November 2, 2012 in Sports

Blanchette: The grinder is now the skipper

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Former Gonzaga University and Gonzaga Prep player Mike Redmond is the choice to lead the Florida Marlins.
(Full-size photo)

As a player, Mike Redmond was baseball comfort food.

Consider some of the descriptives that attached themselves to him in the course of his 13 major league seasons: reliable, savvy, genuine, valued, self-effacing, resolute, trusted. A grinder. An earner. A survivor. He could be leashed in the dugout for six games, then get the call for a seventh and perform with no discernible rust. He kept clubhouses loose, pitchers calm and reporters charmed.

He wasn’t so much a team’s glue as he was the webbing of an old catcher’s mitt – making the circle whole, tough enough to handle even wild heat.

And just get a load of him now, at age 41:

A prodigy.

This was the great irony in Redmond’s hiring as manager of the Miami Marlins this week, and even he had to laugh about it. Undrafted out of Gonzaga University, Redmond labored through the low minors and thought maybe he’d bumped his head on his competitive ceiling when he opened his sixth pro season in Double-A.

Now, after retiring as a player in 2010 and spending just two seasons as a minor league manager, he’s back in the majors, and in charge at that.

“I’ve been talking to buddies that I played with, Mike Lowell and guys like that,” Redmond reported Friday, “and telling them, ‘I need you to come help me coach.’”

And busy with their own golf games, fishing trips and kids’ middle-school volleyball matches, they give it their best third-base coach “Whoa” sign.

“Red,” they protest, “we weren’t expecting you to get back to the big leagues so quickly.”

It isn’t often that “inevitable” meets “Already?” Or that a managerial hire registers both a wow and a feels-just-right on the emotional meter at the same time.

Everyone knew Mike Redmond would manage in the big leagues someday – he loves to tell the story about his minor league rookie card dismissing his playing future by suggesting that he’d “make a great coach when his playing days are over.” But for it to happen now required the right organization with the right need to make the right choice.

Having just endured a nightmarish bellyflop under Ozzie Guillen’s grim, profane and it’s-my-show authority, the Marlins have hit upon the most relatable man in baseball as the antidote.

“Mike Redmond is going to have so much support,” said Marlins president Larry Beinfest, “that it’s going to be tough for him not to succeed.”

And though, yes, the Marlins will play under their fourth opening-day manager in as many years, you’d have to think that support may actually start in the club’s front office. After all, when Redmond left the Marlins – the organization he came up with – as a free agent, owner Jeffrey Loria made it a point to call and wish him well. Departing backup catchers are rarely accorded such gestures.

Familiarity and comfort were obvious factors in the hire, and especially in Beinfest not being put off at Redmond’s answer when asked if he was ready for this job.

“I was ready last year,” Redmond said.

That’s the ultra-competitive, get-it-done side of Redmond, the Redmond who promised “to get guys focused back on baseball in an environment where they can thrive” and that there would be “no sideshows” – and if those were unspoken references to Guillen, so be it. There is absolutely no trouble reconciling that with fun Red, the keep-it-loose clubhouse counsel who once helped the Marlins snap out of a swoon by taking batting practice in the indoor cage wearing nothing but cleats and gloves.

“I had a little media training this morning,” he said in starting his press conference Friday, “and they advised me that I should keep my clothes on for this.”

The inevitable question is whether Redmond’s relative youth and his short managerial apprenticeship will be leveraged against him by cynical millionaires who don’t think they should be hitting seventh in the lineup.

But the success of Mike Matheny with the Cardinals and Robin Ventura with the White Sox in their first managing ventures should allay some of those fears.

“I think it’s a great thing for me that I’m not that far removed from being a player,” Redmond said. “When a guy comes to me and asks, ‘How do you pitch to A-Rod?’ or ‘What did you do when you were struggling?’ I have an answer for him. A lot of these guys, I’ve been in the fire with them.”

And just as when he finally slapped a single in his first MLB at-bat in 1998, he took a quick gaze in the distance and saw Spokane.

“I’ve achieved two goals in my life that are very special to me and that go back to when I was growing up,” he said. “Now to have kids of my high school friends come up and ask, ‘Does this mean we get free tickets to Marlins games?’ and I can say, ‘Absolutely’ – that makes me smile.

“I had my role models growing up in Spokane – the Stocktons, the Rypiens, guys I looked up to. Hopefully, there are kids that want to be like Mike Redmond, too. That’s pretty cool.”

Actually, it would be a comfort.

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