Think of your favourite High School teacher – the one whose steady, calm demeanor and knowledge of his subject made you realize years later the impression he made upon you. Veteran Blue Jays minor league Manager Dennis Holmberg (who, interestingly enough, was a substitute teacher in the off-season for many years) fits that image to a ‘T’.
A Manager in the Blue Jays system since their second season of existence, Holmberg has managed a respectable roster of future big leaguers, including Mark Eichhorn, Tony Fernandez, Jimmy Key, Pat Borders, Jose Mesa, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Roy Halladay, Aaron Hill, J.P. Arencibia, Brett Cecil, Aaron Sanchez, and Kevin Pillar to name just a few. His 1500 wins (a plateau he reached the day after his 67th birthday in August) puts him just outside the top 25 winningest MiLB Managers of all time – none of whom spent the better part of two decades in short season ball.
Reached at his home in Dunedin after the Bluefield Jays were eliminated in the Appalachian League playoffs in early September, Holmberg offered plenty of insight and memories to an Ontario caller. A theme that he came back to several times are the upcoming changes that will be happening in the Blue Jays organization as the result of letting Manager John Gibbons go. He also enthused the impressive crop of prospects who are making their way through the system:
Over the last 3 years, the organization has been going through an internal process if trying to collaborate with proper language, and having players work on specific goals – every player should have 1-3 goals…we try to encourage players to master their goals….it can be anything from making a backhand play or a better swing path, or it could be a nutritional goal or a weight room goal. ….something that they need to lock into, something that they and the organization agree they need to work on in their 1st and even 2nd and 3rd years of pro ball.
Drafted by the Expos in 1969, Holmberg opted to go to college, and was drafted and signed by the Brewers the following year. He joined the Blue Jays in 1978, and has been employed as a minor league Manager or Coach in the system since then, a span of 40 years. The last three years of his career may have been among the most rewarding of that near half-century of instructing, as he had Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Eric Pardinho at Bluefield, his last two teams reached the post season, and in addition to his 1500th W this year, he was inducted into the Florida State League Hall of Game.
This year was a very special year in my career….every year is a highlight of sorts…..but the 1500 wins – Pardinho won that game, we won 5-0 in the first game of a DH. That’s 1500 wins, but that’s not counting the losses. I am above .500 as a Manager…..when you add it up, that’s over 3000 games, and that doesn’t count the number of lineups that were put together and torn up, and I said, “I don’t like that lineup, and I’m going to go this way with this lineup.” That was a special day, it was like you reached a point of longevity and consistency – and all of it but one year was with the Toronto Blue Jays.
When asked the difference between players of his early Managerial career and today, Holmberg doesn’t hesitate to mention the impact of technology and social media:
So many kids are coming out of high school and college so unfocussed….their heads are rattled with so many things going on in their lives: social media, cell phones, etc…20/40/60 years ago, if you were a ballplayer, you had one goal – get signed, go out, and play baseball. So many kids now are being bombarded by outside influences. I think every org should take a look at the personal development of each player…..you can walk into a clubhouse – even any big league clubhouse – so much is going on….the first thing you see is 25 guys at their lockers with their heads down, looking at their cell phones. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, or texting back and forth. I remember when I played in the 70s, there was one pay phone in the clubhouse. When you stopped on the road, there would be 5 to 7 guys lined up at the pay phone just to call back home. The world itself is changing, and the game has to change along with the players, and I’ve tried to join the madding crowd this year…a quick text message to a player or a video clip to players.
