We are all born with free will, but for some folks, their paths are more preordained than others.
Kenny Holmberg was pretty much destined for a life in baseball.
Part of it was nature: He’s the son of a baseball lifer. Part of it was nurture: After a tragic accident involving his mother in his childhood, the ballpark became his refuge.
Holmberg, 35, takes over as the field manager for the Spokane Indians for the 2018 season after filling the role of the organization’s minor-league infield coordinator, a position he held the past three seasons.
“The timing was right, the opportunity was there,” Holmberg said via telephone about returning to the field, while awaiting a flight to Spokane on Monday. “I don’t think it was something necessarily that was planned out.”
After 14 seasons with Tim Hulett at the helm, this marks the second new manager for the Indians in as many seasons.
Last year’s manager, Matt Hagen, was assigned to Low-A Hickory of the South Atlantic League by the parent club Texas Rangers.
“I think where we were as an organization there was an opportunity and where I’m at in my career, in my life, the time was right,” Holmberg said.
“The roving role is great. It’s also a humbling role,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot from it, and I look forward to working as the field manager now in Spokane.”
Jared Goedert accompanies Holmberg as the team’s new hitting coach and Jono Armold is the new pitching coach. Athletic trainer Bronson Santillan will also be in his first season at Spokane, while strength and conditioning coach Ed Yong returns for his 10th season with the Indians.
All were part of the Rangers’ organization last season.
Holmberg sees his new position as part instructor and part mentor.
“It’s a a unique opportunity to shed some light for some kids coming in from college or high school or Latin America or anywhere else across the world.”
Building a résumé
Holmberg previously managed three seasons for the Rangers’ Arizona Rookie League (AZL) and one campaign in the Dominican Summer League (DSL).
In four seasons, Holmberg has compiled a record of 127-111.
As a player, Holmberg overachieved as an infielder despite his 5-foot-9 frame. He starred at Dunedin HS in Florida and went on to play at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.
He was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays – the organization his father, Dennis Holmberg, has been employed by for 38 years as a manager, coach and instructor – after high school in the 49th round of the 2001 draft and again after college in the 22nd round of the 2005 draft by Milwaukee.
Holmberg spent four seasons in the Brewers minor league system, smacking 34 homers and reaching High-A Brevard County (Florida) in 2008, before retiring as a player and becoming a coach for the DSL Rangers the following season.
He managed the DSL Rangers in 2011 and was a coach for the Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Pelicans in 2012 before taking over as the skipper of the AZL Rangers from 2013-15.
Holmberg said managing in the big leagues someday would be a tremendous honor, but he isn’t going to get ahead of himself – or the job right in front of him.
“You are where you are in this game,” he said. “You want to be really great at what you’re doing now. That’s what the game has always been about. What have you done for me lately? I don’t look too far ahead. I don’t have a crystal ball.”
But he is bringing a good deal of experience and perspective with him into his new position.
“Managing in the Dominican (League) was great,” Holmberg said. “Huge impact on me, learning the kids and the culture down there.”
Back in the States, he had a chance to watch some of his players climb the ladder, a while making a similar journey as a manager
“Doing the Arizona League for three years, and now getting an opportunity in Spokane – looking back (at the end of the year) reflecting, it’ll be pretty neat to have that experience managing at each one of those lower entry levels and knowing what I need to know moving forward, maybe moving to a full season or Double-A, Triple-A, whatever the future might hold for me.”
Influenced by family
All of Holmberg’s success on the baseball field came after unthinkable tragedy. He doesn’t like to dwell on it, he said, out of respect for family members, and that “everyone has adversity in life to overcome.”
His adversity came at an age earlier than most.
In 1985, Diane Holmberg was driving with her 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son in Syracuse, New York, where her husband Dennis was coaching, when a two-car collision changed all of their lives.
The children were uninjured, but Diane’s skull was fractured, leaving her completely incapacitated – in what Kenny Holmberg described as a persistent vegetative state – for the rest of her life.
When he was old enough, Holmberg said the ballpark where his dad was coaching would become his version of day care. He was a fixture in the dugout and clubhouse instead of the playground.
“In the baseball world, it allowed me to come home from school and my grandmother would take me to the park. I’d sit there all day and all night. I’d go to school and go to the park. It was just the way it was. I knew baseball growing up. That was what I loved.
“It sucks that tragedy had to bring me to it, but it’s what you make out of adversity, I guess.”
He credits his father for leading the family through difficult times while building a lengthy career in baseball – which is hard enough to accomplish in the most accommodating of circumstances.
“I think it’s impressive what he’s done,” Holmberg said of his father. “What he’s dealt with, what he’s gone through. Raising two kids with family and friends supporting him, obviously. He’s somebody to admire.
“Growing up for me was different than most kids, but I’ve taken advantage of it.”
Dennis Holmberg was a fifth-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in the fifth round of the 1970 January secondary draft. He played parts of eight minor-league seasons, ending his playing career in 1977 with 45 plate appearances for Holyoke (Mass.), then a Double-A affiliate of the Brewers.
He was hired as manager of Low-A Newark (N.J.) in the Milwaukee system later that season, then in 1979 was hired by the Toronto organization to manage at rookie-level Medicine Hat (Alberta) of the Pioneer League, which started a string of managerial jobs throughout the Blue Jays’ system. In the 1994 and ’95 seasons he finally reached the big leagues, as bullpen coach for the parent club in Toronto.
But as with many baseball lifers, another reassignment was waiting for him, and Dennis was appointed manager at High-A Dunedin (Florida) in 1996. He took over at Low-A Auburn (New York) in 2002, where he stayed through the 2010 season.
Dennis Holmberg has been manager of the rookie-level Bluefield (West Virginia) Blue Jays of the Appalachian League for the past seven seasons, earning the league’s manager of the year award in 2011 when he went 40-28 and managed future big leaguers Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar.
“As you grow up,” Kenny Holmberg reflected, “you look at his body of work at the lower levels. And then getting a nice opportunity to coach in the big leagues for a couple of years was great and something to be proud of (looking at it) as a kid.”
Sharing his experience
Not all of Holmberg’s players will be strangers to him – returning Indians Curtis Terry and Isaias Quiroz played for Holmberg in the Arizona League in 2015.
Holmberg has also managed future big leaguers Joey Gallo, Odubel Herrera, Jorge Alfaro, Joakim Soria, Neftali Feliz, Keone Kela, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Nick Williams and Engel Beltre in the AZL.
He thinks his perspective of being around the game from a very early age is a benefit to his players, some of whom will be undertaking their first professional experience, and relishes the chance to work with younger ballplayers.
“The impact and influence you can make with that first year, getting their first taste of what professional baseball is like, is always unique,” he said.
“Growing up the way I did, in a clubhouse and playing the game my entire life, and getting an opportunity to play some pro ball, I can truly empathize with what the kids are going through.”
Holmberg acknowledges, though, that maybe even as much as a baseball manager, he also has to be part chaperone and role model.
“I love the opportunity,” he said. “I look forward to doing more than just (helping players) throw the ball over the plate, putting the ball in play.
“These kids are going to learn how to impact a community. These kids are going to learn how to be good people. Good sons, good brothers, good husbands. And they’re going to play baseball along the way, too.
“I think at this level, that’s what important. And that they carry that on for the rest of their careers, and through the rest of their lives. My dad has inspired me to have that in my heart, and coach from there first.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.