If baseball can be saved, and that’s a big if, it will be baseball men like Dave Trembley who do the saving.
Trembley has spent a lifetime in the game. He has coached and managed at every level, high school, college, minor leagues and major leagues and this year decided to go back to the new Appalachian League, now a college summer league, to teach the game the right way to college kids playing for the Bristol State Liners in Bristol, Virginia.
He first coached in the Appalachian League when it was a much different league in 1985. He has held nearly every job in the game. His is a baseball soul.
“I agreed to do this,’’ Trembley told BallNine, “if we could teach baseball fundamentals and MLB and USA Baseball said, ‘Yeah, that’s what the premise of this league is all about.’ It’s college freshmen and sophomores and we are emphasizing old-school player development.’’
Imagine that. Teaching baseball to baseball players and getting MLB’s endorsement.
This October, Trembley will turn 70, but the game has kept him young. His smile is bright and his energy level is off the charts, all with one goal in mind, to make players the best they can be … and he still throws batting practice.
Trembley has been in the game 42 years.
“I have managed at every league in the minor leagues with the exception of the Midwest League and the Cal League,’’ Trembley said. “I’ve managed in Instructional League 16 years. I did Winter Ball in Mexico and Venezuela. I’ve been to the Dominican. I was a field coordinator in the minor leagues. I was a major league field coordinator, a third base coach, a bullpen coach, a bench coach and a manager in the big leagues. I was a farm director, director of player development. I coached at the high school level, I coached at the college level. I think we bring a framework of reference.
“Watch the game, learn from it. Throw strikes, make the routine plays, get a good ball to hit, make good decisions on the bases and compete. That’s it. That’s baseball.’’
Dave Trembley with the Bristol State Liners.
“Instead of sitting back and criticizing the way the game is played right now I decided to try and help it and do something about it. Because we can all say we don’t like the way the game is played, and the way things are going. When the opportunity presented itself, I took it because I care about the game and the future of the game. The opportunity to teach it and also to have young guys appreciate how the game is played. The grind. It’s a tough business. These guys are playing six days a week. We take batting practice every day, we do infield, we do fundamentals. I think it’s the time of their lives.’’
There are no shortcuts. He learned that managing 3,254 games in the minors and majors.
Lessons must be learned on the field. To learn to bunt you have to practice bunting. To learn to hit the ball the other way you have to practice hitting the ball the other way. To be a good fielder you have to work your position. PFP is a big part of his pitching world, too.
“I called all the pitchers, catchers and position players when I got the roster,’’ Trembley explained. “I told them we would not have any wrist bands on their wrists. We wouldn’t call pitches. They wouldn’t have cue cards in their hats. Wouldn’t have those cards in their back pocket out in the field. We were going to teach guys and prepare them how to play and maybe help them develop some baseball instincts and learn how to make decisions on their own. It’s been very well received by our players.’’
My one word reaction: HALLELUJAH!
“The game has become robotic in a lot of ways,’’ Trembley acknowledged. “Pitches are called for them. They are told where to play. Where to position. When to swing. What we’ve tried to do is prepare guys to play and make decisions and then we can talk about it and teach. It’s been a breath of fresh air for us.’’
That’s what player development is really all about. Learning to play the game. Learning to make baseball decisions. Putting trust in your players. Giving your players options.
Boyce Cox Field, Home to the Bristol State Liners
The game needed Dave Trembley and he came back to the game. This is what coaching is all about, not reading measurements on a screen. Development happens through work and practice.
Fans, you might even want to go early to attend an Appalachian League game.
“We take infield, we do fundamentals,’’ Trembley said.
Just like major leaguers once did when fundamentals were an important part of the game. I remember covering teams in the majors that took infield. I remember Tony Gwynn getting to an east coast ballpark early and taking a bucket of balls off the right field wall just to learn how the fence and the corner played.
That was all part of the game before Spin Rate, Exit Velocity and Launch Angle took over.
“Baseball, for a lot of young players now, has been saturated with Travel Ball and the Showcase Era which is really very self-centered which I think transfers itself in a lot of ways to the way the game is played at the major league level,’’ Trembley said.
“It’s almost a badge of honor to strike out or see how hard you can throw, but the team aspect doesn’t really matter. We try to emphasize here that you have to learn how to play. It’s not just your Exit Velocity or your Spin Rate but you have to learn how to play as a team.
“We won a game the other night, it was first and second in the ninth inning and I asked a guy to bunt. We practice bunting every day. The guy got the bunt down, the next guy came up and got a hit and we won the game. Those kinds of things are important. Hopefully we get back to doing a little bit of those kind of things in the big leagues.’’
2008: In one of the best post-game presser moves ever, former Orioles manager Dave Trembley lit up a victory cigar after the O's snapped a five game losing streak by beating the Angels, 5-2. (Photo via MASN)
That story is the directly opposite of a story a scout told me earlier this year. It was late in the game, an AA-game. The score was tied. No outs. Runners were on first and second and the No. 8 hitter came up and promptly struck out, taking three wild swings. No thought of sacrificing.
“You got to practice bunting and you have to teach it, you just can’t expect guys to do it or understand the importance of it,’’ Trembley told me.
“We have some really good makeup guys, they want to learn and they have responded to the approach we are taking,’’ Trembley said. “It’s very positive. We are trying to help them. The goal is once they leave here they have a better understanding of how to play the game and what it takes to be a better player. If these guys are selected down the road to play professional baseball, they understand it’s the little things that make the big things happen and you have to teach it.’’
