BY MATT LaWELL
VIERA, Florida | A while back, Joe Ayrault reeled in a largemouth bass down here in Florida, and he eyed a white-tailed buck during a trip with friends up in Indiana, and he snared a gator somewhere in between, which is sort of ridiculous when you actually stop and think about it for a second. A gator. Lot of teeth in there.
Ayrault loves the outdoors. Always has. He loves his wife, too, and his kids, and baseball. He turned 40 last month, a couple weeks into spring training, his first as the manager of the Brevard County Manatees. When he moved into his new office in the windowless cinder block innards of Space Coast Stadium, he figured the place could use some decoration. So he mounted the bass near the door, positioned the buck skull on a fridge and dropped the gator head and all its teeth right on his desk. Maybe make folks feel a little more comfortable.
Hard to say the man has no sense of humor.
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“I consider myself a baseball guy,” Ayrault says a week into his first season back in the Florida State League. “I think when other people call somebody a baseball guy, it’s one of the highest honors you can get.”
You might not know Joe Ayrault, but he really is a baseball guy, the kind of guy who makes baseball work, the kind of guy other baseball guys talk about all the time. Been a baseball guy ever since his sophomore year of high school, when a scout talked with him after a game and let him know that if he suffered any sort of football injury, his baseball career was probably finished. Better start to think about a decision. He picked baseball.
“Whenever you get good baseball people around you, you ask ’em questions,” he says. “I probably get on their nerves, I ask them too many questions. You just try to gain knowledge from guys who have been around a long time.” — Brevard County manager Joe Ayrault
A couple years later, the Atlanta Braves grabbed him in the fifth round of the draft, a young catcher with all sorts of promise. He moved a rung up the ladder almost every year, from Pulaski to Macon to Durham, back when Durham was still in the Carolina League and three steps from the Majors. He played two seasons in Greenville, one in Richmond and then, in 1996, seven glorious games in Atlanta. He was 24.
He was up there to watch, to learn. Like most rookies, he blended with the background, but he still asked plenty of questions. “Whenever you get good baseball people around you, you ask ’em questions,” he says. “I probably get on their nerves, I ask them too many questions. You just try to gain knowledge from guys who have been around a long time.” He always wanted to get a little bit better. He sat on the bench in the playoffs and watched the Braves sweep the Dodgers and outlast the Cardinals and take two games from the Yankees before somehow dropping four straight in the World Series.
He opened the next season back in the minors and split about a month’s worth of games between Greenville and Richmond. A pair of shoulder surgeries the next three years limited his effectiveness behind the plate. Catchers have to throw, too.
He never played in the Majors again.
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On opening night last week, his first night with all his players in the same clubhouse, Ayrault decided to lighten the mood before the first game of the season against the Daytona Cubs. The son of a high school art teacher, he still likes to draw and cultivate his creative side. Baseball is so very much by the numbers — one finger almost always means fastball — and he wants to use both sides of his brain.
Ayrault prefers Sharpies, the kinds with tips about as pointed as a needle. He draws on his notepads and on whiteboards around the stadium. “He’s a little bit of a doodler,” Manatees catcher Adam Weisenburger says. “I haven’t seen his big-scale drawings, but I’ve seen a couple on his sheets. He’s pretty good.” Ayrault opted for a pair of scissors last week to cut out a picture of his starting pitcher, Taylor Jungmann, and a picture of a hunter with a rifle in front of a dead bear. He popped Jungmann’s head on the hunter and posted the picture in the clubhouse.
The Manatees beat the Cubs, 11-4, and Jungmann allowed a run over five innings in his first professional start.
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A couple years after he played his last game, Ayrault was back in school. He wanted to be a teacher, just like his mother and his wife, Kelly. He figured he would teach high school business. “If I didn’t like teaching,” he says, “at least I could fall back on the business degree and coach baseball.” He never did teach high school business. He did fall back on coaching baseball.
Thanks to his old connections in the game, Ayrault talked with a man named Fred Dabney, who called another man named Reid Nichols, who called a third man named Bob Miscik. All three are baseball guys. Today, Dabney is the pitching coach for the Nashville Sounds, Nichols is the farm director for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Miscik is the infield coordinator for the Brewers. But back in 2001, they all worked in the Texas Rangers organization.
