As Steve Scarsone completes his 16th season as either a major-league player or minor-league manager, his life in baseball is succinctly defined – understated.
Scarsone, who was an even-tempered infielder, played largely a reserve role for five major-league teams in an eight-year career that ended 15 years ago.
With the River Cats needing a victory Monday against Reno in the final game of the regular season to advance to the Pacific Coast League playoffs against the Las Vegas 51s after losing to the Aces 7-3 Sunday at Raley Field, Scarsone approaches his occupation with a similar minimalist efficiency.
“I’m not a big reactionary guy,” said Scarsone, who is nearing the end of his eighth season as a manager. “If we have a tough game and we don’t do things right, unless it continues over a length of time, I know it’s going to work its way out. This game will eventually turn around for you.
“It’s like when you are dealing with your own kids. If you go right into discipline mode, the wall goes up. I don’t have to be looking down or talking down to players. I don’t think that’s constructive. But there are times when we do things that should not have to be done, and I know they know better than that. I have to get stern, and there’s some reprimand. It’s the same way it is dealing with my kids.”
Scarsone –a 48-year-old father of two, ages 17 and 20 – began this season with a managerial oddity, a 489-489 career record. Last year, in his first season with the River Cats, he led them to a 79-65 record, but the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“You see a guy who’s going through a tough spell, how is it affecting him? How can I help him break through it?” Scarsone said. “When you look at hitting and pitching and even fielding slumps, a lot of it is mental. Players travel in that little fog for a while, for a couple of games, a series. A week goes by, and there’s no adjustment.
“What I try to do is sense what they’re going through. We can look at the stats and then there are times when we might have to have a little talk. It might be in my office or I might catch them during batter practice. It might be two seconds; it might be 20 minutes. It’s just to let a player know that we as a staff understand the game has its highs and lows.”
Scarsone’s players appreciate his demeanor.
“I would describe his approach as laid back,” relief pitcher Tucker Healy said. “The way he takes care of his players makes it easy to play for him.”
Added Seth Frankoff, another River Cats reliever: “He is a player’s coach, frankly. Scar is always looking out for the best interests of the players, day in and day out.”
This season, as per the nature of minor leagues, the River Cats have had an ever-revolving inventory. The roster has featured 63 players, including 34 pitchers.
“I try to keep my lineups fresh; I try to keep everyone in the games,” Scarsone said. “Nobody sits for four or five days. I think I create a little bit of the sense that, ‘I’m with you guys. I know what you are going through.’
“So when they get in there, they don’t have to go 4 for 4 to get another chance. You’re not going to be down for another week. Most importantly, it’s just being real. I’m not fake. This is what you get. Some people might say, ‘He doesn’t do anything.’ Which is fine. ... It’s not that I don’t do anything. It’s that I don’t create distractions. I don’t feel it’s important to show that I am doing something. It’s about the players and making sure they’re ready. I’m invisible.”
Scarsone’s preferences aside, managing in the minor leagues involves a visible presence. Managers serve as third-base coaches, meaning the River Cats’ skipper has never monitored a team from the dugout.
“It’s as close as you can get without playing,” he said. “You’re reacting mentally and physically to the game and how it progresses. You are making decisions on the fly. I enjoy that part of the game.”
Scarsone’s managerial style also is a reflection of two of his managers, Lee Elia and Dusty Baker.
Elia, like Scarsone, was largely a major-league reserve who managed the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs. He was also Scarsone’s first Triple-A manager.
Baker was Scarsone’s manager when he played for the Giants for 281 games in parts of four consecutive seasons beginning in 1993.
“On that club, I was a utility player, a bench guy,” Scarsone said. “You really had to put a lot of emphasis on every at bat and in every chance you got to play. It weighs on you heavily. If you don’t have success, you think, ‘Oh, maybe I am going to be gone.’
“(Baker) instilled in me that confidence that he understood the difficulty of my role. He knew I wasn’t going to be perfect only getting a chance every three or four days. He helped my confidence by (encouraging me to say), ‘I’m going to do something to help my club today.’
“It’s going to be recognized and appreciated by the manager. That makes a big difference. As a bench guy, I know what it feels like to sit there for a week and not get a chance to play.”
Scarsone also knows well the ways of managing. Guiding teams in the minor leagues rarely translates into a major-league job.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t aspire to do that,” he said. “Why would I work so hard to work my way up to this level? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with managing at this level. It’s very rewarding. You have players you have a chance to send to the big leagues and change their lives.
“But I think we’ve seen in the past dozen years or so major-league managers who haven’t necessarily worked their way up through the ranks and developed themselves.
“It seems those are bigger-name guys, and I understand that. I’m not a big-name guy. As a player, I was a guy in the background who worked his way up and had himself a nice career. I guess I see myself that way as a coach as well. At the end of the day, if I get a chance at the major-league level, I will embrace that.”
Until then, Scarsone is content as a minor-league manager. The job has taken him from Illinois to Stockton to Texas to Sacramento.
“This is my eighth year of managing, so what is that, a master’s degree?” Scarsone joked. “I should check with some schools to see if I could get an honorary degree.”