Holmberg may have managed for longer than some of his young charges’ parents have been alive, but he sees himself as far more than their skipper:
After managing at short season for the last 17-18 seasons, I find myself as more of a father figure than a manager, and more of a teacher than a coach. The last three years at Bluefield, we’ve had some good prospects….now I turn on the TV and I see Jansen Catching, and Borucki Pitching, or watching Rowdy Tellez make his major league debut, or Richie Urena at SS, Dwight Smith…….it’s not just me, it’s the result of the collaboration of many people in the organization. I’ve tried to make it fun, and I’ve encouraged the players to be more than just a baseball player, but a better person…
No conversation with Holmberg would be complete without asking him about Guerrero and Pardinho, and not surprisingly he had some insights to offer:
Vlad Jr……. this kid coming out at 16 – he turned 17 coming to Bluefield. You look at a 17-year-old kid like Vladdy, and you know his heritage and bloodlines…you still have to go out and do it yourself….when I had him three years ago, he would’ve been a junior in high school, and he’s out playing against advanced players a couple of years older than him, but he more than held his own in all areas of development, whether it was hitting – which will be his stamp of approval – his power, his defence…..for his size, he’s a very athletic guy……he has enough tools – his hands are good enough, although he might be a half step short on his range, when he gets to the ball, he’s going to make the plays. He’s a very hungry kid, a competitive kid – there’s a lot of things you can’t teach – that desire and self-motivation that he has counts for a whole lot. I can’t imagine the pressure that’s on him, and will be on him next year at spring training, but I’m sure that he’ll be able to avoid any and all obstacles. He’s going to be a special player, there’s no doubt about that. He has his own routine, he does his own thing, and he does what works for him. He’s just a natural.
On Pardinho, the Winning Pitcher in Holmberg’s 1500th victory:
Eric is somewhat like Vlad in that he’s light years ahead of his age, and that’s just because of his stuff. Eric is a very intense competitor, he’s a strike thrower, and he can manage 3 or 4 pitches, he throws anywhere between the low 90s and the mid 90s. He had a little bit of a workload this year – obviously, as a 17-year-old, we had to keep an eye on him coming out and pitching every 5th day. He had a throwing program every day, you’ve got sidelines and bullpens in between starts, and you’re always concerned about wear and tear at an early age. The Blue Jays are very conscientious about innings pitched and number of pitches thrown….Eric is very mature for a 17 year old, but at the same time, you can see where he’s still a young kid. He’s a very silent, quiet competitor, he’s intense on the mound – he does get a little frustrated sometimes, whether it’s because a pitch wasn’t called a strike that looked like one. Sometimes a play might not be made here or there, but that’s him being a perfectionist, and I think if I had to sum him up in one word, that’s what he would be, and the one thing he needs to learn is that nobody is perfect in this game. I think with age, growth, and maturity, he’ll grow into understanding the game itself.
Holmberg said that he can’t speak for the organization, but he thinks a logical path for Pardinho next season is to keep him at Extended until the midwest weather warms up, then send him to Lansing. He’ll need to continue to have his workload monitored, but Holmberg feels he has the tools to be successful at that level.
When Bluefield switched short season affiliation to the Blue Jays in 2011, Holmberg was tapped to take over the Manager’s job. He was offered the position for their new Vancouver affiliate that year, but felt that Bluefield was a better fit. After 51 years of partnership with the Orioles, Holmberg wasn’t sure at first about the long-term success of the new relationship – “there was orange and black everywhere.”
Over time, he came to appreciate the town and its environment more and more. With a forested mountain rising up beyond the outfield, Bowen Field is said to have the best batter’s eye in all of Minor League Baseball. As for the town itself, it’s the perfect enviroment for Minor Leaguers, according to Holmberg:
For us, Bluefield is the absolute greatest place to go and play – we don’t draw 3 or 4 thousand fans every night (no teams in the Appy League do), they’re playing in a bit of a closed environment. Players just have to think about one thing, and that’s playing baseball. There’s no big downtown city or college life in and around Bluefield, there’s no beaches to go to. There are great people there, and great people running the club.
In late August, with their Player Development Contract up for renewal at the end of September, Toronto and Bluefield renewed their partnership for another two seasons.
Holmberg played in the Brewers system for seven years, and says that while he wasn’t a five-tool player, he played with plenty of heart and desire. “I hustled and ran everything out, and that’s probably why they kept me around,” he admits. He continued with his education, with the Brewers paying his tuition as part of his signing bonus. Holmberg felt that continuing with his studies was a worthwhile endeavour, and it helped keep him out of the draft. The supply teaching his college degree allowed was an added bonus.
