FORT MYERS, Fla. — The scene you would assume most shaped the newest manager of the Red Sox has played out in countless American backyards, an exchange so familiar it closes one of the most highly regarded baseball movies, “Field of Dreams,” when Ray Kinsella says, “Hey dad, you wanna have a catch?”
Ron Roenicke certainly enjoyed many California evenings playing catch with his father, Floyd, whose willingness to throw batting practice without a protective screen meant that he walked away bruised by the shots Ron and his brother Gary scorched back at him. But it also meant the world to his boys.
That both would end up in the major leagues is one testament to their father’s influence, to the example Floyd set not simply by reminding them of his own hitting prowess with a few clear-the-fence blasts but also by helping them hone their skills.
Because as much as the lives of the young Roenickes were about catching a baseball (or a football, or a basketball, depending on the season), lessons weren’t learned because they came from a fellow athlete. They were learned because they came from a teacher.
It was in those moments of instruction that a father took time to fix a batting stance, position an outfielder, or properly curl a small pair of hands around a bat handle, or that a brilliant and patient mother sat down to go over an English, algebra, or science assignment, that the true foundation of Ron Roenicke was set.
It was in those moments, in a household led by two teachers where education was the bedrock and the true family backdrop was a chalkboard, that Roenicke was shaped.
“My dad was pretty serious — I know he was always serious when we were playing ball," said Roenicke. "And my mom, she was a little different; I remember her laughing a lot when I was a kid.
“My mom was good at everything, one of those students you’re just jealous of who got one B in college. With my dad, because he was coaching baseball and basketball at that time, I can remember the different things, practices, how to approach hitting.
"Both my brother and I learned so much obviously by him teaching, but also us trying to figure it all out. Yeah, he was a really good teacher both in the classroom and for me growing up.”
If coaching is merely teaching dressed up in a uniform, then Roenicke is its master craftsman, shaped by the most important people around him.
Teachers, teachers everywhere: Ron’s grandfather, a longtime superintendent of school districts. His grandmother, an accomplished schoolteacher. His mother, Corliss, a grade-school teacher. His father, a high school math teacher and later an administrator. His wife Karen, a physical education teacher at the high school, middle school, and adaptive levels. His mother-in-law, Alline Kranzer, a kindergarten teacher. His grandmother-in-law, Katherine Mahanay, a special ed teacher. His son, Lance, a high school PE teacher.
“Teaching and coaching go hand in hand,” Lance is saying over the phone from Sante Fe Christian Schools, where he also coaches the varsity baseball team. “I fell in the middle of that. They work so well together. Both are all about how you work with individuals, how you connect with each one.
“When you can help someone really find success, that is so rewarding. And that’s the biggest thing for my dad. If you can help one person maybe do something in a way that prolongs their playing career or helps them win a job or helps them win a ballgame, it’s so rewarding to feel like you’re making a difference. That’s what coaching is and that’s what teaching is.”
Targeting this job
It was just a few short months ago that the Red Sox were in complete disarray. Before the world would go on collective hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, before baseball’s spring training was shuttered along with all other major sports events in the country, the Red Sox were already operating in chaos.
They had parted ways with manager Alex Cora in the wake of the sign-stealing fiasco in Houston, where he had been bench coach. The scandal hit the Sox hard. Stunned by the rapidity of it all, the brain trust had to restore order, and in short order.
How could the Sox possibly find the right man to replace such a popular manager, one beloved within the clubhouse walls, a bilingual former player who had earned respect across the game, one who was so engaged with the public and the media? The Cora shadow was going to be long and dark, threatening to swallow anyone unprepared for the unavoidable comparisons to a manager who only two seasons ago, in his debut on the job, won a World Series.
When his turn came to sit down for a job interview, the 63-year-old bench coach was ready.
“I have never gone after a job harder in my life than this job,” he said early in spring training. “I wanted it more than any job I’ve had. Just because I thought it was right. It was the right fit to get us through a period and also hopefully get us back in the playoffs.”
