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Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/9/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

It’s ‘go’ time for baseball vet Runnells

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Someone once asked Rogers Hornsby, one of baseball’s greatest hitters during the Roaring Twenties, how he spent the off-season.

Runnells Runnells
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“I stare out the window,” he said, “and wait for spring.”

Tom Runnells understands how Hornsby felt.

Have you had enough of shoveling snow and shivering? Knowing that pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week may warm you a bit.

It will warm Runnells a lot as he trades his family’s home in Sylvania for resort living in the Arizona desert, where he will begin preparations for his fifth season as bench coach with the Colorado Rockies.

“Everybody is different, but there’s something inside a ballplayer that says ‘let’s go.’ A bell rings in your head and you start getting that twitch,” he said.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Runnells got a text message from Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki who was “chomping at the bit, ready to get back at it. He said he couldn’t wait.”

Runnells was the same during his playing days, which included big-league stints as an infielder with the Cincinnati Reds in 1985-86.

“Back then, my bell was ringing about a week after the World Series ended,” Runnells said. “Now, I appreciate the time here in Toledo with my family. But after the New Year, after the holidays, I hit that slope and start getting the itch. It’s time to go.”

So Runnells will head for Scottsdale, to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the ultra-modern facility shared by the Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks, or as Runnells says the “Taj Mahal of spring training camps.”

Scottsdale is the current destination because his playing career took an abrupt detour after the 1986 season. He finished the year in the Pacific Coast League playoffs with Triple-A Denver and in a seven-game series against Indianapolis.

“It was a terrible loss,” Runnells recalled. “The seventh game was in Indy, and we led by two runs going to the ninth inning. But we lost. Afterwards, the Reds’ farm director, Chief Bender, was in the clubhouse and since I’d been up with Cincinnati during the season I was waiting to hear that I’d be called back up. But Chief said, ‘nobody’s going up.’

“Then we started talking about a contract for the next season. He surprised me. It was like being on that TV show, Let’s Make a Deal. Behind curtain No. 1 was a pay cut to keep playing. Behind curtain No. 2 was a pay raise to manage the Reds’ Double-A club, which was a pretty high level to start at. So I stepped from one to the other without having to wonder ‘what am I going to do?’”

For nearly 30 years he has never had to wonder “what,” only “where.”

Five years after turning to managing, Runnells was the big leagues’ youngest skipper with Toronto in 1991-92. In ’93, he began a 12-year affiliation with the Tigers’ organization that included managing the Mud Hens during the 1995 and ’96 seasons. It was then that he met his wife, local TV news anchor Chrys Peterson, and settled here.

Now Runnells is set to begin his 11th season with the Rockies organization, and I asked him for some general thoughts on 2014.

“The most obvious change is instant replay,” he said. “I’m not sure why they didn’t ease into it a little more. The rules are already changing, and the challenges are going to be tough decisions for managers.”

Tigers’ fans may be interested in his take on the Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler deal.

“I’ve known Ian a long time since his minor league days, and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a winner and with the right guys on the right team he’ll make a difference. But, truthfully, if Prince is Prince, Texas wins that trade. He’s a potential home run every at-bat, a big run producer, and he’s protection for other hitters. I saw the playoffs. He was a shell of the hard-nosed, confident player we saw in his Milwaukee days. I guess it comes down to if he’s that Prince or the old Prince.”

Runnells is glad Alex Rodriguez “pulled back” on his various lawsuits, accepted his 2014 suspension, and calls that PED saga, “a shame.”

He speaks highly of Colorado manager Walt Weiss, who is about to start his second season, and is optimistic even though the Rockies and their $75 million payroll compete in the same National League division with the Dodgers and their quarter-billion dollar payroll.

“We have to be more creative because of that disparity but, yeah, I truly believe we have an opportunity,” Runnells said. “Tulo and CarGo [outfielder Carlo Gonzalez] have to stay healthy, Justin Morneau has to be the Justin Morneau of old, Brett Anderson was the opening-day starter for Oakland before being hurt last season and we need 200 innings from him, and some top-flight prospects have to come through.

“But, hey, it’s time for spring training. Everybody is optimistic, right?”

Correct. It may not be enough to immediately melt snow, but it’s a start.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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