Don Sneddon will walk to the plate, lineup card in hand, about 10 minutes before the Modesto Nuts’ opener at Bakersfield on April 3.
At 61, the Modesto manager will be the only rookie on the diamond.
Everyone else – all the players and coaches on both rosters, the two umpires – will have gone through at least a season of professional baseball, but not Sneddon. After 39 years coaching on the college level, including the last 32 as head coach at Santa Ana College, he finally got the call.
Baseball players and coaches always are talking about making adjustments. Hitters adjust to pitchers, and vice versa. Everyone adjusts to weather and field conditions.
Sneddon will carry a unique set of adjustments to the ballpark, and he knows it, as he said during a visit to Modesto a few days ago.
“I’ve always been a one-man crew,” Sneddon said. “I mow and edge my grass. I put up the screens and take them away, and I turn the scoreboard off when I leave at night. I’m pumped about professional ball because my only job is to coach baseball.”
Sneddon doesn’t let on, but in making this move, there’s a tiny bit of, well, let’s call it trepidation instead of fear. At the community college level, when the game is over, the kids either go home or to their jobs. Sneddon never has had a clubhouse to oversee. At the High-A level, this is the job, and setting the tone of professionalism within the clubhouse is one of the manager’s most vital tasks.
On one hand, part of it will be easy. Every one of the 25 players on the Nuts’ Opening-Day roster believes he is headed to the majors and at least on Opening Day is willing to do the work necessary to make that happen. These are athletes with a single-minded, self-motivated dedication to baseball, and they generally will be more mature than the athletes Sneddon coached at Santa Ana.
On the other hand is everything else.
The focus at Santa Ana was on winning, which Sneddon did more than any coach in California community college history. Yes, even more than former Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein did at Sacramento City College.
The focus in Modesto is firmly on developing talent that eventually will be on the Colorado Rockies’ big-league roster. Part of development is winning, but finding the balance is crucial. The disagreement between the Rockies and Lenn Sakata over the importance of winning in the developmental process is at the core of why Sakata will be back in the San Jose dugout this year.
“I’ve been given direction from on up about what the balance will be between development and winning,” Sneddon said. “I’m like the JV team, so I’m here to develop players to move them up to varsity. They also want to win, and I’m also all about that. I don’t like to lose. We’ll be able to have a balance there.”
But since this is a Rockies affiliate, finding a balance between winning and development is one thing, dealing with the two-headed clubhouse is another. Every Colorado minor-league team has a manager and a director of development inside the clubhouse. In Modesto, it’s Fred Nelson, who will move back into his director’s role after replacing Sakata as manager last July.
When the director’s job was introduced at the start of the 2013 season, there wasn’t a person in the organization who could specifically address the distribution of power and responsibilities between the director and manager, or how adding a second authority presence would impact the clubhouse.
They still can’t, because the approach is so new it’s impossible to judge its effectiveness.
But remember Sneddon talking about how he did everything as a community college coach? Not only will he no longer handle ballpark operations, but the most important skills he used to establish Santa Ana as a state power, such as overseeing the development of his talent, will be handled by Nelson.
And Sneddon, having read about the problems Sakata had with the setup last season, made certain he was at peace with the concept before stepping down from his tenured teaching position to jump into professional ball.
“This was a concern when I heard about the setup because the situation with the manager here last year didn’t work,” Sneddon said. “I’ve met Fred and he’s a great guy with a lot of knowledge and I’ll be leaning on him for a lot, which I should given his professional background.
“But the field stuff will be mine. It’s my club. By no means do I have an ego that I won’t take advice from a man who has run a professional organization, and the same goes for my relationship with my pitching and hitting coaches. I don’t believe in dominating every aspect of this situation. I expect to learn from my coaches and from my players. We’ll see how it goes, but I don’t expect any problems.”
There’s really no reason to think otherwise. The Rockies fully vetted Sneddon before offering him the job, and Sneddon returned the favor before accepting.
But until he makes out the lineup cards and marches them to home plate for a full season, he’ll still be a rookie – a 61-year-old rookie with more baseball experience than most people working in the majors, but a rookie nonetheless.