Editor's note: Tigers' radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson will be submitting a series of interviews he conducted over the 2018 season, starting with this one from September. We're thrilled Dan can bring us this incredible and unique insight gathered over the course of the regular season.
I’m determined this winter to do something I have never done before: transcribe some of my favorite interviews from this past season. I’m so lucky in my job – I get to talk to coaches, managers, players and the incredible support staff to (hopefully) learn something every day about baseball. There are so many layers, and so many elements to every job, and it’s fascinating to learn from the people who work at it every day. All too often, I’ll do a really interesting interview, take a few notes after, and then forget a lot of the good stuff. I’m hoping this little project changes that. And I thought it might be interesting for fans to hear from those people I get to talk to every day, in their own words, about their craft. So in the months ahead, I’m planning to post the transcripts of several of my favorite interviews from the 2018 season.
I decided to start with Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz for several reasons. Doug joined the Tigers’ staff for the final couple of weeks, and it was the perfect opportunity to explore some topics I’ve long wondered about, but hadn’t taken the time to pursue. It’s always seemed to me like the life of a Triple-A manager is especially tough, because of the constant roster shuffling, and the challenges of motivating guys who are both on their way to big leagues, and guys who’ve been there, and are now back where they don’t want to be. There’s no question Toledo is where many of the Tigers’ top prospects will be at some point in 2019 – which makes Doug Mientkiewicz a key piece in the organization. Finally, I just loved his passion, and thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
The conversation was lightly edited for clarity, and to make my questions look as good as possible.
Interview with Toledo Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz
Interview conducted September 26th, 2018
Dan Dickerson: I thought it would be fun for Tigers fans to start with how you looked at this year for Toledo. You guided them to the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, but when you came here – and some of the coaches said "congratulations" – your reaction was one of frustration, because you didn’t go farther in the playoffs. Describe the season – the successes you had, and what you thought about it.
Doug Mientkiewicz: I think it was a tale of two seasons, actually. The beginning of the year, we could really hit, we had limited pitching because the shuttle was going back and forth to Detroit. Then our pitching got better over the course of the summer and then, within a matter of minutes – at one point, we lost six of our nine starting position players in two days. So the one thing I really learned this year, was that when you got it good, put your foot on the gas, and for us, it was pretty much whatever you have in this room, you gotta find a way to make it work. And that’s just a culture, it’s a mind-set, and it’s not going to change overnight. But I was fortunate to have a lot of good professionals early in the year – the Chad Huffmans, the Jim Adducis, the Ronnie Rodriguezes, the Jarrod Saltalamacchias – that really, they just wouldn’t let one or two guys step out of line. They came to the park every day expecting to win and they got confidence, and it kept going and it didn’t matter who we had, we expected to win games.
DD: This was your first year managing at Triple-A [sixth year overall]. Is the challenge at Triple-A different than other levels just because there’s that constant back and forth between Triple-A and the major leagues?
DM: I think there are different aspects to the job at every level. Obviously, the Triple-A level is the "okay, be careful, we can’t use so and so," or, ‘you have to take this guy out of the game right now’ and the movement to the major leagues affects everyone all the way down. If a guy goes to the big leagues, then the domino effect happens. So, you’re kind of used to the movement. The amount of movement was a little crazy, but that’s just a part of it. Having Gardy and Joe [Vavra] and Steve [Liddle] and Andy [Rick Anderson] and everybody here [with the big club] – I kind of know what they’re looking for, just by the text messages or the verbiage they were using with me. So it made it a lot easier than it should have been.
DD: Then do you have to talk to your team about that, like "Hey, this is all the stuff that’s going on, but you can’t let it affect how you play. We still have to play this particular way"?
DM: No, you kind of leave the players out of it, you expect them to come to work and get ready every day. We always talk about "control the things you can control" and the only thing you can control is your attitude, and you can control your performance. And you worry about that, and worry about us, here. I used to tell my teams when I was with the Twins organization, we had a talk before the season started and I told them: "The more you guys are here, the faster you’ll go there. But if you’re thinking about there, you’re going to stay here a long time."
And I think you gotta do that with the Triple-A guys too. Understand that it’s more of a grind at Triple-A, because you get the guys coming back [from the Major Leagues]. Mikie Mahtook was a mess mentally, and Machado and those guys, and it’s more like you gotta be their coach, but you gotta be a psychiatrist too. You bring ‘em in the office – I did this with VerHagen – at first, they want to talk about ‘well, I’m not feeling this in my mechanics, or…..’, and I tell them ‘I didn’t ask about your baseball ability, I’m asking about you as a person. The only way I can fix you is to understand what makes you go, what makes you tick. Then I can figure out a way to get you back on track faster if I know the kind of person you are.’
DD: Analytics are so much a part of the game now, but the human side, that’s where it seems to start for every manager, at any level. It seems like that ability to connect is the key element to being a successful manager.
DM: Absolutely. Our number one job, as far as the players go, I’ve got to figure out a way to get the best out of you. For us to put them in situations where they’re successful. This year was definitely a challenge, not knowing many of the players at all. That’s where [Pitching Coach] Jeff Pico helped me a ton, and guys who’d had ‘em before. It let me kind of sit back and watch the guys play for a couple of weeks before I could try to do something with them. Most coaches know the game, most coaches know how to teach the game, it’s how to get the best out of each guy. That makes the difference between being a really good manager, and a regular old run-of-the-mill guy.
DD: We all take good and bad away from the jobs we have: players learn from managers at all levels. What are some of the things you’ve learned, and maybe either wanted to change or do differently once you got the shot at managing?
