing event:
Mentor, Example, Friend, Adversary: Brewers Bench Coach Pat Murphy is the Baseball Conversationalist
Each morning in Spring Training, you’ll find me down on the field capturing photos and video of the Cactus Crew’s workouts and practices, documenting them to share on our social media channels for fans back home.
And, while there are a lot of things that are new and different this season—from the structure of the workouts and some unique drills to personnel and many of the players—one thing that’s impossible to miss is the distinctive style and energy that new Brewers Bench Coach Pat Murphy brings to the ballpark each and every day.
After watching him during practice and hearing so many players and coaches speak so highly of him, I asked Murphy if I could sit down with him for an interview—to get to know him better, discuss his coaching philosophy and to try to dig up some good dirt on our skipper.
Most Brewers fans know by now that Murphy, 57, has a long history in the sport at many different levels of the game.
The Syracuse, New York native graduated from Christian Brothers (NY) Academy where he played football, basketball and boxed in addition to playing baseball. He then graduated from Florida Atlantic University, where he also pitched.
After college, Murphy pitched in the minor leagues with the Giants (1982) and Padres (1983) organizations and professionally in Australia for Sydney (1984) and in the Northwest League with Tri-City (1985-86) before embarking on his 25-year NCAA head coaching career, primarily as a Division I Head Coach for Notre Dame (1988-1994) and Arizona State University (1995-2009).
It was during his time at Notre Dame than he met and formed a long-lasting friendship with Brewers Manager Craig Counsell, then his player.
Following his college coaching career, Murphy then returned to the Padres organization where he spent the 2010 season as a special assistant to baseball operations before moving on to manage at Class-A Eugene (2011-12), Triple-A Tucson (2013) and Triple-A El Paso (2014-15).
Murphy became interim manager of the Padres last season, replacing Bud Black in June.
It was in this capacity that Murphy and Counsell – the teacher and the pupil – found themselves back on the diamond together once again last August. Only this time, it was in opposing dugouts as managers at the game’s highest level when the Padres faced the Brewers at Miller Park.
Then, in November after the Padres opted not to retain Murphy, it did not come as a big surprise when it was announced that Counsell would be adding Murphy to his staff as the new Brewers Bench Coach.
NEVER A LULL IN CONVERSATION
“We’ve had a 25-year baseball conversation,” Counsell said at the time of the announcement. “He’s shown a great ability to impact people. I’ve seen him impact players in college, in professional baseball and in the big leagues. I feel really lucky to be able to get him here.”
New Brewers coach Jason Lane also has a history with Murphy, playing for him in parts of 2014 and 2015 at Triple-A El Paso, and Lane referenced a similar ongoing conversation when I met with him last week.
“We had this bond and great banter back and forth about that game. He became just a huge influence in my life and really showed me a lot of things about who I was as a player and empowered me to help younger guys early on,” Lane said.
When asked about that “conversation,” Murphy explains it like this:
“Your former players become your life. It becomes your life, it’s like your workshop and they teach you. They all have taught me more than I’ve taught them. And I really believe that. That’s the fun part. It becomes just a nice conversation, a nice circle, a nice friendship, a nice relationship. Those guys to me… you know it’s hard to talk about. Those guys mean so much to me,” he said.
There are too many relationships like this that Murphy has made over his career to begin listing names, but it’s safe to say that there’s never a lull in his conversation.
“I’ve learned this game on the fly. I set out to be maybe a football coach…started down that path and really had to learn the game. I played in college and the minor leagues, but now I love the game and I don’t know that I really understood the game back then when I started or when I played, but now I understand the game. I’m just thankful all these guys have taught me the game.”
TALKING THE TALK AND WALKING THE WALK: COACHING
Murphy said that it’s much different coaching players at the Major League level, as opposed to college players.
“These are men that have been through much more usually and they have a pretty good idea in what they want to do, so now it’s more trying to reach them and connect with them so you can help them possibly find their best self more often. I view it like we’re offensive linemen, so to speak… we open the holes for them to run through and gain more yardage,” Murphy says.
However, Murphy doesn’t get hung up on levels of the game when it comes to coaching.
