January 2017

Rise to the top: An Interview with Texas Rangers pitcher Nick Martinez

It’s always fun for me – and for most minor league observers, those who are paid to do this and those who are not – to try and figure out which players from a Low-A roster will get to the major leagues. Looking at the 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster and trying to guess who from that squad would make is a fascinating exercise in hindsight

The 2012 Hickory Crawdads roster featured FOUR first-round selections and only one – Luke Jackson – made it past AA. Nick Martinez, who threw 26 innings at Fordham University, a program which hadn’t had a former pitcher in the majors since 2001, started the 2012 season in the Crawdads bullpen. He went on to make the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, then put together a strong 2013 season that catapulted him to a major league debut with the Rangers at the start of the 2014 season.

Martinez, now looking to his fourth MLB season, has a key stretch coming up during which he is trying to make the team either as a fifth starter or a bullpen arm.

The first full season for Martinez was somewhat average for the then-21-year-old. He posted a 4.83 ERA over 117 2/ 3 innings, though he did strike out 109 batters to just 37 walks. The native of Miami, FL admitted that 2012 was one in which he was learning to become a professional.

In the interview below – done during last week’s Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C., Martinez talks his rise to the major leagues with Texas and what helped him along the way.

 

When you were here in 2012, did you ever think that you’d be coming back here in 2017 as a major league pitcher?

Martinez: No, I couldn’t look that far ahead down the road. It is good to be back. The memories are coming to me. I used to play many golf rounds out here at Rock Barn and I had a lot of great memories playing for Hickory.

 

What is the biggest memory you can recall from that season?

Martinez: Baseball wise, it’s an interesting year because it’s your first full season. You get to learn a lot about yourself mentally and physically. Obviously, that’s one of the milestones of playing a full season. Off the field, though, it’s a chance to really bond with your teammates. We had a lot of great memories playing here at Rock Barn.

 

You had come out of college, and if I remember right, you had thrown something like 26 innings in college. Who or what circumstance gave you the confidence that you could pitch at a professional level?

Martinez: My father, since high school, kind of prepared me just in case I ever became a pitcher. He had me go to some pitching lessons, so it wasn’t completely bazaar for me to make that transition. I was okay with making that transition before it even happened. In college, I just wanted to play professional baseball. Once the Rangers gave me that chance as a pitcher, I was all in and eager to learn and get better. I still am.

 

You had pretty much a quick rise when you left here and debuted in 2014. What flipped the switch and gave you the confidence that you could do this on a major league level?

Martinez: 2013 was probably my best minor league season. I was more consistent. I knew what I needed to do to keep that consistency. I was clear mentally and I knew what I needed to do. Obviously, when you transfer up to the major league level, it doesn’t exactly equal the same amount of mental pressure and mental consistency. I went through my ups and downs in 2014, but once you get over that hump, it makes things a lot easier. Again, once you know what you need to do, you kind of establish a work ethic and things to help you maintain that.

 

Who is somebody that had a big influence for you to get to that level, that you could do this at the major league level?

Martinez: Every pitching coach I came across in the minor league system, as well as the pitching coordinator. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with coaches that have made me better at every level and taken my game to the next step and prepare myself mentally and physically.

 

What was it like to step on a major league mound for the first time?

Martinez: Surreal. It’s crazy. Obviously, you’re anxious and nervous and stuff like that, but it’s kind of an anxiousness and nervousness that you can work with, because I felt prepared. I felt like I was ready for this. Obviously, it’s something you train for your whole life. It’s something you dream of and I felt like I belonged on the mound and I was ready to go. I was very fortunate, also, to be pitching in my home state, so my family was able to drive up and watch my debut.

 

Who was the first hitter that gave you the reality check that you were in the major leagues?

Martinez: Evan Longoria. The reality check that said, “this is the show; this is the big leagues.” In my debut.

 

Did he hit you hard or something?

Martinez: He smoked a ball. I got him out, but he smoked a ball somewhere. I think it was right at someone. Thank God, he got a good handle on it. (Note: In the second inning of Martinez’s debut, Longoria grounded sharply off Martinez for a 1-4-3 putout.)

