GJ Rockies manager Tony Diaz more than a coach to young charges
In the minors, it’s a fine line between developing players and developing a team.
Tony Diaz has gotten pretty good at walking that line.
The manager of the Grand Junction Rockies knows the fans want to see a winning baseball team. The organization wants to see players steadily improving, getting ready for the next level of the game.
“Our philosophy as an organization in player development is to create an environment in which championship-caliber players can be the best on and off the field,” Diaz said during his first visit to Grand Junction this past spring.
“That’s part of our mission statement, championship caliber. We want to develop winners. The only thing at this level, we cannot compromise the development of players because of winning, either.
“If a kid reaches his pitch limit, we’ve got to get him out, regardless of how the game is shaking out. We may be winning, and he’s good, but if he reaches 95 pitches, he’s out. In the big leagues, you send him back out there. We need to balance the two. In a perfect world, you’d be developing and winning at the same time, but I don’t think anybody lives in a perfect world.”
With players fresh out of high school and several from foreign countries, Diaz isn’t just a manager, he’s a father figure when he needs to be.
“The biggest challenge is they don’t get demoralized when things don’t go their way,” he said. “You have to realize they were the big fish, the big players in their community, their town. Now everybody is the same. It boils down to being mentally tough, believe in your ability, and you can do it. It sounds a lot easier than done.
“Baseball is a game of failure. You go 3 for 10, you’re a Hall of Famer. It’s how you deal with the seven other at-bats that makes or breaks you.”
With the Rookie-level roster rolling over every year, Diaz doesn’t just forget about the guys who have moved on to Class A, Double-A or beyond.
“You’re going to struggle, you’re going to get out of it, and we’re going to do it together. For me that’s fun,” he said. “We get those kids early. Trevor Story played in Casper last year (and is playing shortstop at Class A Asheville in the South Atlantic League this season). I stay in touch with those kids. They’re playing somewhere else, but the foundation and the relationship stays. I take a lot of pride, and we as an organization take a lot of pride. We follow up with those kids.”
He lets them know he’s there if they need to talk when things aren’t going their way.
“(It’s not like) we have them three or four months and, ‘OK, good luck,’?” he said. “We’re going to stay in touch with those kids and make sure they stay on the right path. Sometimes they’re going to struggle, and we’re going to bring them back and say, ‘Hey, remember last year you struggled and went through the same thing? How did we get out of it?’
“For me, the turnover is fun and exciting. Without it I don’t think I’d be standing here. The turnover is because we’re producing Major League players.”
Diaz has helped produce several big-league players in his 12 years in the Rookie level. He was the hitting coach for six years in Casper before replacing P.J. Carey as manager in 2007. His second year, the Ghosts went 36-37, the second-best record in the club’s stint in Wyoming.
He had a career managerial record of 150-244 (.401) with Casper.
Diaz, the club’s 2002 player development “Man of the Year,” also works in the Rockies’ Dominican Instructional League and the pre-spring-training mini camp each year, and he works with the minor league players during extended spring training once the Rockies head north.
While the players are with Grand Junction, though, Diaz believes in making sure they do things right, on or off the field. That’s another facet of the father-figure role.
“Baseball at the professional level really epitomizes what the real world is,” he said. “If you don’t show up on time, if it’s Burger King or J.C. Penney, there’s consequences. You may get fired, fined, suspended, but there’s going to be consequences.
“Same here. If you don’t run hard from home to first, part of your responsibility, I’ll take you out of the game. That’s the consequence. To me, that’s the best approach when you’re trying to teach young players. We do that for a reason. I usually give you a warning; I’ll give you one. You strike out with three strikes; here, it’s two. I give you one warning, and that’s it. By saying it and not acting, they say, ‘Yeah, OK.’ But by doing it, they get it.”
Diaz grew up in the Dominican Republic and is bilingual, which helps players from Spanish-speaking countries adapt to life in the United States. He encourages those players to learn English, and he wrote a manual, “Practical English for Latin Players,” to help them adjust to the language barrier.
“A smile is a smile in any language,” he said. “We can all attest to it. If you look at a person and that person smiles, that makes you feel a little more comfortable. I challenge our U.S.-based guys to reach out to the Latinos and tell the Latinos to reach out as well, learn from each other.
“Learn Spanish and challenge the Latinos to learn English. How are we going to make this transition quicker and easier? By spending time with each other. If we have all the Latinos on this side and all the Americans on the other side, that’s gonna take longer for the chemistry.”
The host families also help bridge that language gap.
“I would like for the Latin kids to go with English-speaking families. That could make an impact on their English,” Diaz said. “Knowing they’re going to be living with good people to start with, good-hearted people, the language is an issue, but they’re going to find a way.”
And the Grand Junction Rockies will find their way in their new home.
“This is going from, put it this way, facility-wise, you can make a case from going to a high school field to a major league field,” he said as he sat in the home dugout at Suplizio Field for the first time. “From Casper, that’s how much different it is. It’s for the betterment of everybody, the community, with the tradition in baseball, that’s another plus.
“We have a fan base that actually knows about the game. We’ve got a fan base in which our parent club is the Rockies; there’s already that state tie. I look at the fan base, the reputation of the community and values, the outdoor activities, knowing baseball, knowing the game.
“When you put it in perspective, the support that the JUCO World Series has, and you don’t even have a team in there, now you can identify with a team, your local team. It’s definitely exciting. It reinvigorates anybody. I’m pumped.”