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Russell keeps teaching, rising for Twins

By Will Lingo
October 2, 2002

Previous BA Manager of the Year Winners
1981 Ed Nottle, Tacoma (Athletics)
1982 Eddie Haas, Richmond (Braves)
1983 Bill Dancy, Reading (Phillies)
1984 Sam Perlozzo, Jackson (Mets)
1985 Jim Lefebvre, Phoenix (Giants)
1986 Brad Fischer, Huntsville (Athletics)
1987 Dave Trembley, Harrisburg (Pirates)
1988 Joe Sparks, Indianapolis (Expos)
1989 Buck Showalter, Albany (Yankees)
1990 Kevin Kennedy, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
1991 Butch Hobson, Pawtucket (Red Sox)
1992 Grady Little, Greenville (Braves)
1993 Terry Francona, Birmingham (White Sox)
1994 Tim Ireland, El Paso (Brewers)
1995 Marc Bombard, Indianapolis (Reds)
1996 Carlos Tosca, Portland (Marlins)
1997 Gary Jones, Edmonton (Athletics)
1998 Terry Kennedy, Iowa (Cubs)
1999 John Mizerock, Wichita (Royals)
2000 Joel Skinner, Buffalo (Indians)
2001 Jackie Moore, Round Rock (Astros)

When a guy speaks excitedly about starting out his career in Elizabethton, Tenn., you know he has what it takes to be a minor league manager.

"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 guys–from Latin America, high schools, other places–and you really get to teach them how to do things right."

Teaching has been foremost in Russell’s 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 Edmonton’s 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 year’s Edmonton team as well. Even though the record wasn’t good, the team produced players like Bobby Kielty who played a role in this year’s success in Minnesota.

"Last year was a really good developmental year," he said. "But this year’s 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 America’s Minor League Manager of the Year.

Early Education

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 catcher–his career highlight was catching Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter in 1990–but 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 you’re 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 didn’t 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 haven’t 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.

Bright Future

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 Russell’s point of view, that’s nothing special. That’s a manager doing his job.

"If you can’t teach, you’re in trouble," he said. "I was always searching for something as a player to make me better. I was always looking for information, and that’s what I try to give my players.

"Once I think I don’t need to teach anymore, I need to quit."

That’s 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 shouldn’t be too far away.

Having just completed his eighth season as a manager–and twice named the best managerial prospect in his league in BA’s annual Best Tools survey–Russell isn’t blind to what’s ahead, but he doesn’t obsess about it either.

"There’s not a date that I’ve picked on my calendar," he said. "I enjoy what I’m doing, and at some point I’d love the opportunity to go to the major leagues and do some things there. I’m looking forward to the future."

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