“I take the profession seriously. This is a big, important role, no matter what level you coach at. You’re a mentor sometimes, you’re an example sometimes, sometimes you’re a friend, sometimes you’re an adversary, you know the whole thing, the gambit. It’s important, whatever it is. If it’s genuine, if it’s well-intended, then you could possibly be impactful—possibly. But you can’t look for that. It either happens on its own or it doesn’t,” he says.
So, has he changed his approach from his college or Minor League days?
“I think you better be changing every year regardless of level. I think you have to adjust to the level, you have to stay yourself, and you better keep changing, getting better, hopefully, or evaluating yourself constantly, talking to other coaches…”
Just like he credits his former players with helping him understand the game, Murphy says that learning from other coaches has been something that he’s especially enjoyed.
And that hasn’t been limited to the baseball diamond. Murphy crossed paths with two legendary college football coaches while at Notre Dame—Lou Holtz and Barry Alvarez, so I asked him if he learned anything from those individuals in particular.
“There’s no question. Lou has been a great influence in my life and watching him operate, command a room, command a team, connect with a team….You know, he didn’t coach from power. He didn’t need to. The guys knew his passion and intent and followed him. He was zany and zaniness also came into play.
And Barry—he’s the consummate, genuine guy. I mean, Barry—the players trusted him immediately. They trusted him and they connected with him from day one. He was a powerful leader and he had fun, you know, which was a beautiful thing….and he kept it real. You mention those two guys and that’s as good as it I’ve seen out there.”
PUTTING THE “FUN” IN FUNDAMENTALS
Murphy also likes to keep things fun. He says that the Brewers coaching staff is trying to emphasize to this team that the game doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be focused on some areas that can sometimes be taken for granted.
“Yes, the fundamentals. But it’s how you convey them that I think is important. I like to keep it fun because people learn better when they’re in that state of mind, you know realizing that when we’re practicing and when we’re preparing it doesn’t have to be drudgery,” Murphy said.
Sometimes, though, he admits, it might need to be drudgery, depending on the situation. And that’s what makes him a great coach—he knows how to get the best out of people.
HARD-NOSED COACH & PLAYER
Murphy says that on the topic of Murphy, Counsell has told the team that “he’ll make you laugh or he’ll make you cry” and many of the players have asked him about a story that is widely told from Murphy’s days coaching Counsell: That one time when Murphy broke Counsell’s nose.
Counsell played for Murphy at Notre Dame from 1989-92. As the story goes, Counsell irked his manager with a series of errors one fall and Murphy ordered him onto a half-frozen field in November to field hot-shot grounders. Not fun then. Drudgery.
One particularly hard-hit baseball took a bad hop, bounced up and broke Counsell’s nose.
“His nose was over here at 4:15,” Murphy recounted to Adam McCalvy, holding his hand on the side of his face, “and then he was back at practice at 5:15 with his nose back in place and said, ‘Hit me some more.’ That taught me everything I needed to know….He was destined to be undenied.”
Murphy won’t bite when I fish for crazy or embarrassing stories from Counsell’s college days, but does provide this telling tidbit:
“I’ll tell you one thing that he’ll hate me saying, but I will tell you. I made the guys write down their goals. I don’t know if that’s smart or not; I don’t know if that’s good coaching or not, I really don’t, but I made the guys write down their goals and I still have that goal sheet. And you guys would… if you could think back and you could see what he wrote, you guys would just shake your head like ‘That’s Craig.’ That quiet confidence…. Really amazing for a kid, for where he was as a freshman to write those things as goals.”
I know Counsell so therefore already know the answer, but I ask anyway: “And did he meet those goals?”
“He met those goals,” Murphy affirms with a nod and a look of pride. “Few people in this lifetime will meet those goals. It’s really incredible. “
Murphy says that while it wasn’t always easy to see all the way through Counsell’s college career, once Counsell got to be a senior, Murphy had no doubt he would go on to do great things in his career. In fact, Murphy boasts that he was once quoted as saying that Counsell would play in the Major Leagues.
“In the Blue & Gold Illustrated at Notre Dame, I said that he would be the next Major Leaguer from Notre Dame because he was so impressive day-in and day-out. He would help you offensively, he was so steady defensively, so steady a personality on the team.
