Mikulik Makes Mark In Asheville With Rockies
By all accounts, the Rockies' new spring training home, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, is a baseball palace. In addition to the immaculate fields and abundance of offices and other amenities, the organization designed the facility so that the minor league operations are intertwined with the major leaguers by sharing such areas as the weight room, clubhouse and cafeteria.
As such, there is an increased sense of team and unity from top to bottom, which helps keep everyone focused on winning championships at the game's top level.
The arrangements also help those at the top remember from where they came. Not that many can forget, especially when they see Asheville manager Joe Mikulik. The man known as "Mik" may be returning to the low Class A ranks for the 12th consecutive season, yet many who have made it to the show treat him like royalty. After all, he was the one who had their backs and put them on the right track during the fledgling days of their careers.
"Mik's awesome," said catcher Michael McKenry, who played for Mikulik in 2007 and was traded from the Rockies to the Red Sox at the end of spring training. "He gets on guys when he needs to, but he's always in your corner. He creates an environment where you can tell that he wants everyone in that clubhouse to succeed and get to the big leagues."
Road To The Show
Since taking over the helm of the Tourists in 2000, Mikulik has seen more than 40 of his former players reach the major leagues. Twenty-three members of the Rockies' current 40-man roster played for Mik in Asheville, including one, third baseman Ian Stewart, who also became the skipper's son-in-law. Of course, others in the development-oriented organization have played critical roles as well, yet few are as important in getting the youngsters off on the right foot during their first full seasons of pro ball.
"I really want them to be a good teammate. That's the first thing I stress to them," Mikulik said. "We don't want selfish players. Over the course of a game, there are a lot of fundamental things you can do that can make you an unselfish player, things like moving the runner over, encouraging guys on the bench, not pointing fingers. . . . We also have a plan for every player, and I stress how important it is for them to get in a routine in order to execute that plan. That comes in the early work and the pre-game preparations. Hopefully they can develop that plan in their first full season and then build upon it. Otherwise, if you come to the ballpark without a plan or a purpose, you're just wasting time."
One of the primary reasons players enjoy taking the field for the feisty Mikulik centers on his approach to the game. He believes in putting pressure on the defense by taking the extra base. He encourages his pitchers to challenge opponents and his hitters to make things happen at the plate. And should an umpire make a particularly dreadful call, Mik isn't shy about expressing his displeasure.
"Sometimes they need to pay attention to the scoreboard, and I try to teach that throughout the season," Mikulik said. "But I also let them be creative and allow them to play. I believe that develops an aggressive approach and allows them to get the best out of their talent in all areas of the game."
Mikulik's managerial style is a mirror image of the way he played the game. In fact, he remembers well the early days of his professional career. He spent his first full season, in 1985, with Asheville as a member of the Houston organization after being drafted in the ninth round the previous year out of San Jacinto (Texas) JC. For a dozen seasons, he was part of three championships while reaching as high as Triple-A before ending his career with a stint in Mexico. He became a player/coach in the Indians system at Double-A Canton-Akron in 1995 prior to receiving his first taste of managing in 1997 at Rookie-level Burlington.
Home Sweet Home
After managing Burlington in 1998, Mikulik tried to find a job closer to home and wound up serving as a roving baserunning instructor for the Astros in 1999. The following offseason, the Rockies called offering Mik the managing job at Asheville, which is a couple of long relay throws from his home in Candler, N.C. While he had no idea that a dozen years later he would still hold the same job, he admits that part of his permanency has been by design.
"I've had a couple of opportunities to move on," Mikulik said. "But from a personal standpoint, I wanted to help raise my kids and stay close to them as much as I could. That's been the main reason. I traveled all over the world as a player and really didn't get to see my daughter that much. That was tough. So I kind of made a pact with myself that I would see my son grow up and be there for him. Even though with the baseball schedule I'm still not home a lot, I've been very fortunate. The Rockies have been very good to me and I owe them a lot for allowing me to do that."
Mikulik has achieved a legacy that extends beyond advancing players in their careers. He enters 2011 as the winningest manager in South Atlantic League and Asheville history with 781 wins. He was inducted into the Sally League Hall of Fame in 2009, has managed in the all-star game four times, and was the SAL manager of the year in 2001, 2007 and 2008.
|Longest Streaks of Consecutive Seasons As Manager of One Minor League Team
|Research by Bill Ballew
His 12-year run of consecutive full seasons as the manager of a single minor league team currently ranks sixth all-time. Mikulik's tenure, however, is the longest at the full-season level with a team affiliated with a major league club.
"Eventually, I probably will move on," Mikulik said. "I don't know when that will be. I don't have an answer for that. Right now my focus is on the 2011 season, and whatever 25 guys I get will receive my undivided attention. Obviously everybody would love to climb the ladder and get to the big leagues, but my agenda isn't headed in that direction right now. Maybe that will happen one day. But until it does, I'm here to develop players and prepare them as best I can for the Colorado Rockies."