LAWRENCEVILLE — Gwinnett Braves manager Dave Brundage had a smile that couldn’t be undone before a recent game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It never gets old for this 12-year minor league manager to tell a player they’ve been called up to the majors.
That specific day, the manager of the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A club had the chance to tell first baseman Barbaro Canizares that he’d be playing just down the road with the big league team in a matter of hours. In this case, Brundage had to tell the player over the phone, since there was a quick turnaround between a 10 a.m. callup and a 1 p.m. first pitch, just 30 minutes down Interstate 85 at Turner Field.
But the experience was just as sweet.
"To be able to tell a young man that he’s going to the big leagues is definitely the best part of this job," Brundage said. "I know how much hard work they all put into achieving the same goal of getting called up."
For the team left behind though, there is no magic formula to compensate for having one of the star players called up to the majors. Brundage says in those situations without an immediate roster move to fill the vacancy, it just requires being as flexible as possible.
That’s just part of life on the farm.
"In Triple-A every day is unique and every player is unique," Brundage said.
Life as a Triple-A manager isn’t so much based on physically preparing young talent for the major league game. They develop those skills in developmental leagues, Single-A and Double-A ball. At this stage, they are grooming players that are next to get the call from the big leagues.
Gwinnett pitching coach Derek Botelho, in his 32nd season in pro baseball, says that working with a staff of 12 different pitchers with 12 different personalities isn’t as difficult as one might think. He wants to make the proper adjustments in their mechanics to help make the jump to the majors. Like Brundage, the pitching coach is sparked by seeing players that make it to the majors. Nothing tops that feeling.
"It’s very gratifying to work with players during the developmental process and to know what they put into it, and then get called up to the big leagues," Botelho said. "Every player is here with the same goal to be playing 30 minutes down the road."
Don’t let the coaching staff fool you. Winning now in the Triple-A ranks is also important. The coaches typically get to the stadium in Lawrenceville at around 1 p.m., or earlier, for a game at 7. Botelho starts his rounds of throwing batting practice to players as early as 2 each day. Even on rainy days, they have a pair of indoor cages below the stadium where players can stay sharp.
Players also do any necessary physical therapy, eat pre-game meals and do infield practice before getting ready to take the field. During batting practice, Gwinnett hitting coach Jamie Dismuke hovers behind the cage giving the players tips on their swings.
"When we get here in the afternoon, the focus is to work on individual things," infielder Wes Timmons said. "Our coaching staff is great is helping us with those aspects of the game."
Brundage also extends his role into that of a player advocate once the game starts. The manager, known as ‘Brundy’ to the players, is also known to jump out of the dugout and run on the field to argue with umpires on their behalf.
"He’s a players manager," Timmons added. "He’s like a 10th player for us."
In Gwinnett’s first season since moving from Richmond, Va. the focus has been all about keeping enough players on the field. Before Canizares was called up, pitching prospects Kris Medlen and Tommy Hanson both spent time in Gwinnett before promotions to Atlanta. No matter the situation, the coaching staff has to have a plan in place to keep the team in motion.
That’s why players like second baseman Brooks Conrad, with only one previous start at first, takes ground balls there before games; it’s always possible he’ll be shifted around the infield. Pitchers also know at a minute’s notice they could be pitching in a different role.
"That’s one thing you always have to be prepared for is to juggle the roster and have enough healthy bodies on the field," Brundage said. "You just have to make do with what you have and shuffle things around the best you can."
Once the players are called up to the majors, the line of communication doesn’t stop.
Botelho routinely gets text messages from the pitchers he’s worked with. Brundage is also directly or indirectly in contact with the Atlanta Braves front office about players "three or four times each week."
Heading a minor league program is also like a second family for the entire Gwinnett team. Just consider, they spend at least six to eight hours each day together for five months out of the year. Some of the players even live together in nearby apartments. Brundage thinks its imperative to build a bond with each player, regardless of how long or short a period the player is going to stay in the clubhouse.
And just like a family, trust is a central component. Botelho says that there is a natural time period for player and coach to build a working relationship. The goal, eventually, is to get to a point where the player doesn’t hesitate taking the advice of a new coach as the gospel truth.
"It usually takes a pitcher three or four outings before they completely buy into what I’m saying and know that I’m going to tell them what is best to get them back in the majors," Botelho said.
Timmons knows Brundage’s managing style well. This is the third season Timmons has played under Brundage, including the previous two years at Triple-A Richmond.
Timmons sees the manager as the overseer and one responsible for the strategy to win, including scripting the most advantageous lineup card on a nightly basis.
Timmons adds that any time that an issue needs to be addressed, Brundage’s door is always open.
"I see the manager as more like the Commander-in-Chief," Timmons said.
Pitcher Boone Logan is one of the newer players in the locker room, having spent the 2008 season split between the Chicago White Sox and its Triple-A affiliate, the Charlotte Knights.
"Coming to Gwinnett, this was the first time I’ve been traded," Logan said. "But they made it real easy coming to a new team, and I feel like just one of the guys now.
"The coaching staff here is great."