If it weren’t for some advice from a future National Baseball Hall of Famer, first-year Myrtle Beach Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey may have left professional baseball for good.
A non-roster invitee at Atlanta Braves spring training camp in 1983, then-25-year-old Bailey was told by the organization that he didn’t have an opportunity to play as catcher but to keep his options open should an opportunity to coach arise.
He did some soul searching. He thought hard about it.
“Maybe I’ll go back and coach high school baseball or football,” Bailey pondered.
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Then the phone rang.
It was then-Atlanta Braves coach Joe Torre, who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004, and he gave Bailey some encouragement.
“He called and told me the organization needed a minor league manager for rookie league and asked me if I wanted to do it,” Bailey recalled during Pelicans media day Tuesday. “I basically said, ‘I don’t know, Joe. I’m only 25.’ He talked to me for a while and basically said, ‘If you want to be in the game for a long time, you ought to do this.’
“And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now, 33 years after his first-ever stint with the Pulaski (Va.) Braves of the Appalachian League, the 59-year-old Bailey takes over a star-studded lineup in Myrtle Beach, which is coming off its first Carolina League Mills Cup championship since 2000.
Bailey, a graduate of Lynchburg College, got his start in baseball when he was drafted by Atlanta in the 16th round of the 1979 amateur draft as a catcher and played for three years in the Braves’ system before transitioning to a coach.
“Luckily I got my opportunity in baseball, doing what I love,” Bailey said. “I always figured I would be around sports anyway, and that confirmed it.”
Bailey has won nearly 2,000 games with a record of 1,936-1,830 (.514) in his 28 years as a minor league manager.
After putting in nine years as a manager with the Braves, Bailey joined the Red Sox organization as the manager of the Class A Lynchburg (Va.) Red Sox of the Carolina League in 1991. He then spent two years as manager at Lynchburg before a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket (R.I.) in 1993.
Bailey spent a total of 14 years within the Red Sox chain, including one season as the major league team’s bench coach and advance scout in 2000, before making his debut for the Cubs organization as manager of the Class A Daytona (Fla.) Cubs (Florida State League).
After a year in Daytona, he spent a season as manager of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2007 and another as manager of Double-A Tennessee in 2008.
Bailey went back to coach Daytona (2009-11), compiling a 215-196 record and won a Florida State League championship in 2011 before taking over at Tennessee, where he stayed until he was announced as the Pelicans coach in December.
Myrtle Beach general manager and president Andy Milovich is eager to see what Bailey – who also has stints as a manager in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League and Dominican Summer League – can do with a lineup that features two of the Cubs’ top three prospects and 13 players who were part of last year’s championship run.
“He’s a baseball lifer. He’s been at it for almost 30 years as a manager, everywhere from the States to Venezuela to Mexico to the Dominicans,” Milovich said. “If it’s happened in baseball, he’s seen it and been there and has been through it. You’re not going to find a better skipper and somebody with more knowledge of the game. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to get to know him.”
Bailey has helped many of the current stars of the Cubs like Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber rise through the ranks. Part of their success comes from the pregame routines that Bailey promoted.
Bailey wants all of his players ready to go, and said pregame preparation is one of the biggest things he preaches because that work ethic will stay with them for life.
“The only way to get good at anything is to work. I grew up a country boy – slopping hogs, breaking horses, doing the garden and getting eggs. So I know what it is to work,” said Bailey, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania and Virginia. “The only way you get good at anything is by getting enough reps and working at it. That’s why I have them do a lot in pregame, because the reps are important.”
Current Pelicans pitcher Trevor Clifton has already gotten a taste of Bailey’s philosophies in the short time he has known the manager and is eager to put them to use.
“He’s big on pregame prep and getting practices in before games, and that kind of stuff,” said Clifton, the No. 18 prospect in the Cubs organization, according to Baseball America. “I like him. I feel like we’ll have a good season with him, and he should lead us to a lot of wins and a winning record and we’ll go from there.”
Bailey said the goal is to follow the success Myrtle Beach found last year and, more importantly, move guys up the ranks.
He may be just the guy for the job.
“Every minor league team’s goal is to play in September,” Bailey said. “But [my plan is] to work guys and get them the best they can be. I’m hoping eight to 10 of these guys are in Double-A or Triple-A, because that means they’re good players and they did everything they needed to move up.
“The guys have the ability to stay hungry and determine how much they really want it. If they put in that intensity and convince themselves to really grind, not only in games but also in their preparation, they’ll be around for a long time.”
Bailey speaks from experience.