It’s the second week of September, the Rockies are chasing their first division title, and Bud Black has former Bronco Peyton Manning on his mind.
He’s trying to figure out a way to get the legendary quarterback to appear in a video that would play on the giant scoreboard at Coors Field as the Rockies make their run to a possible National League West crown.
“I want Peyton, waving his arms up and down, to get the crowd going,” Black says. “Hey, we don’t care about the snap count! We want it loud! ‘Omaha! Omaha!’ ”
Later in the afternoon, he’ll call in Julian Valentin, the director of social media, to see if there has been any progress on Project Peyton. (Valentin tells Black that it’s being looked into).
Black’s office, down the hallway from the players’ spacious clubhouse, contains a comfy black-leather couch and a tidy desk. Photographs of Coors Field adorn the walls, including one that captures the joy of a young boy watching a game. Encased in a glass frame is the lineup, and a baseball, from Black’s first game as Rockies manager. It’s dated April 3, 2017, a game in which the Rockies beat the Brewers at Milwaukee, 7-5.
Black has plenty on his to-do list, though he goes about his chores with a relaxed, easy manner. Colorado’s second-year manager, age 61, plans to watch video, meet with his coaches, chat with some players and confer with head trainer Keith Dugger. The night before, the Rockies hammered the Diamondbacks, 13-2. With nothing to stew over and no second-guesses haunting him, he got an excellent night’s sleep. Today, he’s open to having a reporter shadow him, from arriving at the ballpark just after noon through another critical game that night vs. Arizona.
He’s been up since 7:30 a.m. and he and his wife, Nanette (everyone calls her Nan), spent the morning running errands. He also did his weekly guest spot on MLB Network Radio with Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette. Black is known throughout baseball as one of the game’s most media-friendly — and media savvy — managers.
“I enjoy it, and I also know it’s a big part of my job,” he says.
After making the rounds, Black settles in with bench coach Mike Redmond and hitting coach Duane Espy to put the finishing touches on the lineup. Colorado is facing Arizona ace right-hander Zack Greinke, so Black stacks his batting order with left-handed hitters: David Dahl is starting in left field, batting fourth; right-fielder Carlos Gonzales bats sixth; Ryan McMahon has replaced Ian Desmond at first base and bats seventh; and left-handed-hitting catcher Tony Wolters is batting eighth.
There is a brief discussion about the wisdom of batting three lefties in a row, but the consensus is that Greinke will likely pitch deep into the game, meaning that the Rockies won’t be pinch-hitting until late in the game.
Black meets with the media in the dugout prior to every game. Inevitably, someone will ask him why a certain player, center fielder Charlie Blackmon, for example, is sitting out. Or they’ll ask why Gonzalez is batting lower in the order than normal. Sometimes the questions have a conspiratorial tone, hinting that the team might be hiding an injury. Or perhaps, the reporter thinks, a player is in the manager’s doghouse. The questions always make Black chuckle.
“Listen, I get why the media asks; fans want to know,” he says. “But the thing is, in most cases, we’ve talked about the potential lineup for days in advance. We’ve studied matchups and histories. We know how guys are feeling. It’s not like we throw it all together an hour before we talk to you guys.
“The night before a game, we’ll talk about it again. If something happens — if somebody gets hit by a lightning bolt — we’ll change things up. But there is a lot that goes into our decisions.”
After the lineup is set, Black consults with pitching coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes about the bullpen. Who’s available? Who needs rest? Who’s throwing well? Who’s not?
“Actually, Nan is the bullpen manager,” jokes Espy.
Black laughs, shaking his head in agreement.
“Listen, Nan and I have been married for 33 years, and she’s been around the game for a long time,” Black says, noting that his wife, who’s had a long career as a pediatric intensive care nurse, is “way smarter.”
“Nan has her own perspective and her own feel for the game,” he adds. “She doesn’t like the bunt. She hates the bunt. She tells me, ‘I don’t know why you men like the bunt. It makes no sense to give the other team an out.’
“I’ll say, ‘Nan, sometimes we have to move the runner over.’ But she just says, ‘You men and the bunt.’ ”
Micromanaging and heavy-handedness are not Black’s way. He trusts his coaches and relies upon them.
“Buddy has a laid-back style, but even though it’s laid back, I wouldn’t say it’s relaxed,” said veteran catch Chris Iannetta, who has played for five managers in his big-league career. “He’s pretty chill when he needs to be and he’s intense when he needs to be. He has a good feel during the game. Players appreciate that.
“I think it’s the sign of a good manager when he knows when to be hands-on and when to take his hands off. Sometimes, Bud steps in to send a message, but for the most part, we take care of the clubhouse ourselves. This is a pretty relaxed and focused group.”
