Portland has always been a baseball city. There was pro ball here in 1866 and it continues strongly today. The Beavers are a Charter Member of the Pacific Coast League and have seen some unbelievable talent come through it’s long and storied roster with Lou Piniella, Satchel Paige, Sam McDowell, and Luis Tiant just to name a few. Since 1903 the Beavers have been part of the culture here in Portland, and it thrives and grows today as the city sits on the edge of getting Major League Baseball
We thought it would be good to talk to the current man at the helm here in Portland. Since Rick Sweet has played in MLB and manages here with the AAA Beavers, we thought he would be best to talk about both aspects of the game. Rick also hails from Longview, WA., just a stone’s throw north of Portland in SW Washington, so in every aspect, Rick covers a ton of ground as it pertains to baseball past, present and future in Portland
Rick follows the current trend in catchers turned managers. If you follow the game you’ll understand why this is: The catcher calls the game; sees the field and works the pitcher to his strengths and the batter’s weakness. He has spent time with the Padres, Mets, and Mariners as a catcher in the late ’80s and early ’90s and saw some unreal pitchers throw to him. Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers, Randy Jones, and Jesse Orosco are but a few. He took this time and turned it into managing skills, having won Minor League titles with Tucson and Harrisburg.
In this interview Rick covers a lot of ground, from player development, balancing that development with getting wins, his life in MLB, and what he thinks of the possibility of MLB in Portland.
OBC: How hard is it to balance player development with getting wins in AAA?
Sweet: That’s probably one of the most difficult things, at times. I think overall what you have to do is get to know your players individually and kind of find out what buttons to push because the player really at AAA is really only interested in what’s going to further his career. In other words, what’s going to get him into the big leagues?
What I have to balance is convincing him that what is best for the team is also best for him. That way, we come up with both development but you come up with wins at the AAA level and this is the one level where you have to balance that priority.
OBC: Does using a pitch count help a player mentally for the Majors? Is there a place in player development for leaving them in to work out of jams?
Sweet: You know, obviously, within our organization, that is one of the biggest, I would say controversies right now. Yes, I think at this level there is no doubt you have to allow them to work out of jams at times. I think that is where a good pitching coach really can help a manager, because, a pitching coach gets to know the pitchers even better. We need to test them at this level to prepare them for the next level, because, at the next level, if they falter once or twice, they are probably back down with you. So you have to allow them at AAA to have those opportunities and maybe fail but learn from that failure to get them better for the big leagues.
OBC: When you’re in a pennant race for a AAA Championship and September 1st rolls around, with the major league roster expansions how do you cope with losing big contributors while keeping your focus on winning the championship?
Sweet: Again, as a manager, and this has happened to me where we at AAA got into the playoffs. It happened in Tucson and I lost six players to the Houston Astros’ major league club, because they were in a pennant race. You have to remember what your priorities are: Major league club is number one, AAA number two. How do you cope with it? What you hope happens, is the major league club tells you, “Okay, we are going to call these guys up September 1st” and, if as manager, you have placed your whole roster that is where your backup players are key players for you. If you have used your whole roster over the course of a year, your backup players are prepared to step in and take over those roles along maybe with two or three AA players. If you have a good AA team with a good manager down there, good player development they are ready to step in and maybe not totally fill in those roles but they are prepared to play at that level.
OBC: Was too much pressure placed on Sean Burroughs by the media to perform above at the highest levels of the game his rookie season? How does his rehab look?
Sweet: Sure. He is doing great. He is 100%. I think his first test in the big leagues. I think physically he was ready, but I think mentally ready to handle the pressure; but, again, he was still 21 years old.
Once it happened, he struggled with some injuries. He got off to a slow start. He came back to us and he started slowly; but by the time we were down at the end of the year, he was back on his game and I think the second time around, he will be much more prepared – physically and emotionally.
OBC: A couple of great prospect names are in the Padres system. How does Tagg Bozied look?
Sweet: Obviously, he is the number one guy. I would anticipate him starting at the AA level. If he gets off to a good start, is swinging the bat, doing the things that they hope he will be ready to do at AA; we will see him before the year is out. Otherwise, there are really no names that you will point at and say his guy falls into that category for sure. So you’ve touched on the number one guy.
OBC: Besides Burroughs you’ve managed another highly touted draft pick. In 1994 you managed Phil Nevin, who at the time, was considered a “can’t miss kid” in the Houston organization. Was there any pressure to get him to the bigs or were you allowed to take your time with him due to the impending labor war that ended that season?
Sweet: Well, you know we don’t think that much about labor wars when you are in the minor leagues like that. That is like another world. No, there was no pressure to get himto the big leagues or anything like that. It was putting him out there and seeing what he was going to do.
OBC: On winning 2 minor league titles (Tucson in 1993 and Harrisburg in 1998): Which one was more special to you?
Sweet: The one in Tucson…. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that. They were different types of wins. The one in Tucson, it was my first year in AAA. I was relatively young and quite frankly, the owners of that club did not want me as their manager, because of how young I was. They wanted an older, more veteran type of manager and at the end of the year they were very excited to have me. I wound up there for three years. So I think from that standpoint, it was very satisfying.
