CLEVELAND—When Mike Sarbaugh found out that he had been named Minor League Manager of the Year, his first thought was that it must be a mistake.
“You sure they got the right guy?” he asked.
Sarbaugh was only half-joking. As a humble servant of the Indians for 21 years—first as a player, then as a hitting coach and the last seven as a manager—Sarbaugh can no longer go about his job in relative obscurity. Not after the 2010 season in which he led the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to both the International League title and Triple-A National Championship.
In his first season with Columbus, Sarbaugh led the Clippers to a to a 79-65 regular season record and disposed of the Durham Bulls in four games to win the Governors’ Cup.
A few days later, the Clippers were off to Oklahoma City to face Pacific Coast League champion Tacoma in the Triple-A National Championship game. Sarbaugh’s Clippers easily disposed of the Rainiers 12-6.
“It was such a fun year,” Sarbaugh said. “We started well, but were struggling at the end of the regular season having lost so many players to the big league club. But the young kids came in and really helped. And to the players’ credit, they all kept fighting.”
Sarbaugh’s teams always do. Only one—his 2005 low Class A Lake County Captains—did not reach the playoffs with him at the helm.
Sarbaugh guided the Mahoning Valley Scrappers to the short-season New York-Penn League title in his first year as a manager in 2004. He led the high Class A Kinston Indians to the Carolina League crown two years later; they reached the semifinals in 2007.
Sarbaugh earned a promotion to Double-A Akron in 2008 and guided the Aeros to the championship round in back-to-back seasons, winning it all in 2009.
Quite A Sacrifice
The end of a season usually means much-deserved family time for Sarbaugh, his wife Nicole, daughter Marin and sons Michael and Matthew. But this season the family time had to be postponed.
“It’s the family that sacrifices the most, not me,” Sarbaugh said. “I can’t tell you how many miles Nicole’s driven this year with the kids to come see me. I couldn’t do what I do without her and the kids’ support.”
This is Sarbaugh’s first season in nearly a decade not spending his offseason as a middle school teacher back home in Shillington, Pa..
“In a way, teaching helps me prepare for the upcoming season,” he said. “Handling situations in the classroom translates into managing. So much about managing is getting to know the players. Everybody responds differently, so you have to get to know them personally and figure out what makes them tick.
“You have to be approachable, as well. I try to be the same guy every day whether we’re winning or losing and just stay focused on the players.”
Sarbaugh isn’t returning to the classroom because he hadn’t finished his work in the yet.
After wrapping up the two championship titles with the Clippers, Sarbaugh was invited to spend a week in Cleveland helping out with the major league club. Then he took over as Peoria’s manager in the Arizona Fall League.
“Mike has been successful at every path he’s taken as a manager,” new Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. “His ability to relate exceptionally well to every player, to teach and develop and consistently win are attributes that make him an excellent candidate as he continues moving through our system.”
Indians manager Manny Acta went 69-93 in his first season as the Tribe skipper in 2010, a disappointing season as the club continued its third consecutive rebuilding year.
With that, and the fact that Sarbaugh would love to stay with the Indians the rest of his career, his next promotion might be to Acta’s coaching staff.
“After 21 years, being an Indian is part of who I am,” Sarbaugh said. “Like I tell the players, I take it one year at a time, not worrying about the things I can’t control.”
That simple, yet telling, philosophy has gotten the 43-year-old Sarbaugh this far.
“It’s been a long year, but an incredibly fulfilling one,” he said. “It’s one I’ll never forget. I can’t say enough about our player development system. You have to have good players to win and we’ve had a lot of good ones. We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without the waves of players who came to Columbus and did their part to lead us to the championships.”