February 26, 2013
MESA, Ariz. — Ask Tom Runnells for his spot in Colorado Springs, and the answer is out almost before you finish the question.
We all have a spot, a second home, where thoughts are clearer and the crazy world slows down into something that makes sense.
“My haven was Cheyenne Mountain,” said Runnells, the former Sky Sox manager.
“I lived there, golfed there. I would go up to the bar there and have dinner once in a while. The scene, the setting, was just great. I loved it.”
His spot these days? A dugout seat next to Walt Weiss. Or the top of the dugout steps next to Weiss, or the dinner table next to Weiss. That shadow you see isn't Weiss'; it's Runnells.
"Three games into spring training, I asked him if he’s tired from me leaning on him,” Weiss joked in his clubhouse office.
This Rockies situation, too, is a crazy world, and the field staff is in the process of making sense of it all.
That’s where Runnells comes in. For a moment, toss aside concerns over the health of Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki or the uncertain status of their pitching rotation.
One of the key figures in the 2013 Rockies season won’t bat .300, make the All-Star Game or throw a pitch.
It is Runnells, the bench coach. With a sharp baseball eye and over two decades of coaching stories, Runnells rapidly has developed into the right-hand man for Weiss, who clearly has the acumen for the job, if not the experience.
As he works from day-to-day this spring, soaking up each smidgeon of know-how, Weiss seldom completes a postgame media session without mentioning two constants.
The word “aggressive,” in some form or another.
The name “Tommy,” in some form or another.
Runnells has 25 years of coaching experience in baseball — from AA to AAA to the major leagues. Weiss has four years of coaching experience in baseball — in Class 5A, at Regis Jesuit High School.
“He’s awesome,” Runnells said. “He’s going to be a good one.”
“Tommy’s a great security blanket for me,” Weiss added.
With a first-time skipper and franchise-wide uncertainty, it is a brave, new world the Rockies are diving into, like Dexter Fowler on a pickoff throw to first.
The smartest move Weiss has made, however, might be keeping Runnells as bench coach.
In 1991, Runnells became a first-time major league manager. He replaced Buck Rodgers, a popular figure, who was fired by the Expos.
That wasn’t easy an easy transition.
“For me at the time, it was very unique. I was the youngest manager in the big leagues at the time,” Runnells said. “There certainly were people I leaned heavily on. It can be a very wonderful situation. It can be a very ruthless situation.”
This won’t be easy for Weiss, either. The healthy Rockies are better than experts think. But Weiss will need some smoke and mirrors to make them competitive in a loaded NL West.
And you know how Bill Geivitt, the director of operations, has an office in the Rockies clubhouse at Coors Field?
He also has one in the Rockies clubhouse at their spring training home, Salt River Fields.
"He's never made me feel (uncomfortable)," Weiss said, apparently unconcerned with the odd set-up.
"There's a lot of people watching me," he joked. "I'm managing the club. I'm not too worried about that stuff."
As a first-time manager, Runnells had baseball minds he would lean on. One was Greg Riddoch, the former Padres manager and a fellow Greeley native. Another was Jerry Manuel, then the third-base coach for the Expos.
“Having people like that, who are in the game, who you can share your innermost feelings, good, bad or indifferent, I think it’s important,” said Runnells, the Sky Sox manager from 2006 through the early part of 2009. “Certainly, I hope I become that guy for Walt — and for any of the other coaches and players that need that.
"This is a very tough sport. It is very much a grind — physically, emotionally, family, having success, longevity — it’s tough. Hopefully you can be some help."
Runnells has his new spot. It is in a clubhouse of Rockies coaches that seem to click with a camaraderie evident since the spring training opener.
"We’re really blessed," Runnells said. "Dante (Bichette) is tremendous. He’s going to be tremendous with the players, just the way he interacts with them is huge. You get him and Walt and Vinny (Castilla) and me and now (Pedro) Astacio — oh my gosh, the stories are endless."
This is a fine spot to be.