“Looking back, it’s easy to say he worked so hard as a freshman, he handled adversity great as a sophomore, came into his own as a junior but…. but once he got to be a senior, you were pretty certain he wasn’t going to stop getting better. He got better every year,” Murphy recalls.
Murphy says it’s those same qualities that helped Counsell overcome adversity, accomplish his goals, and succeed in his career that will also make him a successful manager.
“He’s not trying to copy anybody. He has a great mind, great vision. He really can link people. He can deal with people on all levels. The very qualities that got this kid from Whitefish Bay that didn’t have all the baseball tools and talent to turn that lack of tools and lack of talent into skills that worked for him at the highest level and championship level ball….That’s the very skill that will make him a successful manager in my opinion because he’s going to find the answer. That’s what’s going to happen, he’s going to find the answer,” Murphy says with confidence.
He continues, “He knows I care about him as a person and he knows I’ve got his back in every situation and I hope I can add something, I hope I can pull my weight because he’s got a special thing going here.”
I would have to agree. That’s certainly the feeling I get out on the practice fields every morning. Although I’m just out there shooting content, I can’t help but leave feeling energized and inspired.
Thanks, Pat, for letting me interrupt your conversation for this interview.
Today marks the 88th Annual Academy Awards, and, in addition to asking some of the Brewers players to make their pick for Best Picture, there’s a unique connection to the Oscars in the Clubhouse this spring.
New Brewers coach Jason Lane actually had a bit part in the 2014 movie “Boyhood,” which was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Ethan Hawke and Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette (which she won) last year.
It was a part that Lane played flawlessly, without even knowing he was doing it.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, “Boyhood” is a drama that was shot over a 12-year span (2002-2013), depicting the childhood and adolescence of Mason Evans, Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane) from ages six to 18 as he grows up in Texas.
In one scene in the movie, actor Ethan Hawke takes his son to an Astros-Brewers game in 2006, one in which Lane, then an outfielder for Houston, happens to hit a home run.
However, baseball buffs searching for the box score for that game will be hard pressed to find a game where Roger Clemens started for the Astros and Lane hit a homer off of Brewers pitcher Matt Wise.
That’s because Hollywood actually melded two games together:
The film crew first shot a scene at a game in Houston on August 18, 2005, in which Roger Clemens got the start for the Astros against the Brewers. Lane hit a home run in that game off of Brewers pitcher Tomo Ohka, though that home run went to right field (and the Brewers won that game, 5-2).
The home run that Lane hits in the movie goes to left field. That’s from a game that the actors attended the next season, also against the Brewers, on April 17, 2006. It was during that game where Lane hit a three-run home run in the seventh inning that helped the Astros to an 8-7 victory over the Crew. And that’s the home run that’s captured in the film.
“It was funny because I had heard there were two different games and I randomly hit a home run in the two games. I had no idea the movie was even being filmed at the time. I didn’t know anything about it until right before it hit the theaters.”
Lane tells me that the first time he heard about his cameo was in 2014, the year the movie premiered. After hearing from a friend that he was in the movie, he eventually went to see it in his hometown.
“I think the movie itself was what it was set out to be: a challenging life. I think they depicted that well. There were some uncomfortable parts and there were some great parts. Certainly the baseball part of it was fun because it brought back some memories,” Lane said.
“I remember (the home runs) exactly. I can’t speak for all baseball players, but it’s amazing how I can remember the situation and the counts and the pitch, all of it, really well, so when I was watching it, it put me right back into that game and that particular situation where I was going through personal battles in the game, struggles and how that propelled me personally and it was a big home run in that particular game for us, so it’s great that any time that movie comes on, I get to re-experience that.”
Lane’s struggles that he alludes to are what eventually earned him the unique distinction of becoming just one of two players in the Expansion Era (since 1961) to start his first game as a pitcher after logging more than 1,000 career at-bats (1,208) prior to the start.
Yes, that’s right. If you don’t know his story, Lane reinvented himself as a pitcher late in his career, at the age of 35.