 

Who was the first hitter you faced that was a dream hitter. Maybe somebody, when you were in high school, that you said, “I’d like to face this guy.”

Martinez: 2014, Derek Jeter’s last year in the major leagues. I got to face him at Yankee Stadium and once again at home in Arlington. It’s just something I’ll never forget, obviously. He does his whole pre-pitch routine in the box. It’s something that you see on TV and on video games, and now he’s doing it to you and letting you know he’s ready. It was a dream come true. It was wild.

 

Looking ahead to this year, I know the Rangers are looking to solidify the number-five spot. What are you looking for, as far as getting your foot in that door and keeping that spot?

Martinez: Competing. I’m going to go into spring training competing for that fifth spot in the rotation. I’m still in the part of my career where being in the major leagues at all is a goal. I’m going to be competing for the fifth spot, but if a bullpen spot opens up, I’m also going to be eager to land that spot. My main goal, first, is to be in the major leagues, but, obviously, I set my goals a little higher. I know I can help this team at the start.

 

 

I meant to ask this earlier, what did (pitching coach) Storm Davis mean to you for that 2012 in Hickory?

Martinez: Storm played a huge part in that mental game of baseball and what to expect in your first full season, mentally and how your body is going to feel physically – how tired you’re going to get and ways to grind through it. He helped me out a lot with different sequences and what to look for in hitters.

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2012 Hickory Crawdads and current Texas Rangers pitcher Nick Martinez (right) answers questions at a round-table event held by the Crawdads at Rock Barn Golf & Spa on 1/11/17. (Courtesy of Hickory Crawdads/ Crystal Lin)

An Interview with Texas Rangers MLB field coordinator Josh Bonifay

Part of the fun of the minor leagues is to play the guessing game of whether this player or that one will make it to the major leagues. However, we rarely consider the same about the managers and coaches. Like the players, they, too, have major league dreams. Josh Bonifay will begin to live his out for the Texas Rangers this season as the team’s major league field coordinator.

Bonifay, who played second for Hickory for all of 2000 and part of 2001 and then returned as a coach in 2008, has put together an impressive resume as a coach and manger in recent years. He was named the South Atlantic League coach of the year in 2012 while the hitting coach with the Houston Astros low-A affiliate at Lexington. One year later, Bonifay was the manager of the year in the Appalachian League while guiding the Greeneville (TN) Astros to the championship series. In 2015 he took home the same honors from the Midwest League while at low-A Quad Cities, which went 88-50.

Bonifay’s work in developing players in the Astros chain caught the eye of the Rangers and his connections with from the Pittsburgh Pirates days played a role in his hiring by the Rangers. During Bonifay’s playing days in the Pirates system (1999-2005), he had the opportunity to play under the tutelage of Tony Beasley at AA Altoona in 2004-2005. The field coordinator at the time was Jeff Banister, now the manager at Texas, for whom Beasley is the third base coach.

“…I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old,” said Banister of Bonifay. “I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from a far as he became a highly successful manager.”

A longer connection has also served Bonifay well – the connection with his father, Cam Bonifay, who was the Pirates general manager from 1993 to 2001. Through that relationship, Josh, now 38, has seen the inner workings of the game at its roots.

From bat boy to player to coach to minor league manager, all of that has prepared him for his first taste of the major leagues as the Rangers field coordinator. He, along with his wife Tiffany and their two daughters are ready to embrace the challenge ahead, which will include a move to Arlington.

In the interview below, Bonifay talks about some of the challenges he faces as he gets ready for spring training.

 

There have been big changes for you, not just your growing family, but professionally for your career. Let me first ask you about all the changes you’re going through right now.

Bonifay: It’s just a very exciting time for my family and myself. This was just an opportunity that came about. I was at Disney World when I got a phone call from Houston saying the Texas Rangers had asked for permission. After they got permission, I talked to Banny (Jeff Banister) just for a minute and then talked with (Rangers general manager) Jon Daniels about going out for an interview. Everything was kind of a whirlwind. It went really, really quickly, but it’s just extremely exciting and I’m very happy to be a part of the Rangers family. They’re tremendous people and I’m looking forward to working with Banny and Beas (Tony Beasley) again. All these guys are just phenomenal people and it’s a phenomenal organization. I’m just very excited.