The one in AA, I think the satisfying part of that was the players we had in the club. We snuck in as a wild card and we developed over the course of the year with a very intensive team oriented game. It was a tough year in that organization. At that time, I was going to quit at the end of the year from that organization, because of the people. I didn’t believe in the philosophy of the people in that organization. And the team rallied around that theme and it turned out that the people that I had philosophical differences with, left the organization. That is why I stayed in the Expos organization. So that being said, it was very satisfying to win a championship with the philosophy that I have, as opposed to the philosophy that they had.
OBC: Where do you see yourself in the sport in say 5 years? Are you hoping to move up or are you happy where you’re at?
Sweet: Absolutely, I want to manage in the big leagues. I would like to coach again in the big leagues again. So, I am waiting for that opportunity.
OBC: Many managers made the switch from manager to GM . . . Do you want to get into the front office one day or are you a “on the field guy”?
Sweet: No, I don’t think so. It’s been a possibility at times, not so much major league GM but usually you start out as an assistant minor league director – something like that.
Quite honestly, I don’t want to deal with agents. I have talked to a few agents; I have talked to a lot of agents. I have listened on speakerphones when minor league directors have had to talk to agents. I don’t think I would have the patience to deal with ignorant people. I am not saying all of them are, because there are a lot of good ones out there. But there are a lot of shysters out there that know nothing about the game and to have to deal with people who know nothing abut the game and to be nice to them, that is not my style. I am a little too honest to deal with that.
That is the only drawback, quite frankly. That is the only drawback to get into the front office is to have to deal with bad agents.
OBC: Has the situation with PFE been a distraction?
Sweet: Yes. Yes, there’s no doubt about it. I think the biggest difference for me is this is my home. Not that we don’t care other places, but when I was in Tucson and Harrisburg and Kissimme, Florida and Binghamton, NY, I was only there for six months. I was only there half a year, but I didn’t live there. My reputation was not there. I was always going to come home. This is my home.
The problems with PFE affect me personally, as much as business wise, because the first thing people ask, “Is there going to be a club – how bad is it?” I feel like I’m part of that. So the distractions are personal for me. I am much more involved for that reason. So, yes, it’s a distraction. Yes, it makes it much more difficult. But that’s because I care a lot more, because it is my home.
OBC: Has it affected how the actual organization is preparing for next season or are you guys going forward just looking . . .
Sweet: My players don’t even know what’s going on. That’s what people have to understand – they read about it. Mark Schuster and Jack Cain really have done a nice job. The first year, by far, was the worst, — was absolutely the worst.
Last year Mark Schuster did a nice job. Jack Cain, being brought on, actually saved the day. Last year, the players really had no idea of all the problems that were going on, and I keep that from them. They don’t need to know. This year I anticipate – because there are no players here. I’ve talked to a lot of the guys and they don’t even know what’s going on. As far as they are concerned, baseball is going to go on as it always does. So, is it a distraction for my players? No, I keep it from them. The distraction is for me, because I keep that to myself and I work with Jack and Mark in making sure the players don’t know. And that is a real credit to them.
OBC: If for some reason major league baseball did come here to Portland, would that be kind of like the ultimate thing to be able to stay at home and do both?
Sweet: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! There is no doubt. If they brought a major league club in here, I would hope to stay with that organization – whatever organization comes in. When I left Montreal to come to the Padres, the only reason I asked Jim Bean, who is a very good friend of mind, for that, is it was going to give me the ability to come home and he just looked at me and said, “Absolutely!” I would have stayed with Montreal and stayed within that organization, but the chance to come home, you know, obviously, the Padres are the organization I signed with. So, I have certain personal ties just from that emotional part of my career. But, if a major league club was to move here and was to offer me a job, I would offer me a job definitely want to stay there and the chance to stay home would be tremendous.
On playing in MLB
OBC: The ’78 Padres was one heck of a team, with Dave Winfield, Gene Richards and rookie SS Ozzie Smith and skippered by Roger Craig. This was, at the time, easily the finest team in San Diego history. In retrospect, did you realize just how good that team was at the time?
Sweet: I think I knew how good the team was because there were four teams that year. The Giants had McCovey and that groups of guys and, of course the “Big Red Machine”, the Dodgers … Cey, Garvey I mean you can go through…Sutton. I mean you can go through the whole list there. We were ten games over .500 and we were in fourth place behind those three clubs. I knew that we were a pretty good club. I thought we were going to be even better the next year and I was very disappointed. I think Roger, you know Roger took over in ’78 in that spring training and they wound up making quite a few changes before the next year and struggled. I think it was kind of a downhill spiral after that for a few years. They kind of tore the club up a little bit and went into a little bit of a different direction. But it was . . . I’m not sure I knew how good we were till about halfway through the year when I started looking at it I said we’re right in the thick of this thing. Look at those guys. We were young and yet we had some veteran players – Rollie Fingers and Gaylord and Gene Tenace. Winfield was young. Gene Richards was young. Obviously, Ozzie was young and you know it never developed as well as you would hope it would.
