Tigers focus on the personal in hiring new Toledo Mud Hens skipper Anthony Iapoce

Detroit News

When he was with the Cubs in 2021 and they were at Comerica Park for a series, Anthony Iapoce was, of course, curious.

He has this habit: He loves ballparks. And ballpark areas. He walked Comerica’s concourse and took in all the sights and flavors, stopping for some long moments at the six metal sculptures where Tigers greats are venerated. He got a photo of himself amid the celestial Tigers cast.

He had done the same thing, last spring, when he was working as Red Sox hitting coordinator and had a scouting mission at Toledo where the Triple-A Mud Hens play. He walked around the brick walls of Fifth Third Field. He noticed a string of adjacent bars and restaurants. He strolled into the Swamp Shop apparel store, and said to himself:

“This would be a really cool place to work.”

Done deal.

Iapoce is the new Toledo Mud Hens manager, and oh what a track record he brings to this Tigers Triple-A partner: He has not managed a single game in professional baseball.

It is a bit novel, putting a man in charge of running a farm club at MLB’s doorstep, in this case Detroit and Comerica Park, without having skippered at any minor-league level.

But it is what Iapoce, 49, brings in overall scope to the big-league polishing process that sold the Tigers, specifically Ryan Garko, vice president of player development, and his new boss, Scott Harris, who was hired in September as Tigers chief steward.

“The biggest thing about Anthony, I would say, is that he’s a master communicator who can build relationships with professional players,” said Garko, who is in his second full year heading the Tigers’ minor leagues and instruction. “I’m fully confident he’s going to handle all the responsibilities there.

“Triple A is a tough level. You’ve got to build relationships with players. I’ve talked with players who’ve played for him. And he just does an unbelievable job connecting.”

Garko spoke also with Joe Maddon, the ex-Cubs manager for whom Iapoce was hitting coach from 2018-21, and who, Garko said, “raved about his ability.”

Before he joined Maddon, Iapoce for three years was Rangers hitting coach. The Red Sox scooped him up a year ago as a kind of hitting CEO.

But there was this urge gnawing at a man who grew up in Queens, New York, who played baseball at Lamar University, and who came within a whisker of making it to the big leagues with the Brewers before an injury and cold start at Triple-A Louisville In 1999 pretty much crushed his MLB plans.

Iapoce wanted to manage. Last November, as he was stretching alongside his wife, Suzanne, following a gym workout near their home on Long Island, New York, the topic returned.

“Don’t you think you’re going to have to take a minor-league (managerial) job just to let them know you’re interested?” Suzanne asked.

No argument from a spouse.

“The next day, the Tigers called,” Iapoce said Thursday. “It was crazy. We were both laughing about it.”

It turns out, as these hirings go in baseball, there were connections.

High praise

Harris had worked for the Cubs when Iapoce was Maddon’s hitting guru.

Kenny Graham, who ranks just beneath Garko as a Tigers development head, had been hired by Iapoce as a Blue Jays hitting instructor when Iapoce was a roving batting coach for Toronto.

There was also an acquaintance with Tigers manager AJ Hinch, owing to Hinch’s time managing the Astros and Iapoce’s batting-coach years with the Rangers and Cubs.

And while he did not know Garko, personally, each had worked with enough mutual baseball people to make all the smoother November’s interview. Iapoce was the easy pick to become Toledo’s fifth manager spanning the past seven seasons.

There were endorsements, galore. Maddon not only sold the Tigers on a man with no managerial spurs, he urged Iapoce to take the Toledo job. Maddon’s view was that Iapoce had a skill-set attuned to Triple-A managerial needs.

The other “stuff” — running a pitching staff, making in-game moves, knowing how and when to plug in bullpen pieces — could and would be learned on the job, Maddon insisted. That would be especially true when the Mud Hens have a sharp bench coach in Tony Cappuccilli, and when Doug Bochtler returns as Mud Hens pitching coach, with Mike Hessman sticking as hitting tutor.

“I’ve talked with all the staff, and the best part of being the new guy is walking into somewhere where there’s continuity on the staff and with each other,” said Iapoce, who played alongside Bochtler when both were with Triple-A Albuquerque in 2003.

“The transition is more comfortable. There’s continuity on the staff, so they know the players.”