 

Not very many people go from managing short-season ball to the major leagues. What’s the biggest adjustment you think you will have to make in that huge step?

Bonifay: The thing is just getting to know the players. Once you get to know the players and you understand them on a personal level, then you can start to teaching baseball. Baseball is a sport that, even if you are in the lower levels, you’re still teaching the game a certain way. It’s not that you’re going to teach a different way than you would a player in the big leagues – you’re trying to prepare them for the big leagues. So, you’re going to teach baseball a similar way. Just really getting to know their personalities and know who they are and what makes them tick, understanding what their bodies do and how they do it. Just developing personal relationships with them. I think if you get their trust and you develop the relationships, then you can teach them the game of baseball.

 

What is your role going to be with the Texas Rangers? I’m familiar with what a minor league field coordinator does, but what a major league field coordinator do?

Bonifay: My responsibilities will be running spring training, developing the schedules through Banny, and through (Rangers pitching coach Doug) Brocail and all the pitching guys, through (Rangers hitting coach Anthony) Iapoce and the hitting guys, and just developing a schedule so all the guys will know where they are going and know their responsibilities. During the season, I’ll be working with outfielders and baserunners.

 

Is your family going to move with you, or are they staying here in the area? This is a big deal for all of you.

Bonifay: I think we are going to move to Arlington. We’re going to put our house on the market in the next week or two and then we’re going to make the move out to Arlington. We’re very excited. We’re all in as a Texas Ranger. We want to be a part of it. We want to be involved in that community. We want to be involved the team heavily. We’re going to make that move to do that.

 

Longer term, what are you looking to do, as far as your baseball career? Obviously, you’re getting a major league taste, which you didn’t get as a player? That’s got to entice you for bigger and better things down the road.

Bonifay: I’ve always said this, as I’ve been going up. I really don’t have any personal goals of what I really want to do. This was a goal to get to the big leagues, because I didn’t make it as a player. But, this is just something to be a part of a staff to help players get better and helping the organization to win a championship. There’s really no personal goals. I just want to be involved in baseball. My family has been in it over 150 years combined. We love the game. We love teaching it. We love being a part of it and enjoy the opportunity that we get to teach and we get to part of it and make a living.

 

What’s the biggest thing that you’ll have to do, in maybe cutting your teeth, where you didn’t get to the majors as a player? Now, you’re here as as field coordinator. You’ve been around guys that have played and coaches and such that have seen the ropes in the majors.

Bonifay: I don’t have personal experience, but I sort of do. My dad was a GM for 10 years, so I grew up in the major league clubhouse. I grew up on the charter flights. I grew up as a bat boy, so I know what they do, the work ethic. I know the toughness, the grind that they go through, having to show up every single day. Long flights, playing a night game, than having to turn around and fly overnight and then play a day game. So, I know the rigors of that, just because of my experience with my father. In terms of that, I understand the complexities of those types of different things.

On a personal level, no, I’ve never been there. I’ve never fully experienced it personally, as a player. You know, it’ll be a challenge, but it’s good that I do have some background.

 

How wild is that you played here two years, you came back and coached here with the Pirates, now you’re back here in a whole different circumstance?

Bonifay: My wife and I really – she is from Lenoir – we grew up the last five years here. We really enjoyed the area. We loved that our in-laws are really close. We loved that our kids get to see their grandparents very often. But, I think with the move – if we want to get more involved with the Rangers, so we’re going to be closer – that we can spend more time at the ballpark and I can see my kids in the morning before I go to the field. That’s the big key is taking care of my kids.

 

What is the thing that enticed you about the Rangers?

Bonifay: The people, the organization. It phenomenal. Their success has been tremendous in developing players that also are at the big league level. And also enticing is being able to work with Banny and Beas. It’s a people organization. They care about people and their players.

