Rich Miller led the Vancouver Canadians to Northwest League championships in 2011 and 2017 in his two seasons as manager.
The 2018 season for the Vancouver Canadians is just days away and the unofficial start is marked with the team’s annual Media Day at Nat Bailey Stadium.
Last year’s media day was held on the morning of Monday, June 12, the same day the 2017 Major League draft began. Manager Rich Miller held court with the media that day to talk about the upcoming season. He said the late start to the draft would mean a fair bit of roster changes to begin the year.
“This group. It’s going to be the same thing for every team in the league. They’re not going to start the year with any drafted players because the draft is so late. You’re really for two months know exactly what you’re going to start with because they were down in extended spring training. I think our staff knows them very well, having them for two months and the staff knows us and what we expect out of them.
They’ve worked really hard. Every manager is going to say that but I don’t believe in BS’ing anybody. I try to be upfront. This group worked really hard. We had a very warm last three weeks in Florida, very warm, very humid. To come out every morning, they’re up at 6 o’clock in the morning and play games at 10, 11 or 12 o’clock in stifling heat. These guys really worked hard.
The pitching is improved. You’re only going to be as good as your pitching. I truly believe that. You got to have pitching and defence. I’m pleased with the defence. Pitching-wise, we’re going to see. When they get in front of 6,000 people, it’s going to be different because a lot of them Dominican kids have never played in front of fans before in a stadium. They may have been in the Gulf Coast League in which you might get someone’s family come into town but they don’t charge any admission. There’s hardly anybody there.
If they pitched in Bluefield last year, there might be three, four, five-hundred people but to come here with these 6,000 people. I’ve told them all because I was here in 2011. You could be losing 9-0 in the ninth inning. These people are still cheering for you. They love coming out and they love the atmosphere of baseball here in Vancouver. They’re going to appreciate that.
You could be in front of 40,000 (people) in Toronto or 6,000 here (in Vancouver). We’ll find out who’s really mastering under the heat, so to speak, of the fans.”
Miller then reflected on his previous time with Vancouver in 2011, which resulted in the team’s first Northwest League championship.
“I was fortunate when I came here in ’11, I had to fill in the last month of the season and I didn’t realize there was a split season. I didn’t realize they had a wild card team. Long story short, we were fortunate enough to win that year. I know some of the cities that we’re going to go to on the road. I haven’t been to all of them yet but there’s also two staff members here. We do have a new third guy but we have two staff members in Jim Czajkowski and Dave Pano who were here for three of the championships. They do a tremendous job, a tremendous job so familiarity is really good.
A player like (Mattingly) Romanin. The Canadian kid who were talking about, who was here last year. You’ve got some of these players that were here last year. It’s going to help these guys. What’s it like with the host families, what’s it like getting on the bus when you’re going 10, 12 hours to Boise. You need that experience. Even though they’re young guys, you have some veteran guys and we have some good ones.”
When asked about which players to watch for last season, he began with the man who patrolled center field.
“I love (Reggie) Pruitt in center field. I think he probably questioned whether he was going to come here or not during extended (spring training). There was a point where he wasn’t handling his at-bats. I think he was putting pressure on himself. We didn’t post a roster until I think Wednesday of this past week. It went up late. They were all like ‘Where am I going?’ He didn’t want to go back to Bluefield.
The one thing if you watch Reggie and I’m going to tell him, I say ‘Reggie, you could start the year out oh-for-50, you’re going to play center field.’ He can flat out play center field. He can flat out play center field. I appreciate again the pitching and defence, he’s a real good center fielder.
I don’t know who’s going to go up or who’s going to go down once we get drafted players in. Romanin, the kid I talked about, because he was here last year. He had a really good extended. He really started to hit the ball well. You’ll see him at third, you’ll see him maybe at first, some second, you’ll see him DH, maybe some outfield. He might be your good utility player.
Pitching-wise, a lot of it is going to be up to Jim Czajkowski to handle that pitching staff. I think they all, in my mind, improved from the beginning to the end of extended. As long as we have strike throwers, I want strike throwers. You walk people, it’s going to hurt. You throw strikes, our guys are going to make some defensive plays and we’ll be just as competitive as any team in the league.”
