VOL. 11 | NO. 24 | Saturday, June 16, 2018
On a recent afternoon at AutoZone Park, manager Stubby Clapp’s team had a two-run lead going into the ninth inning. Assigned the task of getting the last three outs: veteran big league closer Greg Holland, he of 186 career saves and three All-Star appearances, and on this day pitching for the Memphis Redbirds on a rehab assignment.
After getting two outs but allowing two hits and one run, Holland would face Yasmany Tomas. Just two years ago, Tomas hit 31 home runs for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But here he was in Triple-A. And struggling while making $13.5 million a year.
The St. Louis Cardinals had signed Holland before this season to a one-year $14 million contract. Technically, he was in Memphis for a hip injury, but really the task was to find his control and his mojo again.
So this was a $27.5 million pitcher-batter confrontation, if you wanted to look at it that way. Holland threw the right-handed hitting Tomas a slider that was intended to be low and away. It backed up, hung. And Tomas sent it over the leftfield wall for a two-run homer and ultimately a 7-6 Reno victory.
After the game, Clapp was sitting behind his desk in the manager’s office. Holland, now in street clothes, ducked in to shake Stubby’s hand and say goodbye. His three-appearance rehab assignment was done.
Holland: “Sorry about today.”
Stubby: “It happens, brother, it happens. That’s baseball.”
After Holland left, Clapp said: “I got absolutely no problem with what happened today. Did we lose? Yes, it sucks. But there’s no telling if I put somebody else out there, same thing doesn’t happen.”
Understand, he was not saying this because the Redbirds are used to losing and in the midst of a season going nowhere. To the contrary, a year after they won 91 regular season games in Stubby’s first year as manager here and captured the Pacific Coast League championship, they are again running away with their division.
Rather, this was just another example of how 45-year-old Richard Keith “Stubby” Clapp rolls with the punches that the game of baseball throws on a daily and inning-by-inning basis. One time, it’s a little jab here, a little jab there that beats you – the so-called seeing-out ground ball that gets through the infield followed by a little flair that drops in the outfield.
Another time, it’s a bomb hit off a guy that in June, and making millions of dollars, is supposed to be saving games in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. But so what? The name of the game here is development. And that’s true whether it’s a 23-year-old starting pitcher like Dakota Hudson, with his whole future ahead of him, or a 32-year-old reliever like Holland trying to recapture the magic.
“Taking a positive,” Stubby said, “he pounded the zone. Didn’t walk anybody today. That was fun to watch. He got beat because he threw strikes.
“Wins and losses? Doesn’t matter. Not in Triple-A, right? Granted, we all want to be on top of that win-loss record, but maybe he found something today.”
A SECOND CAREER
Truthfully, Stubby Clapp didn’t know if he was going to stay in professional baseball or not. The sun set on his playing days and it was hard to imagine that coaching could match the joy of getting the uniform dirty.
After all, there were the fun days here as the 5-foot-8 back-flipping second baseman Redbirds fans adored. He had those realize-your-dream 23 games with the Cardinals in 2001. His first big-league hit? A soft liner to left-center against San Francisco at old Busch Stadium. The leftfielder, a puffed-up man with an oversized head who would later steal the all-time home run record from Hank Aaron, didn’t exactly hustle after the ball. Stubby did hustle – always hustled – and turned it into a double.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, he played for Team Canada in the 2004 Athens Olympics, 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics. In the 1999 Pan American Games, he delivered the game-winning hit to beat the United States in a huge upset that made him the stuff of legend north of the border.
So he started coaching for the same reason anyone does a job in which they have deep knowledge and connections.
“A means to an end, a way to pay the bills at that time,” he said.
His wife, Chastity, even wondered if he could make the transition to coaching.
“So committed as a player, such a grinder,” she said. “He was used to being in the middle of it all.”
He was more than two years into coaching before he knew he wanted to continue. He liked teaching hitting. But then came managing opportunities in the minors for the Houston Astros. He got a taste. He returned to working as a hitting coach in the minors for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2013-2016 before the Cardinals brought him back home to manage the Redbirds.
All along the journey, the way he watched baseball started to change. He was peeling off the skin of the player he used to be, growing into the skin of the coach/manager he is now. He went from studying pitchers for tells to be used when trying to steal a base, to focusing on the way games are managed, and even what big league managers do when being peppered with questions by media in a postgame press conference.
He was seeing the big picture like never before.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “I’m not gonna lie.”
No doubt, last season was a resounding success, even amid 62 different players wearing the Redbirds uniform. Clapp was Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year, the PCL Manager of the Year and won the Cardinals’ prestigious George Kissell Award. Still, Stubby came into this season wanting to do some things better.
His players speak of him having a sixth sense – from when to let them have a break from taking batting practice or when to give them a day out of the lineup – to the way he handles the sometimes mind-numbing monotony of a 144-game minor league season and the inevitable slumps of a team or individual players.
“Stubby knows the season can get kinda long,” said centerfielder Oscar Mercado. “He allows us to refresh, but at the same time he expects us to do our work.”
Said pitcher Kevin Herget, in his second season playing for Clapp: “He keeps things light. We lose, it’s not the end of the world. We come out the next day, we compete. There’s no up-and-down.
“The trust is 100 percent there,” Herget said. “And a lot of it has to do with the guy steering the ship.”
But baseball, as the cliché goes, is a game of adjustments. And Clapp made one before this season. Communication is one of his strengths, yet he wasn’t sure he had done it well enough in 2017.