One morning during that offseason, Miscik called Ayrault and they talked for about 75 minutes. It was Ayrault's first professional interview. “I was walking around my house in boxer shorts."
One morning during that offseason, Miscik called Ayrault and they talked for about 75 minutes. Forever a student, then a baseball player, then a student again, it was the first professional interview Ayrault ever had. “I was walking around my house in boxer shorts,” Ayrault says. Miscik was impressed even then and figured the Rangers would hire Ayrault as a hitting coach down the ladder in Rookie ball, so before they hung up, Miscik dropped in his own blend of humor. They were both Florida boys, familiar with each other, able to laugh at jokes that others might not understand. Miscik says now he doesn’t remember what he said, but Ayrault does.
“‘Don’t mess up,’” Ayrault says after about 10 seconds of laughs. “‘It’s my name on the line.’”
Not long after that, Nichols called back. The Rangers offered Ayrault his first professional job.
Whenever he sees any of those men today, he still thanks them.
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During spring training, Ayrault learned that his father-in-law, a good man named Scott Baker, had just received word that he had Stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer. Baker’s doctor told him that of all the patients with that diagnosis that he had seen or read about, the longest lived eight years.
Ayrault had spent two seasons out in Montana, the manager of the Helena Brewers, and he loved it out West. He would wake up in the morning and fish or hunt, sit on a river or in a tree stand, think about his lineup. Kelly would fly out with the kids — Haley, 7, and Kole, 4 and already batting left-handed — after the school year ended. It was fun, but it was so far from family. That was part of the reason he came back to the FSL.
In March, Ayrault and Baker spent time together, talked about things. Baker’s goal now is to live at least eight more years. That would put him at 67. Any day now, Ayrault’s new jersey, with No. 67 stitched on the back, will arrive at the park. He’ll wear it the rest of the season.
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Ayrault is an outdoorsman and an artist, a husband and a father and a son. And even though he never spent a day inside a high school classroom talking to teenagers about business, he’s still a teacher.
“I think baseball is very similar,” he says. “Next year, you get a new class. You might get a couple returners, but getting to know each player — not just in terms of baseball or talent, but their background, family, what they like to do — you can be a better teacher knowing those things, and you can be a better manager.”
Baker’s goal now is to live at least eight more years. That would put him at 67. Any day now, Ayrault’s new jersey — No. 67 stitched on the back — will arrive at the park. He’ll wear it the rest of the season.
He has spent enough time with this new group to set up the rotation, figure out the lineup, start to learn a little bit more about his players. He managed a handful of them in Helena two years ago, when they won the Pioneer League championship together, but he can always know more. Just like he asked questions of all those older coaches and players when he was in the dugout in Atlanta, he asks questions of all those younger players who he has to understand in order to help them reach their potential.
How long will he coach? How high can he climb? Can he reach the Majors again, this time for more than two months?
“It depends on the situation,” he says. Family will play as big a role as professional development. He wants to watch Haley and Kole grow up, wants to grow old with Kelly, wants to spend time with Baker — they all hope for at least eight years. He has a good resume, of course, a good feel for the game, a high ceiling in terms of what he can still accomplish in the dugout.
He wants to stay in the game as long as he can, however long that is.
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What else do people need to know about Joe Ayrault?
Ask his starting catcher. “Any questions, any things I need or I’m curious about, he’s there so I can pick his brain, I’m there so he can pick my brain,” says Weisenburger, who shares a position with his manager. “It’s a good relationship.”
Or the ace his rotation. “He keeps us loose,” says Jungmann, the pitcher who hunted cubby bears, if only on a piece of paper before the games. “And when it comes time to be serious, he’s pretty serious.”
Or the man who stumped for him more than a decade ago, the man who listened to some of his questions and answered just about all them. “I don’t know what y’all talked about,” says Miscik. He stops and thinks for a couple seconds and says the first words that come to him. “Solid baseball guy,” he says.
“Solid baseball guy.”
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