Samuel's passion for the game

Interim manager determined to make the Orioles better

June 06, 2010|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

He might have the job for just a few games, but Juan Samuel will still leave his mark on the Orioles as interim manager, those who know him say. He's a baseball lifer with an infectious work ethic, a persuasive style and a cunning knack for getting things done his way.

"This is a really good fit for Sammy," said former Oriole Mickey Tettleton, who played with Samuel in Detroit in 1994. "He always carried himself in a leadership role. Sammy's players will work hard, like he did, and they will play the game right."

The new manager grew up in the Dominican Republic with a passion for the game, playing stickball in the streets and fashioning catchers' masks from rusty scrap metal. One of seven children in a single-parent home, Samuel was earning about $20 a week as a cloth cutter in a pants factory when signed by Philadelphia in 1980.

That passion has never left him. As a rookie second baseman in 1984, he hit the ground running, stealing 72 bases for the Phillies. The shoes he wore that season are in the Hall of Fame. Once, after getting picked off first base, Samuel cursed at himself in Spanish — and was ejected by the umpire, who thought the profanity was directed at him.

Aggressive to a fault as a player, Samuel will accept no less from his Orioles charges.

"I played the game aggressive[ly]. I would like to manage the same way," he said. "Aggressive, take chances, and that's what I will try to do. I expect those guys to come out there with some energy; I expect those guys to compete. That's the No. 1 thing for me. If you compete, and regardless of the outcome, you go home feeling good. Let's go out there and compete. Each pitch, each at-bat. … I would expect these guys to come out on the field with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of fire, and I think fans appreciate that. That's what I want to tell the fans, expect that from them — the enthusiasm, the hustle, the preparation."

That's what others saw from Samuel.

"Live each day as if it is your last. That's the way he plays the game," former Orioles scout Joe McIlvaine once said.

Samuel's work ethic always stood out.

"Sammy was a smart player who always, always worked hard at his trade," said Dave Johnson, the onetime Orioles skipper who managed Samuel with the New York Mets in 1989. "I like him a lot, and I wish him well. It's painful to watch the Orioles on TV now. I hope Sammy does a great job."

Sparky Anderson went a step further.

"I'll guarantee you that Baltimore will wake up, three or four years from now, saying, 'We made a good choice here,'" said Anderson, a Hall of Famer who managed Samuel with the Detroit Tigers in 1994-1995. "Sammy's as honest a human being as there is. I'll bet everything I've got on the table that his career [as a manager] is unbelievable."

That's high praise for Samuel, 49, whose only managing experience is having run Binghamton (N.Y.), the Mets' Class AA farm team, in 2006. That club lost 21 of 30 games in May and had the worst record in the Eastern League on June 1.

Soon after, Samuel addressed his players in a team meeting, and things changed. Binghamton reeled off 11 straight victories, went 22-5 in July and climbed to .500 by season's end.

"We were diligent about getting better, and Juan was the one leading the charge," said Mark Brewer, Binghamton's pitching coach. "At first, things were a little erratic for him that year. He's a hard-nosed guy who had to get his feet wet. But Juan understands people. Common sense is what he brings to the table.

"He would sit players down and pump them up without raising his voice. He brings out the best in you because you can't say no to the guy," Brewer said. "Juan could sell ice cubes to Eskimos — and make them believe that they need them."

Samuel has improved his English greatly since he started with the Phillies. He spoke so little English then that he ordered the same meal, fried chicken, off a fast-food menu each day for more than a month.

Even then, with 16 big-league seasons ahead, Samuel showed an appetite for learning.

"He never refused to learn, and he never refused to work," said Tony Taylor, 75, a former Phillies star who coached Samuel in the minors. "So he got the Orioles' job? I give him big kiss."

Though one of the Phillies' younger players, Samuel displayed a maturity beyond his years, said Rick Schu, a former Orioles third baseman who played with him in Philadelphia from 1984 to 1987.

"Sammy was as even-keeled as they come," Schu said. "He was exciting, for sure. He could run like the wind, and he had a cannon for an arm. But for all of that, he was quiet. And when he spoke, you listened. He had this presence about him."

But Samuel has also shown his ire at times. In 2000, while a Detroit coach, he served a 10-game suspension for his part in a bench-clearing brawl between the Tigers and Chicago White Sox. In 1989, while playing for the Mets, he got into a fracas with Cincinnati pitcher Norm Charlton, who had Samuel by 4 inches and 25 pounds.

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