Jose Alguacil has not managed at Triple A, yet he had an answer ready when asked how it may be different from working at lower levels of the minor leagues.
“You’re dealing more, I think, with frustration,” the River Cats’ new manager said this spring as he prepared his team for the season that opens Thursday in Salt Lake City, against the Bees. “Some of these guys, they’re disappointed with going up and coming down. But that’s what my main focus is going to be, is trying to keep these guys positive through the whole year and be by their side.”
Alguacil, 43, knows a little about managing a team through disappointment. Last season, the Giants handed Alguacil their Double-A affiliate in Richmond (Va.) for his first managerial job. The team started 3-17, including 15 losses in a row. Rather than crumbling under its first-year manager, Richmond rallied and finished with a 72-68 record, missing the Eastern League playoffs by one game.
“That says a lot about a team,” Giants general manager Bobby Evans said, “and obviously says a lot about the manager and about the environment he created for them.”
The losing streak in Richmond started innocently enough with a 3-0 loss to Altoona on April 15 that dropped the Flying Squirrels to 3-3. But the next week went by without a win, and then another. On April 24, Richmond blew a one-run lead in the eighth inning to New Britain and lost 3-2. Two days later, they broke out for six runs but gave up eight.
“We were losing every which way, but he wouldn’t allow us to point fingers one way or another,” said outfielder Mac Williamson, who joined the Giants later in the season. “He wanted to make sure we knew we were in it together, and he had the team he wanted to win with. There wasn’t a point in that losing streak where he got down on us or allowed us to get down on ourselves.”
That says a lot about a team, and obviously says a lot about the manager and about the environment he created for them.
Giants general manager Bobby Evans about Jose Alguacil, whose Double-A team last season finished 72-68 after starting 3-17
Still, as the streak grew, Giants officials wondered how Alguacil was handling it. Evans reached out, as did Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who surprised Alguacil one day with a phone call. Alguacil thought Bochy was calling to talk about prospects. They wound up talking for 45 minutes.
“I just wanted to talk to him and see where he was at,” Bochy said. “He had a great attitude about it. Guys were playing hard, so he wasn’t taking it personal, and that’s what I didn’t want him to do.
“I said, ‘Listen, there’s only so much you can do. This game can be frustrating. The most important thing is (the players) know you stay behind them.’ I knew he would, but I just wanted to make sure he was doing OK.”
That isn’t to say Alguacil acted indifferent during the streak. When Richmond lost its ninth game in a row, Alguacil got ejected arguing a call at first base in the early innings. He left the field – but not before pulling first base out of the ground in protest.
“Oh, I remember that,” Williamson said. “I think sometimes some players feel coaches don’t always have their backs – they’re doing what management, the front office wants them to do. And I think Augie, it’s really important for him to make sure we know that if we’re getting hosed on a call, he’s there for us.
“He got ejected several times last year, that being one of them, and I think it really showed the players that at the end of the day he’s got our backs through thick and thin.”
On May 4, the Flying Squirrels broke the streak with a 5-1 win at Altoona. Yet for as long as it lasted, Alguacil said, he didn’t see the streak as more than a “bump” in the course of a season.
“I think at some point people probably thought I was crazy because when they called me or interviewed me I said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ ” Alguacil said, smiling. “But I was fine.”
Alguacil seems perpetually upbeat, perhaps partly the result of a lesson he said he learned from his father.
“My dad always said to me, ‘Prepare for the worst and you’ll be able to live in the good,’ ” Alguacil said. “Whatever happens, just tell the player, ‘You don’t have control of that, you just have to keep playing. Because if you pout, you’re going to prove to people that they made the right decision.’ ”
Alguacil, who worked as a roving instructor in the Giants system for eight seasons before managing in Richmond, cites a handful of influences in baseball, including former managers Frank Robinson and Felipe Alou. But he said his “mentor” is Joe Amalfitano, the Giants’ player development assistant whose major-league experience dates to 1954, when he was an infielder for the New York Giants team that won the World Series.
