Can He Do It Again?

Tom Kotchman never phones it in when it comes to managing.

Tom Kotchman is a man who proves the adage that when you’re handed lemons, you make lemonade.

In his seven years managing Provo and Orem, "Kotch" has gone to the post-season every year. He did with teams blessed with talent, and teams stocked with players who will never be more than a line on a stat sheet.

The 2001 Provo team was probably the most talented roster. Among the players to wear the Provo Angels uniform that year were his son Casey, Jeff Mathis, Dallas McPherson, Ervin Santana, Pedro Liriano, Jake Woods, Nick Gorneault and Steve Andrade — all players who later appeared in the majors. Despite a 53-23 record, that team was eliminated in the championship series 2-0. (Pioneer League championship series are best-of-three.) Part of the problem was losing Casey, Mathis and McPherson to injuries, and Greg Porter leaving early to play college football.

The 2004 squad was the first to win the pennant. They finished 44-32, and defeated Billings 2-0 in the title series. That team didn’t have many high-profile names. The only player to reach the majors so far is infielder Alexi Casilla, who was with Provo for four regular-season games and the post-season, and he did it with Minnesota after being traded to the Twins for J.C. Romero. Three years later, the only top prospect is Sean Rodriguez, who projects as a gifted utility player.

The franchise moved down the road to Orem for the 2005 season. That team was only 38-38, but had the league’s lowest team ERA at 4.16, and that was good enough to upset Helena for the title.

Despite a 37-39 record this year, the Owlz upset South Division champion Idaho Falls (46-30) in the division title series. On Wednesday night, they beat the North’s champion Great Falls (51-24) by a 7-5 score at Orem.

I really dislike the Pioneer League’s post-season best-of-three format. One team gets Game #1 at home, then goes on the road for Games #2 and #3. Who gets the home-field advantage for #2 and #3 is alternated between divisions from year to year, instead of the team with the best record getting to choose their preference. With only three games to decide the champion, the host team for Game #1 is pretty much in a must-win scenario, because if they lose Game #1 they have to win #2 and #3 on the road to claim the title. At least the championship should be best-of-five to make it more equitable.

So the Owlz had their collective backs against the wall Wednesday, and won when they had no choice.

Now they go to Great Falls. The White Sox’ starter for Game #2 is Aaron Poreda, a 6’6" lefty who turns 21 on October 1. Poreda finished with a 1.17 ERA in 46.1 IP, a 48:10 SO:BB ratio, and opponents’ .181 batting average. He gave up only one homer. Kotchman was quoted by a local paper as saying Poreda has a 97 MPH fastball, and implied he’d pretty much written off the game.

That’s classic Tom Kotchman psychology.

One thing Kotch understands is how to play to an athlete’s psyche. Some managers post bulletin board material quoting players on other teams. Kotch will do that, but he’ll also find subtle ways to challenge his players to show him they’re better than he seems to think they are.

That works because from Day One these players see how hard Kotch works. In the ten years I’ve been running, I’ve never seen a manager more prepared than Kotch.

Before the 2005 season began, Kotch let me follow him around with a camcorder as he instructed the position players on their first day of practice. Although he worked from prepared notes, much of his lecture was off the top of his head, as if he were the Delphic Oracle. Kotch expects much of his young charges, but no more than he expects of himself. By season’s end, most of the players have bought into it, and are willing to follow him into the gates of **** if it’ll get them a ring.

I was in Provo for the 2004 title game. In the clubhouse before the game, I saw Kotch had taped on his office door his rings from prior titles — including his Angels 2002 World Series ring. Point made. I forget the exact caption, but it was along the lines of “If you want one, it’s out there for you if you work hard enough.”

I was told that on the team bus during the 2005 playoffs, he’d shown them the movie Miracle about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team that upset the Soviets and later won the gold medal. There’s a lot of Herb Brooks in Tom Kotchman.

Because he’s also a scout in Florida for nine months, he’s gifted at evaluating the talent that shows up on that first day. Some of them, he hand-picked — not necessarily because they’re top prospects, but because he knows they have a skill that will complement the rest of his first-year roster, that he will plug in somewhere, sometime.

This year’s example is Gordie Gronkowski, the 24-year old first baseman and DH drafted in the 49th round of the June 2006 draft out of Jacksonville University. Gronkowski suffered a major back injury in college, but Kotch was familiar with his circumstances and realized that "Gronk" might have enough power to protect raw younger talent in the Orem lineup. Kotchman has nursed Gordie’s bad back through a season where he posted an AVG/OBP/SLG of .344/.415/.520.

From time to time, someone will question Kotchman’s talent. If he’s so great, why isn’t he in the big leagues? He could be, if he wanted it. But Tom decided long ago that he wanted to be at home with Casey and his daughter Cristal as they grew up, so he gave up managing full-season minor league baseball to take the Florida scouting gig. He spent summers first in Boise, then in Provo and now Orem, and for most of those years Casey joined him as a clubhouse rat. I remember watching Tom pitch batting practice at Boise, and after his players were done he’d pitch B.P. to Casey.

With Casey in the big leagues and Cristal off to four-year college, Tom may be reaching the point where he decides to change course in his baseball career. He could probably have any job he wanted in the organization if there were an opening. Should Ron Roenicke move on to another organization, Kotch would be my first choice as bench coach for Mike Scioscia.

Even if Great Falls wins the next two games and the championship, Tom will have taken his team farther than anyone imagined. He’ll counter Poreda with his own top pitching prospect, Jordan Walden. If there’s a Game #3, he’ll go with lefty Robert Fish, who pitched the game of his life on September 9 when he struck out 13 in eight shutout innings. If they lose, they lose with their best, and that’s all anyone can ask.

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