TROY — As the Tri-City ValleyCats’ 2018 season has neared closer, Jason Bell has gotten more than a few encouraging slaps on the back.
“Everybody was once a first-time manager,” Bell said Wednesday at his team’s media day. “Everybody can relate to those first feelings.”
Each year, the ValleyCats’ roster is a collection of young guys trying to make it.
This year, that includes the manager for the Houston Astros’ Class A short-season affiliate.
Bell, 27, appreciates the support he has received from his organization and mentors as the ValleyCats prepare for Friday’s New York-Penn League opener against the Vermont Lake Monsters at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. When play starts, though, Bell said he wants the focus to be on his players.
“I don’t think — really — it’s about me,” said Bell, whose team topped the PGCBL’s Albany Dutchmen 6-1 Wednesday in an exhibition matchup. “I think the whole minor league system, the whole professional baseball player development [system], is about the players. So I don’t like to even think about myself in that regard because I’m here to help them develop as quick as they can and reach their goals.”
Bell, who replaces Morgan Ensberg as ValleyCats manager, is only in his fourth year coaching. After a college playing career split between Saint Louis University and the University of Central Missouri, Bell started coaching at Ohio University in 2015 as a director of baseball operations. Bell will wear No. 29 this season, an homage to Ohio head coach Rob Smith — who also wears No. 29 — helping him get his start.
Since spending a year at Ohio, Bell served for a year as pitching coach at Maryland Eastern-Shore before spending last season as a development coach for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Class A affiliate.
What has he learned along the way?
Not to forget to have fun.
“Sometimes, we forget that this is a game,” Bell said. “It’s important and it’s a lot of pressure, but if we take the fun out of it, we don’t perform our best. So I think if you can have a fun atmosphere where you’re playing hard and expecting a lot out of the players, I think you can get a lot out of them, too.”
Bell said communicating with his players — to start, a 28-man roster — will be the “most important” aspect of his first managerial job, especially given the lack of professional experience many of his players possess.
“There’s a lot of new ideas coming at them at once. It’s hard for them to get it right way,” Bell said. “So it’s my job to implement it and push it the right way.”
Bell’s players were mostly relaxed Wednesday, but Bell expects there to be some nerves for the ValleyCats when Friday night’s first pitch comes around.
That includes for the rookie manager, too.
“But,” Bell said, “I think if you don’t have them a little bit, I don’t know if you’re human.”
Beer on the way
Seth Beer, this year’s first-round draft pick of the Astros, is expected to join the ValleyCats’ roster within the next week.
“I’m excited to work with him, actually, defensively because people are doubting his [fielding] abilities,” Bell said of the outfielder, who signed his contract last weekend. “But I really believe in the Houston Astros organization as far as how we can develop defense.”
Offensively, Beer is coming off a tremendous junior season at Clemson University. Beer, a left-handed hitter, hit 22 home runs with a .456 on-base percentage in 63 games.
Players from five countries make up this year’s Opening Day roster for the ValleyCats.
“It’s guys from all over the world, which is an awesome combination for everybody,” Bell said. “That way, we can all kind of learn from each other.”
Currently, the ValleyCats feature players from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, United States and Venezuela.