When Batavia Muckdogs’ manager Angel Espada approaches one of the two umpires assigned to a New York-Penn League game, his walk is measured and purposeful. With a blown or plain wrong call, Muckdog players can count on their skipper being restrained and unemotional.
He speaks his peace and nothing more, and walks back to the dugout or the third base coach’s box. There’s no point in getting riled up in another man’s face when they play again tomorrow. It’s just another teaching moment for Espada to demonstrate to his 30 players.
If there’s anything that climbing the ranks in the low minors in the Miami Marlins’ organization has reinforced to Espada, it’s patience and levelheadedness. Those same qualities displayed before umps is what he uses to instruct raw, young players still learning the game or dealing with not being the big man on campus for the first time. After a pickoff attempt rolls into right field, or a fielding error gives an opponent an extra base, Espada is measured in his coaching techniques, responsible for how these players begin their development to the ultimate goal of being a Major Leaguer.
“I’m trying to get them to understand that you have to focus,” he says after batting practice on a bright July day. “You have to play the game hard, you have to try to execute and be a professional. I stress to them to have fun while doing it. At the end of the day they’re getting paid to play a kid’s game.”
There’ve been detours, but playing hard is exactly how Espada has made it to this point. The 37-year-old was a feisty middle fielder told he’s too small and doesn’t hit enough to make it far.
Things have a way of working out for the better.
Born in Passaic, N.J., Espada was raised in Puerto Rico where baseball was a daily activity.
“Since I ever have a recollection of myself, I just always had a ball or a stick in my hand,” he said. “That’s how I got started. I was three years old and my dad would take me to the park and we’d just play. Before I got drafted everything was pick-up games in the backyard, going to school, everything was baseball, baseball, baseball 24/7.”
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is part of Major League Baseball’s rule 4 first-year, amateur draft. He was taken by the Atlanta Braves in the 42nd round in 1998 as a 5-foot-9, 145 pound shortstop.
There aren’t even that many rounds anymore.
An 18-year-old Espada was dropped into Florida’s Gulf Coast League where he hit .219 with 7 stolen bases in 12 attempts in 26 games.
After five years in affiliated baseball between the Braves and New York Mets, he was cut, never reaching High-A, making stops in Danville, Va., Eugene, Ore., Pittsfield, Mass., and Columbia, S.C.
He was 22 years old, looking for a landing spot to stay in baseball.
Atlantic League Glory
The Atlantic League was started in 1998 with six teams in Somerset, Newark and Atlantic City, N.J., Nashua, N.H., Newburgh, N.Y., and Bridgeport, Conn,. Espada was an original member of the independent league where winning is more important than development in contrast to many minor league organizations. He became a presence in the nascent Atlantic League, winning the league batting title in 1999 with a .356/.405/.440 line along with 40 stoles bases and 82 runs scored in 92 games.
Espada hit .275 with 71 stolen bases in 97 attempts in the Braves and Mets’ systems combined, but flourished in his 10 years in Indy ball, which became his landing spot.
“He was probably cut in large part because no one was willing to take a chance on him,” former Bridgeport Bluefish general manager Charlie Dowd said. “With the second chance of coming to the Atlantic League, he turned himself into a very good baseball player by simply outworking everyone.”
Mike Guilfoyle, the Atlantic League’s all-time saves leader and a teammate with the Bridgeport Bluefish from 1998-2003, says that coming to independent baseball speaks volumes about Espada, but also illustrates how hard it is to catch on with a major league team once you’re out.
“It showed me that Angel was willing to do whatever it took to get back to organized ball,” the current Fairfield, Conn., cop said from work. “He knew the best way to get out was to play as hard as you can. It just didn’t pan out.”
“He played hard and he did everything hard and he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a Major League shortstop and we all have the same dreams.”
Those dreams didn’t come true like for the vast majority minor league and independent league players, but Bridgeport would become home to Espada. Dowd signed the shortstop the season after Espada’s Atlantic City team defeated the Bluefish in the championship series.
“You just have to look at Angel for a second and know he’s an overachiever,” Dowd said. “Physically, there’s not a lot imposing about Angel. He had to work hard at learning the game of baseball. He was a ‘little things’ kind of guy.”
One of the Atlantic League’s brightest stars as a feared contact hitter upon his retirement in 2007 after All-Star appearances and two league batting titles, the Atlantic League gave Espada a stable job playing baseball. He played 767 games over 10 years in the Atlantic League – nine in Bridgeport – where he hit .305 with 191 stolen bases.
Then came the time to figure out how he was going to stay in baseball without playing it.
Espada dreamed about being a Major League shortstop, not a manager.