It’s safe to assume a fair number of 2023 Mud Hens will be playing in Detroit, perhaps sooner than their bosses prefer. That’s what happened in 2022, particularly on the pitching side, where the Tigers used 17 different starting pitchers, many summoned in an instant from Toledo as arm ills helped turn the Tigers’ season into a disaster.

That, in turn, made it tough on manager Lloyd McClendon, who, perhaps not coincidentally, departed at the end of 2022, despite Toledo’s handsome 87-63 record.

Iapoce is aware of minor-league staff life. It can be, well, prone to long hopes and short stints. But he wanted this job, just as the Tigers courted him, because of belief.

His own passion meshes with the Tigers’ thoughts that managing at a farm level is about how you reach hearts, souls, and minds as much as it’s about sharpening skills a longtime MLB coach has displayed and absorbed.

“For me, it’s going to be a breath of fresh air to be out of a cage (in-stadium batting area) and in the fresh air while they’re preparing for their day’s work — hitting fungoes, talking with batters about what they learned last night and, more importantly, helping these guys get to Detroit and stick.

“Our goal as a staff is to get them there and make them stay there.”

Inside the mind

It long has been said in baseball that players who haven’t made the big leagues often are the people best-suited to coach and manage. They understand a prospect’s psyche. They relate deeply to struggles, to doubts, to worries — to all the mental demons that can thwart dreams when physical assets otherwise are in place.

So, here comes Iapoce. You can ascribe to him all the adjectives a person of his up-tempo personality spurs: spirited, ebullient, personable, gregarious, charismatic, etc.

He speaks in fluid, heavy-energy fashion, and never for a nanosecond impersonally.

That’s what Maddon and others loved about him during his MLB stints. He not only knew the mechanics of swings and set-ups, he knew the intricacies of minds and emotions. He understood, innately, how minds — and anatomy — must coalesce as a player moves from rung to rung in baseball, with talent basic to any ascent.

“You’ve got to be there in those moments with players, helping them through situations, helping them navigate through struggles,” said Iapoce, who was a center fielder and 33rd-round Brewers draft pick in 1994.

“What I’ve learned from watching players in the big leagues is that the guys who could show up every day and handle failure, and move forward, were the ones who’ve succeeded. I think that was the biggest thing I took from watching those players in the cages.

“It was not their swing, for the most part, that was the issue, because everybody in the big leagues has a good swing. It was more who could take their cage-game onto the field, who could make in-game adjustments.”

There he is, talking Garko’s language (and Graham’s), as well as a sharing in Harris’ over-arching philosophy. The ideology hardly is unique to the Tigers. It’s a broad MLB ethos.

But it relies on — that word again — relationships. Iapoce believes it includes knowing when and what to say to a player as the skipper traipses through the Mud Hens clubhouse. Or chats, spontaneously, with that same player on the pre-game outfield grass.

It’s coaching, it’s counseling — it’s managing.

“The struggle is that we sometimes get inwardly selfish,” said Iapoce, who also was a superb basketball point-guard during his prep days at Msgr. McClancy Memorial High, in East Elmhurst, New York. “What players must do when they struggle is focus more on the team.

“They’ll say, ‘I need to fix my swing,’ but more often it’s really about small victories: What can I do to help my team win?

“A little bloop hit creates more confidence, which allows the player to be more aggressive. Guys can get there by focusing on winning the game, and on what the team needs at a given moment.”

Not that this will be a passive role for Toledo’s skipper. Iapoce has spent too much time coaching, and being coached, to sidestep any sweat there.

He has seen the best in technology and approaches with elite big-league clubs. He is a student of the swing and of hitting science. He will be teaching players on all sides, in tandem with Hessman, Bochtler, and others.

He will try, ultimately, to help shape big-leaguers at that often-pivotal Triple-A stop.

“I think our job as a staff is to provide an environment where they can practice, with freedom, and not be judged,” Iapoce said. “It takes time to develop that relationship.

“You have to remember, a lot of times they get a lot of info on their own. You may not always agree, but you’ve got to let them go through it, because a lot of times they’re right.

“Baseball is like an individual team sport,” said Iapoce, who in four weeks will leave for Lakeland, Florida, and for spring camp at the TigerTown complex. “You try to teach guys what each situation requires.

“Because when you get to Detroit, all you’re going to be asked I, ‘What are you going to do to help this team win?’”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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