OBC: What was your favorite park to hit in (majors or minors), Why?
Sweet: Well, I would have to say that my favorite ballpark to hit in, just the way it was laid out, was good for me, was San Diego. It was the home field. I loved San Diego at that time. My favorite ballpark to play in, I would have to say Wrigley Field. Absolutely the greatest fans in baseball. It was a great place to be – the excitement – the thrill.
The older ballparks – Fenway, was that way. There was nothing better than to walk into Yankee Stadium. I can remember one time specifically, stepping out of the box at Yankee Stadium – I was facing Goose Gossage. I will never forget this. It was loud and there were a lot of people there and I stepped out of the box. And I thought – I kinda looked around and it donned on me, “Man, Babe Ruth was here and Lou Gehrig,” just going on and on. You know, all the greats that have played and then kind of shaking my head and saying, “I have got to get back into this,” and then refocusing back on the at bat.
OBC: Nothing like a Goose Gossage to straighten you up real fast?
Sweet: Yea, but I can remember that happening at Dodger Stadium and places like that. But I still go back to Wrigley Field. I love Wrigley Field.
OBC: Since you played major league baseball in 1978 and then were in the minors again from 79-82. What is it like waiting for the call? Watching the bigs from down in the minors after being there, just one injury away from the show but never catching that break.
Sweet: You find most professional athletes – one of the things that you have to learn to control your impatience. If you are very patient and you just sit back, the chances you are not as competitive as you need to be. You need to be impatient. I like people that are impatient. I don’t want people that are happy being in the minor leagues, “Oh, I’ll just wait my time”. Those people are not working hard enough to get there in my opinion.
So, yes, I was impatient. I wanted to get there but I also understood, “Okay, I need to be prepared when it happens. And how do I be prepared? I work hard. I will put up good numbers down here and when the opportunity comes, I will be ready.”
OBC: You caught Gaylord Perry, Randy Jones and Mickey Lolich as a Padres catcher in the late ’70’s. Did Perry ever let any spitballs come your way? If so, just how tough is it to adjust to hard breaking stuff like that?
Sweet: Did he throw any? Oh, of course.
OBC: How do you deal with breaking stuff like that?
Sweet: The thing with Gaylord, you know, obviously you knew it was coming. That was key, because if you didn’t know you had no chance. If he threw a really good one, the chances of catching it were pretty good, but the chances, what you hoped to do was just knock it down. I had a few of them which totally missed my glove and hit my body. You imagine if it is hard to catch, think how impossible it would be to hit. The problem was, if it wasn’t a good one it just had a decency to sit right there and it sometimes got hit pretty hard. But now most of the time, now I got him in Seattle in ’82 and ’83 and, and he through a lot more. At the end of his career, at the end of ’78, he didn’t have to throw that many ’cause he had very good stuff. He won the Cy Young that year because he had very good stuff, not because he had the spitter.
OBC: You bring up a good subject. Is there too much effort placed in early player development – I mean I’m talking high school and college – for kids to look at the radar gun? I mean is there a place for a Greg Maddox or a Jamie Moyer?
Sweet: That is the problem. People out in professional baseball, we don’t put that much emphasis on the radar gun. It’s only a tool. Unfortunately, for us, anybody can read a radar gun, so people who don’t really know that much about pitching and about the small intricacies that you are looking for as a pitcher, they put too much emphasis. High school — college coaches, the radar gun becomes way too important for them. In professional ball, we use it nothing more than as a tool. Obviously, we want to know how hard a guy throws, but we also look at other things. How free and easy they throw, how much movement they have on a ball, the command they have on a ball. So, I think there is too much emphasis put on it and at times we take it away in professional baseball we don’t let guys know what they are throwing in the minor leagues.
OBC: Do you have any insight on any of the other pitchers that you’ve worked with? Are there any that stick out besides Gaylord?
Sweet: I would say Gaylord sticks out; but I would say Rollie Fingers, obviously, stands out. He would throw pitches — his reputation — I think he had no fear. He would go up there and throw pitches that maybe weren’t the best pitches but because of his reputation, I think hitters were intimidated and didn’t get good pieces of them. Just amazing how he would challenge people with one pitch after another over the plate for strikes and get outs. Randy Jones you mentioned, if he threw 81 miles an hour, it was too hard. His ideal, he stayed on the radar gun early in his career. He was an early guy that the gun was very, very important in ’78. He wanted to be between 78 and 80 miles an hour. That is when his sinker worked the best, was right around 79mph.
OBC: Last question…How’d you like those “Pumpkin Patch” Padres uniforms of the 1970’s? There are some people who want to know if you look back on that and look at your baseball cards and go, you know, “What were they thinking?”
Sweet: Yea, I just shake my head. There were some ugly uniforms back then. The yellow ones or orange ones or whatever color you want to call it – the old Padre ones – the yellow that we used to wear looked like new born baby crap.