“There’s no way I can give a short synopsis of that deal, but I had pitched in college, I did both in college. There was a chance I was going to get drafted as a pitcher in college, so certainly I had experience doing that, but I always felt like hitting was my #1 passion as I made it to the Big Leagues, I always felt like at the end of my career, whenever that was, that I would try pitch because I enjoyed the game and I was left-handed,” Lane said when I asked him to describe his motivation to switch to pitching.
“I hoped that I would accomplish a lot more as a hitter; I didn’t think I was at that point when it happened, but I had thrown a couple innings in AAA because we needed help, the bullpen was short. (Then Diamondbacks GM) Kevin Towers made the suggestion that I give that a shot, that it looked pretty good. At the time, I felt like I was learning a ton about hitting and a lot of people think that it was because I didn’t think I could hit anymore and it really wasn’t. It was more about the opportunity. I badly wanted to get back to the big leagues and it didn’t seem like I was getting opportunities as a hitter and for someone to show opportunity on that side, I thought ‘Let’s go for it.'”
And go for it he did. Lane says it was a struggle initially, but after spending time with 6 different organizations between 2008 and 2012, it eventually all came together and he made it back.
Lane said he threw an inning in the minor leagues in 1999, after he signed with the Astros, but then didn’t throw another inning until 10 years later in AAA for the Toronto Blue Jays. Then, after throwing a handful of innings again in AAA in 2011, Lane found himself with an invite to Major League camp as a pitcher the next spring.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity to go to Major League camp, not having really pitched and I hadn’t been to Major League Spring Training as an outfielder in two years, so it was kind of an easy decision for me.’”
Lane didn’t make back to the Big Leagues that year, but two years later, after signing with the Padres, he was back in the show where went 0-1 with a 0.87 ERA in 3 games, including 1 start (10.1ip, 7h, 1r, 1er, 0bb, 6k).
Lane says that his career has taught him the insecurities of players on either side of the baseball.
“I knew the grind of a hitter and the challenges [they face] and then once I stepped on the mound I knew how hard it was as a pitcher at times when you were struggling or how hard it was to make pitches, so it gave me a unique perspective,” Lane says.
Lane credits his switch to pitching and the new perspective to the success he had with hitting at the end of his career.
Lane says that going into this offseason, he was still planning on playing until this unique coaching opportunity with the Brewers presented itself. He feels that his background gives him credibility with the players.
“Hopefully, I can really share these things and it makes sense to them and hopefully it can give them an advantage on both sides. I feel like I can speak to pitchers and hitters,” he says.
The baseball community is quite close and with someone like Lane who has had such a long career in the game, there are bound to be connections within any team. In camp this spring, there are players like Blaine Boyer, Rymer Liriano and Will Middlebrooks that he knows because they’ve played with the Padres recently. He also played against Ryan Braun (Braun’s rookie year was Lane’s last as a hitter), had lots of at-bats vs. Chris Capuano, and last year, he even pitched against the Crew in Spring Training, where Jonathan Lucroy hit a HR off of him.
In addition, Lane and new Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy go way back… to 1998, when Lane, as a member of the NCAA champion University of Southern California Trojans belted a grand slam in the title game against Arizona State, who were managed by Murphy. Lane also pitched 2.2 innings and earned the win in the 21-14 victory
Sixteen years, later, Lane and Murphy would finally get to meet as Lane spent part of 2014 and all of 2015 at Triple-A El Paso for the Padres, where Murphy was managing the team.
“I thought ‘Oh boy this is going to be interesting,’ because I never spoke a word to this guy, but that was obviously a big game in both of our careers, so instantly we had this bond and great banter back and forth about that game. He became just a huge influence in my life and really showed me a lot of things about who I was as a player and empowered me to help younger guys early on so he, I know, had something to do with telling [Brewers Manager] Craig [Counsell] about my experiences and thought that I would be a good fit.
Although Lane didn’t know Counsell on a personal level until coming to the Brewers this offseason, he says he felt like he knew him, from the conversations he would have with Murphy.
“Murph and I would talk a lot about baseball and his name would come up a ton, so I felt like I knew him even though I had never really officially introduced myself to him. We may have spoken in passing while playing against each other but I certainly felt like I knew him a bit through Murph and having the chance to talk to him and get to know him this offseason, it’s been great,” Lane said.
