By Rob Rains
It’s a term that has been around baseball for probably as long as the game itself. It’s used to describe someone, usually a manager, coach or scout, who has spent decades working in the game.
He’s “a baseball guy.”
It’s not a term which comes with built-in or automatic qualifications. Someone doesn’t earn the respect that comes with that term just by being around for a long time. There are more intangibles involved than that, more requirements to a person’s makeup or skill set that help earn him that title.
Unfortunately in baseball today, there are seemingly less and less of those guys around. The Cardinals will be without two more of them this year, managers who have spent more than a dozen years each helping develop players on their way to the major leagues.
With the weekend announcement of who will be managing the Cardinals’ four full-season minor-league clubs in 2021 came the unwritten word of who wouldn’t be among those four managers – Joe Kruzel and Dann Bilardello.
Kruzel managed the Double A Springfield Cardinals in 2019 and was set to manage there again last year before the pandemic canceled the minor-league season. He had been in the team’s farm system since 2008 as either a coach or manager, and that came after spending almost two decades as a college coach.
Bilardello had managed in the Cardinals system since 2010 and was a roving instructor for the three previous seasons. He had been at Palm Beach from 2017 through the canceled season in 2020. Bilardello joined the Cardinals after four years managing in the Dodgers and Red Sox systems, which followed a 15-year playing career, including eight years as a major-league catcher.
The departure of Kruzel and Bilardello are the latest hits for an organization that in recent years has undergone the retirement of two more “baseball guys” in field coordinator Mark DeJohn and minor league manager Steve Turco. Scouts such as Bob Gebhard and Mike Roberts won’t be working for the Cardinals this year either, and it’s the organization that will be worse off because of the absence of all of those men, just as the impact of special assistants such as Ryan Ludwick, Jason Isringhausen and others will be missed.
What seems to have been forgotten as plans for 2021 and beyond were made is that experience in the game matters, or at least it used to.
“I was just disappointed,” Bilardello said. “I thought I gave them 15 really good years.”
What managers such as Kruzel and Biladello had, which their younger replacements might learn over time, are skills that don’t come from a book or can be acquired along with earning an advanced college degree. As much as some people lately have tried to change it, baseball is still a game played on the field.
Gut instincts don’t jump off the pages of a book. Knowing how to teach the game is an acquired skill. Knowing the basic information doesn’t help if the teacher doesn’t know how to convey it properly so a student can learn it.
What a good, experienced manager has is similar to a mother’s intuition about how to raise her children. That still exists, and it comes from experience. Knowing when to back off a player or when and what to say to a player is a skill and good managers are able to do it and the results can be found in seeing how players perform.
Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development, declined to comment on the decisions to replace Kruzel and Bilardello as managers. Kruzel had signed a two-year contract in 2020, so he is still being paid through this season.
The Cardinals, like all organizations, were faced with tough decisions this winter because of both the pandemic, which affected the finances of every team, and the minor league contraction, which cost the Cardinals their affiliations with State College and Johnson City. Those cutbacks led to some jobs being eliminated.
The pandemic was cited by the Cardinals as the biggest reason why most of the team’s roving instructors were also let go.
All of those moves come at a critical time for the Cardinals, who appear focused on relying even more heavily on the development of their home-grown players now than bringing in free agents or players from outside the organization.
No level in the system might be more important this season than Double A, where at least four of the Cardinals top five prospects – Nolan Gorman, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson and Ivan Herrera – are set to play in what should be a critical year in their progression toward the major leagues. At Palm Beach, which will be the low Class A team in the reconfigured farm system, the group of prospects, especially in the second half of the year, could include the top picks in last year’s draft – Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn and Tink Hence.
It’s not just the development of the top prospects that’s important, however, but the ability to get the most out of players who might not be at the top of the prospect rankings but still have enough ability to become contributing players on a major-league team. Losing resources such as Kruzel and Bilardello will affect those players as well.
The situation might have been different had there been a minor-league season last year, when maybe there could have been a transition in place so the new managers could have spent at least a year learning under Kruzel and Bilardello.
“I have no problems with the Cardinals,” Kruzel said. “It’s part of the profession. It’s magnified right now because of contraction and the pandemic. This would have been my 14th season and they’ve been very very good to me. I’m very grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me.”
The Cardinals have given Kruzel permission to talk with other organizations. Bilardello also is hoping to find a job that will allow him to continue his career but the job market is tight because of the same pressures all teams are facing.
“There are 30 clubs that had a lot of people let go, and a lot of good people got let go,” Bilardello said. “We are not the only club this happened to. It happens every year where good people get let go anyway. This just happened to be a little unusual obviously.
“Baseball will live on anyway. It’s kind of a cliché, we all say it, it will be here in a hundred years and tomorrow, with or without me, with or without anybody who was not retained or got fired.”
It just won’t be the same.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo of Joe Kruzel by Mark Harrell/Springfield Cardinals