2005 Manager Of The Year: Ken Oberkfell
By Chris Kline
2005 Year In Review:
• 2005 Minor League All-Star Teams
• 2005 Minor League Classification All-Stars
• 2005 Team Of The Year: Jacksonville Suns
• 2005: The Year In Quotes
• 2005 Minor League Statistical Leaders
Ken Oberkfell led Norfolk to a 79-65 record, winning the IL's South Division by 14 games in his rookie season in Triple-A. The club bowed out in the first round of the playoffs, but took eventual champion Toledo to a deciding fifth game before doing so.
Over his 10-year managerial career, Oberkfell has become known for drawing on his depth of personal experience as a player with the Cardinals, Braves, Pirates, Giants, Astros and Angels.
"You just instantly respect him because of everything he's been through," Norfolk third baseman Rodney Nye said. "He just lets you play the game. As a player he's easy to play for because of his laid-back approach. Guys respond to that and have good years under him for those reasons."
"There is enough pressure at this level," righthander Jason Scobie said. "He just lets you go out there and do what you have to do. We all make mistakes, but Obie's approach is to take it easy and that helps a lot. His door is always open and he's the best manager I've ever played for."
It is that openness, that experience, and the outstanding job he did this season in Norfolk that makes him Baseball America's Manager of the Year.
Getting It Started
Oberkfell took two years off after retiring in 1992, essentially playing a lot of golf and figuring out what he wanted to do next. He decided he wanted to manage, but there were no offers around in affiliated ball. Never one to be discouraged, Oberkfell took a job in the independent Northeast League, managing the Mohawk Valley Landsharks to a second-place finish with a 47-23 record in 1995.
"It was a lot harder than I thought it'd be," Oberkfell said of landing a managing gig. "You can't walk in to some major league front office and tell them you want to manage. It just doesn't work that way."
From New York's Mohawk Valley, Oberkfell spent another year in the independent leagues before then-Phillies GM Lee Thomas gave him a shot with low Class A Piedmont in 1997. He remained there until 1999, leading the Boll Weevils to the playoffs in 1998.
Oberkfell and the Phillies parted ways after the 1999 season, and then the Mets came calling. He returned to the South Atlantic League, but this time to Capital City. He was with the Bombers for one season before heading to high Class A St. Lucie, leading the Mets to the playoffs in 2002 and winning the Florida State League title in 2003.
He moved up again last year, this time to Double-A Binghamton, where the B-Mets finished 10 games over .500 and made the postseason. Counting this year's appearance, Oberkfell has four consecutive playoff berths at three different levels.
"He's done a great, great job of implementing our organizational philosophy and yet keeping our plan for individual players," Mets farm director Kevin Morgan said. "We felt that through his experience and extreme wealth of knowledge, he'd be a prefect fit for Triple-A. He's a strong communicator with an innate ability to express what's needed out of his players.
"Triple-A is a psychological game as well, simply because of all the moves that occur throughout the season. You have to have strong interpersonal skills, and Ken does an outstanding job of getting to know each player's personality. He understands what each player is going through because of his playing experience and his ability to communicate. They relate to him."
Growing up in suburban St. Louis, all Oberkfell ever wanted was to play for his hometown team. His dream became a reality in 1977, when he broke in with the Cardinals, finally making it to the big leagues for good in 1979.
In Oberkfell's 16-year big league career, he tasted the postseason twice, winning the World Series with the Cards in 1982.
"There's no question that was the year packed with the greatest memories," Oberkfell said. "To win the World Series in your hometown was an amazing experience. We didn't have a bunch of superstars, but we were so consistent and so strong defensively. We were just a bunch of hard-nosed, fast players who played good defense."
And Oberkfell was one of the hardest noses of the bunch. During his career, he averaged 130 games a season despite knee surgery, a broken thumb and an elbow injury.
"I always just tried to play through everything," he said. "Nowadays with the amount of money clubs are investing, it's a different story. You just try to get to know the player as best you can. That tells you more of what kind of player they are than anything else."
Oberkfell also had a lot of good brains to pick. Over the years, he played for Whitey Herzog, Jim Leyland, Joe Torre and Chuck Tanner. But he regards Herzog as having the biggest influence on his managerial style.
"I learned a lot from Whitey in terms of handling players and communicating--especially with extra players," he said. "He always had a way of keeping them positive, keeping them ready. That's so important if you want to have success at any level.
"And just like Whitey, I like to run. I like to be aggressive on the bases. I'm a pretty laid back guy until we have runners on base."
After the season ended, Oberkfell went to Houston, where he now calls home, before he heads to the Arizona Fall League in October. His name has been mentioned--along with Leyland's--as a possible candidate for the vacancy in Pittsburgh for next season.
And there is no doubt he's ready to get back to the big leagues again.
"A lot of superstar players maybe get the opportunity (to manage in the big leagues) because of their name, but it's not that easy," Oberkfell said. "You should pay your dues. I think you learn once you try it. Having been in the minors for 10 years, I think I've learned a lot. Don't get me wrong, Triple-A isn't a bad gig, but I want to be back in the big leagues--everyone does. If they tell you any different, they're lying."
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