Sacramento River Cats

New River Cats manager Dave Brundage brings wealth of minor-league experience

Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage, left, with Philadelphia outfielder Cesar Hernandez, joined the Phillies in late September last year. The Phillies declined to bring Brundage back even though he led the IronPigs to an 85-58 mark.
Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage, left, with Philadelphia outfielder Cesar Hernandez, joined the Phillies in late September last year. The Phillies declined to bring Brundage back even though he led the IronPigs to an 85-58 mark. Associated Press file

River Cats manager Dave Brundage thinks for a moment, says he’s pretty sure this is his 32nd opening day in minor-league baseball and swears the novelty hasn’t worn off.

“You get excited – a good nervous,” he says. “I think the day it does get old is the day I probably need not be in the game.”

Rained out in their first attempt Thursday, the River Cats hosted the Tacoma Rainiers on Friday night to open their 18th season in Sacramento and first with Brundage at the helm. But after getting the game started, heavy rain caused it to be suspended in the bottom of the first inning with the score 0-0. The game will be resumed when the Rainiers return to Sacramento on July 8.

Brundage is a newcomer to the Giants organization – hired to replace Jose Alguacil, who was promoted to the major-league staff after one season managing in Sacramento.

The latter is a step that Brundage, 52, has never taken. Not during a playing career that spanned parts of 10 minor-league seasons. Not in nearly two decades as a manager, during which he has won 1,371 games and lost 1,315, mostly at the minors’ highest level.

Brundage spent the past four seasons managing the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate. Last year, Lehigh Valley finished 85-58 – the second-best record in the International League. After the season, the Phillies chose not to bring him back.

“I was surprised,” Brundage said. “I was surprised, but I understood. I did. That doesn’t make it any easier.

“There’s no hard feelings. Nonetheless, I think the older you get, being let go is not an easy thing to deal with, with family and kids and things like that. But I feel, in a sense, almost rejuvenated, because I landed in a great spot.”

After promoting Alguacil to their first-base coaching job, the Giants had an opening to fill at Triple-A, where Brundage has managed the past 11 seasons. Brundage also once played alongside Giants farm director Shane Turner when both were in the Mariners organization. He interviewed with the Giants and came away thinking “it was a good fit.”

“I found out this organization really, truly cares about their players,” Brundage said. “It’s so important in managing to truly, genuinely care about your players. It goes a long way.”

There were other positives. Being on the west coast allowed Brundage to move his family back to Oregon, where he’s from and his oldest son attends college. Black and orange are familiar colors – Brundage wore the same while attending Oregon State.

A standout outfielder in college, Brundage was drafted in the fourth round by the Phillies in 1986. He went on to bat .275 in the minors, hitting just 16 home runs in 784 games but finishing his career with more walks (444) than strikeouts (441). In 1991, with the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in Calgary, he batted .310 with a .421 on-base percentage.

It was around that time Brundage thought he might get a shot at the majors. As he recalls, former minor-league teammates were calling him from the Mariners to say that he’d soon be joining them in Seattle.

“Somewhere in the mix they lost my phone number,” Brundage says, “because I never ended up getting that call.”

Brundage played his last full season in 1992, before his career tailed off and he began to transition into coaching and managing.

“That was my ‘window of opportunity’ that maybe might’ve changed my life,” Brundage said. “But at the same time, it did change my life.

“I never got that call. But at the same time it made me realize that it’s not the most important thing in my life. This right here is the most important thing in my life, other than my family, is managing our team every year.”

Close calls have followed him. At two stops managing in the Mariners system, Brundage was succeeded by Daren Brown, who later became Seattle’s interim manager in 2010. In 2007, Brundage was hired to manage the Triple-A Richmond Braves, replacing Brian Snitker, who now manages the Atlanta Braves. At Lehigh Valley, Brundage took over for Ryne Sandberg, who managed the Philadelphia Phillies from 2013-15.

“I think maybe one day it would be nice to get to go to the big leagues,” Brundage said. “But it certainly doesn’t define me. I love where I’m at. I understand this level and the mentality. And I think it’s a good fit.”

At Triple-A, Brundage manages a mix of prospects and veterans at various stages of their careers. Sometimes he delivers bad news, of a release or demotion. Other times he gets to tell players what they’ve waited their whole lives to hear.

Brundage prefers those stories. One of his favorites is about the time the Mariners called up outfielder Raul Ibanez from Triple-A Tacoma, where Brundage was the hitting coach. Tacoma’s coaches removed Ibanez from their game – but told Ibanez it was because he hadn’t run out a ground ball.

“He had to sit there seven innings or something like that,” Brundage said. “The players were mad at us because they knew he had all the respect in the world (for the game).”

That isn’t all. After the final out, Brundage said, the coaches got caught up in reports and other postgame obligations. It wasn’t until they were leaving the field that a trainer asked how Ibanez had reacted to his promotion.

“I said, ‘Holy (expletive),’ ” Brundage said, “ ‘I gotta go track him down.’

“Somebody said the players’ van had already left. We were running back in there (to the clubhouse). The only person left was the guy vacuuming in there. And there was Raul Ibanez, still sitting in his uniform, waiting to be talked to. We grabbed him and told him he was going to the big leagues.”

That’s an extreme example. But name a player Brundage has sent to the majors, he says, and he’ll remember the conversation.

“I think the satisfaction of being able to tell someone that they’re going to the big leagues is one of my greatest rewards,” Brundage said.

Someday, maybe, Brundage will be the one hearing those words instead of saying them. He hasn’t given up on it yet.