Thursday, August 17, 2017

An Interview with Quad Cities Manager Russ Steinhorn

In early January of 2016, I did a double-take when I saw this tweet from Russ Steinhorn who I knew from his days as the Hitting Coach for the Astros Short Season A Tri-City ValleyCats from 2013 through 2015.

It's not often that you hear of a non-Latino Manager in the Dominican Summer League, but Steinhorn had a successful season, guiding the DSL Astros Blue team to a 42-23 record (with one tie). So I wanted to ask Steinhorn, now the Manager of the Full Season A Quad Cities River Bandits, about the experience and how it came about and I did just that late last month.

Russ Steinhorn - July 2017
Photo by Jayne Hansen

When asked how the opportunity to manage in the Dominican Summer League came about, Steinhorn replied, "(The Astros) called in the off season (in 2015). Allen (Rowin) was the director of player development at the time. I'd managed in instructional league (in the fall of 2015),and they asked if I would like to manage (one of the minor league clubs in 2016) and I said, 'Yes, absolutely!' And they said, 'How about the Dominican?' And the phone went silent for a little bit. And (Allen) said, 'Just think about it and just go through the process. Just talk to people. Reach out to whoever you need to reach out to. Oz (Ocampo) will call you multiple times. Carlos (Alfonso) will call you just to give you the rundown and answer any questions and tell you all about it and you just go from there. Don't make any quick decisions. Don't rule anything out.' So I did that and I reached out to some people within the organization ... Josh Bonifay, Adam Everett and guys that mentored me along the way, especially early, and who I still talk to and just got their opinions about it and went through the process with Oz and talked to him. It was the best decision that I could have made at that time in my coaching career. I think you only get a small window to do something like that in your professional career or anything in life and I'm glad I took that opportunity. Once you get a little bit older and there's more things you've got to worry about ... it was just the right timing and the right move and it was great. It was a great experience. I didn't know what to expect. You could tell me all you want, but until you actually go and jump in the water, it's a totally different bird down there."

Steinhorn continued, "With (Allen Rowin's) experience down there, that helped. He could shine some light on things, but I think that the one thing that really helped was El Capitan, Julio Linares. There's not many people better than him. He's one of the best and he was such a help to me. He was always by my side, whatever I needed." Steinhorn explained that, although the Astros have built on to the Dominican Academy since he left, room was at a premium once the Astros expanded from one team to two. But that actually worked in Steinhorn's favor. "There wasn't enough room in the clubhouse for all the coaches so I got to move over into Cappy's (Linares) office. I got to spend every day with him which was an experience in itself. To learn from him was just fantastic. It was just great to be able to lean on him every single day and talk to him. That was a great experience. He's a legend in our organization and, not only in our organization, but in all of baseball. Everybody knows him throughout the entire game from down in winter ball all the way through the big leagues. Rodney [Rodney Linares, Julio's son and Manager of the Corpus Christi Hooks team] is very special in what he does, but to be able to call your father and be in this game, Julio Linares, and be able to learn ... (Rodney) always talked so highly of him, and you're thinking, 'It's just another son talking about his Dad,' but Julio is different in such a magical way.  To be down there for a year with him and the everyday interaction. He went out of his way to make me feel like I belonged. I felt confident in being able to do the job down there with the language barrier and the culture barrier and it was just great to have his support."

And there was a language barrier. Steinhorn spoke very little Spanish prior to his arrival in the Dominican. After the season there, Steinhorn said, "I was able to communicate on the baseball side with most of the guys and teach the game and have good conversations with them. I think Doris [Doris Gonzalez, the Astros Supervisor of Education and Acculturation] has four levels for English. I think when I went down there, I was at level one and when I left I was at level three. And just like these guys, they can learn all they want, but until you throw them into the culture and they have to apply it, that's when they're going to learn the most and I know Doris understands that. When you're forced into actually having to communicate to survive, you'd better learn it or you're not going to survive."

Steinhorn continued, "That's the good thing about our English program, that the kids can come through and actually execute what they practice in class, just like what they do in the cage and in the bullpen and things like that. To experience that for myself has helped me be able to relate to those guys. Because I was just another coach, coaching in college and didn't know much about the culture of professional baseball and the impact that the Latino culture has in the game. Being able to throw myself down there has definitely changed my perspective. I've been able to relate to those players more, where they come from and how they just try to find an opportunity to make a career out of this. Their number one priority is their family. They're playing because obviously they want to make the big leagues, but they're playing first and foremost to provide for their family. To be down there and to see that, that was a big takeaway for me."

When asked what aspect of the experience made the most impact on him, Steinhorn replied, "It would be the relationships. I value the relationships more than anything when it comes to being a manager. And (I) try to make an impact on these players and obviously help them to make it in their careers and advance. But you have to understand where they're coming from and you have to realize that everybody's different. In the American culture, you can talk differently to those kids than to a Latin kid and, then you throw five different cultures into one clubhouse, and it's like, OK, how are we going to figure this out? But it's fun to see and learn where everybody comes from and I think being down there and seeing and actually being able to see them invest in me and bring me in the way they did and then me being able to learn where they come from has helped me tremendously along the way. Because the game's the same. It's still 90 feet, 60 feet 6 inches, 27 outs. It doesn't matter if you're playing in the Dominican Republic or if you're playing in the States. It's the same game. It's just seeing the passion that these kids have and the energy and where they come from.

"I guess people get upset with some of ... I don't know if you call it antics ... you know, with the Jose Bautista thing a couple years ago with the home run, and guys dancing around and doing different things, but that's all they know. You take yourself down there and you do what you do and see if you don't get any funny looks. But when you think that's natural and you're doing something that you love, it should be all bets are off because they're excited, they're energetic, they love to dance, they love their music. They love just being in the moment and having a good time and it's great. It's fun to see them learning how to have a good time when you're successful and then how to scale it back when you hit a little detour." The experience has helped Steinhorn understand where these players are coming from and what they are thinking, particularly considering the the international players on his team outnumber the American-born players, and it is only the first or second time in the States for some of those Latin players.

With the success of the international efforts of Oz Ocampo and his team becoming more and more apparent, the Astros system will continue to see the influx of international players moving up through the ranks. The more experience both players and coaches have in seeing how the other half lives, the better.

Thank you for your time, Russ, and the best of luck on bringing home some postseason bling!

Other Recent Interviews:

Also, here is an interview I did with Allen Rowin about the Dominican Academy from 2012 that may interest you.

Finally, here are a few tweets from Steinhorn's time in the Dominican Republic that you may enjoy ...

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