On those occasions when Black needs to have a stern talk with a young player, he’ll call them into his office. Most of the time, however, he takes a lighter approach.
“I prefer to sit down with a guy by his locker,” Black says. “For them, it’s better. They don’t feel like they are going into the principal’s office.”
Left-hander Kyle Freeland, who has emerged as one of baseball best young pitchers, describes Black as a teacher, albeit a tough one. Freeland discovered that on July 4 a year ago when Black challenged him on the mound, in the middle of a game.
“He said, ‘Hey, you need to figure out what you’re going to do to keep this team in the ballgame,’ ” Freeland recalls. “It was a big learning moment for me, because it was when I was kind of struggling a little bit and he was stern when he needed to be.
“At the same time, he’s not going to dress you down and rip you and tell you everything you’re doing wrong. He’s going to try and teach you, instead of just yelling at you.”
While some big-league managers consider their daily media sessions as a necessary evil, Black genuinely enjoys them. On this day, he tells a local TV crew about what veteran Matt Holliday means to the team, and then answers the obligatory question about what starter Antonio Senzatela needs to do in order to beat the Diamondbacks.
“Throw first-pitch strikes, keep the ball down and command his fastball,” Black says.
Black has uttered these same words literally thousands of times, but he handles most questions with patience and good humor. He has the most fun when the topic veers away from questions about the day’s game and wanders into other topics — music, football, and most especially, baseball history. Today, he’s reminiscing about his playing days in a summer college league in Clarinda, Iowa.
“We traveled on the team bus, called the ‘Blue Goose,’ ” he recalls. “It had no air-conditioning and it broke down at least once a summer. Man, that trip from Clarinda to Pueblo was a rough one.”
Then Black asks if anyone has read “The Baseball Whisperer.” It’s a book by New York Times editor Michael Tackett about the life of Merl Eberly, who managed the Clarinda A’s for nearly 40 years.
“It’s a great book, a great read,” Black says. “You guys should read it. You’d love it.”
A lost opportunity
Media scrum over, Black watches batting practice. Today he’s hanging around the batting cage. If there’s a left-hander pitching for the opposition, Black, a lefty who pitched in the majors for 15 seasons, will throw batting practice. Blackmon, in fact, insists that Black pitch to him. But today, with the right-handed Greinke on the mound, there’s no need for Black to throw.
The tense game with the Diamondbacks has the feel of a pennant race, but it does not go well for the Rockies. They scrape out three runs against Greinke, but missed opportunities in the late innings cost them a 6-3 loss.
“We had a lot of chances, but tonight we didn’t get the big hit,” Black tells the media in his postgame presser. “Obviously, we’re trying to get the big hit, trying to knock runs in, but they made some pitches when they needed to.”
There isn’t much deep analysis on this loss. It didn’t hinge on a late-game bullpen move by Black — decisions inevitably second-guessed by fans when they backfire.
Back in his office, Black sips on a beer, his postgame ritual, win or lose. A small fridge next to his desk is stocked with water, sports drinks, and Laguanitas IPA, his brew of choice.
“Those are tough games to lose,” Black says. “I felt as though late in the game, we did some things we normally haven’t done. But that’s the human element of the game.”
All-star second baseman DJ LeMahieu grounded out with the bases loaded in the seventh inning, ending a rally. And shortstop Trevor Story, having an MVP-caliber season, hesitated on a throw to first and it opened the door for two Arizona runs in the eighth.
Black leaves Coors Field about 11:30 p.m. and drives south down I-25 to Castle Pines where he and Nan rent a home during the season. It’s after midnight when Black gets home, but Nan is still up, watching a crime show on TV. She attended the game, as she often does, so she knows what happened.
“We didn’t talk much about the game,” Black explains. “She knows to kind of give me some space.”
Besides, the drive from the ballpark to Castle Pines gives Black time to rehash the game.
“By the time I get home, I’m usually ready to go to bed and I can fall asleep pretty quick,” he says. “Do I beat myself up? Yeah. But I hope I don’t beat myself up 162 times (a season).
“If things don’t work out — if I pinch hit somebody and he strikes out, or if a reliever gets hit hard — it’s natural to say, ‘What if I would have done this?’ But you have to let that go. Besides, most of the time, a lot of those decisions have been made ahead of time.”
Black pauses for a moment, then says: “You know, that’s what makes this game so great, right? Things can go sideways, things surprise you. But you prepare and you work at your job.
“But you never know. And you know what I always say. ‘That’s baseball.’ “
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