Two more questions before I let Lane go.
Pitcher Jason vs. Hitter Jason. Who’s gonna win that battle?
Lane, with a laugh: I think the game’s set up for the pitcher to win. If they’re hitting .300 off me, which is a bad day as a pitcher, I’m still getting them 7/10 times. But I think that the Hitter Jason vs. the pitcher. I think I would’ve been a tough matchup as a hitter for the pitcher. Those are the guys that I felt like I handled well, so I think the hitter would’ve…. It would’ve been a good battle either way, but I would’ve put the money on the hitter side.
Okay, back to the Oscars, have you seen any of the films nominated for Best Picture?
Lane: I’ve seen one of them—The Revenant. I really enjoyed the bear scene in that one. There’s a scene in there about a bear attack that seems as real as it could be. For me, that scene alone was worth seeing the movie. I thought it was one of those movies where there’s a lot of just agony and survival in a tough climate, so the whole movie you’re just tensed up and like “how much more can somebody take?” but I think that’s good. Movies that can get that kind of response out of you is what they’re trying to do, so it was good movie.
Seems like many of the Brewers players also agree. Check out some of their picks in this album below:
So there you have it, a Brewers Oscars connection and a great addition to our coaching staff.
As far as the Academy Awards go, we’ll have to tune in tonight at 5:30 pm CT to see how the players picks fared.
Over 50 Milwaukee Brewers players, alumni, coaches, front office executives and broadcasters are scheduled to participate in Brewers On Deck, which is set to take place on Sunday, January 31 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. at the Wisconsin Center.
Advance tickets are $15 for adults and $9 for children 14 and under. Tickets on the day of the event are $20 for adults and $15 for children 14 and under. On the day event, cash is the only accepted form of payment for admittance. A portion of the proceeds from Brewers On Deck will benefit Brewers Community Foundation. Tickets may be purchased at the Miller Park ticket office, by calling the Brewers ticket office at 414-902-4000, or online at Brewers.com/ondeck through January 29.
Once again food donations will be accepted through Hunger Task Force. Donations can be dropped off at two main entrances to the Wisconsin Center, located at 4th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, and 4th Street and Wells Street.
Players, coaches and alumni scheduled to attend include (all subject to change):
|Orlando Arcia||Ramon Flores||Shane Peterson||Craig Counsell||Don August|
|Jacob Barnes||Matt Garza||Brett Phillips||COACHES||Jerry Augustine|
|Yhonathan Barrios||David Goforth||Michael Reed||Darnell Coles||Jeff Cirillo|
|Michael Blazek||Junior Guerra||Domingo Santana||Joe Crawford||Rollie Fingers|
|Ryan Braun||Josh Hader||Will Smith||Derek Johnson||Jim Gantner|
|Keon Broxton||Adrian Houser||Tyler Thornburg||Marcus Hanel||Larry Hisle|
|Chris Carter||Jeremy Jeffress||Jonathan Villar||Jason Lane||Ken Sanders|
|Garin Cecchini||Taylor Jungmann||Tyler Wagner||Pat Murphy||Gorman Thomas|
|Trent Clark||Corey Knebel||Colin Walsh||Ed Sedar||Greg Vaughn|
|Clint Coulter||Jorge Lopez||Carlos Subero||Paul Wagner|
|Tyler Cravy||Martin Maldonado||Lee Tunnell|
|Zach Davies||Jimmy Nelson||Matt Erickson||Bob Uecker|
1/20/16 Update: We’ve had some additions to our lineup! New attendees noted in RED. For those asking, yes, Bob Uecker will be attendance as well!
1/22/16 Update: Sorry, fans! We regret to inform you that Robin Yount is no longer able to attend the event.
1/22/16 Update: Sorry, fans! We regret to inform you that Scooter Gennett is no longer able to attend the event.
Brewers On Deck will feature a number of activities for the entire family. Autographs and photos from Brewers players, coaches and alumni; interactive games in the Kids Area; Q&A sessions and Klement’s Main Stage game shows with Brewers players, coaches and broadcasters; vendor booths with baseball memorabilia; Brewers Community Foundation’s Treasure Hunt, a 50/50 raffle, live auction and many other activities will all be a part of Brewers On Deck.
