Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 17, 2014

Every pitch counts: Blue Jays manager teaching the culture of the game

BLUEFIELD — Pitch by pitch.

That is how Dennis Holmberg wants the Bluefield Blue Jays to approach every game of baseball. Every pitch counts.

“Now you come down to pro ball and it is narrowed down from games to at-bats to innings to pitch to pitch,” said Holmberg, in discussing the progression from high school, college and finally professional baseball. “A hitter or pitcher has got to compete and battle and grind every pitch and you have to win every pitch on the mound and in the batter’s box.

“I am going to try and sell that message because that is the way it is. That is the way it has to be, baseball is crying out for players that can do that.”

Year 4 as an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays will begin for the local “Baby Birds” on Thursday at Bowen Field against the Johnson City Cardinals. First pitch is slated for 7:05 p.m.

“It is always going to be pitching, defense and offense,” said Holmberg, in his fourth season as manager of the Blue Jays. “People will beg to argue, they might be right, if you don’t score runs you don’t win, that is true, but if you don’t give up runs and you play good defense, it is just that one run or two runs is all you need.”

Outside of “bottom’s-up beer” — as Holmberg called the beer sales that will take place this season at Bowen Field — the Blue Jays will attempt to entice fans to Bluefield baseball games with their effort on the diamond.

“One thing that I have always tried to encourage the guys to do and they should do automatically because it should be part of their heart and their soul is to hustle, play hard,” said Holmberg, who spent Monday afternoon at Mountaineer Lanes for the annual “Bowling with the Blue Jays” event. “We are going to run balls out, we are going to play hard, we are going to play together as a team, I try very hard to create a team chemistry where it is not all about you, it is about us...

“Even though baseball is a very individual game, I get it, I understand it, I have been through that, but you play for your teammates, run the bases for your teammates, hit for the guy behind you, run the bases for the guy behind you. It is called sacrifice...”

The Blue Jays have enjoyed three successful seasons since replacing the Baltimore Orioles as an affiliate in Bluefield, posting records of 40-27, 29-37, 40-28 respectively, along with two playoff appearances, reaching the Appalachian League championship series in the inaugural 2010 campaign.

“Bluefield has turned out to be a great environment,” said the 62-year-old Holmberg, a minor league manager and coach since 1977, who has posted a record of 1,350-1,246 in 26 years as a manager. “I have grown to love it, I think the organization is happy with it.

“It is certainly a level that we desperately need in light of the fact that we have so many 18, 19, 20-year-old kids. There are some college kids, not to discount them, but we have been very young the last three or four years.”

This club promises to be much the same, but Holmberg likes the potential of a club that has a combination of all the skills needed to be a winning baseball team.

“I think we will have a blend of some speed, some hitting, some power, but it is always going to start with pitching,” said Holmberg, whose current 31-man roster includes 15 pitchers, led by 2012 first round draft choice, 6-foot-8 southpaw Matt Smoral, along with outfielder Jacob Anderson, a first round pick who played in Bluefield in 2011, and Anthony Alford, a 2012 third round selection, who was a quarterback at Southern Mississippi and later at Ole Miss.

“When the umpire says ‘Play Ball’ and you throw your first pitch and it is always going to end with pitching on the last pitch on the last out. What you do between those pitches over the next 2 1/2 hours will dictate if you win or lose.”

Bluefield did plenty of both last season. The Blue Jays started fast, but faded down the stretch, falling to second place in the East and losing in the playoffs to eventual Appalachian League champion Pulaski.

“It was (disappointing), it was down the stretch,” said Holmberg, who has six players back from last year’s club. “The guys played so well all year long, the last 12 games of the season were against up-and-coming potential playoff teams...

“We lost some tough games, we got blown up a couple of games, but we lost some tough games...It just didn’t happen for us down the stretch...It is all about the competition, it is all about trying to put the players in an atmosphere of competing and fighting for something.”

Holmberg, a fifth round draft choice by the Montreal Expos in 1970, played eight years of professional baseball, rising as high as Class AA. He was also a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays in the mid-nineties so his players have learned to be attentive when he talks.

“I have told the guys before, you don’t win ball games, you lose ball games,” Holmberg said. “Two teams take the field, somebody is going to win, somebody is going to lose, you have a 50-50 chance.

“What are we going to do better? Are we going to bunt better, move guys around the bases better, are we going to pitch better, are we going to play better defense, are we improve our odds from 60 to 40 or 70 to 30. When you do that it increases your chances to win ball games. If you don’t do that, then you go the other way.”

That also works, not just for teams, but the players themselves. Holmberg, who still especially enjoys working with young players, understands just how difficult and rare it is for an athlete to get to the big leagues.

“I think everybody should be able to say they are blessed to do what they do, the enjoyment of the game,” he said. “You enjoy the competition, you enjoy the development, you enjoy seeing the guys go from one level to the next and hopefully and eventually make it to the big leagues.

“Many are called, but few are chosen, the talent pool gets tougher and tougher.”

Most of the current roster has spent the last few months playing at extended spring training in Florida. Holmberg is confident all are ready to face the challenges awaiting in the Appalachian League.

“As in the past, they break away from that daily grind, routine, Gulf Coast League baseball, where it is almost like Groundhog Day every day, everything is just punched in and timed up. Here, there are workouts, night games, traveling, rainouts, doubleheaders...”

Helping young players adjust, learn and continue the pursuit of their dreams drives Holmberg to remain in a minor league dugout.

“I have always felt to be a younger manager at heart, I have just always felt that I relate to the younger guys real well, they understand my stupidity and my craziness,” Holmberg said. “We just try to strike a relationship and try to get them off in the right path, introducing them to everything that has to be done down in pro ball, how you dress, how you act, how you tip, how you behave.

“Forget the game, almost, the game almost takes care of itself. It is the off the field prorifial stuff and just trying to keep that clean.”

—Contact Brian Woodson at bwoodson@bdtonline.com / Twitter @bdtwoodson

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