But even though he knew it was coming, it was tough to see himself fall short of his big league dreams as his playing career stalled at AA:
It’s tough when someone in the organization says, “we don’t think you’re going to be a big league ballplayer,” but I think I saw the writing on the wall. They had asked me to go into Managing….I was 25 years old, and not that far removed from the guys I was playing with. I’m glad I accepted their request, because I’m not sure where I would be today otherwise……So, I went to Holyoke, MA as a player-coach, then I was off the next year to Newark of the NY-Penn League to Manage.
Holmberg bought a bottle of champagne to keep on ice prior to his first game with Holyoke, hoping to celebrate his first Win after that game. But Newark lost that opener, and the next five games after that. Holmberg’s first Win as a Manager came in the next game, the opener of a double-header after a rainout, and he says that he never enjoyed a colder bottle of champagne more. He also learned from the 1-8 record his club started out with – Newark finished with a 43-25 record, and missed the playoffs by percentage points – “I learned to be patient and stay the course that season, and not to be swayed.”
Holmberg made some eventual Toronto connections during his time with the Brewers that helped him land employment when Milwaukee underwent a front office shakeup after his first year as a Manager. Al Widmar had coached and scouted for the Brewers before taking a job with the newly hatched Blue Jays. Bobby Mattick had scouted Holmberg as a college player while Mattick served as a cross checker for the Brewers as well. Mattick was the first call Holmberg made when he began his job search, figuring that there would be openings as Toronto had operated only one farm team of their own the season before. That led to an interview with Pat Gillick in Atlanta, and soon Holmberg was on his way to Florida, where after some scouting he served on Dennis Menke’s staff as a Coach of the new Blue Jays Florida State League entry. And so began a career of four decades of working at various levels (including two stops with the Pioneer League’s Medicine Hat Blue Jays).
Holmberg may have fallen short of the Majors in his playing career, but after bullpen coach John Sullivan retired following the Blue Jays back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, Manager Cito Gaston had an opening on his staff, and Holmberg was summoned to fill it.
Holmberg loved the experience:
There’s nothing like being in the big leagues, the cities, the travel, the locker rooms, the ball parks – everything is magnified ten times a hundred.
Of course, this was not the best time to be a Toronto baseball fan. The 1994 Blue Jays couldn’t find the three-peat magic, and were 5 games under .500 when the season came to a crashing halt in early August. The 95 Jays finished 32 games below that mark, and behind the scenes, original owner Labbat’s was about to be taken over by Belgian giant Interbrew, who really had no interest in owning a baseball team. For Holmberg, it was still a magical time, and those two years were a highlight.
Extended Spring Training is where MLB teams house the players who aren’t quite ready for full season ball. Talk to anyone who’s been through it, and they’ll tell you it’s a grind: on the field for 9 am workouts, lunch at 11, then a game either at the minor league complex or on a bus to one of the other complexes in the afternoon, all under the increasingly hot Florida sun. The training and experience are important, but the games don’t count for a whole lot, and everyone involved is chomping at the bit for the start of rookie or short season ball, usually around June 20th. And having endured this routine for almost 20 years, it’s understandable that Holmberg is starting to tire of it, and he’s hopeful for a change:
The sun and the travel and the wear and tear (of Extended) get to you…..I live here in Dunedin, and maybe if there is something closer by in the FSL or the GCL – I don’t want to say I’ve paid my dues, and I don’t want to use the ‘R” word – but I can still throw BP, still hit fungoes, and still have an impact on player devo…….the ball is in their court……….the toughest thing about getting to Bluefield is getting through Extended. It’s a grind.
Changes are indeed coming at the Major League level with the Blue Jays, as the John Gibbons farewell tour wraps up this weekend. A new Manager will likely bring with him a new coaching staff. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays hired a number of minor league coaches and instructors last off-season, and will likely bring on more before 2019. Rumours have begun to circulate about which current staff will not be back. Despite all those transitions, long time Blue Jays fans have to hope that there’s room for a certain organization lifer somewhere in the system, maybe with the FSL or GCL teams the Blue Jays operate.
Holmberg is very excited about the direction the organization is heading:
The players that are coming to Toronto in the next year or two will be ones that will create a very good identity for the city, the fans, and the country, and they’re just going to have to stay the course for the next two or three yeas as these kids learn and develop on the job.
Having Managed many of them, Holmberg should know.