The Phillies’ culture has changed so much in such a short time that it is easy to forget who the first man was to interview for the managerial job after Pete Mackanin was fired. Juan Samuel, just as he was for most of his playing career, served as the leadoff hitter.
You have to wonder now if Samuel, a longtime and loyal member of the Phillies family, was wasting his time. The Phillies obviously wanted to dive into the deep end of the analytics pool, and a guy with an old-school reputation like Samuel’s was not going to be their man.
“I didn’t think of it as a waste of time,” Samuel said during a recent phone interview. “At one point, I honestly thought I had a chance because I spent so much time in the interview room. I was there for over five hours. It gave me an idea of what they were looking for.
"Some of the questions they threw at me were ridiculous, but it told me what they were looking for. On a few of the questions, I told them I don’t think I’d be doing that. It was just strange.”
Samuel’s only request of the Phillies was that they let him know as soon as possible if he was not a finalist for the job. The Phillies hired Gabe Kapler 19 days later, and there initially seemed to be some interest in retaining Samuel as part of the coaching staff.
“I didn’t really see it happening,” Samuel said. “They had hired Dusty [Wathan] as the third-base coach, but I was still getting texts from Gabe telling me there was a shot. It probably dragged on for too long. The general manager [Matt Klentak] knew all along it wasn’t going to happen, but the manager for some reason felt like something was there.”
Kapler completed his coaching hires in mid-December by naming Jose David Flores as the first-base coach.
“Gabe texted me a few times and told me to call him as soon as possible,” Samuel said. “He let me know he was going in a different direction. I thanked him, and he told me he knew how much I meant to the Phillies and that maybe we could work together in the future.”
By the time February rolled around, Samuel was still unemployed. At age 57 and for the first time since the Phillies signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in the late 1970s, he did not have a job in professional baseball.
He was OK with that for the short term. He had some weird moments throughout last year. He said he ran into some old baseball friends who thought he was still working as an adviser for the Phillies. He also spent some time running camps for Major League Baseball in Florida. The thing he enjoyed most, however, was spending time with family.
“For the first time since I was signed, I had a chance to do things that I couldn’t for 35 years,” Samuel said. “I looked at it as a break. I had a chance to be around all my kids on their birthdays, and they were with me on Father’s Day. I was happy to have a chance to do that. It was a chance to enjoy the things we miss as a dad when you are around the game for so long. I figured a year off wouldn’t hurt and next year I would get back at it.”
It’s next year, spring training is a month away, and Samuel still does not have a job. His plan is to run some more camps for Major League Baseball and also help teenage players prepare for tryouts in the Dominican Republic.
When Flores left the Phillies last month to take a job with the Baltimore Orioles, it seemingly opened an opportunity for the team to bring back Samuel. It was immediately clear, however, that the Phillies had zero interest in reopening that door even though Samuel had been a positive mentor to center fielder Odubel Herrera, who had just gone through the worst year of his career.
“I know how the kid thinks, and I know how to get to him,” Samuel said. “I was frustrated seeing him go backward, especially at doing some of the things he had already improved upon. I definitely felt like my job was not finished with him.”
It was a tribute to Samuel that Herrera had become such a good defensive center fielder after spending almost his entire minor-league career as a second baseman before the Phillies selected him in the 2014 Rule 5 draft. For whatever reason, Klentak and Kapler appear to be opposed to having former Phillies on the big-league coaching staff.
In fairness to them, however, there are 29 other teams in big-league baseball and none feels the need to hire an experienced and loyal man who has the ability to teach and communicate with players in two languages.
“My agent and I have talked to some clubs, and nothing has developed,” Samuel said. “I just hope I’m not being labeled as being strictly old-school style. The reason guys like me have been able to stick around for so long is that we made adjustments. We could relate to people and talk about everything. It has been a little bit frustrating. It’s not like I’m a bad guy off the field. Maybe I’m missing something.”