Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 7, 2013

Skipper helps get players to majors

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — When the Toronto Blue Jays won consecutive World Series titles in 1992-93, the bulk of those clubs were comprised of talent groomed in the minor leagues.

Dennis Holmberg should know. He helped to prepare them for that opportunity.  

Now in his 36th season with Toronto, the third-year manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays has managed nearly 225 players at the minor league level who have reached the big leagues.

That is saying a lot since few minors leaguers ever reach the big time.

“It is a tough business, it is a tough job,” Holmberg said. “Many are called, but few are chosen. Only 7 percent, 7 out of every 100 players that are drafted make it to the big leagues on average so it is a failing business coming in.”

Yet, Holmberg has been able to play a role — either as a manager or coach — in producing 200-plus players that made it to ‘The Show.’

“The most recent guys, (Carlos) Delgado and Shawn Green and Jeff Kent, they stand out,” Holmberg said. “(J.P.) Arencibia stands out, Brett Cecil stands out, there are some unsung heroes too that played in the minor leagues and did a great job.

“There is a kid named Brad Emaus, who was traded over to the Mets and didn’t stick over there, and (Chris) Carpenter, (Roy) Halladay and (Pat) Hentgen, and a host of others.”

Holmberg knows baseball talent when he sees it, and he’s seen plenty of it.

Just check out the list recently provided with each player Holmberg has worked with while serving as manager or coach for Toronto for more than three decades, along with one season in the Milwaukee organization.

“You can look on that list and there are a lot of guys from way back when,” Holmberg said, “and there are some current guys.”

Drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, Holmberg played eight seasons in the minor leagues, reaching as high as Double-A. He became a manager for the Brewers at Newark in 1977, working with such major leaguers as Kevin Bass, Frank DiPino and Dave LaPoint.

He joined Toronto in 1979 and has been with the Blue Jays ever since. He has managed at Medicine Hat (1979, ‘86), Kinston (1980), Florence (1981-84), Syracuse (1985-86), Dunedin (1987-93, 96-2001), Auburn (2002-2010) and Bluefield (2011-present). He has served as a coach with several teams, including in 1994-95 with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Holmberg — who is 1,320-1,223 in 26 seasons in minor league dugouts — has had at least 10 teams over the years that have produced at least 10 major leaguers, with a high of 14 with Syracuse where he served as coach in 1985. His most as a manager was Dunedin in 1992, producing 13 of them, including Delgado and Green.

Yet, Holmberg is like any other manager. He can recognize talent and potential, but he never knows for sure if a player will reach their potential.

“It is just nice to be around guys like that and manage guys like that, and at the time you don’t really know,” Holmberg said. “You consider them prospects. Delgado, you could just envision power, his home runs, his big league career, he was a catcher moving up and moved to first base.

“Shawn Green signed right out of high school, went straight to the Florida State League, a high school kid playing in the Florida State League...He (was) in the big leagues and had a great career.”

There are so many more.

How about a choice of starting pitchers from Halladay (’96), Hentgen (’88), Jimmy Key (’82), David Wells (’86), Juan Guzman (’94), Al Leiter (’89), Woody Williams (’89), Dave Stieb (’92), Dave Stewart (’94), Todd Stottlemyre (’94), David Cone (’95), Ricky Romero (’05) and the list goes on and on. The bullpen could include Tom Henke (’85), Dave Righetti (’94), Billy Koch (’97), Duane Ward (’86), Jose Mesa (’83) and Mike Timlin (’89).

“Don’t you wish you could have Cy Young winners of every guy that you picked in the draft,” asked Holmberg, with a smile.

The infield could include Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar (’94) and Paul Molitor (’94),  along with Delgado (’92), Fred McGriff (’83), Jeff Kent (’90), John Olerud (’94), Casey Blake (’97), Cecil Fielder (’83), Michael Young (’99), Kelly Gruber (’85) and Tony Fernandez (’80).

How about an outfield of Green (’92), Joe Carter (’94), Shannon Stewart (’00), Vernon Wells (’99), Devon White (’94), Derek Bell (’92) and Adam Lind (’04).

The catchers aren’t bad either. How about Arencibia (’06), Pat Borders (’83), Lance Parrish (’95), Benito Santiago (’98) and Gary Allenson (’85, former manager of Bluefield Orioles).

How did Holmberg wind up with so much talent over the years? Much can be traced to another Hall of Famer, longtime Toronto executive Pat Gillick.

“All of that is just a reflection on the organization and the scouting and drafting and signing of players of that nature,” Holmberg said. “The organization has gone in different ways of development.

“Pat Gillick, for 25 years in scouting, was probably (after) the best athletic ball player or best athlete available.”

Toronto’s philosophy then is similar to what it is now in terms of signing high school pitchers, and then working them slowly through the system.

“They were very conscientious about top high school arms,” he said. “Halladay, Hentgen, Carpenter just to mention a few, but the first 25 years was just selective breeding. They did a nice job, and their organization was a great organization in terms of family, togetherness, players, coaches, manager, pitching coaches.

“There is a host of names on there, it would be tough to say 1 through 9.”

Much has changed in the world since Holmberg began his professional career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970, including the tendency of today’s athlete to venture toward other sports.

“I don’t feel like the players are playing baseball as much as they did, rewinding the clock to the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60 years ago,” he said. “There is other outside interest, the black baseball player is falling prey to basketball and football.”

Holmberg would like to see a return of the old days, when baseball was the sport every kid wanted to play.

“You go to bed with your glove, you go to bed with your bat,” he said. “Those days are slowing disappearing in America where your kids go to bed with your baseball bat and glove and they have this yearning to be a baseball family.”

That might be true among American youth, but Holmberg has seen the hunger among Latin American-born kids, which is why clubs like Toronto are investing in foreign athletes with motivation to achieve.

“We are seeing more Latin kids that are very hungry players, these kids are hungry,” Holmberg said. “They have a chance to provide a living and make a steady income for their mom and their dad and their family.

“They see other guys that have come here and done well and go back and provide that stuff so they are motivated by a will. I would like to see the American kids have that internal desire to really get after it and grind it out.”

Holmberg preaches the family concept among this clubs. In fact, Holmberg recently came up with an acronym for “family” over a recent meal: F—fun; A—attitude; M—makeup; I—intelligence; L—love of the game; Y—yearning to excel, overcome and achieve.

“That is what I create here, a family atmosphere, all for one and one for all,” Holmberg said. “If they can buy into that, if they can become better people, better ball players because of that, and they can move on and be that on the next team that they play on, maybe I have accomplished something.”

—Contact Brian Woodson