DM: I’d be foolish not to take something from each guy [I played for] – from Tom Kelly, to Joe Torre, to Terry Francona, to Gardy, to Don Mattingly – the list goes on and on. There are so many things – Tito’s way of – "win today" from the ’04 playoffs. And the way Tom Kelly handled a bullpen. Joe Torre defusing a bomb before it was ever lit. You try to take little bits and pieces from each guy and try to mold your own style. There was a brotherly love, kind of father/son, good times/bad times with Gardy and I – as a player. Now that I’m on the coaching side, I see where he was coming from. As a player, I made mistakes. And I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been the disgruntled guy who was about to get traded for the first time. And I’ve been the darling prospect everybody wanted to go see play. I think the number one thing that has helped me become a manager is that I’ve been the three-hole hitter on a playoff team with Minnesota, and I’ve been the 25th or 26th man on a 25-man roster. So I know everything in-between. The good ones, for me, make that 25th guy feel just as important as their best player. If you make ‘em all feel important, and they know you care - you’re gonna get the best out of each guy.
DD: Watching Gardy and his staff this year, it really strikes you that there still really is something to "playing the game the right way." Many talk about it, but it seems like they make you live it.
DM: Yeah, for example, Gardy – he’s always upbeat, he has definitely has a serious side – but there’s a sarcasm there. And I joke around with my guys, but I also let them know I see everything, or at least try to. And the one thing I’ve tried to explain to the guys is that if you’re lucky enough to get to Detroit and you have to come back, make it because it’s physical, not mental. And the little things I’m harping on, the man at the next level is not going to tolerate. I understand what he wants it to look like. And I understand the things he’s going to nit-pick on. And there’s been times already since I’ve been here where he’ll see something with one of the guys who’s come up for the first time, and I just put my head down and start walking away, because I know I’m about to get it.
Their attention to detail is incredible – Joe’s attention to detail, Gardy’s attention to detail – you let one thing slide, then one becomes two, two becomes three, and they won’t let that happen. They’re always coaching. Last night, I saw Gardy talking to guys who’ve been in the big leagues for three or four years, explaining the game, and I think that’s what makes Gardy so special. He doesn’t wait until tomorrow or the next day. He fixes it right now, and he lets them know how he feels. And there’s nothing worse for a young player when they make a mistake, they go to the end of the bench, and no one talks to them. And they worry "What’s he saying? Is he going to send me down?" The one thing I’ve always appreciated is that Gardy goes right at you, in a calm manner, "Okay, what’d you see? This is the way we expect it." And the relief from the young player to have the freedom to make a mistake, and understand "we’ll talk through it, we’ll get through it, and we’ll be better for it" is why he’s been successful for such a long time.
DD: You mentioned the good managers: Francona, Torre, and Ron Gardenhire, among others. It seems like what it boils down to for the good ones is "every 90 feet" – you’re not giving it away, and you take it when you can.
DM: Just take a look at the Astros series [the Tigers had played the Astros just a few days prior]. Here’s a team that won 100 games and the World Series last year, and we make one mistake in each game, and it cost us. That’s what cost us in Toledo [in the playoffs]. We played a very fundamentally sound team, we made one mistake each night, and it cost us the game. You don’t have to have a huge crop of talent to be successful at the major league level, if you play fundamental baseball. That’s the way we were brought up in Minnesota. We weren’t the most talented group, but we never beat ourselves. With the talent we have here, if we can get them understand the little things in the game really, really make a difference, we have enough talent to turn this thing around, and turn it around quickly.
DD: Next year in Toledo, you will have – at some point during the season, you would think – a number of the prospects who will be on their way to the major leagues – as in, top 10 prospects – which isn’t always the case at Triple-A. You have to be a little bit excited about what might happen next year.
DM: I hate the word prospect. That means you haven’t fulfilled where you’re supposed to be yet. And everybody’s a prospect in today’s game, so I do have a way of being a little harder on the guys who have a lot more notoriety than the other ones. I pull for the underdog. I also understand being a prospect, they have to understand there is a level of expectations, and commitment from them, because the organization is depending on them. And I think a lot of times, people want to back off expectations of people, but to me, no outside factor is going to put more pressure on a kid than the kid himself. How am I going to find a way to make him better, understand that, hey you know what, you know when you take a deep breath and take a look back at how good you were? When it’s all said and done. When your career is over, like in Victor [Martinez]’s case.
I always say getting to the big leagues is easy. All you have to do is be a good minor league player. Becoming a big leaguer is really hard. Because now, instead of fighting off four guys at your position in your organization, you’re fighting off 600 people at a minimum who want your job, and want your job yesterday.
I don’t believe in the word "pressure." Pressure creeps into the unprepared, and we will never be unprepared. We work, and we’re diligent about it. And when I push you to exhaustion, I’m going to keep pushing, because that’s what big league life is like. If I can make it harder on you before you get there, and you can look back and think "if I can play for Doug, I can play for anybody," then I’ve done my job.
DD: These guys are going to be in good hands next year.
DM: Like I said, it’s a process. I’m fortunate enough to have played as long as I did, but I was born to do what I’m doing now. To see someone like Niko [Goodrum], who he managed in the Twins system], I mean, my gosh. The blood, sweat and tears we put in together. From almost getting into arguments and fights, screaming at each other, to seeing him now, seeing where he’s come from. You just sit back and it just makes you feel good, like, we did it right. They did it, not me. I was just along for the ride.