Walbeck Builds A Winner For Tigers

On any given day during early work, most minor league managers are relatively easy to find.

But Double-A Erie manager Matt Walbeck isn’t most minor league managers. In fact, in some ways he hasn’t been able to let go of the catching gear that helped him carve out a 17-year professional playing career—11 of which were spent in the big leagues.

Before batting practice, Walbeck often likes to don the mask and get behind the plate to catch bullpen sessions for his pitching staff.

“Now, I don’t do it all the time,” Walbeck said. “But I think having the opportunity to catch a guy’s side session really gives you a feel for what their stuff is like. You see things from there you wouldn’t normally see.”

Walbeck still spends the bulk of his pregame time doing what every other minor league manager does: poring over scouting reports, meeting with players and his staff, building relationships—not only within the clubhouse, but also between the organization and its affiliate—hitting fungoes and throwing a mean BP.

An eighth-round pick of the Cubs in 1987 out of Sacramento High, Walbeck is new to this whole managing thing. But that doesn’t detract at all from his style, his communication skills, or the fact that he’s a winner.

And those three factors played a huge role in Walbeck being named Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year.

“Wally’s done a tremendous job in our organization in terms of developing players with a winning attitude,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “He has a unique style and his players always play hard for him. He’s strict enough to let them know where the line is, but he also likes to keep things loose. He’s just been outstanding in that role.”

Right Out Of The Chute

In 2003, Walbeck was about to turn 34 and weighing his options at Triple-A Toledo when he approached Tigers farm director Glenn Ezell about the possibility of managing.

“We talked about it in the dugout for a while, and then he came back the next day to ask more questions,” Ezell said. “That told me a lot about him. The thoughtfulness and the amount of respect he had for that kind of position . . . I look back to that conversation, just a few years ago and he’s always had a great atmosphere in every clubhouse. He’s old-school and I really liked his juice. Wally has tremendous energy and a tireless work ethic—two things that have carried over from his playing days.”

That juice, combined with his ability to balance personalities and get the most out of his players, helped him fulfill his daily duties, but also made his clubs perennial playoff contenders. Walbeck won the Midwest League title in his first season as skipper in 2004 at low Class A West Michigan, made another playoff appearance with the Whitecaps a year later, and then won the MWL again in 2006.

Now 38, he moved up to Erie this season, guiding the Seawolves to the Eastern League Southern Division title with an 81-59 record. Erie lost in the playoffs to Akron, but one of Ezell’s goals for 2007 was to “bring back respectability” to an Erie club that finished in last place the two previous seasons and hadn’t won 80 games since 2004.

One of the biggest reasons for Erie’s success was first baseman Jeff Larish, a 2005 fifth-rounder who batted .267/.390/.515 with 28 homers. In his final regular season at-bat, Larish hit a grand slam to hit the 100-RBI plateau.

“It was a tremendous experience playing for Wally,” Larish said. “He was able to keep all our guys focused and relaxed and came out with a positive attitude every day. It’s huge for a manager to do that, especially in this game where you fail so much. He can keep everybody loose whether they just got to Double-A or have big league experience.”

Walbeck ran into the latter in a big way this season, as Erie’s closer was 40-year-old righthander Alan Mills, who brought 12 years of big league experience with him to the back end of the Double-A bullpen and wound up recording 23 saves.

“All the players were constantly asking him questions,” Walbeck said. “And if they weren’t, I was. Before you know it, having Alan there was just like having another coach.”

Welcome Aboard

Walbeck’s ability to create a good atmosphere in the clubhouse goes back to his playing career. He was dealt four times during his career, and walked into a lot of clubhouses as the new guy.

“I think that’s a huge asset,” he said. “You’re always meeting new people in this game and you want to keep as open an atmosphere as possible in that clubhouse. I don’t think you can put a price tag on how important it is to what happens on the field. For me, I don’t look on being traded so much as a negative, and I didn’t when it happened during my career. I just looked at it as another opportunity to learn. You wind up taking all kinds of things with you from each experience.”

Walbeck incorporated all sorts of things into his club’s weekly routine: Hawaiian Shirt Sundays, Call Everybody By Their First Name Fridays, and Sport Coat Thursdays. And to break up the routine, Walbeck once had his club skip BP altogether to play laser tag.

The end result in 2007 was a winning team and players who showed individual improvements. Outfielders Matt Joyce and Clete Thomas became more complete players, Larish had an MVP-caliber year and shortstop Michael Hollimon moved on to play for Team USA this winter, and Detroit was able to deal for Edgar Renteria because of the development of righthander Jair Jurrjens.

“This is a constant learning experience for me,” Walbeck said. “It’s about learning as much as possible and giving back to the game. I’ll call ‘Easy’ (Ezell), I’ll call our rovers, I’ll always ask scouts a lot of questions—the guys that have been around forever. Those are the brains I want to pick.”