“I don’t think I wanted to be a manger ever,” he said with a laugh. “I knew I wanted to be around the game because I love this game and this game has been very good to me with friendships and relationships. But to be honest with you, I just wanted to be around the game in any capacity. I love baseball.”
Espada started out as a hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League Marlins where no admission is charged and no concessions are operated at the exclusively afternoon games in 2009 and 2010 where he dealt with very young or rehabbing players. After that, he was promoted to the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs (the closest level of Minor League Baseball to the Majors) as hitting coach when a position opened up with managerial movement toward the top of the organization. Espada then moved on to the Jamestown Jammers -- the Marlins’ former NYPL affiliate -- where he was again a hitting coach in 2011. He advanced to the manager’s spot in 2012.
Espada says he enjoys working in the low minors because with some guys, “you can really see the tools and you know those guys are going to play in the higher levels and that’s exciting and you feel happy,” he said. “You say, ‘You know what? Someday they’re going to become something and I was a part of that.’ And that’s the most important thing: understanding I was part of their development at the end of the day.”
Both Dowd and Guilfoyle have no trouble imagining the former shortstop as an effective manager.
“He always showed up to play,” the former closer Guilfoyle said. “He was always prepared to play. You could tell he was a student of the game. He had a watchful eye. He knew how to push the right guys.”
“Angel did not start out in a leadership role by any means because we had some huge personalities on our teams,” Dowd said. “He just kept showing up and doing the right things. Most fans gravitate towards power hitters and sluggers, but here’s this little guy who’s bunting his way to two batting championships and All-Star teams. People really appreciated this every-man who’s really succeeding.”
As a young manager from Puerto Rico, Espada possesses qualities that help him with his team both on and off the field: he can communicate effectively in both English and Spanish and help Latin players get accustomed to American culture.
“I played for Team USA in Cuba and I got to see the Latin influence and how much they love baseball,” Guilfoyle said. “There are a lot of Latino players who have a fire inside, they just need a guy who has that experience. A lot of them have raw talent, raw skills and I think a good Latino coach can teach these kids to flourish.”
“I think he has a huge upside as a manager and particularly in the Marlins organization,” Dowd said. “He can communicate at the drop of a hat in either language and that’s a huge component in the lower levels of the development chain. Santo Domingo and Batavia is a little bit of a cultural change, so when you have an authority figure who can communicate with you and make you feel comfortable, I think Angel bridges that gap really well.”
The proportion of Latin Americans in positions of authority -- whether it’s third-base coaches, general managers, or on-field managers -- is out of whack in relation to the number of players on the field, which was 28 percent at the start of the 2013 season. Espada says he feels a sense of responsibility as a Latin minor league manager.
“You hope that down the road organizations will give more opportunities,” he said. “Especially at the lower levels where you get a lot of Dominican kids, Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and you may need in the lower levels managers who can speak both languages who can relate to the culture and what they’re going through where they come from. Eventually it will get better I think as the years pass.”
It’s Espada’s past that makes him an ideal manager for the Muckdogs. From being drafted out of Puerto Rico at age 18, advancing no higher than A-ball, and getting cut at age 22, he possesses valuable first-hand experience to teach young players.
“Sometimes it’s just more mental than physical and at a young age you just don’t understand that; but with me being drafted at a young age and playing as long as I played, it helped me learn from different managers, different players how to handle it. Hopefully I can pass it on to them,” he said.
“Mental toughness is a big part of the game more than your talents because eventually you’re going to get to a level where everyone’s as talented as you. Only the guys who are mentally strong are going to be the ones to make it to the next level.”
He’s needed that mental toughness as manager of the Muckdogs, too. With 68 errors this season entering Tuesday – ranking the Muckdogs second-to-last in the NYPL – five everyday players with averages under .200 and a couple of talented bullpen arms with earned-run averages over 4.00, Espada’s mantra is patience.
“When you first get the job, you know what you signed up for,” he said. “You know you’re going to have to have a lot of patience because the kids are going to make mistakes and you have to expect that.
“But on the other hand, you have to make sure that you address it the right way because they’re young and sometimes they can take it the wrong way. You have to be as positive as you can be.”
Espada was once like a lot of his players, even American ones. He’s from a Latin American country, but was drafted low; he struggled as a young player in places far from home; and he knows what it’s like to love the game unconditionally, but fail to find your footing at the imperative time.
And now, just like his players, he says he still has more to learn about this game.
“I try and bestow on them to watch the game,” Espada said. “If you just sit down and watch the game, you learn so much. Like I tell them, I’m not only watching the other players’ mistakes, I’m also watching the other manager because he might do something I like and say, ‘I never thought about that,’ so I can learn also. They can sit down and watch the other team’s mistakes, your team’s mistakes and that’s how you get better. Just watch the game.”
Almost as important for the players as watching their own manager.