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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

The ballpark is Rojas' other home

Hens skipper Mike Rojas, who is in his 12th year as a minor-league manager, professes a love for baseball and Toledo. Hens skipper Mike Rojas, who is in his 12th year as a minor-league manager, professes a love for baseball and Toledo.
JETTA FRASER/THE TOLEDO BLADE / THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER Enlarge | Buy This Photo

In Their Words is a weekly feature that appears in The Blade's sports section. Sports writer John Wagner provides a glimpse of Mud Hens manager Mike Rojas' baseball roots and his role in the Detroit Tigers organization.

When Mike Rojas began his professional baseball career, he probably was best known for being the son of former major leaguer Cookie Rojas.

But through the years Mike Rojas has begun to carve out his own legacy as one of the better young managers in minor-league baseball.

The 44-year-old Rojas is in his 12th year as a minor-league manager. He began this season as a replacement for Larry Parrish, who had foot surgery days before the season began. Earlier this month the Tigers named Rojas as the Hens' manager for the rest of the season.

A native of Kansas City, where his father spent eight of his 16-year pro career as a second baseman for the Royals, Mike Rojas signed with the Oakland A's in 1983 and spent two seasons in their organization. He then played for two seasons in the Toronto organization before becoming an assistant coach at St. Thomas University in Miami in 1987.

Rojas began his pro managing career with four seasons in the Chicago White Sox organization beginning in 1992, then spent two seasons with Houston's Single-A team before moving to Cincinnati, where he managed in both Single-A and Double-A.

He joined the Tigers' organization in 2004 as the manager for Short-Season Oneonta, then took over as manager for Single-A Lakeland the previous two years. Rojas led Lakeland to the best record in the Florida State League in 2005, earning FSL manager of the year honors. He also was named the best managerial prospect in the league by Baseball America that season.

He and his wife, Ginny, live in Naples, Fla., with their three children: daughters, Michelle, 18, and Jennifer, 17, and son, Michael Jr., 11.

"IT WAS GREAT to grow up going to the ballpark with dad, seeing all the great players they had in the '70s in Kansas City. There was [George] Brett, and [Freddie] Patek, and [John] Mayberry and [Amos] Otis, and [Al] Cowens, and Buck Martinez, and John Wathan. I could go on and on. I loved to go work out with the big leaguers, [spending time] in the lockerroom. I learned a lot - and quick. I worked on the grounds crew, worked as a bat boy, worked as a ball boy. Anything I could do to work at the ballpark, I did, and it was a tremendous experience.

"[My dad] was my hero, and he's still my hero. He played the game of baseball and left it all on the field just to help his team. He'd bunt guys over, move guys over, hit and run. And he played a great second base. To me, he was one of the best second basemen in the history of baseball, and his numbers show that. It was pretty cool to have him as my dad.

"Dad never pushed baseball with any of his four boys. I played in Kansas City in high school, and I played well there, but I think I peaked there. That aluminum bat did wonders! I went to Mesa Community College in Arizona and spent the fall there, but I wanted to become a professional ball player so badly I signed with the Oakland A's before the spring.

"When that wooden bat got in my hand, wow. I had a little bit of success, but my numbers weren't very good. I just wanted to be a professional player so badly. I may have been spoiled growing up in a big-league baseball environment with dad, but it's not easy being a minor-league player. Being Cookie Rojas' son was there too. It just didn't work out as a player, but I had a great time."

"THERE WAS A TIME [after I stopped playing baseball] when I went back to Kansas City because we had opened up a restaurant there. The Seattle Mariners wanted me to come and catch, but I turned it down because I had to help out at the restaurant. Then I had some jobs here, some jobs there, and moved to Miami and started all over.

"One day the [baseball] winter meetings were in Miami and I had become tired of odd jobs, so my dad asked me if I wanted to get back into the game. I did, so I became a 'lobby gladiator' in the Fontainebleau Hotel. The Chicago White Sox gave me the opportunity to manage right away, and I've been managing ever since.

"[That first season as a manager] was surprising because I got to manage at age 28 or 29. I was eager to teach the young Latin players with the Rookie League team where I was at. It was fun, but we made it fun. You have to, because you're in Florida with all that heat. They were hot, long days, but it was entertaining, and I learned a lot of things.

"This was going to be the first year I wasn't managing, because I was going to be the catching coordinator, and I was really looking forward to that. The situation [here] came up at the end of spring training, and I was more than glad to help out the organization to come and manage here in Toledo. What has happened here has been great - guys having good years, guys getting a chance to go to the big leagues.

"Getting a chance to manage at this level has been a good experience. You've got guys here who have played in the big leagues, guys who have been here for a while, and they go about their business the way they should. They know what they have to do. Sometimes at the younger levels you have to be really hands on, and at this level many times you don't have to. It's a lot easier to deal with the older guys. This year I've been fortunate to work with some older guys who go about their business in the right way.

"DETROIT WANTS to keep Toledo fans happy and keep the Toledo front office happy. This is a great place to play baseball, and it's a great place to have a Triple-A affiliate. I haven't been in the Pacific Coast League, but to me this is the best ballpark in the International League. The fans are fantastic, and they know the game of baseball. They support the team tremendously. Detroit is very interested in keeping this team here.

"I've heard about Triple-A before, and now I've had a chance to experience it. This team has had some key injuries, and we've had some call-ups, and that's the way it is. The number one priority is the major league team.

"I think it's a big advantage [to be a manager who worked his way through the minor leagues]. Some guys are good baseball people who got the opportunity to manage in the big leagues, and I'm happy for them. There are a minimal number of jobs open every year, and there are a number of people trying to get jobs, you just have to wait your turn and be patient. I'm only 44 years old, so one day, hopefully.

"I'd love to stay here, and I'd love to stay with the Detroit Tigers. We have a great president in Dave Dombrowski and other great people like [vice president, assistant general manager] Al Avila and everybody in the organization. This is the best place to work, and these are the best people I've ever worked for. If my future is as the catching coordinator, I'll be the catching coordinator. Whatever helps this organization the most is what I'll do."

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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