The new Memphis Redbirds manager needs one of those veteran leaders, a guy who will willingly play multiple positions, a tough-nosed player between the lines, and a laid-back leader outside the lines who can discreetly take a young player aside.
More than a decade ago, back when the Redbirds still played at old Tim McCarver Stadium, then-manager Gaylen Pitts had a guy like that.
The Memphis Redbirds, pictured here during a 2011 game at AutoZone Park, return to the diamond this season with a new manager, Ron “Pop” Warner. The 43-year-old skipper played for the Redbirds when the team was still at Tim McCarver Stadium.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
“He was one of my favorites,” said Pitts, who now works in player development for the parent St. Louis Cardinals and travels throughout the system filing reports on players. “You could tell he was cut out for managing. He’s come full circle.”
He’s come full circle because that player and the Redbirds’ new manager are one in the same: Ron “Pop” Warner. Only problem is, he won’t necessarily have a player who is, as Pitts said of him, “like a coach on the field.”
When the Redbirds staged an open workout for fans one recent afternoon at AutoZone Park before starting the season in Oklahoma City on Thursday, April 5, Warner sat in the dugout and recalled his playing career. It was, with the benefit of hindsight, really about preparing him for his managing career.
Warner, now 43, was a 17th round draft pick. Second year in pro ball, he “got stuck behind a first-rounder shortstop” and they told him he better learn to play other positions.
By the time Warner got to Memphis, he was nearing the end. And though his 1999 season was a good one – he hit .290 – he doesn’t remember the numbers he put in daily box scores.
“I remember myself almost being more of a teacher than a player,” he said. “We had a lot of younger guys. It was something I liked doing. I was hoping they’d give me an opportunity (to coach someday). I saw the writing on the wall. Seeing the caliber of the players I was playing against, my teammates, I knew.”
So, in 2000, when it was questionable whether there was a place for Warner to play in the organization, Pitts recommended the Cardinals take him on as a batting practice pitcher and bullpen catcher. Warner rightly saw this as a first step toward coaching and accepted the position.
“He didn’t even have a sports coat,” Pitts recalled. “He had to go get one to get on the plane. But they loved him up there – threw BP, caught in the bullpen, kept his mouth shut.
“He’s going to coach in the big leagues someday, no doubt about it,” Pitts continued. “And if you coach up there for several years that will get you on everybody’s radar and you might have a shot (to manage up there).”
Ron "Pop" Warner
Warner coached or managed at several spots in the organization before his five-year run as manager of the Double-A Springfield (Mo.) club. In both 2008 and 2010, he led the team to a franchise-record 76 wins.
“I truly believe I’m a Cardinal,” he said. “I was raised in this organization and it’s all I know. I want to try and create a good atmosphere for the players. This level’s a different animal because the major leagues is the next step up. But it’s a fun level, if you let it be.”
Warner gets high marks from outfielder Adron Chambers, who is opening the season at Memphis and had time up with the world champion Cardinals last year.
“Pop, I played for him back in Double A,” Chambers said. “Great guy. A player’s coach. But he knows the game.”
What he has to learn, say those familiar with Triple A, are the games within the game.
“You’re gonna get some guys disappointed to be there,” said Allie Prescott, who was Redbirds general manager when Warner played for the team and for several years afterward. “They’ll think they should be someplace else. But if you be yourself and play the guys that deserve to play, you’ll be fine.”
Pitts says Warner made his job easier at Triple A because “you never had any trouble with him in the clubhouse and if somebody else got out of line, he was the kind of guy that could get them back in line so you wouldn’t have to deal with it.”
Prescott doesn’t recall that much about Warner as a player, per se, but as the future manager he so clearly was.
“You don’t remember him leading the league in something,” Prescott said, “but for integrity. It’s the man I really remember the most.”
For his part, Warner is excited to be in Memphis but is hoping it’s a beginning this time around.
“I was kidding with my wife, telling her we’re back to where I died as a player,” he said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t happen as a manager.”