Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke can’t recall if he took a science class at UCLA all those years ago. He joked that his chief academic ambition was staying eligible.
Now, at the age of 63, Roenicke is charged with guiding a large group of people through a pandemic while serving as the team’s most public-facing spokesman about that complicated effort.
Roenicke felt strongly that he was the right person to take the team over for Alex Cora because of the relationships he built up over two seasons as bench coach.
Chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom explored his options but ultimately agreed with that premise. But this is not remotely what Roenicke signed up for.
Roenicke managed the Brewers from 2011-15, so Mookie Betts being traded and Chris Sale blowing out his elbow during spring training didn’t unnerve him. That’s baseball. Stuff happens and you move on. He was with the Brewers when Ryan Braun was caught up in a PED scandal and suspended.
But no manager could have been ready for a pandemic and the game being shut down for nearly four months.
So there’s a lot to be said for the Red Sox playing a 5½-inning intrasquad game at Fenway Park on Thursday and most of the conversations afterward being about baseball and not COVID-19.
The Sox are still waiting for Eduardo Rodriguez to be cleared to play and they’d certainly like to get lefthanded relievers Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor back. But for the most part, the summer workouts at Fenway have been pretty normal.
It’s a longer day for Roenicke, the coaches, and the grounds crew as the players come through in shifts. But everybody is getting their work in on the field.
Roenicke has even been admirably transparent about the pandemic, getting updates from head athletic trainer Brad Pearson and working with media relations director Kevin Gregg on how best to present the news.
“These things are hard,” Roenicke said. “They’re hard because there are [privacy] laws in place where you can’t disclose everything that goes on. So you have to be careful with what kind of information you give.”
Managing is as much about communication skills as it is baseball knowledge. Players don’t want surprises or to be embarrassed. Autocratic managers are usually unemployed managers before too long.
Roenicke likes taking throws at first base when the infielders are working out or going to the outfield with his well-worn glove to shag flies during batting practice.
That usually creates opportunities to have a one-on-one conversation with a player. But now, with players working out at different times of the day and social distancing a must, those discussions are less organic.
Team meetings also are impossible to have at this point. Those communications skills Roenicke has honed for decades in the game have to be adjusted.
“I still get to what I think is important and I continue to make time to do that,” Roenicke said. “But the bulk of the time is the medical end and trying to figure out how to do things right.”
For now, and probably for the rest of the year, every day is an audible. Plans are drawn up, lineups get made and then they change. You have to even be careful about where you sit in the dugout, as Roenicke learned on Thursday.
“It’s been challenging, no doubt,” he said. “I do like challenges. I do. This will be good when it’s over. I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, this was tough. If we can do that, we can get through anything that comes up.’
“We talk about guys building character. It’s all about what you go through and what you learn and how you keep pushing forward to make whatever abilities you have come out.”
More than he did even in January, Roenicke is convinced he’s the right man for this job, and everything points to that being true.
If baseball does have a season, the Red Sox won’t be expected to do much because of a weak starting rotation. But they have a potent lineup, even without Betts, and could hit their way into contention.
As J.D. Martinez noted, the contending teams this season will be the ones who most ably avoid the virus. The usual assumptions won’t hold this year.
Roenicke, who has a one-year contract, will hopefully get a chance to focus purely on baseball down the stretch of a season that is already unlike anything he has experienced.