 

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(John Setzler, Jr./ courtesy of the Hickory Crawdads)

An interview with 2017 Crawdads manager Spike Owen

Spike Owen was all set to be the manager at Hickory for the 2016 season. That was until late February when Texas Rangers third base coach Tony Beasley was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. So, into the gap stepped Owen.

The experience for Owen with the major league club was a valuable one for him, as he was able to watch big league manager Jeff Banister on a daily basis.

“I was appreciative to be on the major league staff,” said Owen during the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held by the Crawdads at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C. on Wednesday. “I learned much more from him (Banister) than he did from me. He made things easy for his staff, which is what I intend to do with my staff…”

“His dugout presence was unbelievable and I think that’s so important at whatever level, how to react at what’s going on in the game at a given situation and how you handle yourself.”

The reset button has been set and Owen – at least for now – is scheduled to try his hand at managing the class Low-A Crawdads. Banister – who said on Wednesday he’s known Owen since Owen’s playing days at the University of Texas – was impressed with how his long-time friend handled the responsibility given to him last year. Confident in Owen’s abilities as a player developer, Banister said the former big league infielder should be a perfect fit for Hickory.

“He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart,” said Banister. “A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.”

I had a chance for an interview with Owen prior to the luncheon on Wednesday. Here is some of what he had to say.

 

You were set up to come here last year and things have a way of, in baseball, I guess like the rest of life, having a change of plans.

Owen: As in everyday life, with baseball it’s about making adjustments. Obviously, I found out late that Tony Beasley, our third base coach, had cancer and so Banny had called me to ask if I would fill in for the year at third base.  (It was) a great experience, obviously being in the big leagues again – I hadn’t been there since ’95 – and that was a great experience and I’m very thankful that I was chosen to do that.

Now that Tony was healthy, I was looking forward to getting back into my managing career. I’ve only managed for one year in 2015.

I’m a little bit familiar with Hickory, when I was roving in  2009-2010 so I’ve been in and out of Hickory for those two years and enjoyed it when I came in. I’m looking forward to spending the summer up here.

 

Are you more pleased to be managing or would you rather stay in the Majors in some capacity? I know the goal is to always get to the Major Leagues, but you want a managing career as you said.

Owen: It’s a tough question, as you said,  because when I first got into coaching in the Minor Leagues, I wasn’t quite sure what direction and I think there’s probably a lot of guys that are like that. But the more that I’ve been in it, and now experiencing the big league level last year as the third base coach, it gives me more motivation to try to get back there in whatever capacity.

But, I’m very excited about managing again. Like I said, I haven’t done it a lot and I enjoyed it and I enjoyed being the guy in charge on the bench.  So, with this opportunity opening back up for me to manage is something that I’m excited about.

 

What’s the biggest adjustment you’ll have? You were getting the first-class treatment last year. Is there going to be an adjustment getting back on that bus and going to Lakewood (N.J.) and Hagerstown (Md.)? How do you make that adjustment?

Owen: You know, you just get on the bus and roll. It is what it is. Obviously the things in the big leagues are first class as they should be. But to me, the travel is part of the gig. The fun part is working with the players – the young men and young kids – and trying to help their development to reach their dream of going to the big leagues.

So, I know that my time in High Desert managing, I didn’t know what to expect from High Desert all the way to this first year managing and that age group. I’ve been in Triple-A for a long time and I loved it.

From everything that I’m hearing, I actually don’t know the guys on our team and we won’t know until the end of Spring Training. But with me being in the big leagues last year and not down at the minor league Spring Training, and not being around the younger guys, I’ve got to get acquainted with them and obviously will in Spring Training pretty quick.

 

I know you won’t know until late March early April and the guys actually get the tickets to fly out here, but one name we’re hearing a lot is Leodys Taveras – the outfielder that everybody is assuming that he’s going to come and play at center field at some point in 2017. What do you hear about him and his tools? Everything that I’ve read is that his tools are off the chart for him being so young.