‘I have never gone after a job harder in my life than this job. I wanted it more than any job I’ve had. Just because I thought it was right. It was the right fit to get us through a period and also hopefully get us back in the playoffs.’
His résumé was strong. The two years sitting beside Cora came after years learning alongside Mike Scioscia with the Angels and were bolstered by a largely successful four-plus-year managerial stint in Milwaukee from 2011-15.
But there are plenty of good résumés out there. What Roenicke had to sell was the stability he would bring, and not just because he was a familiar face, but because he was a trusted familiar face, one who could guide players through turbulent times that also saw top players Mookie Betts and David Price get traded to the Dodgers.
“There have been a lot of manager jobs open, but he would never go and put his name out there, he just thought, ‘It’s in God’s hands and it will come to me,’ ” said his wife Karen. “For this one, he thought, ‘I need to take care of this team, and I know that I’m the guy to do it, so I’m going to let them know that.’ ”
The pitch worked.
And then? It was right back to work.
Invested in his players
Roenicke’s first task — organizing spring training — was one he did for Cora anyway. His next step —interacting daily with players as their manager rather than the bench coach — didn’t require much change on his part either.
Even now, as the sports world grapples with so much uncertainty and teams have social-distanced themselves into far-flung corners of the map, the calming voice of Roenicke has connected from California to all points Red Sox. Though nothing can replace in-person work, this temporary new normal has reminded us that the mere sight of a child’s teacher on a computer screen can revive a flagging spirit, that the connection is what matters most.
“Basically that’s what I feel like, that I’m a teacher,” Roenicke said. “I think most coaches would feel the same way. We’re dealing most of the time with younger people, and we’re not just instructing them on baseball or whatever it is in the classroom, but on life also.
“I know that I’m interested in what guys do off the field, I’m interested in their family, and I think the good teachers dig down deeper than just what they are teaching, more teaching them about life and what they’re going to need to do later on. What can happen in life, how to get through it, and anything that can help that student.
"With us as coaches, it’s trying to figure out every person as an individual, what makes them tick, what helps them in baseball, and then in life.”
With a curious mind that rarely slows down, Roenicke is both an engaged and engaging man. He reads voraciously, including the entirety of Louis L’Amour’s library of books roughly three times apiece (they help quiet his mind before sleep), though he counts nonfiction works such as “Lone Survivor” and “Unbroken” among his favorites.
He is a master woodworker. He rebuilt a 1940s Woody car. He fishes. He golfs. He did glasswork until his hands bled, which forced him to give it up. He recently took over his late father-in-law’s cattle ranch.
His players might not do many of those exact things, but they have interests of their own, and Roenicke is invested in their lives. When you’re ready to hear what others have to say, they are far more receptive to what they need to hear from you. It’s how teachers connect with students. It’s how this manager connects with his players.
“Because he’s been here, he’s a known commodity,” first baseman Mitch Moreland said. “He’s such a smart guy. In-game stuff, some of what he picks up on, he sees the game really slow. He’s able to pick out little things that can help you constantly.
"Obviously he’s more of an outfield guy and talks with them a little more as far as defensive side of it, but base running, where you’re supposed to be in each spot, throughout the game, he’ll see it all.”
After 43 years in the game (drafted on five different occasions, Roenicke signed his first minor league deal in 1977, made his major league debut in 1981, and has been coaching at the major or minor league level since 1992), he has seen it all. He doesn’t love the term “lifer” — it is far too limited to contain his many interests — but he has loved his life in baseball. It never stops being interesting.
“As long as I’m in this game, when I’m out on the field or in the stands, I still see something new almost every day," he said. "You wouldn’t think that. Maybe 200 games a year and to see something or hear something new every day? It’s pretty amazing.”
Spoken like a true student, the product of a world full of teachers.