During the event, the Brewers will unveil a new book – Explore MKE: Your Neighborhood Our City. The Book is published by SHARP Literacy, Inc. and is sponsored by Brewers Community Foundation and Ryan Braun. It tells the story of two children who share their differing experiences of Milwaukee and are attempting to figure out how they fit in. It also features informational sections that weave together iconic Milwaukee institutions and neighborhood-based landmarks with important themes in common.
SHARP Literacy, Inc. is a non-profit organization that enhances future life success by energizing urban children and motivating them to identify themselves as confident, capable scholars and lifelong learners by inspiring engagement in reading, writing and research through hands on interaction and visual arts.
Details regarding autographs include the following: Recipients of “PREMIER” autographs (players to be announced next week) will be chosen through a random selection process. Each fan in attendance will receive one Premier Entry sheet which may be redeemed at the Random Selection area outside the Main Exhibit Hall of the Wisconsin Center. The Premier Entry sheet will be exchanged for a numbered coupon to be entered into the random selection process for any one of the select Brewers players. Coupon distribution will be available at 8 a.m. the day of the event and will continue up to an hour before each designated autograph session. There is no cost for coupons to enter the random selection process; however, those holding winning coupons must pay $25 at the respective autograph stage to collect their player signature. There will be 250 winners for each of the autograph sessions. The winning ticket numbers will be posted at the designated autograph stage no less than 30 minutes prior to each player’s session.
Players and staff not included in the PREMIER autograph list will not use the random selection process. Each of these players will sign 250 autographs at prices ranging from free to $10. A schedule of players, their session times, and distribution info will be posted at a later date. The autograph opportunities are for signatures on photo cards provided by the team; the Brewers cannot guarantee that any player will sign other memorabilia. For additional information, visit Brewers.com/ondeck.
Autograph proceeds benefit Brewers Community Foundation. Please note that cash is the only acceptable form of payment for autographs. The Brewers cannot guarantee that any player will sign other memorabilia, and personalization of items is solely up to the discretion of each player.
A detailed schedule of all Brewers On Deck activities will be released at a later date, so stay tuned!
It’s been awhile since the last installment of “There’s No Offseason for…”
That’s the series where I aim to dispel what I call “the myth of the offseason” by profiling people and departments across the organization to help you understand what goes on at One Brewers Way during the winter months when baseball is not played at Miller Park.
I recently caught up with Senior Director of Media Relations Mike Vassallo who, at 40, has already been working in the industry for over 20 years.
We sat down to discuss how he got into baseball, the ins and outs of his job (in season and out of season), wrestling and more. Read on.
Ever since he was a little boy growing up in Long Island, Mike says he’s wanted to be in baseball.
“Obviously I wasn’t dreaming of being the Media Relations Director then…. As a kid, I wanted to be a player, like everybody else.”
Nonetheless, the baseball seed was planted and by the time he went off to college, Mike had tailored his aspirations to becoming a baseball announcer, enrolling in the broadcasting program at Oswego State University in upstate New York.
While still in school, a chance encounter with Hall of Famer and then Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto would forever change the path of his career.
It was 1995 and Mike’s stepfather, who works at Pfizer (the pharmaceutical company), had arranged a summer job for Mike at the company, as he so often did, in whatever department needed help.
One night that summer, Mike had tickets to the Yankees game and planned to leave straight from work to meet his friend there, but he wasn’t yet entirely familiar with the subway system.
Enter Andy, an older gentleman who worked at Pfizer as a greeter in the lobby and manning the elevators, etc. Andy’s night job happened to be doing the same thing at Yankee Stadium, so Mike and Andy left work together on that fateful night and headed to The House That Ruth Built.
“I brought a baseball with me because I was a big fan of Phil Rizzuto….I knew Andy knew him and I wanted to get his autograph,” Mike recalls.
“So we got to the game and I’m outside the elevator. Phil Rizzuto comes off. Andy introduces me. I get my ball signed. I’m all happy. I step aside to wait for the elevator to go meet my friend and I overhear Phil say to Andy, ‘My assistant never shows up anymore. I think I’m gonna have to get a new one,’” Mike recounts, affecting Phil’s strong New York accent as he tells the story.
