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Indians provide next step for players
by Jerry Crasnick
PHILADELPHIA—Tim Belcher still thinks, feels and talks like a ballplayer. After 30 years in uniform, from Little League through a final fling with the Angels in 2000, he’s been conditioned to watching the world go by from the perspective of the clubhouse, the dugout and the pitcher’s mound.
But the reality is, Belcher is 42 years old now and six seasons removed from winning 14 games for the Royals. The graying at his temples and the throbbing in his elbow after a round of batting practice let him know he’s entered a new phase of his life.
Heck, he might have even graduated from baseball player to “pleat.”
In Cleveland, where Belcher works as a special assistant to general manager Mark Shapiro, they have three designations in the organization. Owner Larry Dolan and the corporate marketing vice presidents are “suits.” Shapiro and his young assistants Chris Antonetti and Neal Huntington are “pleats.” And manager Eric Wedge, the coaches and players are the uniformed personnel who make it happen on the field.
As a retired major leaguer-turned-special assistant to Shapiro, Belcher has the ability to convey how players feel without consulting a Website or picking up a phone. It’s as much a part of his genetic makeup as the ability to throw a 90 mph fastball.
The Indians are so pleased with the arrangement, their front office is chock-full of Tim Belcher types. Former big league pitcher John Farrell is Cleveland’s farm director, and Robby Thompson and Charles Nagy are also special assistants to Shapiro.
It’s a concept that transcends baseball. Shapiro, one of the game’s most innovative executives, knows he has a different orientation as a former Princeton history major and football player. Sometimes effective management comes down to listening and knowing when to fill in the blanks.
“I remember Mike Krzyzewski once said that at a certain point in his career, he felt a need to have recent players on his staff to help him relate to the feel of the locker room,” Shapiro said. “This stems from recognizing my own skill set and the skill set of my front office, and wanting to complement it with guys who have on-the-field experience.”
A Different Viewpoint
We’re all familiar with the trend toward Ivy League executives, computer geeks, stat whizzes and encyclopedic waiver experts in baseball front offices. The Indians are among several teams tapping into an equally valuable, front-line resource.
The retired player-as-trouble shooter/evaluator/sounding board comes with a variety of titles. Ruben Amaro Jr. is assistant GM to the Phillies’ Ed Wade. Walt Weiss does the jack-of-all-trades thing as a special assistant to Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd, while former Colorado pitcher Roger Bailey is an integral part of the team’s scouting operation.
The Red Sox have two recent players in the fold. Craig Shipley followed GM Theo Epstein over from San Diego and plays a major role in the team’s international operations, while Jerry Dipoto joined the Red Sox in 2003 as a scout.
The former players can be helpful in numerous ways. In Cleveland, Shapiro consulted Belcher and Thompson for advice on how to deal with the reaction in the clubhouse after the Indians traded Bartolo Colon and fired manager Charlie Manuel. And when Cleveland makes a trade, Shapiro knows his special assistants can provide insights that go beyond numbers.
“These guys can make one phone call, and nine times out of 10 they can talk to somebody who lockered next to a guy or played with a guy,” Shapiro said. “It’s endless the things they can offer that I can’t find on a computer screen or in a statistical analysis.”
The Indians, who pride themselves on innovative thinking, pioneered the concept of former player as adviser. Bud Black, now the Angels’ pitching coach, filled the role under former Cleveland GM John Hart in the late 1990s. Shapiro, who was working his way up through the front office, credits Black as a major influence on his career development.
Tom Candiotti and Terry Francona also made cameos in the Cleveland front office as special assistants. When the Indians were shopping for center field prospects three years ago, they gave Francona a list of six prospects to follow. The organization wound up acquiring two: Milton Bradley and Alex Escobar.
Last year Farrell assigned Belcher and Thompson each two minor leaguers to mentor. Belcher worked with pitchers Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Slocum, while Thompson was assigned infield prospects Micah Schilling and Matt Whitney.
In the summer of 2002, when Cleveland was exploring a trade with the Braves, Shapiro sent Belcher to Double-A Greenville to check out some of the Braves’ top pitching prospects. For several days, Belcher parked himself in the Greenville Municipal Stadium stands and did reconnaissance work. He watched Horacio Ramirez, Jung Bong and Matt Belisle pitch. And the next day, when they were in the stands keeping charts or holding the radar gun, he’d engage them in casual conversation.
“They were young Double-A pitchers hoping to get to the big leagues,” Belcher said. “I had only been out of the game for a year, so they were excited to talk to me too.”
While dozens of retired players have something to offer, they might not be ready for the time commitment and travel demands of a roving instructor or coach. Belcher routinely hits the road to see minor league affiliates, scout amateurs for the draft and visit instructional league, but he’s under orders from Shapiro to make time for his kids’ birthday parties and tee-ball games.
Dipoto is responsible for scouting 12 big league teams and nine minor league clubs from his home base in suburban Kansas City. Now and then he’ll drive three hours north to Triple-A Omaha and take his son Jonah, 7, along for the ride. Jonah, who aspires to play big league ball himself one day, already wields a mean radar gun.
“My family loves this because they know it makes me happy,” Dipoto said. “I’m a baseball junkie. You live the dream as a player and fulfill it, but you don’t want it to end. You want it to keep going, because it’s in your blood.”
That window eventually closes, they know. When a big leaguer is out of uniform 10 years, he no longer qualifies as “recently retired.” But the transition from player to pleat can be educational even when it tells you where your strengths don’t lie.
Belcher, for example, is already sure he doesn’t want Shapiro’s job. He likes being outside too much.
“I can’t see myself sitting in an office for 10-12 hours a day,” Belcher said. “The walls start closing in on me. I can say with a great amount of assurance that I would never be a general manager.”
Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.