Owen: I’d have to agree with what you’re saying, because I haven’t seen him also. I have read a little bit about him and obviously the skill set that he brings. So, it’ll be exciting to see him at Spring Training. Again, if he’s slotted to come to us I’d obviously love to have him, but we’ll kind of see how that plays out.

 

What’s the biggest thing you’re looking for as far as being in Hickory full time?

Owen: I look forward to being in North Carolina and this part of the country. I haven’t spent much time here except my time roving. The Sally League – getting a new league – it’s all going to be new to me. I think just seeing the country and hopefully having a solid year for the Crawdads. I look forward to the baseball side of it – obviously, that’s what I’m here to do – and getting these young guys ready and hopefully have a great year.

 

What’s an adjustment you’ve made as far as being in one spot as opposed to roving?  Do you like one over the other or does one have more of an advantage?  

Owen: Well, when I was roving you get to get home more, which is a huge advantage of doing that job. Going in and out of your affiliations for three or four days and being on the road, and then being able to go home for three, four, or five days.

When you’re in full season you pack up and go to Spring Training and you don’t get home until September. Obviously we have an All-Star break and a few days off, but with me being in Texas, that’s a pretty long flight. So roving that’s really the main thing.

But to me, there’s something about being with the club from the start to the finish that I really enjoy to seeing, because when you rove, you don’t get to see the development like you do when you’re with them every day and see the progress that they’re making. You may come in and not come back in for a month or so. Yeah, they’ve played a really good three days , but you see them for three games and then you’re gone again. So, just kind of starting from the beginning and finishing it off and seeing the progress that they’re making.

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2017 Hickory Crawdads manager Spike Owen speaks during the Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover, N.C. on Wednesday (courtesy of Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

An Interview with Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister

The Hickory Crawdads begin its 25th anniversary season with a bang on Wednesday, January 10 by hosting the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan at Rock Barn Golf and Spa in Conover, N.C. The Rangers made a two-stop tour of their North Carolina minor league affiliates, as the caravan was part of an event last evening at the new affiliate in Kinston.

On hand from the Rangers were Neil Leibman, chairman of the Rangers ownership group, assistant director of player development Paul Kruger, manager Jeff Banister and 2017 Crawdads manager Spike Owen. Also attending were major league field coordinator Josh Bonifay – who played and coached at Hickory during the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliation – as well as pitchers Tony Barnette and Nick Martinez. Martinez pitched for Hickory in 2012. Rangers radio voice Matt Hicks emceed to post-luncheon event.

Prior to the lunch, I had a chance to interview several of the participants, including Banister. The Rangers manager previously hopped into Hickory while in his role as the Pirates minor league field coordinator late in the last decade. During the interview, we talked about his time as a rover in the minors and the importance of Low-A ball in the future development of major leaguers. We also talked about what he expects Owen will bring to Hickory, as well as Bonifay’s addition to the staff. This is the first of four interview’s from Wednesday’s event.

 

If I remember right, you came here as a rover with the Pirates not that long ago. It seems like not that long ago, but 10-15 years ago. Now, you come back here as a major league manager.

Banister: Yeah, first of all, I came here as a minor league manager in 1995, when I was with Augusta, and then back again as a field coordinator for Pittsburgh, all the years that Pittsburgh was here. So, I think the last time I was here was in 2008. Somewhere around that time frame.

You know, it’s fun to come back. As I flew into the airport and flew over the stadium (L.P. Frans Stadium), it was fun to see that stadium. I hadn’t really seen it this time of the year before with snow on the ground. It’s feels good to see a lot of people and recognize faces – there are some that I know better than others.

I spent a lot of time here. There were times that I had to manage here. When Jeff Branson (Crawdads manager in 2005-2006) was here and had to take a leave of absence, and Dave Clark (2004 manager) was here and had to take a leave of absence. So, I have a lot of fond memories of Hickory and this ballpark. It was always one of my favorite stops.

 

How different a world are you in now than in Low-A baseball? Are there times you wish you think, maybe it might not be too bad to come back to a lower level with less pressure, etc.?