“I kept more of a wall last year because I didn’t want to come in and just be laid-back, ‘yeah, do whatever you want,’” he said. “But there’s a fine line. I want them to understand I care for their career. In order to do that, I have to have relationships with them. Not necessarily buddy-buddy, but I’m not scared to go up to Randy Arozarena and say, ‘How you doing? How’s things at home?’ When they had that plane crash in Cuba, ‘Hey, anybody affected with your family, is everything OK.’
“Meanwhile, if a guy doesn’t run a ball out, I’m like, ‘Let’s go. There’s people (scouts) up in the stands watching and you’re not giving 100 percent.’ And they respect that I’m looking out for them not only on a personal level, but for their career.”
When the Cardinals hired Stubby Clapp to be the manager here, Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger knew there could be multiple benefits. Sure enough, attendance is up again – about 7 percent over last year.
“The Stubby Effect is still in full force,” Unger said.
Normally, there is a clear separation between uniformed personnel in the minor leagues and the people in the front office/business office. But Stubby is not afraid to wander upstairs and pick up a phone, see if he can talk some fans into buying season tickets.
“As much as he’s invested in developing the team, he’s interested in developing fans,” Unger said.
It is, of course, more personal here. Not like other minor league stops he had as a player in Syracuse or Richmond. It’s why Unger says that no matter where the game takes him, there will forever be a tie that binds: “He’s still Memphis’ own Stubby Clapp.”
Chastity recalls coming to AutoZone Park with her sister Wendi; in this small baseball world, Wendi had married pitcher Chad Harville, then in Triple-A with Sacramento, and who, like her and Chastity, is from Hardin County.
So Chastity’s first experience with Stubby was sitting in the stands rooting for her brother-in-law, hearing fans chant, “Stubby, Stubby, Stubby!”
Said Chastity: “We’re like, ‘who’s this Stubby guy?’”
Eventually, she would meet him at a party at the old Jillian’s at the long-since closed Peabody Place. This was after the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis heavyweight bout on June 8, 2002, at The Pyramid. Stubby had gone to the fight; she hadn’t. They would have a disagreement of their own that night: He insisted they had met before and had asked if she knew who he was.
Chastity was a student at the University of Memphis at the time and also had a job showing apartments at the then-Echelon at the Ballpark just beyond AZP’s outfield walls.
“He thought I’d shown him an apartment, but it was someone else,” she said. “He kept arguing we’d met. I knew who he was, but I lied.”
They would date for seven months. The following March he was in spring training in Orlando, Florida, with the Atlanta Braves. One morning, she dropped him off at the ballpark, got a marriage license at the local courthouse, picked him up after his game, and they went to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and were married by a pastor in a brief ceremony.
They had effectively eloped. Afterward, they celebrated.
“Typical Stubby,” she said, “we went to eat at Outback.”
THE DREAM LIVES ON
The years roll by. Stubby and Chastity have two sons, Cooper (aka Stubby IV) and Cannan, and a daughter, Crosbie. The boys play competitive baseball, so the family schedule is crazy.
When the Redbirds are in town and the boys have games here, Stubby tries to catch a few innings whenever and wherever he can.
“Honestly, I’m more nervous at those games,” he said. “Just because you’re Dad.”
But there could be games of higher stakes in the family’s future.
Before this MLB season began, no fewer than a dozen managers were considered to be in tenuous positions. Among them: the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny and the Blue Jays’ John Gibbons. Clapp, obviously, has history with both organizations. And with the Blue Jays well below .500, that seat may be open sooner rather than later.
“Stubby is my third manager in the five seasons I’ve been here,” Unger said. “Look, I’d love to keep him forever. But in the end for him, just like for Mike Shildt (a former Redbirds skipper), who’s the bench coach in St. Louis, we’re happy for them when they get an opportunity to go to the big leagues.
“This is career development for Stubby as well. And wouldn’t it be great for Stubby, somewhere down the road, to manage a big league team that wins a World Series.”
Said Chastity, considering the day Stubby might write out a big league lineup card: “It would be a dream fulfilled, everything he’s worked for. And he’s setting an example for our kids with all that hard work.”
She gets excited just thinking about the possibility. But also, fearful. She’s been around the game a long time now. Which means she understands the difference between truth and myth.
Like there is this notion that a manager has more control than a player because he makes out the lineup each day and determines the pitching changes. It is an illusion. From the dugout, Stubby, like every other manager, cannot get the game-winning hit or make the game-saving play. No, the best he can do is put the right players in the right positions and then stand back and watch fate play out.
So make no mistake: A blown two-run lead in the ninth inning of a game in the majors feels a lot different than one in Triple-A; the scrutiny that follows is a lot different.
“Fans and media can be brutal,” Chastity said.
But should his opportunity come, she has a plan for that. Stand by her man. Take the kids, too, be there for support.
“We’ll go with him, stay with him,” she said. “Cut off all social media, all the Twitter accounts. I don’t think fans posting realize it’s a man, a husband, a father.”
Or maybe they do and they don’t care. Either way, it has been a long time since she first saw “this Stubby guy” do that backflip at AutoZone Park. The last time he tried to land one was when he was coaching with Team Canada in 2015 and they won the gold medal at the Pan American Games.
It did not go well.
“It’s retired,” she said of the flip. “His shoulder hurt for weeks.”
She paused, then did what everyone in baseball does where a manager is concerned: She second-guessed.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice brightening, “if he wins a World Series, we might bring it back.”