By JOE McFARLAND and IAN WILSON
There was a time when if you wanted to play Major League Baseball (MLB), you were likely to make a minor-league stop in Canada first.
Either as visitors or members of the home squad, countless players in the Pioneer League or the Pacific Coast League (PCL) would find their way to Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary or Edmonton.
In our second of a two-part series (the first article examined American League dugout connections) we explore the coaches and managers from the National League (NL) who played in Alberta before finding their way in the majors.
It all starts at the top with the third-year D-backs manager Torey Lovullo. He is one of a number of players to have played with both of Alberta’s Triple-A affiliates in the 1990s. Lovullo’s first stop in the province came in 1994 with the Calgary Cannons, where he hit .294 with 11 home runs and 47 runs batted in (RBI) while playing middle infield for 54 games. Two years later, Lovullo moved north to Calgary’s PCL rivals, the Edmonton Trappers, where he appeared in 26 games, posting a .280 batting average with four home runs and 19 RBI.
Interestingly, Lovullo’s right-hand man also played in both Alberta cities. Jerry Narron spent the 1983 season with the Trappers, hitting .301 in 139 games, smacking 27 home runs and producing 102 RBI. In 1987, he appeared in 110 games for the Cannons, swatting 15 home runs and 58 RBI while registering a .251 average.
“I had a lot of fun playing in Edmonton – the fans in Edmonton were outstanding,” Narron told Alberta Dugout Stories during a 2018 interview.
“I’ve been very blessed to be in the game for as long as I have and in different places. It’s been a lot of fun. I remember my time in Edmonton and Calgary and I loved both of them. I’m just glad I had the experience to play up there.”
Hitting coach Darnell Coles was part of the Cannons first season in Calgary in 1985. He hit .320 with four home runs and 24 RBI over a 31-game span. Coles split that season between Calgary and the Seattle Mariners.
Pitching coach Mike Butcher divided the 1992 season between the Trappers and the California Angels. While in the capital, he registered a 5-2 record in 26 relief appearances, posting a 3.07 ERA and four saves.
Bullpen coach Mike Fetters was also no stranger to baseball fans in Edmonton. He spent parts of four seasons with the Trappers (1988-1991). Fetters registered a 17-16 record in 44 starts, sporting a combined ERA of 3.67.
“He’s a competitor – he hates it when I take him out of the game,” Trappers’ pitching coach Chuck Hernandez told the Edmonton Journal of Fetters in 1990. The assessment by Hernandez looks about right, as Fetters remains in the game nearly three decades later.
Last but not least for the Diamondbacks is a member of the club’s former Pioneer League team in Lethbridge. Robby Hammock came to the Black Diamonds as a 21-year-old in 1998. He hit .286 with 10 home runs and 56 RBI as the team went on to the league final, only to lose to Idaho Falls. Today, Hammock is the quality control/catching coach for the Diamondbacks.
Long-time assistant hitting coach Jose Castro is a rare find among the MLB staffers who came through Alberta, as he not only played in the province, but also coached here. Castro spent the 1982 campaign with the Trappers, hitting .263 with 10 home runs and 80 RBI while batting behind Ron Kittle in the lineup. He bounced around Triple-A for the rest of his playing career, and then took a turn at coaching. In 2003, Castro returned to the Edmonton as the PCL club’s hitting coach, helping them to a first-place finish in the division.
In the bullpen, a couple of other Atlanta skippers made appearances in Wild Rose Country. Bullpen coach Marty Reed went 2-7 with a 6.10 ERA in 11 starts for the Trappers in 1988. And bullpen catcher Jose Yepez played in 18 games for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays during the 2001 season. He had three stolen bases and three RBI during his short stint in The Gas City.
Manager Joe Maddon came close to holding a coaching position with the Trappers when he was in the California Angels’ system in the 1980s but he ended up skipping past the Triple-A level to the majors.
And first base coach Will Venable didn’t play in Alberta, but his father did. (Max Venable hit .271 during 95 games with the Trap in 1989, stealing 13 bases and adding 45 RBI).
Chicago’s assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge, however, did swing a bat in the provincial capital. And that bat helped the Trappers win the PCL Northern Division pennant in 2003.
The former Montreal Expo hit .324 during 131 games with Edmonton, and led the club with 22 home runs and 92 RBI. The strong campaign earned Sledge “Trapper of the Year” honours and the team handed out 2,000 posters – featuring the outfielder wielding a sledgehammer – to celebrate the achievement. Sledge was also named a PCL all-star and put together a 20-game hit streak during the season.
“The main thing was I just wanted to be steady the whole year and not have too many peaks and valleys like in previous years,” Sledge told Edmonton Journal reporter Norm Cowley of his approach at the plate that year. The quote sounds a lot like a player who would go on to be a hitting coach.
Turner Ward was an oft-injured, tough-as-nails outfielder in his playing days. He rejected a doctor’s advice to stop playing baseball after he shattered his right leg in two places in 1989 and instead kept taking the field.
Now the Reds’ hitting coach, the well-traveled 18th-round selection of the New York Yankees found himself with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1997 and he was assigned to their Triple-A farm team, the Cannons, for 32 games. He was fantastic in that short visit, hitting .340 with nine home runs and 44 RBI.
“I’m not one to take no for an answer,” Ward told Calgary Herald scribe Gyle Konotopetz in 1997. “I’ve always been hard-nosed. It doesn’t matter if anybody likes you, it’s whether they respect you. You don’t get respect, you earn it.”
Added Ward: “Injuries have been my biggest downfall, but I’ll continue to run into walls. More than anything, I love winning.”
The former Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, who has been reunited with slugger Yasiel Puig in Cincinnati, has earned the respect of hitters around the National League.
