26th of Jun | Story

First person: Buddy Bailey


KODAK, Tennessee | Buddy Bailey managed his first season in the minors with the Pulaski Braves when he was 24 years old. That was more than three decades ago and Bailey is still in dugouts all over the country. Born Welby Shelton Bailey Jr. by his father and nicknamed Buddy by his mother, Bailey is in his seventh season with the Chicago Cubs organization and his first season as the manager of the Tennessee Smokies.

What has he learned? How about we start with what his mother learned?

She didn’t agree with my father to call me a junior after him. Or maybe they saw a dog out in the street and somebody yelled at it and said the dog’s name was Buddy, but I looked like it. One of the two, I’m not sure which story.

I grew up a country boy in Virginia, slopping hogs and breaking people’s horses and raising a garden and cutting hay. Actually went to college, got a degree, thought I was going to be a high school teacher.

"The first clubhouse talk, I was 24, sitting in my office, planning my speech. What am I going to say? My palms are wet. I walk in the clubhouse, ‘Hey guys, I’m Buddy Bailey.’ I could barely remember my name because I was so nervous at that age. And then when I looked at their faces, they were whiter than I was and sweating more than I was. They were more nervous than I was." — Tennessee manager Buddy Bailey

I was 24 and at big league camp. Dal Maxvill was the third-base coach for the Braves at the time, Joe Torre was the manager. Dal came by one morning and told me, ‘Hey, Joe wants to talk to you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t been out after curfew, I haven’t messed anything up, what’s going on?’ Just me and him went in his office and Joe said a lot of people in the organization had recommended me because they needed a rookie league manager and they suggested I might be the guy. I actually told Joe, ‘I’m 24, I want to keep trying to play.’ He talked for a long time and said, ‘I’m trying to tell you something.’ So I made a decision then and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ I go out on the field and all of that, and I came in off the field and go to my locker and everything is gone. What’s this all about? I went to the clubby and I said, ‘Man, where’s all my stuff?’ He said, ‘You’re a coach now. You’re down by Bob Gibson.’ So I grew up real quick from 24 and however many other days. It didn’t take another year, it happened in a couple of hours.

The first clubhouse talk, I was 24, sitting in my office, planning my speech. What am I going to say? My palms are wet. I walk in the clubhouse, ‘Hey guys, I’m Buddy Bailey.’ I could barely remember my name because I was so nervous at that age. And then when I looked at their faces, they were whiter than I was and sweating more than I was. They were more nervous than I was. 

They gained confidence and I gained confidence because they ended up doing pretty well. We lost that first season, I think, by a game. But we won 25 of the last 30, too, so that was a big thing. We were a game back with 30 to go and it stayed that way till the end. We were back seven, cut it to one, and we won our last seven and darn if they didn’t win their last seven to hold us off. It was the Brewers.

Our goal is to help them do everything they can and, at the same time, still be able to tap the heart in them that we all had when we were 4, 5, 6 years old — the love of the game. We just have to help them turn into men mentally and emotionally. You can never let somebody lose their love of the game. We have to keep that in them. Just play with a kid’s heart and a man’s head. 

I don’t know. I haven’t been in Venezuela the last 10 years and going to the Caribbean. Luckily, most of the years, we average 90 there and 140 here, so 230 games a year over 10 years, so that’s 2,300, I guess. And then before that, I don’t know what the total is. Somebody’s got to go figure it all out.

That’s why I’ve been doing this so long and doing winter ball a bunch of years. People always ask me, ‘How can you go to winter ball so many years that you do it?’ As long as you have the love in your heart and you really enjoy doing it, why not do it? 

Well, I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about it. Until people tell me I can’t do it anymore, probably. They haven’t told me that yet. I have no plans not to do it right now. Too much kid in my heart for baseball.

It ain’t fun to ride eight or nine hours after you lose a doubleheader. Thank goodness the College World Series was still on. That was the best baseball I saw yesterday.

I think everybody remembers their first game their father took them to.

It was in Lynchburg, A-league, because we lived about 20 miles north and my dad took me and my brother there. It was a day game and they took us out of school. I was a first-grader. I liked it so much, me and my brother would cry all the time so he would take us. He started taking us, once a home stand he would take us over there. The stadium wasn’t packed all the time and we were lucky to get foul balls. You would position yourself for foul balls and you would usually get one. 

I’ve never caught one. I get them when they stop rolling.

It’s not the old, run-down, beat-up ballparks like you used to see with the wooden bleachers. You would sit there and get hurt and somebody would have to help you get the splinters out of your butt.


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Time for minor league trivia. Before Smokies Park opened in 2000 in Kodak, the team played in what Knoxville stadium from 1955 until 1999. Need a hint? It was named after a Knoxville native who played and managed minor league baseball in his hometown — and played and managed in the Majors. (Keep reading for the answer.)

The Smokies hit four homers off Birmingham Barons righty Cameron Bayne on their way to an 11-6 win. Smokies rightfielder Michael Burgess slugged two over the wall, and centerfielder Jae-Hoon Ha and catcher Michael Brenly followed with their own shots. Seven Smokies reached base at least two times in a game where the team outhit the Barons 15-5.

Since becoming the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs in 2007, the Smokies have embraced the traditions of their parent club. After each victory, a white flag with a blue W is raised in center and “Go Cubs Go” blares from the speakers. In 2008, former Cubs great Ryne Sandberg managed the team. The next season, the Smokies designated section 107 as “Sandberg Alley” to commemorate the long lines that formed in the walkway as fans waited for the Hall of Famer’s autograph. He signed for hundreds — sometimes thousands — every game.

Smokies Park receives a stream of visitors during non-game days, too, because it’s also home to the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center. The park sits just off exit 407 on I-40, making it easy for tourists to spot and stop for information on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The visitor center is open Monday though, Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and — conveniently — has an entrance to the Smokies team store.

Want the answer? Bill Meyer was born in Knoxville in 1893 and died there in 1957 when he was 64. The catcher spent 17 seasons in the minors and parts of three seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1913) and the Philadelphia Athletics (1916 and 1917). Meyer managed 22 seasons in the minors and played a key role in bringing baseball back to Knoxville after World War II.  He later managed the Pittsburgh Pirates for five season. After Meyer died of a heart attack in 1957, the stadium was renamed in his honor.

And in random statistical news, the game started three minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter doubled to left. The national anthem was sung in 1 minute and 9.8 seconds. We had your typical ballpark food in the press box — pasta, steamed vegetables and white rolls. 

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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