Banister: You know what, I’ve been a minor league guy, a development guy at heart, really. That’s who I am. The opportunity to manage the big leagues is obviously spectacular, all the superlatives that you can put on it and think about. However, understanding the grassroots level, where you come from, the paths of people, are all woven into what I do every single day. I never forget that.

One of the things that you look at in putting the staff that I put together at Texas, they’re all long-time, minor league guys that understand the development side of this game and what we do. The teaching process is still a part of our life at the major league level. It’s impacted by the stadiums we play in, the travel and the number of people. But, it’s still baseball.

 

Spike Owen was your third base coach last year, and he had to fill in for another former Crawdads Tony Beasley. He’s coming here to manage this year. What have you seen with Spike over the last year that you think he will bring to this position here at Hickory?

Banister: Well first of all, I’ve known Spike for a long time, even all the way back to his University of Texas days. This is a guy who was a highly competitive player. He loved to play the game – a tremendous knowledge of how to play the game.

I would say that he’s a guy that over the years has learned and transitioned himself into the understanding of teaching the game. He’s a guy that has great patience with players and has a teacher’s mindset and a servant’s heart. A guy that I think is going to be great on the development side and has had success already on the development side.

One, that gives me great comfort to know that our players are getting the best of what I consider both worlds – the teaching aspect of it, but also the knowledge of what it takes to be a major league player. He’s a long time major league player himself and has a great understanding. He refreshed that this past season being on the major league staff. He’s got a fresh set of eyes on what it takes to be a major league player.

 

From your time as a field coordinator, managing, etc., what is the biggest thing that a player in Low-A needs to learn that will serve him well when he gets to the major leagues?

Banister: First of all, that you’re still going to make mistakes. This is an imperfect business and it’s an imperfect game, as much as we’d like to think that it’s a perfect game. You’re not always going to be successful. It’s an extremely negative game. You’re not going to have production that stands out on paper, visible for everybody to see, but there are contributions that can be made. You have to be able to finish your game off, in a sense that, if you’re a home run hitter and you’re facing a guy that doesn’t hit home runs, what do you have in your skill set that can help a team offensively. Can he run the bases well? Can he play defense?

The thing in today’s game, we have so much knowledge, so much information, understanding the game plan, where you need to play, the tendencies of other players. It’s no longer just a sport of roll out the balls and bats and go perform. There’s an education process of who you’re playing, how you’re playing, and what you need to do to beat this team. Because the bottom line, teams show up every spring training with the thought process and idea to win, and they know everything about you as the opposing team.

What adjustments can you make to have some measurable success day in and day out. You’re not always going to have huge successes every single day. So, it’s small incremental success where you’ve got to build your career on.  If you’re looking for huge increments every single day, this game will eat you up, spit you out and put you back in the minor leagues.

 

Josh Bonifay, who played here with the Pirates and coached here with the Pirates, is now going to be your field coordinator. What did the Rangers see in him to be able to hire him to fill that position?

Banister: First of all, I’ve known Josh since he was probably 10 or 11 years old. I had developed a relationship with him, not only as a person, but also as a player, when he played for Pittsburgh, then transitioning to the coaching side of it. And then I watched him from afar as he became a highly successful manager.

The thing that I looked for in this position is one, the administrative side of it. Can you put together the things that myself, the scouting staff and the coaching staff want, so that we can put a day together for individual players – how are they going to get better every day individually – but also collectively. Also, we’re look for a guy that had outfield experience, teaching outfield, and baserunning experience and being able to teach baserunning.

He fit that role and he’s had success with players over in the Houston organization. He had success with the Pirates organization. So, that in itself, and how he relates to players, and how can he relate to the other coaches. But also, the thing, for me, is that he’s an open book. A guy that’s not coming in with, “hey, I’ve got all the answers, this is what I’m going to do to put a stamp on this. He’s a guy that’s coming in with a clean slate and wants to learn, but add value to each one of us coaches.

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Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister addresses attendees during the 2017 Texas Rangers Winter Caravan held at Rock Barn Golf and Spa in Conover, N.C.