Johnny Rodriguez has coached baseball at every level from high school to the big leagues.
There were stops at junior college and Division I programs and throughout the minor leagues.
Rodriguez said they were all different.
“Each level has its own thing and you have to manage it,” said Rodriguez, who is entering his first season as the manager of the State College Spikes. “That’s the key.”
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Rodriguez and part of his team arrived in State College on Saturday, ready for the 2015 season. The Spikes take on the Williamsport Crosscutters in the opener Friday at 7:05 p.m. at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. Rodriguez has been working with his players at extended spring training, and they’ll continue to prepare with workouts this week.
While former manager Oliver Marmol led the Spikes to the New York-Penn League championship last season, Rodriguez guided the Rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals to the Appalachian League title.
Rodriguez, 58, is joined by eight players who played for him at Johnson City last year. The manager said they were playing at ease during extended spring training.
“For them, it’s very relaxing,” Rodriguez said. “They know that they don’t need to show me anything. They don’t need to prove anything, they just need to play. And then they know what I expect from them and they do it.”
Pitcher Ian McKinney said Rodriguez is detail-oriented.
“He likes to preach that the little things are the ones that win the game,” said McKinney, who made six starts with Johnson City and two starts with State College last year. “So if we do the little things right and we do it all the time in practice, it comes back to us in the game. We do it fluently, we do it naturally.”
Rodriguez coached at the high school level at Westminster Christian (Fla.) and at Miami-Dade (Fla.) Community College and the University of Miami during his career. He spent 17 years in the New York Yankees organization, including the 1990 season with the major league club under managers Bucky Dent and Stump Merrill. Dent was fired and replaced by Merrill.
“I was assistant to everything,” said Rodriguez, who threw batting practice and helped with hitting and pitching.
Rodriguez is now helping players develop and climb closer to the big leagues.
From one level to the next, like from Johnson City to State College, there are differences.
“Johnson City, you’re pretty much building them,” Rodriguez said. “You got a lot of inexperience. Here, you got more experience, but the difference in this level is that what you do with them is that you need to develop them a routine — how to be a pro.
“Johnson City, you do it, but you got to be more patient. Here, less patient, let’s get it done.”
He said he treats the players the same, but he gives them more information at higher levels. That can mean more pickoff plays, more bunt defenses and more attempts to hit-and-run.
Rodriguez said he expects his players to give their full effort, to back up bases and to be on top of every play — the little things that win games.
“I make my teams competitive,” Rodriguez said. “They will fight. They’ll fight. I’m not going to guarantee anything, championship, but I’ll tell you one thing: they’ll fight.”
Catcher Brian O’Keefe is looking at this season as a fresh start.
So when the State College players chose their jerseys after arriving Saturday, O’Keefe went with a different number.
“I was 16 last year because I wore that in high school,” said O’Keefe, who will wear No. 23 this summer. “I wanted 23 when I originally came in but it was taken, so I went with 16. It was a new year. I didn’t have exactly the type of year I wanted to have last year, and I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna go back to the number I wore in college, what I’ve worn pretty much my whole life.’”
O’Keefe hit .239 with 17 RBIs in 47 games in 2014, helping the Spikes capture the New York-Penn League championship in his first professional season. The St. Joseph’s University product learned how to prepare to play every day last year, and he said he’s ready for this season.
He is among seven players who made appearances in State College last season. The rest of the group includes: pitchers Dailyn Martinez and McKinney, infielders Ronnierd Garcia and Leobaldo Pina, and outfielders Jhohan Acevedo and Kenny Peoples-Walls.
O’Keefe and Acevedo were key contributors in the Spikes’ run to the Pinckney Division title and league championship.
Acevedo, a center fielder, hit .256 in 56 games for State College.
“If there’s a place you want to go back to, it might be State College,” O’Keefe said. “There’s a great atmosphere and the fans come out and support us every night and great ballpark and just a great overall atmosphere to be around.”
Drafted players to join team
The Spikes’ arrival roster lists 20 players, including pitcher Greg Tomchick and outfielder Thomas Spitz, who were both selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Tomchick was St. Louis’ 27th-round pick out of Old Dominion University, while Spitz was taken in the 32nd round out of Wingate University.
Rodriguez said third-round pick Harrison Bader (outfielder, Florida) and seventh-round pick Jesse Jenner (catcher, University of San Diego) are also set to join the Spikes. Bader and Florida opened play in the College World Series on Saturday night.