Perhaps some of these players will become coaches and teach the fundamentals of the game.
When he was managing the Orioles, Trembley always had a station in spring training where everybody had to bunt and Aubrey Huff would always say, “What do I have to bunt for?’’
“I’d say, when they put that shift on, if you are in a slump you may want to bunt,’’ Trembley replied. “There might be a game on the line and the manager may decide that he wants to bunt.’ Later on that year he got traded to the Giants and I think it was a (World Series) game, first and second, and (Bruce) Bochy asked Huff to bunt and he got the bunt down.‘’
Yes he did. That was in 2010 when the Giants won the World Series, the first of three in five years.
Bunting and other fundamentals are part of what can move a game along and make it more action packed. There is room in baseball for home runs and bunting. Sometimes home runs come after bunts.
Trembley while managing the Baltimore Orioles.
“If you never practice bunting, how can you expect to do it,’’ Trembley said.
“How about with two strikes, choking up. I say right field is a fair ball and hitting the ball the other way,’’ Trembley said. “We are not doing any shifts here, we play straight-up baseball. I got two really good coaches Larry McCall and Barbaro Garbey and we are trying to teach baseball. There is something to be said for work ethic and how you go about playing the game with some respect and that’s what we are trying to do. I know we are not going to change things overnight. I understand analytics is here, but the key word that we are trying to implement is called balance. We’re trying to balance out the game and how you play it. Maybe we’ve gone a little too far with the analytics.’’
Trembley was quick to credit the work of McCall and Garbey. McCall, 68, pitched with the Yankees a bit for two world championship teams of 1977 and ’78. Then he became part of the trade that landed the Yankees Dave Righetti.
Hitting coach Garbey, 64, was on the juggernaut Tigers who won the 1984 World Series. He came from Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boat lift. Garbey worked with Trembley in the Braves organization while McCall was a AA and AAA pitching coach with the Orioles when Trembley was in that organization.
The Bristol State Liners played this weekend in Danville. The last time Trembley was in Danville he was the field coordinator and farm director of the Atlanta Braves. Danville used to be their team in the previous Appalachian League and Trembley rattled off some of the talent that passed through Danville in his Braves days, naming players like Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Christian Pache, Austin Riley, William Contreras and Ian Anderson.
“For the Braves, for me, it was John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox and Bobby Dews was the backbone of instruction of that organization forever, the Braves way of doing things, it was fundamentals and play the game right,’’ Trembley said. “They developed and scouted – the days of Paul Snyder you sign and develop your own players, and you teach them how to play and then when they get to the big leagues the only thing that changes is they have a third deck on the stadium and the game is a little bit brighter. It’s the same game.’’
That is what he tells the wide-eyed college players who play their home games at Boyce Cox Field.
“If you can bring up examples of guys that are in the major leagues or were in the major leagues and this is how they go about doing it, I think this solidifies your point to these guys,’’ Trembley said. “The players are enjoying it and if you look at the structure of the league and the guys who are managing and coaching, they all have experience, they have all been baseball lifers and are trying to give back to the game.
“The good ones, Derek Jeter and those guys, their approach is amazing,’’ Trembley said. “Jeter took BP every day, he took his ground balls, him and (Robinson) Cano would be out in front of that dugout playing long toss every day from the dugout to the foul line, and when Derek hit a ground ball back to the pitcher, he ran 4.1 to first base every time. That’s what we are trying to emulate. Those guys are one in a million but it doesn’t mean that we all can’t take the same approach. And if we do that, we will get back a lot more fans and Major League Baseball will generate interest in playing the game with the youth of this country. Quite honestly, the way the game is played in the big leagues, for the most part, is rather boring. We need to pick up the tempo and have a lot more action.
“We may have over-saturated these guys with too many numbers and an approach that is very self-centered and I don’t think that’s how you win,’’ Trembley said. “I think you are successful with a team concept and preparation is the most important component. These young guys are all very bright and they are receptive. They are not afraid to question, but the nuances of the game have never been explained to them, I think they are intrigued by it.’’
J.D. Martinez #14 of the Houston Astros is congratulated by Dave Trembley #47 of the Houston Astros after hitting a two run home run against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Minute Maid Park on May 22, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images)
To be clear, these Appalachian League teams have analytics and video and the information is readily available, but the emphasis has been on developing players and teaching them how to play.
“It’s nine weeks, 54 games and hopefully when they get done, they go back to their schools they can appreciate what it takes,’’ Trembley said. “It takes commitment, a very positive approach and persistence.’’
Trembley then laughed and said, “I think I understand about persistence, I got to the big leagues when I was 55 years old, Kev. I rode a lot of buses and ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It’s about passion for the game and at this point in my life it’s about passion trying to help young people. There are a lot of young people who love the game and I think we are in good hands, going forward if we take the right approach and develop these players the right way, I think the game will improve.
“Maybe we can get the game pointed back in the direction that we’ve all known it to be.’’
That would be a joy. For all coaches at any level here is the basis of Trembley’s platform.
“Guys make mistakes and I tell them the team that makes the fewest mistakes at the end of a nine inning game is usually the team that is successful at the end,’’ he said. “But mistakes are going to happen. Don’t get too high or too low. Watch the game, learn from it. Throw strikes, make the routine plays, get a good ball to hit, make good decisions on the bases and compete. That’s it. That’s baseball.’’
Indeed, that’s baseball.
Or at least it used to be and hopefully with the help of baseball people like Dave Trembley, it might one day again be baseball.