When Joe Maddon came to Milton Keynes

The enthusiasm and attention created by MLB Battlegrounds last Tuesday has been wonderful to witness.

We’ll have to wait and see what else MLB UK has planned to build on the momentum created by that event, but in any case it was great that there was a direct immediate benefit of the event in GB youngsters getting the chance to pick the brains of Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena.

This is far from the first time that MLB – and those based this end – has played a part in bringing players and coaches across the pond to share their wisdom.

When Joe Maddon runs out of the dug-out at the All-Star Game in Miami on Tuesday night, many Brits watching might not realise that 22 years ago he was in Milton Keynes helping British baseball coaches.

The MLB International Coaching Clinic

There were a range of initiatives run by MLB International in the 1990s, but one of the most important was the Coaching Clinic series. These ran from 1993 to 1997 (as far as I can tell) and offered a weekend indoor course in January with a panel of MLB organisation coaches (and some umpires).

There were some good names among them, including:

  • Jim Lefebvre in 1997, who had managed the Seattle Mariners and Chicago Cubs before then and went on to manage the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999
  • Buck Rodgers in 1994, who was the California Angels’ manager at the time
  • Bert Blyleven, also in 1994, who was part of the Angels’ coaching staff and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
  • Terry Collins in 1996, who was managing the Houston Astros at that point and is currently the New York Mets’ manager.

The 1995 edition

The 1995 three-day MLB International Coaching Clinic was held at Cranfield University, Milton Keynes, from Friday 20th January to Sunday 22nd.

It was led by then Oakland A’s pitching Coach Dave Duncan, the long-term right-hand man of Tony La Russa, and the group included the California Angels’ Minor League Director of Player Development.

That was Joe Maddon.

The November 1994 edition of the Brit-Ball publication proclaimed that “the 1995 clinic crew are probably the most experienced baseball people to come to Britain”. It further explained what would be in store for attendees:

“The clinic will cover all aspects of the game, catering for all coaches from beginner to advanced. This year’s clinic will be practical in nature. Based in a sports hall setting the emphasis will be on drills and practices, providing opportunities for our coaches to see the big leaguers at work, and learn through direct experience of their sessions.

Running alongside the main sessions will be a junior clinic aimed directly at junior players and coaches. This will provide first class coaching for the junior players, and the opportunity for junior coaches to observe other coaches in action”.

The February 1995 edition of Brit-Ball included a review of the event and interviews with the coaches. Understandably, the hot topic of conversation at the event was the ongoing MLB player strike, but plenty of other matters were discussed too.

When asked what the best advice he could give to managers and players starting out, Maddon replied: “If you could develop the ability to scout players then you can break players down to their grass roots, in terms of all their physical talents, and be able to correct any fundamentals”.

That sounds just as relevant to coaches today – if not even more so – than it was at the time.

Prescient British baseball minds

Joe Maddon has earned a reputation as a bright, innovative coach and someone who connects with his players. He clearly made a strong impression with the attendees in 1995 too.

The same Brit-Ball edition included a couple of letters from attendees of the event, including one from Dean Davidson of Leeds City Royals. Davidson described the event as “the best yet”, stating that all the speakers “were able to break the game down to a level where a complete novice could understand but there was enough information so that an experienced player/coach could go away knowing he had learnt something”.

But then went on to add:

“I would like to end by thanking all the clinicians involved, especially Joe Maddon, who I feel was the most comprehensive clinician we have had to date”.

Few could have guessed at the time that Maddon would go on to become the man to lead the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series in over 100 years, but I like to think that Dean Davidson’s comments showed that – even back then – Maddon’s exceptional qualities shone through.

Recent years

BaseballSoftballUK, British Baseball Federation and the Great Britain set-up have brought some Major Leaguers over during the off-season in more recent times.

Most notable was the 2012 European Big League Tour led by Dutch pitcher Rick van den Hurk, who was joined by fellow Netherlands player Roger Bernadina, Chris Dickerson and Jeremy Guthrie (who would go on to pitch in a World Series for the Kansas City Royals). GB players such as Michael Roth and Jake Esch have also spent time in the UK in recent off-seasons.

With MLB clearly keen to bring games across to London at some point, and the hope for more MLB UK events too, it would be great if these MLB promotion events (which are certainly beneficial to British baseball in themselves) are joined by more opportunities for British players and coaches to learn from MLB players and coaches.

Brit-Ball publications on Project COBB

Brit-Ball was a newsletter described as “The Official Voice of the British Baseball Federation” and was published between 1993 and 1998. All but one of the volumes of the newsletters have been scanned and are available to access on the Project COBB (Chronicling of British Baseball) website.

They are one of a range of brilliant materials and resources available. If browsing the materials inspires you to take an active interest in British baseball history and research, or if you have any materials you are willing to share, please get in touch by using the contact details on the Project COBB website.

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