By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The team has changed, but the ‘Way’ — at least the word itself — is the same.
For years, the Baltimore Orioles taught the ‘Oriole Way’, with much of that guidance beginning in Bluefield as part of the Appalachian League.
A new baseball bird flew into town in 2011, and they’re teaching the ‘Blue Jay Way’, as described by Toronto Director of Minor League Operations Charlie Wilson, who is one of several officials and instructors with the Blue Jays who have spent a few recent days in Bluefield.
“Our goal is to create a winning culture within the organization by teaching good, sound fundamental baseball played with a sense of urgency in a championship manner,” Wilson said.
Toronto swooped in late in 2010 to replace Baltimore as an affiliate in Bluefield, and it’s been a match that has fit the Blue Jays just fine.
“We drove up (Friday) from Charlotte and even in the car ride everybody was excited to get back here,” Wilson said. “We love Bluefield, we love the people here, we love the operation headed by (team president) George McGonagle and (general manager) Jeff Gray and the whole board of directors.
“I love everything about it and what the people here stand for.”
This is the third straight year that Bowen Field has served as the summer home for many of the prospects being groomed by the Blue Jays as they work their way through the system toward Toronto.
“It is beautiful ball park, obviously when you sit down in the mountains you can’t beat the view and a great atmosphere,” Wilson said. “When you have first and second year players, guys coming from all walks of life in your minor league system, from Latin America, from the United States, from high school, from college.
“It is a great place to start your professional career.”
Toronto has stocked the local club with some of the top prospects in baseball, which is something Baltimore didn’t do during the last several of its 53 years in Bluefield.
“We hope so. From top to bottom we are really excited about a lot of the players in our system and it is a tribute to a great scouting staff and, of course, the player development staff, and the people on the field that are working with the players day in and day out,” Wilson said. “The goal is to find the best players out of the draft and the international market and get them in our system and teach them the Blue Jay Way.”
Wilson has been joined in Bluefield by Vice President of Baseball Operations and Assistant General Manager Tony LaCava, Minor League Field Coordinator Doug Davis, and Special Assistant to the General Manager Dana Brown.
Other visitors have included 23-year veteran and potential Hall of Famer Tim Raines, who is a roving outfield and baserunning instructor, consultant Paul Quantrill, who spent 14 years as a major league relief pitcher, and noted talent crosschecker Jon Lalande.
Wilson said the Toronto organization is quite satisfied with what Bluefield has provided the Blue Jays.
“Anytime you have got a community that is supportive to our game, to baseball, and for young people and young professionals, I think you are going to have a great fit,” Wilson said. “We have a great working relationship with the Bluefield operation, but these are just quality people...
“We were able to have open conversations (Saturday) on where we are as an organization and plans going forward and it was great. I think we are all on the same page, the communication is the key in a working agreement like a PDC (player development contract) so I think we couldn’t be luckier to be with this group of people.”
Toronto, as an organization, is glad to be back in the Appalachian League. The Blue Jays were in Pulaski from 2002-06, but left for four years before returning in 2011 to give Toronto a seventh minor league team.
“A lot of us never wanted to leave the Appalachian League, but sometimes decisions are made based on economics, budgets, philosophies and I think that was the decision that was made for a variety of reasons,” Wilson said. “The reality of it is those of us who believe strongly in scouting and player development, we wanted to get back to the Appalachian League.
“We were really excited to have the opportunity to come back which was in Bluefield in 2011 and couldn’t be happier that (Commissioner) Lee Landers welcomed us back to the league so it worked out well.”
Wilson said the Toronto organization has placed a renewed emphasis on developing younger players since Alex Anthopoulos took over as general manager in 2009.
“We added the Appalachian League team to give us seven (teams) so right then there was a strong commitment. We were lucky our president and ownership gave us the money to add these things,” Wilson said. “It is easy to say we are going to build through scouting and development and talk about it, but when you actually make the financial commitment, all of a sudden you are making a statement, all of a sudden we put our money where our mouth is.”
That plan appears to be working, as the Blue Jays have one of the top-ranked farm systems in baseball.
“We are going to build from the bottom up, we had some very successful drafts,” Wilson said. “It is like Alex’s great job, but he accumulated and built some extra picks in the first few years before they changed the rules.
“We were able to draft a lot of young players, a lot of talented players and now we have got a very big farm system with seven teams, we have got outstanding coaches and instructors and it has played along very well.”
Among those who have made it work is Dennis Holmberg, who appears to have been a perfect fit in three seasons in Bluefield as the manager of the Blue Jays.
“Dennis a special guy, a lifelong Blue Jay, just the ultimate professional, but there is no substitute for experience and Dennis has managed and coached for over 35 years,” Wilson said. “He has had great success at all levels, including the major leagues, he coached with our major league team in the mid-nineties.
“Dennis has a special ability to relate to young players, to teach young players, to instruct them, to teach them the game, the Blue Jay Way, the right way to do things and that is really hard to do.”
Wilson said the 61-year-old Holmberg has the ability to relate to young athletes, many of whom are 40-plus years younger than him.
“He has a special ability to get their attention, to make a difference, to teach and to pass on the information that he has to the young players,” Wilson said. “For a first year player coming into any organization, you can’t get a better manager than Dennis Holmberg.
“We are excited having him as our manager here, not to mention that he loves the area, he loves people, he loves baseball so it has been a great fit.”
Among the first batch of Blue Jays in Bluefield in 2011 was Kevin Pillar, an 32th round draft choice who signed for a $1,000 bonus. All he has done is advance to Triple-A, just one step from the big leagues.
“Great story, he was here in 2011 and had a very nice year, won the batting title before getting promoted to (Vancouver and) the Northwest League for the playoffs,” Wilson said. “Obviously you have seen him rise through the minor leagues, he was in Double-A this year and had a great first half, and is now in Triple-A and is just one step away from the big leagues.
“He is contributing on both sides of the ball. He is playing very well in the field, a great center field and he is having professional at-bats and we are really excited about his development.”
Pillar, and the current batch of minor leaguers in Bluefield, are doing it the ‘Blue Jay Way.’
“The Blue Jays Way, we feel, is the right way, we want to develop fundamentally sound championship major league players,” Wilson said. “We are going to teach the Blue Jay Way, we are going to work on fundamentals, we are going to work on playing the game the right way.
“We have five or six goals which we expect all our players and staff to adhere to and it starts as soon as the players get to mini-camp after the draft and then it goes through the whole system.”
— Contact Brian Woodson at email@example.com