Tom Runnells laid the first pitch perfectly in Carlos Gonzalez’s wheelhouse, one of those straight, low-velocity, batting-practice fastballs, and the Colorado Rockies slugger ripped it 440 feet into the seats at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
“I’m thinking, man, we’ll coast,” Runnells said, recalling last summer’s Home Run Derby preliminary to baseball’s All-Star Game. “But it was seven or eight outs later until he hit his next one.”
Gonzalez ended up with four homers and failed to advance out of the first round.
“I told him afterward that it probably wasn’t the last time he’d have that opportunity and that when it happens again, if I have anything to do with it, we’re going to win it,” Runnells said.
When Gonzalez learned a few days ago that he was again tabbed for the Home Run Derby, Runnells was the first guy he sought out in the Rockies clubhouse.
“You want to go to New York?” Gonzalez asked.
Alas, this story won’t have a happy ending. Gonzalez was forced to pull out of the popular home run competition late Thursday because of a finger injury.
But Runnells, the Colorado Rockies’ bench coach who makes his offseason home in Sylvania, is not exactly unemployed.
Because a few minutes after Gonzalez approached Runnells, Michael Cuddyer pulled him aside with the same news and the same request.
So Runnells will still have one horse in the race Monday night at Citi Field, the New York Mets’ stadium, where he’ll be pitching to Cuddyer in the home run contest.
Gonzalez, in his fifth season with Colorado, leads the NL with 24 home runs as teams head into the final weekend before the All-Star break. Cuddyer, who is hitting .337, has 15 homers thus far in just his second year with the Rockies.
That both would immediately ask Runnells to be a part of the festivities says a lot about how Colorado’s players view the one-time Toledo Mud Hens manager (1995-96), who is in his fourth full season as the Rockies’ bench coach, now working as the top aide to rookie manager Walt Weiss.
“Both of them are just absolutely wonderful young men,” Runnells said. “It’s a pretty neat relationship I have with CarGo [Gonzalez’s nickname], and Michael is one of the most caring and considerate guys I’ve ever met in the game. We’ve formed really nice bonds. I think they both have a lot of trust in me and I have great respect for both of them.
“I’m honored they asked and, hopefully, I can live up to my part.”
Still, Runnells admits, it is a bit of a bittersweet honor because it will cut in half what would have been a four-day, mid-season vacation at home.
“I don’t know that anyone outside of sports understands just how precious off-days are,” he said. “A baseball season is a long grind, and part of me wants to be sitting in the back yard relaxing with my wife and daughter.”
Long-distance family life is not unique in professional sports, but this one is complicated because Runnells’ wife also has a high-profile career that limits her ability to get away for extended periods.
Mrs. Runnells is better known in these parts as Chrys Peterson, the news anchor on WTOL, Ch. 11. They met when Runnells was managing the Mud Hens and were married in October, 1997. They have a 13-year-old daughter, Riley.
“It works, thanks to my wife and daughter,” Runnells, 58, said. “Chrys has a big, successful career of her own and is so independent, so connected and involved in the community. And Riley, well, Riley doesn’t know any different. Dad’s just gone a lot. In the winter, I try my best to be all dad and all husband.”
Runnells, a former major league player who managed and coached for 11 years in the Tigers organization, is in his 10th season in the Rockies’ system. He was a finalist for the Colorado manager’s job during the last offseason — he was the major leagues’ youngest manager with Montreal in 1991-92 — but chose to remain the bench coach after the job went to Weiss.
“I’m a Colorado native from about 50 miles away in Greeley, and I still have a lot of friends here,” he said. “But mostly it was a matter of how I feel about this organization and the connection I feel with the Rockies. I want to be part of a championship here.”
First, Runnells would like to be part of a Home Run Derby championship with Cuddyer.
Does he pitch much batting practice?
“Every day for the last 30 years,” Runnells said, laughing. “This will be a little more nerve-wracking, though. Batting practice is always a show. But this is just the hitter and me. And it counts. There’s a little more pressure.
“I just don’t want to wake up Monday morning with a sore arm. Nah, it will be fine. We’ll have a lot of fun with it.”
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