The enterprising 20-year old wasted no time.
“I think I might have even raised my hand….I said ‘I’ll do it for free!’ Of course [Phil] was taken aback at first because he had just met me five minutes before, but Andy said, ‘Oh, he’ll do a good job. Give him a chance.’”
And that’s how Mike got his first job in baseball as the personal assistant to Phil Rizzuto. For the rest of the summer, whenever the Yankees were on Channel 11, Mike was happy to be Phil’s gopher, getting him his coffee, keeping score for him during the innings he didn’t announce and whatever else needed to done.
That experience helped Mike get a real internship with the Yankees in 1997 which led to him getting an entry-level job in the Yankees Media Relations department where he worked in 1998 and 1999. (Fun fact: Mike says he didn’t dislike the Yankees, but he was a Mets fan growing up.)
From there, he took a job with the Cincinnati Reds as Assistant Director of Media Relations, where he worked for six years before joining the Brewers as Director of Media Relations in middle of Spring Training in 2006.
As the current Senior Director of Media Relations, Mike’s department includes Ken Spindler (Senior Manager of Media Relations) and Zach Weber (Manager of Media Relations).
These three guys are responsible for handling interviews and media requests, writing press releases, keeping stats and more.
“I kind of forgot about the broadcasting stuff because this worked out so well,” Mike says.
In particular, Mike is the primary contact for interviews with our players, Manager Craig Counsell and General Manager David Stearns.
Mike says that part of his job is not as demanding during the offseason as it is during the season—for the players at least.
“Sometimes in the offseason, it’s actually more demanding because of all the Hot Stove talk, so the requests for GM go up a little bit,” said Mike.
And of course, the stove will be heating up even more with next week’s Winter Meetings, so Mike will be traveling to Nashville with the Brewers contingent.
In season, Mike and his team are responsible for producing the game notes, which is a six-page packet containing updated statistical information and bio information of all the players that comes out for every game during the season.
While there aren’t game notes during the offseason, there is still plenty of stat and bio work to be done.
“I’m the lead writer on the media guide. I do all the bios for the 40-man roster and the non-roster players for the media guide. I’m working on that right now,” Mike said.
Those items will take Mike and his team right up to Spring Training.
For Cactus League play, Mike will typically relocate to Arizona for a good six weeks. However, this year will be a little different as he and his wife Jeana are expecting their first child, a baby boy due February 26.
So instead of heading down in mid-February as he usually does, Mike will wait until about two weeks after Baby Vassallo joins their team to travel down to Arizona to catch up with his staff and the Cactus Crew.
Speaking of travel Mike is also the primary media relations contact that travels with the team, making about three-quarters of the roadtrips during the season.
“My favorite part (of my job) and least favorite are the same thing—travel,” Mike says. “It’s my favorite part because I get to visit all these great cities and stadiums and it’s the least because it takes me away from home and my wife—and kid next year.”
In his two decades working in the field, Mike says the main thing that’s changed his job is social media.
Mike is also responsible for writing all the baseball-related press releases—roster moves, injury updates, etc.—and he says, “I can’t remember the last time that I did a press release about a trade where it wasn’t already on social media. I feel like our press releases now just confirm what’s already all over social media, whereas in the past, we’d write the press release and that’s how people would find out.”
While social media presents some challenges from that side of things, along with generating false rumors and making things tougher for Baseball Operations, etc., Mike is quick to point out that it’s also a positive thing (which is good since you know, I’m the Director of New Media and all).
“Whenever we have a player or a manager do an interview, I put it right there on Twitter….How would we get the word out so quickly in the past?”
Speaking of Twitter, that’s another part of Mike’s gig. Since he’s the first to know about roster moves and injury updates, as well as TV/Radio interviews, etc., he’s able to assist us in the New Media Department by putting that information up on Twitter right away. But it doesn’t stop there.
Known amongst the media for sprinkling the game notes with interesting tidbits, such as these….