Miami bullpen coach Dean Treanor didn’t have a prolific playing career but he has certainly made the rounds in dugouts around North America in a coaching career that has spanned more than 30 years. Treanor will go down in Alberta baseball history as the last manager of the Calgary Cannons. During their final season at Foothills Stadium in 2002, Treanor led the Cannons to a 67-71 record.
While they are waiting to warm up relief pitchers, bullpen catchers Robinzon Diaz and Marcus Hanel can swap stories about their travels in our province. For Diaz, he started his pro career with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 2002. He hit .297 with seven stolen bases and 20 RBI, as he split catching duties with current San Francisco Giants catcher Erik Kratz.
Hanel, meantime, found himself with the Cannons for just two games in 1995. He picked up one hit and also scored in eight at bats.
New York Mets
A slick shortstop in the California Angels’ system, Gary DiSarcina made his way up through Edmonton during the 1990 and 1991 seasons. He struggled in his first PCL season, hitting just .212 with four home runs and 37 RBIs in 97 games. Now the third base coach of the Mets, DiSarcina came back in a big way the following season, hitting .310 with four home runs and 58 RBIs in 119 games, adding 16 stolen bases.
“I came back here with a whole new perspective of the town of Edmonton,” DiSarcina told Journal reporter Mark Spector when he returned to the Trappers after a 1990 stint in the majors.
“When I was first here I was playing terrible, so everything around me was terrible. But now I come back here with a different attitude. I’m just going to go about my business like I did up there.”
New York’s bullpen coach Chuck Hernandez was in Edmonton for DiSarcina’s first year with the Trappers. In fact, Hernandez was the team’s pitching coach between 1988 and 1990. He saw several future big leaguers roll through the capital during his time, including Mike Fetters, Sherman Corbett and current Indians pitching coach Carl Willis.
The Calgary Cardinals made their debut in the Pioneer League back in 1977 and one of only a handful of players to make it to the majors from that squad was pitcher Jim Gott. The current bullpen coach for the Phillies, Gott had a rough go of things with the Cardinals, going 3-4 with a 9.55 ERA in 14 starts while walking more batters than any other Pioneer League pitcher. Better days were ahead for him though, as he went on to play with Toronto, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in the majors.
Assistant pitching coach David Lundquist spent time in Calgary, as well. He pitched out of the bullpen for the Cannons in 1998, sporting a 3-0 record with two saves and a 3.60 ERA in 12 relief appearances.
Some coaches started their careers with Alberta-based minor league clubs. For Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage, he finished his pro career with the Edmonton Trappers. In 34 appearances (33 in relief) for the team in 1992, Searage posted a 3-3 record with a 5.33 ERA. Searage also picked up one save.
San Diego Padres
Bench coach Rod Barajas is in his first season in that role for the Padres after a 14-year MLB career as a catcher. His pro debut came in Alberta with the Lethbridge Black Diamonds in 1996. He caught 51 games, hitting .337 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI for the top team in the Pioneer League’s North Division. That club also featured future MLBers Jason Conti and Junior Spivey.
Four years earlier, assistant hitting coach Damion Easley made an appearance in the province. Playing in 108 games with the Edmonton Trappers in 1992, Easley hit .289 with three home runs, 44 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. The speedy infielder was also named to the all-star team that season.
Bullpen coach Doug Bochtler was also a member of the Trappers near the end of his career. The right-hander made 68 appearances over two years, including 10 starts. He posted a 9-9 record with an ERA of 2.78 in 2001 and 3.68 in 2002.
Meanwhile, pitching coach Darren Balsley didn’t play in Alberta, but he spent two seasons as the manager of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. In 1994-1995, Balsley led the Baby Jays to a 71-73 record, with two straight second-place finishes in the division. He was also at the helm for former MLB star Kelvim Escobar’s no-hitter in 1995.
San Francisco Giants
Bench coach Hensley Meulens has been a mainstay in the San Francisco dugout for a decade already. As a player, he traveled all over North America.
No stranger to Canada, he also played for the Montreal Expos and Ottawa Lynx, and made a powerful cameo appearance with the Cannons in 1998. He picked up three hits, including two home runs, in eight at-bats over two games for the Cannons that year.
A few years earlier, hitting coach Alonzo Powell also played with the Cannons, although his stay was much longer.
The outfielder played in 53 games for the Cannons in 1991, batting .375 with seven home runs and 43 RBI. He came back the following season to hit .343 in 10 games, adding one dinger and seven more RBI.
Assistant hitting coach Rick Schu, meanwhile, was a solid addition to the Trappers lineup during the 1990 campaign. In 18 games, the corner infielder hit .300 with one home run and eight runs batted in.
St. Louis Cardinals
Arguably one of the most-celebrated skippers in the minors over the last couple of years has been Stubby Clapp. The Windsor, Ontario native led the Memphis Redbirds to two-straight league championships and was named Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year both seasons, which led to him getting the call up to the Cardinals in the off-season.
Clapp’s playing career brought him through Alberta in 2005 and 2006 as a member of the Edmonton Cracker-Cats of the independent Northern League. Playing alongside Scott Richmond, Clapp – now the first base coach in St. Louis – belted six home runs, knocked in 76 runs and stole 46 bases in 166 games for the Cracker-Cats.
“I’m not this big, tall, overpowering person. I’m your average Joe but I give it all I have and then some,” the 5-foot-8 utility player told the Journal in 2005.
Joe Dillon has acquired a few frequent-flyer miles in his baseball travels. The Nationals’ current assistant hitting coach played at almost every level imaginable, including 137 games over four MLB seasons. In 2002, Dillon came north of the border to spend six games with the Trappers. He had three hits and a stolen base in 18 at-bats for the club, which also featured future MLBers Michael Cuddyer, Matt LeCroy and current Padres bullpen coach Doug Bochtler.