Amalfitano is perhaps best known as Tommy Lasorda’s third-base coach for the Dodgers from 1983-98. So when Alguacil, who calls coaching third “my passion,” joined the Giants’ organization as a coach, he sought out Amalfitano for guidance. The two became close, and whenever Alguacil has a question about something he has observed during a game, he’ll call Amalfitano – sometimes several times a week.
“He’s always looking for knowledge,” Amalfitano said. “I like him because he has a passion for the game, which is very important. And as a baseball guy, he does three things that I think are very important: He connects with the players, he contributes to their skills and he’s a confidence-builder.
“And he’s a lifer, a baseball lifer. He loves baseball and I think he’s on track to go even higher than where he is.”
A common refrain among players who were at Richmond last year is that Alguacil is a “players’ coach,” in that he is effective at relating to and relaying his message to players. It’s part of the reason the Giants, after just one season of Alguacil managing in their system, handed him the reins to their top minor-league affiliate.
“We looked at Alguacil as just a real great presence with our players – very positive, very upbeat,” Evans said. “He believes in our guys and lets them know that, and when you play for a manager that believes in you, that gives you a lot of chance for success.
I’m aggressive, I like action, I like to run a lot, I like to hit and run a lot. I have constant energy, that’s my game, and I want everybody to be like that.
Jose Alguacil, Rivers Cats manager
“He’s a real solid presence in our system. We felt like this was a good opportunity for him to grow, and that our players would benefit.”
Alguacil hopes to bring to the River Cats a managing style that matches his personality. The team was 71-73 last season, their first as the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate, ending a streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons when they were affiliated with the A’s.
“I’m aggressive, I like action, I like to run a lot, I like to hit and run a lot,” Alguacil said. “I have constant energy, that’s my game, and I want everybody to be like that. When I see players go out like that, they pump me up. I like guys to play hard, and that’s why we were able to do what we did last year.”
Among the people Alguacil said he talked to during Richmond’s losing streak, of course, was the man he calls “my dad in baseball.” Amalfitano’s message was simple: “Weather the storm.” And that’s what Alguacil and the Flying Squirrels did.
“I don’t know what the definition of success is, but I know what it is to fail,” Amalfitano said. “It’s undeveloped potential. And Jose will not experience that. He’s on a mission.”
RIVER CATS AT A GLANCE
- 2015: 71-73, second place in Pacific Coast League Pacific-North Division
- Manager: Jose Alguacil (first season)
- They’re back: SP Ty Blach, SP Clayton Blackburn, RP Michael Broadway, SP Chris Stratton, RP Stephen Okert, C Andrew Susac, SS Juan Ciriaco, OF Darren Ford, OF Jarrett Parker, OF Mac Williamson
- They’re here: SP Austin Fleet, SP Matt Lujan, SP Ricky Romero, RP Jake Dunning, C George Kottaras, INF Mitch Delfino, INF Conor Gillaspie, INF Grant Green, INF Hak-Ju Lee, OF Gorkys Hernandez
- Player to watch: Williamson. The corner outfielder hit .275 with 13 home runs and 73 RBIs in the minors last season before being called up by the Giants in September. This spring, he tied for second on the Giants with five Cactus League homers and had 14 RBIs. Williamson has raw power, and he could be the first player called up this year if the Giants decide to carry an extra bench player instead of a 13th pitcher.
- Pitcher to watch: Blackburn. The right-hander had a 2.85 ERA in the hitter-friendly PCL last season. At age 23, he impressed Giants coaches and staff in Arizona with a strong camp. Giants manager Bruce Bochy likens him to former reliever Yusmeiro Petit because of his control with a four-pitch mix. Blackburn will be on the short list if the Giants need another starter or depth in their bullpen.
- Newcomer to watch: RP Derek Law. Law nearly made the Giants’ roster out of camp in 2014 but was sent to Double A instead and tore a ligament in his right elbow. He came back last season from Tommy John surgery to record a 4.56 ERA in 28 games at Double A, and will begin this season in Sacramento. The Giants still are high on Law’s potential and hope with a full healthy season he can return to where he was two years ago.