This story also appears in the eighth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that begins Saturday, August 1st and runs through Sunday, August 9th. Purchase tickets here.
The water begins to drip on the three scoops of grounds inside the BUNN CWTF 15-2 Automatic Coffee Brewer and falls into the decanter seven hours prior to first pitch. This is the signal that the Grizzlies coaching staff has arrived into the home clubhouse to begin their preparation for the game ahead.
Three stat packs, three Fresno rosters, three opponent rosters, 2015 Fresno batting stats against the opposing pitchers, media game notes, a Fresno Bee, and an extremely detailed Houston Astros-crafted scouting report have turned the desk of manager Tony DeFrancesco into a sea of white. He sits in his chair 45-minutes removed from working out at a north Fresno gym as he types the Fresno lineup onto an excel spreadsheet. While he weighs the pros and cons of organizing his lineup, he stops, gets up and walks one office over to hitting coach Leon Roberts and development specialist Jeff Murphy and closes the door. This type of conversation is private, which DeFrancesco prefers when it comes to talking about players. Not even 30-seconds later, he emerges from the door and crosses the hall to pitching coach Ace Adams, discussing a starting rotation change due to a recent callup and then circles back to his office.
This cycle of back-and-forth is constant as all four coaches digest gobs of information in hopes that they can gain an edge on the opponent for roughly three hours each night, even though none of them will step into the batters box, field a ground ball, or throw a pitch.
“Every day our job is to make sure the nine guys on the field, no matter their experience, can make a great play, give a quality at bat and continue to develop into a winning player,” responds DeFrancesco when asked what comes from the countless hours of reviewing scouting reports, stats, and video.
“We also want to win,” he says with a stone cold look that almost thrusts the weight of contributing as a professional ballplayer into the bones of anyone who could see him.
DeFrancesco came to Fresno with a reputation for being fiery, straightforward, committed to developing his players, and addicted to winning. The eight previous managers in franchise history never were as outspoken about the latter, which maybe attributed to the combined .471 win percentage and one playoff appearance (1998) in 17 years the Grizzlies were the Giants Triple-A affiliate.
The 52-year-old even made a point to differentiate from the previous regime in his introductory press conference by saying the team goal would be to make the playoffs and develop players for the Astros. He took it a step further two months later at the Grizzlies Community Fund Hot Stove Dinner when he said ‘We’re going to kick their ass’ in reference to playing the Sacramento River Cats, a team he once managed to seven winning seasons, six division titles, three league championships, and the 2007 Triple-A Championship.
Now months into his first season leading the Fresno Grizzlies, it’s safe to say DeFrancesco has lived up to his strong statements, proven by his staff and players working together to race out to the second-best start in franchise history.
When the Grizzlies begin play on August 1st, they’ll have led their division for 101 of 114 days. For those that like percentages, that equates to 88.6% of the 2015 season.
What has helped the four coaches balance the rigors of the season is the routine they’ve set for themselves before arriving for work. DeFrancesco gets up, heads to Starbucks, reads the paper, and then hits the gym. Roberts chooses golf, loves to read about everything that’s happening at the big league level, and will grab for a small bag of potato chips as he goes through notes on the opposing starting pitcher. Adams arrives to the clubhouse the earliest, preferring to set his mind through exercise by walking around Chukchansi Park and pouring a post-walk cup of black coffee that he appears to sip on the rest of the night. Murphy, noticed by his fu manchu mustache, lives out of his trailer that he drove to Fresno, hits the golf course in the morning, and then goes over the previous game when he gets to the park before putting his focus towards the catchers, which is his specialty.
For DeFrancesco, who is well through his 21st season managing in the minor leagues, the routine dates all the way back to 1994 when his first managing gig was with the Arizona Rookie League Athletics. After leading the rookie Athletics to a second place finish, he leveled up and migrated to the Pacific Northwest to become the skipper of short-season Southern Oregon. What has since become the site of a Walmart Supercenter; Miles Field in Medford, Oregon was where DeFrancesco really cut his teeth as a manager, turning in his only back-to-back losing seasons. Despite the 62-90 combined record in those years, the 1995 Southern Oregon A’s roster did have 21-year-old Miguel Tejada, who was making his professional state-side debut with the Athletics organization after rising from the slums of Bani in the Dominican Republic. He was the first of many high profile players DeFrancesco has come to manage and help develop over the course of his career.
The most recent star player to spend time playing for him is current Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, who won the American League Rookie of the Month for June and is the Astros’ No. 3 hitter night in and night out as they battle the Angels for first place in the American League West. With the former No. 1 overall pick on the roster for 24 games, the Grizzlies went 16-8 and established a large first-place cushion, which is part of the reason DeFrancesco is about to lock in his 17th winning season in 21 years.
“My m.o. to the players is always that we’re going to go out and compete and try to win every game,” states DeFrancesco. “If I ask them to sacrifice bunt, or come in to get a lefty out, that’s all about developing you into a player with a winning mindset.”
That outlook is spread throughout the Astros organization, something Astros GM Jeff Luhnow instilled when he was appointed to his position back in December 2011. On a recent visit to Fresno, he reaffirmed that winning at every level is important and that Tony’s success at developing players at the Triple-A level makes him invaluable.
However, like any motivated person, Tony seeks another opportunity to manage at the big leagues.
“It’s a compliment,” he responds when asked if there’s a stereotype that he’s too valuable at the Triple-A level to have elsewhere in an organization.
“Like any other coach, you’re always trying to get another opportunity. I was able to spend 41 games up their as the Astros [interim] manager in 2012 and it’s something I’ll cherish and remember for the rest of my life no matter what happens. I feel like I’ll get another opportunity.”
The 41-game experience at the big league level also gave him plenty of self-reflection.
“Surely I’ve evolved as a manager over the years and especially since experiencing the big league level. Early in my career, I took full responsibility if a guy missed a cut off man or if a pitcher didn’t execute a pitch. I thought it was all on me to make sure the players knew how to play the game right, and at times I was probably too hard on the players. Baseball is not a perfect game and I’ve worked to accept that in my managing style.”
As frustrating as the miscues can be for any player or coach, DeFrancesco has understood it’s more of his job to keep the players calm and motivate them to learn from their mistakes. That’s precisely why he’s one of the few managers to take the team out for infield/outfield and pitchers fielding practice throughout the season. For most team’s it’s something that’ll happen in the month of April and die off, but to this day the Grizzlies head out there at least once every homestand or road trip to knock out the fundamentals.
The other noticeable thing is that none of the Fresno players wear any symbol of the big league club, and that’s by design.
“You play for the city of Fresno and you’re a Grizzly,” Tony begins to describe. “Even though their ultimate goals is to put on an Astros uniform, you’re here [with Fresno] and I want them to understand what it means to represent a city on and off the field.”
The players and coaches have begun to understand what they mean to a city that initially feared Triple-A Baseball was in jeopardy when the Giants moved their Triple-A affiliate north to Sacramento.
“I feel bad for the Grizzlies fans,” he says when told of the ongoing playoff drought that’s lasted 16 years. “[The fans] haven’t been able to experience that August rush and see the guys celebrate on the field. Our goal is to get into the playoffs and win a championship. At the same time we’re going to do what we can to help out Houston and make sure we can send guys up to help them, but we can have winning on both sides.”
Houston Astros 58-45 – 1st place.
Fresno Grizzlies 59-46 – 1st place.
You sure can have both.
Team records entering July 31, 2015