Mike has great access and often helps us capture some great moments for social media as well:
With so much to cover and traveling on a smaller percentage of road trips, I definitely appreciate Mike’s creativity and contributions!
Another thing you might not know is that Mike has a hand in some of the music that ends up being played at Miller Park.
“I’m pretty much the person that collects the players’ music for the scoreboard, which is kind of fun because sometimes I suggest songs to them and they use them,” Mike said.
[For those of you who don’t know what we’re talking about, check out the list of Brewers walk-up music.]
Because he’s sometimes seen as the conduit for getting those song selections to the scoreboard folks, Mike’s also been able to marry one of his other passions with baseball—wrestling.
“I’ve liked it since I was 10 years old. 1985 Wrestlemania was the first one and it’s just something I never grew out of I guess…. I think we all have our guilty pleasures. I just take it for what it is. I just find it really entertaining,” Mike says.
So, oftentimes those songs Mike suggests to players involve wrestling.
“I’ve had quite a few over the years. The first one was Tim Raines, (an outfielder) with the Yankees. He was the first person that I remember approaching and saying, ‘Hey why don’t you use this song?’ and it was a wrestling song,” Mike said.
And that’s how Rock Raines started using The Rock’s theme song for a time.
Among the Brewers that he’s converted, Mike counts Todd Coffey (Ultimate Warrior), Nori Aoki (Fandango), Lyle Overbay (Adam Rose), and Shane Peterson (New Day).
“There have been probably at least 10 players over the years,” Mike says.
In his 20 years in the sport, Mike’s certainly experienced a lot, but among the things that stand out most for him include various Postseason appearances.
“I got spoiled right off the bat…We (the Yankees) won the World Series in 1998 and 1999,” said Mike.
But while he cherishes his Yankees World Series ring, he still counts the Brewers Wildcard season in 2008 among his fondest memories.
“It was awesome being part of that because we hadn’t made the playoffs in 26 years, so it was just real exciting but in a different way. With the Yankees it was just expected every year…. It was exciting but it wasn’t as exciting as ’08 where we just came out of nowhere and the whole thing when CC was here, that was a great experience,” Mike said.
Of course, 2011 ranks right up there for Mike as well—winning the division, Nyjer Morgan’s walk-off hit in Game 5 of the NLDS, etc.
But for Mike, many of his favorite memories are off the field, too—the relationships he’s made and maintained over the years.
“It’s all the friendships,” Mike says. “I get to hang out with Bob Uecker on the road. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Indeed. We may not have a true offseason in baseball, but we’re lucky to be surrounded by great people who share our same passion and help make long hours go by quickly.
To keep up with Mike both in-season and during the offseason, follow him on Twitter @MikeVassallo 13.
Stay tuned for more “There is No Offseason” profiles. Is there anyone in particular that you’d like me to highlight? If so, please let me know in the comments below!
In case you haven’t been following along, next season’s All-Fan Giveaway reveal is underway!
On Monday, we revealed the 1980s Vintage Brewer bobblehead and a bobblehead featuring the Brewers franchise leader in home runs, Ryan Braun. On Tuesday, it was the Barking BobbleHank and Greg Vaughn Bobblehead. Yesterday, we revealed the Bob Uecker Talking Alarm Clock and Jimmy Nelson Bobblehead.
And this morning, we have for you All-Fan Giveaway number seven: A Craig Counsell Bobblehead!
Yes, for those of you scoring at home, we have given out a Craig Counsell Bobblehead in the past, but here’s the twist: Half of the fans at the game against the Reds on Sunday, August 14 will get a bobble of Craig as a retired Brewers player and the other half will get a bobble of him as manager.
Make sure to follow us on our website at brewers.com/allfans and across all of our social media platforms the rest of this week–including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram– to be the first to see our 2016 All-Fan Giveaway schedule, plus have a chance to win tickets to those games.
If you don’t win, don’t worry. Individual tickets will go on sale in spring. However, if you’d like to secure your tickets for this game early, the Craig Counsell Bobblehead is included in select season ticket packages which are on sale now.
Be sure to check back in the coming months as we also unveil the image of the actual bobbles when we get them!
Stay tuned to the blog, our social channels and brewers.com/allfans all week as we unveil more of our schedule!