Among the differences between 2011 and 2017 Miller noticed was the renovation made to Nat Bailey Stadium for 2015 and the new grass installed just before last season.
“You look at it and it doesn’t look like it’s real deep. Sometimes the high walls make it appear to you like it’s a small ball park but it’s not really. There’s not a whole lot of home run hit here unless you go down the lines. With the added bullpen from two years ago, that’s made left field somewhat shorter but we’re going to find out about the infield, number one, because it’s a brand new infield. (The grounds crew) completely redid the whole infield, the dirt and the grass surface because it was not very good. If that plays very well, it’s going to help the whole league, even the visiting teams.
We’ll see how the outfield goes. It’s a different grass than Florida. I’m from Pennsylvania in the northeast and northern grass is so much different than Florida grass. It’s a lot thicker and should be a lot slower depending on how you mow it or whatever, that’s going to come into play. It’s fortunate that we’re going to get a quick three days here of workouts and then we go on the road. Eugene is a multi-surface so it’s completely different. You don’t play on a lot of those in the minor leagues and then come back here. It looks nice so hopefully it plays nice.”
Rich Miller was named the 201 Northwest League Manager of the Year after leading the C’s to its fourth championship in seven seasons.
It was quite obvious to everyone in the press scrum at this point that Miller was enthusiastic about the upcoming season. He hoped his enthusiasm would be contagious to his players.
“I hope so. We have meetings in the spring and every morning, we’ll meet with the players, 8:30, quarter-to-nine, before they go on the field. We’ll go over the day before, we’ll go over the schedule and all the coaches that are in Florida. All three teams get a chance to say things. One thing that I’ve told them is, I am, we are, looking for players who love it, not like it. You might play for a while and you like coming out here. You like being on your own, you like your teammates but to survive and to get to the big leagues, you have to love the game.
This is my 45th pro season. The reason I love it is because of the players because every year, you’re working with different players. They may teach you something coming from a high school or college program. Again, (Dave Pano), Cy (Jim Czajkowski) and our new coach Jose Mayorga, who’s especially going to help us with our Latin players. We’ve all, I think, got enthusiasm. We all love the game.
Every sport is hard to play, you know. We’re just watching the NHL and the hockey finals and everything. Every sport is difficult but baseball, it’s six, seven days a week. Especially for a position player, if your guy plays a lot, it’s hard to come out and try to hit a baseball every night. You got to forget your bad at-bats, go in the outfield, the infield, play defence or whatever but this is such a demanding sport because of all the games that are played.
Football, it’s one game a week. You practice up the one game. Basketball, maybe three games a week. Hockey, maybe three or whatever. This is a demanding sport. They have to love it. If they don’t love it, it’s going to come into their play and we’re going to notice it.”
The main goals for Miller were to see all of his players get better this season and bring home another Northwest League championship to Vancouver.
“From an organizational standpoint, hopefully each player is better at the end of the year than they were at the start. We all want to win. It was nice. What a great marriage. We came here in 2011 and they won the first three years. The gig that I had, having to fill in that last month in 2011 and find out that ‘Geez, they play a split season in a short season league? Oh! There’s a wildcard?’
And I still remember we were coming back from Boise, the last day of the season. I think we stopped in Yakima to get something to eat and one of our pitcher’s dad was listening to, I think, Eugene’s game on the radio. We found out Eugene won the second half so they won both halves so the best second-place team, it ended up being us. I’m not a wild card person. I hated it for years but now all of a sudden we’re a wild card, we got in the playoffs and we won a championship so I was fortunate to, hopefully I thought I helped a little bit, but really the players that were here from the start, we had a great run.
I do remember a team meeting we had before we played the first game of the playoffs and I was fortunate to get a World Series ring with the Mets in 1986. I was managing in the minor league system and I had it with me. I let every player look at it and I told them about how lucky I was to get this but minor league rings are just as hard to come by. They really are and so, don’t lose that focus. This might be your only chance and fortunately enough, they were able to get one there.”
I’m looking for us to be much better than last year’s team, record-wise. I know they weren’t very good. I just want us to play hard. I really want them to play hard. I think these fans are going to see that guys are going to run a ball out. He doesn’t run the ball out, he’s sitting on the bench. That’s what we demand. Our pitchers are going to throw strikes and hopefully we get better as the year goes on.”
