Lakeland, Fla. — It’s not that Lloyd McClendon hadn’t thought about getting back in the game. Good lord, the game has been his life since he starred in the Little League World Series at the age of 12. Fifty of his 63 years on this earth have been centered around baseball, give or take a few of those teen years.
So, yes, he did think about getting back in the dugout again at some point in time.
Just not on that day in January when Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch cold-called him from Houston.
“I can honestly say, when AJ called, putting that uniform on again was the last thing on my mind,” McClendon said, with a deep chuckle, in a phone interview Tuesday night. “I was sitting there trying to figure out how to get this 5-4 handicap down to like a three.”
After 15 years as a player, including eight in the big leagues, 16 years as a coach and eight years and 501 wins as a big-league manager — ending after he finished the 2020 season as the Tigers’ interim manager — McClendon found himself outside the ropes for just the second time since 1980.
He spent most of his days sharpening his golf game. The closest he came to baseball was a weekend stint in the radio booth in Chicago with Tigers play-by-play man Dan Dickerson.
“I was enjoying my, I guess you could call it my furlough,” McClendon said. “I really enjoyed the radio work. But it’s a funny game. Just out of the blue, AJ called me. But it all came about because of the tragic death of a young man, Kimera Bartee. And that’s such a bad story.”
Bartee’s shocking death on Dec. 20 at the age of 49 set off a chain of events that led to McClendon being hired back to the organization as the manager at Triple-A Toledo. Gary Jones, who was about to start his first season at the helm in Toledo, was promoted to the big leagues to replace Bartee as the Tigers first base coach.
Which then led to the call to McClendon.
“AJ is a wonderful guy,” McClendon said. “We managed against each other in the American League West and you know how he is. He can really charm a person. Before the conversation was over, I was pretty much charmed. I hung up the phone and sat there for a minute, like, ‘What just happened?’”
What just happened was, McClendon was back in the game. Back in the position he held in 2016 when he guided the Mud Hens to 68 wins.
“After the conversation with AJ, Al (Avila, general manager) and Ryan Garko (vice president of player development) came into the picture and all three were great. It seemed like a perfect fit. You know, I am all about development. I think I’ve been in love with developing players my entire major-league career.”
Structurally, things have changed significantly within the organization since 2016. Chairman and CEO Chris Ilitch has made a multi-million-dollar investment in the player-development wing. When McClendon managed Toledo in 2016, it was basically him, hitting coach Leon “Bull” Durham and pitching coach Jeff Pico running the show. Occasionally, the organization would send a roving instructor or two if there was trouble-shooting on a struggling player that needed to be done.
But that was pretty much it.
These days, Toledo has its own analytics team and up-to-date training technologies. There is an organizational plan in place so the same concepts and methods are being taught and emphasized at all levels, from rookie ball through Triple-A. At last, a true Tigers’ Way.
McClendon has a bench coach, Tony Cappuccilli, longtime college coach who had been in the Dodger organization since 2017, as well as a hitting coach (Adam Melhuse) and a pitching coach (Doug Bochtler).
The priority the Tigers have placed on player development, all through the minor-league system, has never been higher.
None of which, of course, changes who McClendon is and how he plans on tackling this responsibility.
“I really don’t think my role changes, though,” McClendon said. “Obviously, I’m going to have some very gifted people around me and they will help make my job a lot easier. But when it’s all said and done, your job as a manager is to make sure your players get better and they get prepared to make a contribution and an impact at the major league level.
“So when AJ calls me, I have to make sure my guys are ready to perform up to their expectations and perform at a high level. That part never changes.”
With minor-league minicamp opening next week and the minor-league spring training not starting until March 10, McClendon only has a vague sense of what his roster might look like. Though he knows enough to be excited by it.
“I know we’re going to have a talented squad,” he said. “I’m not crazy now. I’m not coming back just to take a beating.”
Depending on how things go, first with Major League Baseball getting a new collective bargaining agreement in place and then with big-league spring training battles, McClendon could end up starting the season with one or both of the Tigers’ top prospects — Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. He will almost certainly be managing shortstop Ryan Kreidler and second baseman Kody Clemens. He could be charged with putting the finishing touches on more seasoned players like Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro and Daz Cameron.
His pitching staff may well include Alex Faedo, Joey Wentz, Logan Shore, Jason Foley, Elvin Rodriguez and Angel De Jesus — players who could well fit into the Tigers’ plans at some point in 2022.
Bottom line, the Triple-A manager plays a vital role within the Tigers’ player development structure. The job requires a person with vast and diverse experience, steeped in traditional values and also attuned to new data and technological tools, a person with both patience and dogged persistence.
A person, in other words, like Legendary Lloyd McClendon.
“Development hasn’t changed,” he said. “Making guys better hasn’t changed. Shoring up their weaknesses and making sure their strengths stay sharp — that part hasn’t changed. How you go about doing it has. There are a number of things that help you evaluate and make things more clear. But you still have to develop these players.
“That’s what I am excited about.”
Initially, McClendon was going to be in Lakeland for the minicamp. Those plans have changed. As of now, he will be in place no later than the start of minor-league spring training.
“I am just very appreciative,” McClendon said. “There are so many good baseball people out there capable of doing this job. And for Al and AJ to think of me and bring me back — I mean, that’s pretty special. I will do all I can to not let them down.”