It has been a long and winding road for Dennis Holmberg.
His professional baseball career began 32 years ago as a farmhand of the Milwaukee Brewers in the New York-Penn League and it continues on as the manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays in the Appalachian League.
Holmberg has accomplished much, having spent eight seasons as a player in the minor leagues, another two years as a bullpen coach in the majors, two seasons managing in Australia and most of the last 25 years as a manager and coach in the minors.
It’s been a labor of love.
“It has been a long and winding road,” said Holmberg, with a laugh. “I am thankful for the opportunity to lose my mind nightly.”
He has also won lots of games. In the second game of a doubleheader last Friday, Holmberg secured the 1,300th win of his managerial career. He will add momentos to his trophy case, including a baseball signifying the accomplishment, much like he has for every other 100th win.
“I think I still have the lineup card from a thousand wins and when I get to 1,300 that will be another one,” said Holmberg, prior to earning that milestone win, a 7-5 decision over the Burlington Royals. “That is all we do now at this stage is collecting, they are momentos.
“I still have all the balls from 100, 200... all the way up and I’m running out of shelf space.”
Ironically, Holmberg’s first win was against the Blue Jays of Utica in New York as a manager in 1978 with Milwaukee .
“My first game managing we lost, I lost my second game, I lost the third game,” Holmberg said. “I didn’t, the players did, it is always the players. The fourth game, we lost, then we got rained out and we are 0-4 with a rainout and we are going to play Utica.
“A doubleheader after the rainout and we lost the first game and I was ready to go home, and then we won the second game. We were 1-5, but that team went on to be 43-29 and missed out on getting in the playoffs by just .003 percentage points.”
Twenty-five years and more than 2,500 games later, Holmberg earned his 1,300th victory for the Blue Jays just last week.
“I was just looking back at a lot of games, there have been a lot of towns, a lot of cities, a lot of leagues.” Holmberg said. “Pitchers chase ERAs, hitters chase batting averages and managers sometimes, not always, they are graded on wins and losses.
“It is just a sign of longevity. We always tell the guys coming into the league, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon.”
• • •
Few have enjoyed it more, and at 61, the Nebraska native isn’t ready to hang up the cleats just yet.
“I still feel young enough to do it,” Holmberg said. “My knees are better this year than they were last year, and health is always a factor. I am not at the point where you know what, I have to get out of here.
“I think I am consumed by my own behavior, that is what keeps me going.”
Holmberg has, admittedly, changed as a manager. He was once more ‘straight and narrow’ but he’s learned much about handling people and developing the family environment that is so important to him.
“It all starts with family, it is all family,” Holmberg said. “This is what I try to create here.”
His own family has suffered through tragedy. His father died during his second season of pro ball as a player in 1972. His wife, Diane, was permanently injured in an automobile crash in 1985 in Syracuse, N.Y., but fortunately their children, Kenny and Brianne, escaped injury.
“She is hospitalized, she can’t walk, she can’t talk,” Holmberg said. “It is something I have had to adjust and adapt to and juggle over the last 27 years.
“She was hit by another automobile in Syracuse when I was there coaching AAA ball and both children were in the car with her. I was on a road trip to Pawtucket and both kids were not injured, but she suffered severe head injuries. It could have been a whole lot worst for everybody.”
He is very proud of his family. Kenny has coached in the Dominican Republic and is now with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the South Atlantic League.
“He is getting a lot of knowledge and he has great expertise and I am proud of Kenny and I have got a daughter back home and I am proud of her,” Holmberg said. “No matter where you go there you are and this is where I am at, I am here for a reason, I am here for a purpose.
“I think I know what it is.”
Steve Springer, a scout in the Toronto system who preaches the mental part of baseball, is a fan of Holmberg.
“These kids are so lucky to be playing here, he teaches about baseball, he teaches you about life, he teaches you how to be a man, to be accountable,” said Springer, who was in Bluefield last week. “They are very, very lucky and we are lucky to have him.”
• • •
Walk into Holmberg’s office and it’s more than just a four bare walls. He arrived in June and promptly put up a talking deer head, a base that he threw 60 feet, 4 inches after a call he disagreed with during a game in Auburn, N.Y., and numerous photos, many of which are autographed.
The actual clubhouse is much the same. There is a Christmas tree — his players are required to purchase a gift for a needy child in the area to be distributed at the end of the season — flags from all the countries represented on the team, and even his framed jersey that was retired in Auburn in 2008.
When Holmberg isn’t in a baseball uniform, he can often be found wearing Hawaiian shirt. This is not a act. It’s Holmberg being ... himself.
“I put the flags up in the clubhouse to try to create some kind of team unity or personal pride for those guys who are from those countries, I have got a talking deerhead, I have added some pictures,” Holmberg said. “Instead of coming into four square walls like a prison I want the walls to talk to the players and then the players start talking back to the walls and then I have got them on the page I want them on.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words, little comments here, a picture there. It is a collection of things over many, many years, and you know what, that is who I am. Guys will tell you who are playing higher up, the Hawaiian shirts and goofy things and the lights, the bells, the whistles, the talking deerhead, I just like to have fun.”
—More with Holmberg in
Thursday’s Daily Telegraph.
—Contact Brian Woodson
It has been a long and winding road for Dennis Holmberg.
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