Pitching-wise, Miller shared his thoughts on what he would like to see.
“Whew. It keeps changing because we’ve lost a couple of people that were supposed to come with us to our Lansing team already. We’ve had some changes already in the organization. I’m trying to think of the rotation because I don’t want to slight anybody. We’re going to have a Latin contingent. We’re going to have some guys that have not again, played in front of an atmosphere like that. I’m glad we have Jose Mayorga, our coach, because we didn’t have that in the past where it’s an extra coach. I told him again today, ‘You’re responsible for these Latin players.’ He’s played professionally, he’s been in another organization which I think is good. You know what we expect as Blue Jays and you should know what to expect as being a Latin player or a Latin pitcher. It’s all a transition. Playing in the States, playing in Canada, whatever it is.
I’m probably not going to get into specifics with pitching but I know again, you’re going to hear me say, ‘I want strike throwers. Don’t be afraid to throw the ball down the middle of the plate if you’re behind in the count.’ Hitters can get themselves out. We’re going to make some plays for you.”
Miller was asked about his memories of the 2011 Northwest League final.
“I can remember pretty much the lineup from the championship game because we had Andy Burns at third, who’s now playing I think in Korea, and got to the big leagues last year with the Blue Jays. Shane Opitz played short and he’s in Triple-A in Buffalo. Jon Berti, who’s in Florida now rehabbing. Could possibly have been in the big leagues this year if he had not gotten a concussion in spring training. Berti was in big league camp, did very well. First baseman was (Kevin) Patterson, who’s not in the game anymore. Our DH was Balbino Fuenmayor who had a great playoff series. Behind the plate, we had Chris Schaeffer who’s one of our coaches in Lansing. Pierce Rankin caught the championship game.
In the outfield, I know in center field, we had Kevin Pillar. Bluefield was in the playoffs. They got knocked out of the playoffs after we had played one playoff game so he got sent here along with Aaron Sanchez and they were able to play for us in the playoffs. We put Pillar in Game 2 of the playoffs right in center field hitting second. We had Aaron Sanchez for, I think, a game against Tri-City and pitched almost five good innings for us. Right field, it was Nick Baligod. Yep, there’s some of them still in the game and you think about big leaguers, there was Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar so you couldn’t have asked for better there.”
Miller was then asked about the late start to the 2017 draft.
“I wish I knew why it’s so late, number one. I’ve been asking people. Every organization is in baseball is going to be in this boat. These players are going to be signed so late. The thing about it is, when I got drafted in 1973 and I was done playing college ball in early May, I played in two men’s leagues and I was playing five games a week up until the draft.
I think a lot of drafted players now, I don’t think they play when their season is done. It could be late April or early May from high school to college. I think advisors or agents are telling them not to play, afraid (they’ll) get hurt or whatever but they don’t play. So now you draft them in June. ‘When’s the last time you pitched? Ummm, May 10th. When’s the last time you played a game? Ummm, May 9th.’ They just haven’t played so it takes so long to get in game shape.
The nice thing is you can have a 35-man roster here and you can put 30 on the lineup card every night. You need a lot of pitchers because they’re not going to be going five, six, seven innings for the most part so you’re going to have a lot of relief work. It’s going to affect every team and that’s the biggest thing we got to find out is when did you play last? If you played May 10th, when’s the last time you threw a side? They may have thrown a bullpen the next day or something, I don’t know but it’s going to affect everybody. We’re all in the same boat.”
Miller would lead the C’s to their first-ever first-half division title when they held off the Tri-City Dust Devils for the North Division pennant. After a league-best regular season record of 43-33, the Canadians would go on to sweep the Spokane Indians in the North Division final before defeating the Eugene Emeralds three-games-to-one for the 2017 Northwest League championship. For that, Miller was named the league’s Manager of the Year.
Unfortunately, that was not enough for the Toronto Blue Jays brass as Miller would be let go just days after winning the Northwest League title. At last word, Miller is back home in Pennsylvania and is still involved in the game by managing a team of 10 year-olds.
On a personal note, I was glad to discover I still had the audio of last year’s press conference. He was very cordial with the media and I remember being more excited for the season to start after the scrum.
You can call this a personal tribute of sorts to Rich Miller and I wish him the very best in his future endeavors.