Russell keeps teaching, rising for Twins
By Will Lingo
"That was the best place in the world to start," said John Russell, who got his first managerial job in the Appalachian League in 1995 after ending his playing career the season before. "You get all these different types of guysfrom Latin America, high schools, other placesand you really get to teach them how to do things right."
Teaching has been foremost in Russells mind as he has ascended through the Twins organization as a manager. He spent two years in the Florida State League and three in the Eastern League, and he just finished his second season at Triple-A Edmonton in the Pacific Coast League.
After a 60-83 record last season, the Trappers surged to an 81-59 record this year, second-best in the league. Then they cruised through the playoffs to win Edmontons fourth PCL title.
"We went through a lot early in the year, with four callups in the first week and one home game in April (thanks to seven lost to cold weather)," Russell said. "But everything started to click in July. It says a lot about the character of the team the way they overcame adversity."
But Russell can find plenty of good things from last years Edmonton team as well. Even though the record wasnt good, the team produced players like Bobby Kielty who played a role in this years success in Minnesota.
"Last year was a really good developmental year," he said. "But this years team really wanted to win, and everyone was together on the same goal. And if you can win, it makes development a little easier."
Being able to do both is a rare combination, and it also makes Russell Baseball Americas Minor League Manager of the Year.
Russell emphasizes teaching because he knows how important it was to him as a player to continue to learn about the game, even in the big leagues.
Russell was a first-round pick in the June 1982 draft out of Oklahoma, but he was never more than a journeyman player. He made his major league debut in 1984 and played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues with the Phillies, Braves and Rangers. Most of his experience was as a catcherhis career highlight was catching Nolan Ryans sixth no-hitter in 1990but he also played first base, third base and the outfield. He even made a pitching appearance for the Braves in 1989.
It was learning about how to play the middle infield, though, that gave Russell a view of his future. Perry Hill, then an infield instructor with the Rangers, took him aside to show him the finer points of second base and shortstop.
"I asked him why, because I was never going to play there in a game," Russell said. "He told me, No, but youre going to be a manager someday, so you need to know.
"My experience from playing and from people like him helped teach me how to teach other people."
Russell needed every bit of his teaching savvy at the lower levels of the minor leagues. In Elizabethton, for example, he said he was always surprised to find how many players didnt really know the proper way to grip the baseball.
Now up at Triple-A, he has to work with young players who are still learning, older players on the downside of their careers and veterans who wonder why they havent gotten a better shot at the big leagues.
"You really get a full taste of the different personalities and different attitudes toward the game here," he said.
Again, though, teaching and developing players remains the common theme throughout the minors. And Twins farm director Jim Rantz said Russell has the skills to work with young and veteran players alike.
"He is a very good baseball man and a good teacher who has continued to teach at higher levels," Rantz said. "He has a great feel for the game and has developed a knack for teaching all phases of the game."
From Russells point of view, thats nothing special. Thats a manager doing his job.
"If you cant teach, youre in trouble," he said. "I was always searching for something as a player to make me better. I was always looking for information, and thats what I try to give my players.
"Once I think I dont need to teach anymore, I need to quit."
Thats not going to happen anytime soon. Russell is continuing to develop his skills in the Arizona Fall League this year. With his reputation and résumé, a big league opportunity shouldnt be too far away.
Having just completed his eighth season as a managerand twice named the best managerial prospect in his league in BAs annual Best Tools surveyRussell isnt blind to whats ahead, but he doesnt obsess about it either.
"Theres not a date that Ive picked on my calendar," he said. "I enjoy what Im doing, and at some point Id love the opportunity to go to the major leagues and do some things there. Im looking forward to the future."
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