18th of Jun | Story

A natural teacher


SPRINGDALE, Arkansas | Brian Poldberg has played, coached or managed somewhere for the Kansas City Royals every season for the last three decades. He landed in the Major Leagues for a while, for four seasons, first as a bullpen coach, then as a first base coach, then as a third base coach. Every other season has been spent somewhere in the minor leagues. Poldberg goes where the Royals want him to go. 

“To me, this is a job,” he says. He stops for a few seconds, laughs and counters the statement. “No, it’s not. Minor league baseball, this is the heart and soul of any young kid having the chance to play in the big leagues. This is an opportunity to play in the bright lights.”

Poldberg has helped hundreds of young players move up the ladder over the last quarter of a century and has helped guide dozens to Kansas City. Since he set aside his chest protector, shin guards and mask after the 1985 season, he has logged stints in Appleton and Baseball City, Eugene and Lansing, Memphis and Wilmington, Springfield and here in Springdale with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. He has coached hitters, developed catchers, managed more than 1,700 games and won more than half of them.

“You never know what your next team’s going to be, but you go out and try to make everybody better.” — Northwest Arkansas Naturals manager Brian Poldberg

Why stay in the minors? Why not move to some other team for another shot in the Majors? Because Poldberg is a Royal, because he wants to retire a Royal, because he wants to continue to help develop players, because he enjoys working every day with his hitting coach Terry Bradshaw and pitching coach Larry Carter, because the park where he works now is nicer than any he ever played or coached in during his previous stops in the minors, because he knows nothing else and, above all else, because he still enjoys it.

He has thrived during the kind of run the last four seasons that few minor league managers ever will. The first manager in the history of the Naturals — the team moved to Springdale from Wichita, Kansas, after 21 seasons as the Wranglers — he has never finished a season here with a losing record and has guided the team to the Texas League playoffs four times, the championship series twice and the title once, back in 2010, with a team filled with future Major Leaguers. “I’m never going to have a better team than that,” he says.

He still remembers road games in Columbus, Georgia, back more than 30 years ago, where players sweated in clubhouses without air conditioning. “You go in after a game, you take a shower and you’re sweating as bad as you were after the game,” he says. “The bus rides, the playing surfaces, the life.” The parks are nicer now. Arvest Ballpark has air conditioning, of course. It has a weight room and indoor batting cages, too, an underground labyrinth of training facilities. Those never existed when Poldberg still played.

He is a baseball guy, from the work ethic to the mustache that would make Tom Selleck jealous. “You never know what your next team’s going to be,” he says. “But you go out and try to make everybody better.”


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Time for minor league trivia. When the Naturals still played their home games at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium as the Wichita Wranglers, they almost always spent much of July on the road to free up the stadium for what annual national competition? (Keep reading for the answer.)

The Naturals scored single runs in the bottom of the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th innings — each of the last four with two outs — to rally for a dramatic 6-5 win over the Tulsa Drillers. The Naturals tied the game in the ninth after rightfielder Nick Van Stratten singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and third on a ground out, then scored on a single to left by first baseman John Whittleman. They won it an inning later after designated hitter Carlos Testa doubled with two outs and catcher Julio Rodriguez singled him home four pitches later.

Ten nights before we watched the Naturals rally to beat the Drillers in the bottom of the 10th, they beat the Arkansas Travelers in similar fashion — as the Thunder Chickens. The temporary name change was at the center of a promotion that considered what might have been. Before the Naturals played a game, they needed a name. Naturals wound up first ... and Thunder Chickens finished second. Almost five years after one nickname rose and another faded away, why not look back at the possibilities? The team sold almost all of its limited supply of Thunder Chickens caps, shirts and jerseys. More important, they won. How can you argue with the results? The Naturals have a .531 winning percentage. The Thunder Chickens winning percentage? A perfect 1.000.

Want the answer? The Wranglers called the road home for long stretches every summer because of the National Baseball Congress World Series, weeks of games among 15 of the top amateur leagues in the country, held every season at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium since 1935. Loads of future Major Leaguers have played in the tournament — including Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tony Gwynn, Tim Lincecum and Albert Pujols — and the dozens of games necessitated one of the more jarring field designs: Until last year, the stadium featured a grass outfield and a turf infield.

And in random statistical news, the game started a record 10 minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter flied out to right. A woman sang the national anthem in 1 minute, 41.9 seconds. For dinner, we ate hot dogs up in the press box and a mini helmet full of Dippin’ Dots down on the concourse with a photographer friend who used to shoot some of our stories when we all worked together in North Carolina. That was fun.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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