Sacramento River Cats

Opinion: From Havana to Paintsville, Ky., new River Cats manager Bob Mariano has been around

River Cats manager Bob Mariano says he’s “living the dream,” even though he has spent most of his career in the minor leagues.
River Cats manager Bob Mariano says he’s “living the dream,” even though he has spent most of his career in the minor leagues. jvillegas@sacbee.com

He shook hands with Fidel Castro in Havana and ate steak and lobster for free at George Steinbrenner’s hotel in Tampa, Fla. He played and managed in Italy and stamped his baseball passport in Beloit, Wis., and Paintsville, Ky., in Nashville and New Orleans, in Stockton, Fresno, and now, in his new home on the road, in Sacramento.

“It’s definitely been a journey,” River Cats manager Bob Mariano said.

For 35 years, Mariano has ridden the rails of the national pastime, for the Yankees, Orioles, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants organizations. Twice, he received year-long call-ups as a big-league hitting instructor. Otherwise, Mariano has seen the country – and four others – through the eyes of the minor-league baseball professional.

He is absolutely OK with that.

“I’m passionate and thankful and blessed that I’m living the dream, really,” said Mariano, 57, who is married but has no children. “It’s been surreal almost, just meeting so many people, all kinds of players.”

In his six minor-league seasons, Mariano played mostly at third base – 311 of 385 games – but he also played shortstop (50 games), outfield (12), first base (8) and second base (3), and even caught one game, which covers just about everything. His batting numbers (.250, eight home runs) don’t suggest it, but Mariano knew what he was doing with the stick. Otherwise, why would six clubs hire him to show up-and-comers how to swing it?

As the Giants’ minor-league hitting instructor, he polished the attack of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik and Pablo Sandoval, which helped win three World Series. With the Yankees, he contributed to the development of Bernie Williams. Giants fans unhappily note that in his Dodgers years, Mariano worked flaws out of Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and James Loney.

Shane Turner, the Giants’ director of player development, said that in the construction of a world champion, “It takes a village of people to do their jobs every single day.” Mariano, Turner said, “has been a part of that.”

“He’s been asked to do a couple of different jobs with this organization, and he’s done so without complaint and to the best of his ability,” Turner said. “It takes an ability to stay focused in the moment, what the task is at hand, and also to show a lot of selflessness.”

Mariano approaches his Triple-A managerial task with simplicity.

“They’re at the point where they’re polished guys,” Mariano said. “They’re guys who have played in the minor leagues – you’re talking thousands of swings, thousands of bullpens. It’s sort of like a car when it goes through the assembly line. You’re refining it, and it’s ready to go in the showroom.”

Some of the models, however, already have been on display. When returned to the shop on recall, they tend to wheeze and cough.

“I tell them, ‘You know what? You’re normally playing for this name right here,’” Mariano said, swiping his hand across the letters on his black and orange River Cats jersey. “‘But there are 29 other major-league clubs out there, so you’re playing for the name on your back, too.’ I tell them, ‘You’re like independent contractors. You’ve got to sell yourself, and there are always people watching you. You’ve got to play for your family and your name.’”

As a collegian at LSU, Mariano met Castro while playing for the U.S. team in front of crowds in the 60,000s in the 1979 Intercontinental Cup in Cuba. Mariano dined on Steinbrenner’s tab at the Bay Harbor Inn in Tampa, Fla., a hotel owned by the then-Yankees’ owner. It was a fringe benefit for Mariano’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., club in 1982, whenever the boys made the trip across Florida’s Alligator Alley.

“We used to get $11-a-day meal money, but he let us eat in his restaurant for free,” Mariano said, recalling servers dressed in tuxedos – a rarity on the Class-A grind.

Mariano played with Don Mattingly in Fort Lauderdale and was up as a hitting coach with the Giants the year Randy Johnson won his 300th game.

Mariano hopes the next big name to remember will be Chris Heston, the Giants’ 27-year-old pitcher who picked up his first major-league win last week with an impressive performance in Phoenix. Mariano, who had Heston for two years in Fresno, saw it coming in spring training when the pitcher handled Kansas City, held his own against the Dodgers and overmatched Colorado. Heston is scheduled to start the Giants’ home opener Monday.

“He put on some weight this year, and his velocity is better,” Mariano said. “He’s keeping everything at the knees, inside and out, up and down, hard and soft. He’s a big-league pitcher.”

Maybe Heston’s name will wind up on Mariano’s list of notable baseball connections. But he hopes their intersection won’t include Sacramento.

Heston has never played here, and Mariano hopes he never does.

“I never want to see him again,” Mariano said.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.

MAN ON THE MINOR-LEAGUE MOVE

River Cats manager Bob Mariano is making his 18th career stop as a coach or manager in Sacramento. Here’s the road map that brought him here:

PLAYER

1980: Bradenton (Fla.) Yankees, Gulf Coast League, Rookie; Paintsville (Ky.) Yankees, Appalachian League, Rookie

1981: Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Yankees, Florida State League, Class A; Nashville (Tenn.) Sounds, Southern League, Class AA

1982: Fort Lauderdale Yankees, Florida State League, Class A

1983-85: Charlotte (N.C.) O’s, Southern League, Class AA

1986-87: Nettuno/Anzio, Italy (player-manager)

1988: Newport, Australia (player-manager).

COACH/MANAGER

1988-89: Albany-Colonie (N.Y.) Yankees, Eastern League, Class AA

1990: Prince William (Md.) Cannons (Yankees), Carolina League, Class A

1991: Albany-Colonie (N.Y.) Yankees, Eastern League, Class AA

1992: Fort Lauderdale Yankees, Florida State League, Class A

1993: Beloit (Wis.) Brewers, Midwest League, Class A

1994: El Paso (Texas) Diablos (Brewers), Texas League, Class AA

1995: Stockton Ports (Brewers), California League, Class A, manager

1996: New Orleans Zephyrs (Brewers), American Association, Triple A

1997: Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks), Pacific Coast League, Triple A

1998-2000: Arizona Diamondbacks, minor-league hitting coordinator

2001: Vero Beach (Fla.) Dodgers, Florida State League, High A

2002: Los Angeles Dodgers, assistant major-league hitting coach

2003-04: Los Angeles Dodgers, minor-league hitting coordinator

2005-09: Giants, minor-league hitting coordinator

2009: Giants, assistant hitting coordinator

2010-11: Giants, minor-league hitting coordinator

2012-14: Fresno Grizzlies (Giants), Triple A, manager

2015: River Cats (Giants), Triple A, manager

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