New RailRiders Skipper Best Kind Of “players’ Manager”
If there’s an irony to this, it lies in the fact that Jay Bell seemed to be a player firmly pitted against the New York Yankees.
As a youngster, he watched the 1977 and 1978 World Series and came away loving the Dodgers, admiring the style guys like Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey played with. As a player, he had 20 hits against the Yankees in 21 career games. As a possibility, he turned down a chance to play second base for the Yankees alongside the great Derek Jeter before the 1998 season, opting instead to be a building block for the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. Over the next four seasons, he turned out to be a better player than the guy the Yankees ultimately traded for to play second base, Chuck Knoblauch. As a matter of history, he’s the man who darted 90 feet from third to home, his arms raised, offering that one victorious clap above his helmet before jumping into Matt Williams’ arms to score the winning run in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.
Walk around the RailRiders clubhouse during the 2018 season, though, and one man seemed to draw more praise than any among all of those Yankees prospects a step away from the big leagues.
Of course, that man is Jay Bell, who RailRiders fans and players are going to get to know even better this season.
The worst-kept secret in minor league baseball got released from the bag Thursday when Bell officially was named the RailRiders’ manager for 2019, certainly a welcomed addition for players who, to a man, raved about his work at Double-A Trenton last season and with Class-A Tampa the one before.
Not so long ago, what a player thought of a manager hardly mattered. He was the boss, the guy who pushed the buttons. If he wanted a hit-and-run, you better be able to execute the hit-and-run. He made the pitching changes, less frequently than today of course. He filled out the lineup card. If you didn’t like it, tough. You were the baseball player. He was the baseball mind.
It’s different today, though, especially in the minor leagues. Guys like Bell are as much teachers now as they are managers. Maybe more, in an industry where pursuing development is considered more vital than piling up wins.
“Jay is a players coach,” RailRiders slugger Ryan McBroom said. “He’s been around the game for a long time and he understands how players feel, how our bodies work, everything of that sort, and it’s super beneficial when your manager understands things like that. He just gets it, you know? From a players standpoint, he just understands us.”
When a manager is referred to as a “players manager” in the minor leagues, it often comes with a negative connotation outside the game. A players manager is someone who will do anything to accommodate the players’ hopes and wishes. He’ll cater to the player in a world where young potential stars are treated with kid gloves.
Really, any player you talk to will give you a much different, more succinct definition of what a real players manager does that separates him from others. A players manager is an honest manager, someone who gives the situation to the player straight, someone who has been in his cleats before and is empathetic of his situation, but who is always honest about how the present relates to the road ahead.
“I remember when I was in Pittsburgh and having the opportunity to play there and listening to the Pittsburgh fans talk about being a blue-collar town with blue-collar ethics, that kind of stuff,” Bell said. “Everybody loves to win, but more than anything else, they wanted to see good, hard effort. And they wanted guys that went out of their way to bust their rear ends to play the game as hard as they possibly could. If they won, that was fantastic and that’s what they wanted. But at the same time, they wanted to see the effort that went into it also.
“I’m going to expect that from a player. It’s something that we as an organization tend to desire. You share it with the guys, and they buy in pretty quickly.”
Think of the amount of respect Bell has for the Yankee way of doing things, and it seems incredible he didn’t take that opportunity to play in the Bronx, that he rooted against them in those World Series as a fan, or that as a player, he always rang more true as a thorn in their side.
Since he joined the organization as a Class A manager before the 2017 season, Bell has experienced an Al Pedrique-like climb through the system, and his success with the RailRiders will be predicated on how much of his own experience as a winning player and a major league bench coach with the Reds he can incorporate into the Yankees’ player development philosophy.
The best managers the franchise has had since the Yankees moved Triple-A operations in 2007 have been able to do that well, but arguably, Bell is the one who has best meshed his career away from the Yankees into a message consistent with the one the Yankees want to convey.
“The Yankee Code is a living, breathing, thing,” Bell said. “It’s one of the things that really draws me to the Yankees organization. ... The first line of the Yankee Code goes something like this: It says, talking about Yankee players, ‘Yankee players, we will respect the rules of the New York Yankee organization and Major League Baseball.’ That’s the very first rule. There’s something about the first four lines, they talk about respect. They talk about doing things the right way. They talk about hard and smart work. They talk about trying to build a winning atmosphere. It matters.
“The last three years have been a great deal of pleasure to be involved in the organization. I believe in what they preach. I believe in the message that they send out.”
Now, he’s a big part of pushing that message on through the minors and, hopefully for players like McBroom, the majors, too.
Helps that the Yankees Code is so similar to the one he lived by when he was one of them.
DONNIE COLLINS is a Times-Shamrock sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.