ST. LOUIS — Torey Lovullo said it all hit him Wednesday night at Fenway Park when he was standing on the first-base foul line during pregame introductions. All the days and nights in the minors, as both a player and a manager. His 303 big-league games scattered among eight teams. More than 3,500 games in total. And he was finally in the World Series.
The Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer spent a long time with the Bisons, becoming one of the franchise’s most popular figures ever during parts of three years as a player and three more as a manager. Now he’s the bench coach of the Boston Red Sox on the ride of his baseball life, with even bigger things closing in on his horizon.
“It’s fairly surreal and you can’t describe it until you’re out there,” Lovullo told this corner following Boston’s workout Friday night in Busch Stadium. “The planes fly over and you understand exactly what’s happening. It’s the end of the season, the last two teams standing. It’s pretty amazing.
“This is what you dream about when you’re 12 years old and you’re sitting in your bedroom thinking about the World Series. Now you’re here. It’s a pretty special moment.”
As we talked, the Boston clubhouse was swarmed by a couple hundred reporters trying to mine any nuggets they could on the eve of Game Three. It was quite a difference from the pastoral quiet of a March morning at Blue Jays camp in Dunedin, Fla., where Lovullo warned me not to sleep on his new team.
I smirked at him seven months ago. Lovullo left Toronto, where he’d been the first-base coach the last two years, for Boston with manager John Farrell. He was going to spend a season near the basement of the AL East while the Blue Jays went and won big. He told me the Sox could be good. He was right. I was wrong.
So I reminded him of the conversation Friday and, yes, he laughed at me. Deservedly so.
“I saw quickly in spring training these guys paid attention to detail,” Lovullo said. “They were on the concepts we were talking about, asked a lot of questions and they cared. It’s pretty rare to get a group of guys so engaged so quickly. We knew we had pitching too and that would be better than it was because guys were healthy.
“It started to play out each month. By the end of April, we had the best record in baseball and we really thought it was no fluke.”
Lovullo, 48, is locked in the moment but his life could change dramatically within the next week. The Chicago Cubs are waiting for the World Series to be over to interview Lovullo for their open managerial job. Lovullo managed Boston’s farm club in Pawtucket in 2010 while Cubs GM Theo Epstein was still in Boston. There are connections there.
The Seattle Mariners reportedly want to talk to Lovullo as well. And there’s a chance he could hear from the Detroit Tigers, the team he broke into the big leagues with in 1988 as Sparky Anderson’s fabled can’t-miss prospect.
Lovullo has interviewed before with Cleveland, Pittsburgh, the Dodgers and yes, even with the Red Sox before Bobby Valentine was hired in 2012. But he’s never had the cachet in the game that he has now as the bench coach of a team in the Fall Classic. The move to bench coach was something he really needed after being mostly a Triple-A manager before joining Farrell in Toronto in 2011.
“I don’t get out there and read small print,” he said. “I’ll follow the flow. I’m just a normal fan. I see things on SportsCenter or whatever. But I compartmentalize it. I put it back there where it’s no distraction. If I let any of that become any sort of distraction to these players who’ve worked so hard, I’d be really upset.”
Lovullo is in charge of the Red Sox running game. He’s a believer in analytics who spent plenty of time in spring training brainstorming with Red Sox director of baseball information solutions Tom Tippett. And, of course, who is also on the Boston payroll? The original analytics master, noted author Bill James.
“Torey is really on a lot of the small details of the game,” said Boston outfielder Daniel Nava, who played for Lovullo in Pawtucket. “The manager is on the broad spectrum of things by necessity. Torey has a really good feel for the game. He knows when to pickoff, when to steal or not steal. A stolen base can make a difference. Remember Dave Roberts? You never know when he can get us a stolen base that will be huge.”
“People know he was a player who worked his butt off to get where he was. He respects guys who go out and grind and play the game right.”
Lovullo has a winning pedigree from his three playoff runs and two championships as a player in Buffalo. He also won championships as a minor league manager in the lower levels. His wife, Kristen, is a former Bisons employee and through her he’s become quite the Sabres fan (full disclosure: I will get texts from him from time to time looking for Sabres injury or team updates).
Farrell has repeatedly called Lovullo “a manager in waiting” the last couple weeks and Lovullo is on most everyone’s hot list. It seems to be a matter of time. Lovullo said he’s been told nothing about any permissions being asked of the Red Sox to interview him. But those are formalities as soon as the last out is made here.
“Life is timing and there’s no doubt I want to manage,” he said. “But I don’t want to fast-forward anything either. I don’t want to press any buttons that aren’t the right buttons at the right time.”
Ultimately, however, Lovullo is focused on the day-to-day challenges of playing the Cardinals. Tonight is Game Four. Sometime this week, his life could change forever. But he’s also hopeful to reap some rewards for this experience.
“John and I talk about how we’re so deep into what’s happening here day to day that we just function as normal,” he said. “It’s everyone around us – friends, family, loved ones, extended relationships – telling us what’s going on around us.
“I’m not going to lie though. We talk about the end result being pretty special. It’s been a dream of mine to have the President invite me to the White House. That’s something I’ve been saying since high school. We’re close. We can sense it. We can feel it. But we have a lot of work to do.”
Nats tap Williams
One team Lovullo won’t be talking to is the Nationals, who have reportedly made an interesting choice in replacing Davey Johnson with Arizona coach Matt Williams, the longtime former big-league third baseman. An official announcement could come Tuesday on the potential off day before Game Six, or might wait until after the Series is done.
It’s the first gig for Williams, who is widely respected. Still, Nats players were heavily in favor of bench coach Randy Knorr getting the gig to replace Johnson. Normally that’s not a big deal but it’s a team full of young players who came up through the minors with Knorr. It will be interesting to see how they react to an outsider. And maybe that was GM Mike Rizzo’s point all along: Get a fresh set of eyes.
Around and about
• Cardinals reliever and former Canisius College pitcher John Axford, asked during the Series about the evolution of one closer holding a job for years: “The Trevor Hoffmans and Mariano Riveras I don’t think we’re going to see any more. The only exception is if Craig Kimbrel keeps going in Atlanta. That’s the guy that is unbelievable.”
• The newest entry in Triple-A was officially christened last week as the El Paso Chihuahuas. It’s a San Diego farm club that has moved from Tucson and will start play in April in a new stadium. The other finalists in a name-the-team contest were Aardvarks, Buckaroos, Desert Gators and Sun Dogs. Hmmm. Those are all pretty good.
• Speaking of logos and nicknames, multiple outlets in Cleveland have reported the Indians’ annual postseason fan survey is soliciting thoughts on the team’s long-standing Chief Wahoo logo. The team’s block ‘C’ and script ‘I’ logo have taken on increasing prominence over the years but there’s no indication yet that Indian caricature is going to be shelved completely.
• Still no room for Wally Backman on the Mets’ coaching staff in New York with all of Terry Collins’ men brought back for 2014. Looks like the former Bisons manager has little choice but to head back to Las Vegas for his second season in the PCL.