Imagine if managerial searches ended the same way as Miss America pageants:
And the first runner-up, from the IronPigs of the Lehigh Valley, is Dusty Wathan, which means the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2018 manager will be Hollywood-born Gabe Kapler.
Cue the hugs, send out the tiara, and drop the red-and-white confetti.
The Phillies’ search did not go down that way, but it did end up with the first runner-up as a member of the new manager’s coaching staff, and that’s pretty rare, too.
At the time Kapler was told by general manager Matt Klentak that he would be the Phillies’ 54th manager, Wathan thought he might be headed back to triple-A Lehigh Valley for a second straight season as the IronPigs’ manager. It would have been his 11th straight as a manager in the Phillies’ system, and that, too, is rare.
Wathan, 44, admitted the decision hurt. He had helped groom many of the players the franchise is now counting on to restore the winning ways it enjoyed for nearly a decade earlier in the century.
“Obviously, any time you are in line or have a chance to achieve something and you don’t get there, you’re going to be a little bit disappointed,” Wathan said. “It was tough at first, but I talked to Matt and we had a great conversation.”
Wathan was under contract with the Phillies for another year and Kapler wanted to talk to him about joining his first coaching staff with the Phillies. Wathan, who played 14 seasons in the minor leagues and never got more than a cup of coffee in the big leagues, gave his best pitch to Kapler.
“I think he could see that I was here for the players and whatever I could do to help, whether that was going back to Lehigh Valley or coming here, I was all in to help these guys to get to where we want to be as an organization,” Wathan said. “It just worked out well.”
Kapler knew how Wathan felt. Three years earlier, he had finished as the runner-up when Dave Roberts was named the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I was very sensitive to that,” Kapler said. “For me, it was devastating. I gave everything I had to that process and it was a long one. I think it actually took much longer than the one we had in Philadelphia, so I knew what it was like to be in that situation, and it’s hard. When you pour your heart and soul into any sort of competition, it should sting at the end.”
Kapler, 42, eased the sting by hiring Wathan as his third-base coach. In many ways, Wathan would be in the same place he has been for the last decade. As a minor-league manager, you are also a third-base coach, so Wathan would remain in the job he has been doing since his playing career ended with the Phillies’ triple-A Ottawa squad in 2007.
“There is such a high degree of trust and high degree of belief in him,” Kapler said. “I think very early in the season I looked down at third base and said, ‘He’s got this. He’s on top of his game.’ Coaching third base in the major leagues is a very, very important position. It’s critical … and so far if Dusty is not the best third-base coach in baseball I don’t know who is. He has been exceptional.”
Wathan is also an encyclopedia of knowledge about so many of the young players on the Phillies, and Kapler has tapped into that source.
“I still lean on Dusty, especially when I’m best trying to manage a personality,” Kapler said. “Dusty has been around it for several years and I’m leaning on his counsel. What did you see two years ago or three years ago … that can help us say the right thing to this player or help us lift this player up.”
Kapler said he already knew about one of Wathan’s brilliant moments before he interviewed the man. That took place last season, when outfielder Nick Williams did not hustle on a particular play. Williams had been benched a couple of times the year before by then-Lehigh Valley manager Dave Brundage for the same thing, but Wathan had a different method in mind.
He took Williams into the video room and showed the young outfielder overhead views of his running to first base. On some he hustled. On others he did not. After the ones he did not, Wathan asked Williams a question: “What if your [two young] brothers or a kid who had just gotten your bobblehead see that? What do you tell them?”
The lesson was learned.
“I know the story and I know it well and I respect the way Dusty went about it,” Kapler said. “I respect and appreciate the way he reached the player.”
Wathan, in turn, respects the way Kapler has allowed his coaches to do their jobs without micromanaging. He said he has learned things he did not know from the new manager and maybe those things will help Wathan become a big-league manager somewhere else some day.
“Like we tell the players all the time, the major leagues is the major leagues,” Wathan said. “We might develop you as a player for four or five or six years and you might end up playing somewhere else. I think in player development you’re just as proud when that happens.. Jesse Biddle is a prime example. I got to see him the other day and it was great to see him in a major-league uniform [with the Atlanta Braves].
“These guys are here to live out their dreams and I know what it was like as a player to try to do it. It doesn’t always work out in your organization, but it can still work out somewhere. Obviously now that I’m here, it’s all about our players and getting them ready and winning as many games as you can.”
Dusty Wathan is finally in the big leagues, which is where he belongs.
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