New Omaha Storm Chasers manager Brian Poldberg has been in Surprise, Arizona for the past two weeks, evaluating talent and wondering what his team will look like once the Kansas City Royals break camp.
Poldberg has managed the Double-A NW Arkansas Naturals for the past six seasons and was thrilled to get the opportunity to advance to Triple-A heading into 2014.
He made time for a phone interview recently and we chatted about his playing days (he was in the Yankees and Royals minor league systems from 1980-'87) his promotion as a manager and a few of the players he may have on his team to start the season.
Paint It Black
Poldberg, who is from Omaha, played catcher for the Omaha Royals from 1983-'85. That means he was in the organization when players such as Bud Black, Charlie Leibrandt, David Cone, Jamie Quirk, Bill Pecota and other names you would recognize spent time in Omaha. As soon as I mentioned the name Bud Black - who pitched for the Royals in the '85 World Series and is the current manager of the San Diego Padres - Poldberg had a story to tell.
"Back then, pitchers used to get money from the front office for strikeouts and shutouts," said Poldberg, referring to Omaha's front office. "Hitters got paid for home runs, triples, doubles and a few other things, too. We'd get paid on the first of the month.
"Well, when Buddy Black would pitch, if you caught that day, he would give you half of his bonus money. He was just a quality guy and he just appreciated all the work you did for him as a catcher behind the plate."
Poldberg said pitchers would earn ten dollars per strikeout. A shutout earned a twenty dollar bonus. So we aren't talking about a lot of money, but for minor league players who don't make much to begin with, they took it seriously. One day, Black had eight strikeouts, and tossed a shutout, so he earned a hundred dollar bonus; Poldberg received fifty dollars.
"It was one of those things that you didn't expect," said Poldberg, who has now been in the organization as a player, coach or manager for the better part of thirty years. "So it was a nice surprise. We didn't make a lot of money, so every little bit helps."
Veterans Lend a Helping Hand
When players of his era did reach the big leagues, Poldberg says they looked out for the younger guys in Spring Training. Poldberg would have been in camp with George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Danny Jackson and the list of Kansas City greats goes on and on.
"I lockered next to Frank White in Spring Training," Poldberg said. "And he was always checking on me, and taking care of me. He did all of the little things that those guys didn't have to do - making sure I had the shoes and equipment I needed - but that's just the type of quality guys who were up there. They had been on the other side where they weren't making a lot of money and didn't have a lot of stuff."
A Different Era
Veterans were quicker to run the clubhouse during that era than they are now and Triple-A managers could be a little less involved. Poldberg has a theory behind that.
"When we came up, we knew the game a little bit more because I think we played more baseball," Poldberg said. "Now kids are playing video games and they're not actually out playing baseball.
"My son asks me, ‘What did you guys do back then?' and I tell him we only had three channels on TV and we didn't get an air conditioner until I was eight or nine, so if you're going to be hot, you might as well be hot outside playing.
"Some of the young players today will participate on select teams and travel around, but if we had five guys in the neighborhood, we went out and played. Right field might have been an out, or you played pickle. We just played the game more."
With so many entertainment options available to kids now, and so many picking up the game later in life, he just expects to explain situational baseball and positioning to young players.
I asked Poldberg about a few of the players he had seen in camp. They hadn't played any games yet, but he was able to give me a few updates.
Prized pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer was dealing with tendinitis early in camp.
"He's still just playing catch," Poldberg said. "I'm not sure about his schedule as far as the trainers are concerned, but I had him for four of five starts in Double-A last year and he's got electric stuff."
John Lamb, who had Tommy John Surgery in 2011 and has been dealing with a decrease in his velocity since his return, is "a little freer and easier this year in Spring Training" according to Poldberg. "His mindset is good, he's feeling good and he's getting stronger. He's got a full year under his belt since the surgery, and hopefully he continues to develop and get some of his velocity and feel back that he had before."
Brian Fletcher, and outfielder who ended the season with Omaha last year, is poised to probably open the season in Triple-A.
"He's got some power, he can run and he gives us a big bat in the middle of the lineup," Poldberg said. "If we put a couple of guys around him, hopefully we can stretch out our lineup and give us some power."
Lane Adams, another outfielder who finished last season in Omaha (in the playoffs), has a shot to begin in Omaha as well. Poldberg is excited about his speed on the basepaths.
"His first at-bat in Double-A, he hit a routine fly ball to center field," he said. "I really didn't know much about him at the time, but I knew he was a good athlete and he hustles and plays hard - the ball came down and I looked up when the center fielder caught it and Adams was one step off second base."
Paulo Orlando, a 28-year-old outfielder who shuffled back and forth between Double-A and Triple-A the last few seasons, started to put things together in Omaha last year.
"He didn't start playing baseball until he was 16 or 17," Poldberg said. "In Brazil, he was on the national track team. So, even though he is a little older, his baseball age is probably twenty-one or twenty-two. He's been around enough now though that he's starting to figure it out. He's a plus-plus runner and he's turning himself into a real good outfielder. And his hitting is coming around, too."
Finally, with the starting rotation pretty much set in Kansas City, Poldberg will probably have guys like Justin Marks, Chris Dwyer, and a few others who have been around the system for a while, which should provide some stability to Omaha's rotation to start the 2014 season.
"You look at Dwyer and Marks, they are solid," Poldberg said. "They've got experience under their belt and they are going to give us a good chance every fifth day when they pitch. So the depth that we're going to have pitching-wise is definitely a plus."