The Mud Hens were 17-22 and 7 games out of first place on May 15.
Mike Rojas wasn t about to push any panic buttons. This isn t his first rodeo as a minor league manager and he s a confident, positive type.
But he admits that deep down inside he was feeling the slightest pangs of pressure.
Yeah, a little tweak, maybe, Rojas said. These guys are used to winning around here.
Well, yes. The Hens have won back-to-back International League championships. They compiled a 165-121 record in the past two regular seasons and then swept through the playoffs. Yes, the Hens are used to winning and so are the fans that produce one sellout after another at Fifth Third Field.
The Toledo manager responsible for all of that was, and is, Larry Parrish. But with a week or so left in spring training Parrish decided to undergo left ankle surgery. Rojas, slated to serve as the minor league catching coordinator for the Tigers organization, suddenly found himself as the Hens interim manager.
The word interim always creates the potential for problems. It is somebody else s team. You re always compared to somebody else, in this case the successful and popular Parrish. Sure, Rojas had 11 seasons as a manager under his belt and was once named the best major league managerial prospect in the Florida State League, but he had been bouncing around the bottom bushes and this was his first shot at managing in Triple-A.
I approached the job very carefully, Rojas said. LP [Parrish] has done a tremendous job and is well known here. From the start I ve been here to help the club through this situation.
And the situation, as he refers to Parrish s absence, was complicated by an absence of winning. As a point of reference, we repeat, the Hens were 17-22 and 7 games out of first on May 15.
Entering last night s game against Ottawa, Toledo was 48-32, owner of the best record in Triple-A baseball, and led the IL West Division by three games.
Am I running the show? Yes, Rojas said. But I m not going to be selfish and say it s my club. LP is the skipper. I have too much respect for him to suggest otherwise. The way I see it, it s our team.
It remains to be seen for how much longer. Parrish visits his doctor today to see if he can shed a walking cast and begin rehab treatments. If the answer is yes, he could return after the IL s all-star break for a short homestand that begins July 12. If not then, surely he d be back in the dugout by the next homestand that starts July 24.
He insists he won t rush things.
There s no need to, Parrish said, nodding toward Rojas.
And that s the truth.
As important as the last six weeks have been for the Mud Hens, they have been equally important for Rojas.
Unlike Parrish, and unlike his dad, Cookie Rojas, both of whom were all-stars during their major league careers, Mike Rojas never made it to the show as a player. But that doesn t mean the dream is dead. Far from it.
I remember every minute of growing up in the Kansas City clubhouse, he said. It was a great experience, not only because I was always with my dad but also to see him in that environment with the George Bretts and Frank Whites and John Mayberrys. I d wake up every day, eat breakfast, and wait for dad to say Let s go. I was the ballboy, the batboy, I even helped the grounds crew.
Now I can t imagine another way of life. I breathe it, sleep it, live it, and have for a long time. The dream is always to get to the big leagues one way or another. I believe making it as a manager is a realistic dream. I m young enough that I can wait. I can get more time in at Triple-A, or first make it up as a coach and ultimately still get that opportunity.
So his goal is no different than that of many Toledo players. And they re all feeling a little better about it than they were six weeks ago.
Far from the early-season woes of pitch counts and belaboring the bullpen, pitching coach Britt Burns has stabilized what is now a pretty reliable staff. Removed from cold nights and cold bats, veteran hitting coach Leon Bull Durham has taught the Hens selectivity and that has produced quality at-bats. Toledo has a .290 team batting average since June 1.
All the while, Rojas has taken over the clubhouse. He knows the players now, knows which buttons to push, when to call a guy into the office, when to back off, who to rely on for leadership. It s a fine art.
The staff has a lot to do with the attitude, Parrish said. To me, that s the most important thing a manager and coaches do, managing the clubhouse and the attitude of the club. Not sometimes, all the time. We had a bunch of returning players and we d all been together a while. Mike had a tough role. But once he learned the players, and once they learned him, this club has been on a real roll.
As a result, when Parrish returns, Rojas will hand over the keys to a team that is again poised to contend for a championship. No interim boss could have done more or done better.
For now, though, two nameplates remain above the door to the manager s office at Fifth Third Field. One has the No. 15 and the name Larry Parish. The other says No. 19, Mike Rojas.
At least they spelled the interim manager s last name correctly, as well they should. There may be an R missing in Parrish, but there have been no W s missing of late for the Mud Hens.
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