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Lessons Learned by Bobby Meacham

By: Brian Frank

Bobby Meacham played 10 seasons of professional baseball, six of which were spent in the major leagues playing shortstop with the New York Yankees. He had the opportunity to play for some iconic managers in both the major and minor leagues, including Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Lou Piniella, Terry Collins, and Johnny Oates. Meacham sat down with us and talked about the different managerial styles of the men he played for, how each one influenced him as a manager, and discussed his current roll managing the Bisons.

Meacham broke into the major leagues in 1983, playing for Billy Martin during his third stint managing the Yankees. He ended up playing for Martin during three of his five terms as Yankee manager, including 1985, when Meacham was the team’s starting shortstop.

“I played for Billy three different times. Billy three, four, and five,” Meacham said. “I’m sure if things would have turned out differently, he would have come back again.” Martin, who managed 2,412 major league games in 17 seasons with five different organizations made quite an impression on his young shortstop. “I loved playing for Billy. I learned a lot from Billy.” Meacham said that the knowledge Martin had from his many years in the game as both a player and manager really stood out to him. Asked what he was able to learn from the fiery manager, Meacham responded “He didn’t let past experiences deter him from doing new things. He was one of those guys who tried different things, base running ideas, stolen base tricks, or moving position players all over. It’s kind of like now (everyone thinks) everything is the first time it’s ever happened, but Billy was practicing all those things. He managed in the major leagues for years and I got a chance to learn from him first hand just how innovative he was at all different aspects of the game.”

Meacham in 1984 as the Yankees shortstop. Public Domain

Meacham played for the legendary Yogi Berra in the Big Apple in 1984 and for 16 games in 1985.

“I played for Yogi and Yogi was interesting," he said. "Yogi was simple, but really paid attention to all the details. Just little details of the game that were fun. Yogi would say, ‘Ok it’s a good time to hit and run here.’ I’d hear him talking on the bench about it and then he’d give the sign to hit and run… Details were big with Yogi.” One impression that Berra made on his young shortstop, was how he would pull players aside to correct their mistakes. “He’d make sure the players knew that when they made mistakes he’d sit us down and correct us, and tell us ‘Hey, next time this can’t happen, you’ve got to make sure you’re thinking about things ahead of time.’ Things like that.”

Lou Piniella took over the Yankees in 1986. Meacham had a different outlook on Piniella because of their past relationship.

“Lou was new, but I played with Lou," Meacham recalled. "I played with him, he was my hitting coach, and then he was my manager. So everything was new for Lou. His intensity matched Billy’s, but he was learning on the fly.”

Watching his former teammate navigate his first managerial job under New York’s media microscope was a learning experience for Meacham.

“You know, him being in New York and being in charge was something I always remembered when I first started to manage," Meacham said. "It’s a different seat you’re in all of a sudden. You have to pull the trigger a little quicker. You have to be a little bit more self-assured, or at least act like it so the players think you know what you’re doing. So I learned that from Lou, because he did all that very well as he was learning on the job.”

In 1989, Meacham found himself in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, playing in Buffalo for another intense manager, Terry Collins.

“You know that was a totally different scenario," he said. "I was on the down slope of my career and Terry’s intense. And at first I didn’t really appreciate him. I didn’t like playing for him at first. I just didn’t think… I don’t know… I just didn’t really like his style of being so demanding and not understanding how hard it was to play the game.” But suddenly, at some point during the season, everything changed. Meacham continued, “I really appreciated him as time went on. In the middle of the season, I remember telling my wife ‘I really love playing for this guy. I don’t know that he’s changed, but I know he’s changed something.’ The whole group just came together and loved playing for him. At the beginning, especially a couple of the older guys, we didn’t really enjoy it, but in the middle of the season, all of us kind of said ‘Wow, alright, we get it’ and we kind of joined in and became a little bit more… I guess on fire for the game like he was. We kind of adopted his style of play, and really appreciated the way he ran things. And I really loved playing for Terry and I love seeing him now when he comes around.”

Giving signs from the Bisons dugout. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles

Collins was able to make adjustments to get the players on the team to come together. His season under Collins taught Meacham that managers sometimes need to be flexible and make changes in order to get the most out of their players.

“I saw the adaptability that Terry showed. He had to make an adjustment. As a young kid, you don’t really know what that is, but after that you kind of think back, he did something different to make sure we were all on the same page. He did something different to make sure we all knew he’d changed something to make sure we were all doing the same things and headed in the same direction.” Meacham thinks that season playing for Collins in Buffalo influenced the way he approaches the manager’s roll. “As a manager now, I make adjustments based on what I see from players, their takeaway from what I’m doing. If their takeaway isn’t in a positive direction, then I know I have to make a change. Not necessarily something I believe in deeply, but peripheral things that are going to make a difference and have everybody pulling in the same direction. I’m willing to make those changes.”

Another manager Meacham mentioned as having a big influence on him was Johnny Oates. He played for Oates in 1983 in Columbus, before Oates went on to manage in the major leagues for 11 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers.

“I really liked Johnny Oates," he said. "I played for Johnny my first year with the Yankees in Triple-A. He was just so consistent. The best way to say it is he was a consistent dad almost. Things weren’t tolerated that weren’t professional, but he was patient and he was helpful every step of the way. I remember him really knowing the game and slowing things down for us, especially myself. I was really young. I was 22-years-old, my first time in Triple-A, and he was consistent, he slowed things down for me.” Meacham tries to bring that same consistency and leadership style to his players now. “He helped me understand things well, which is what we all need to do when we have people under us that we’re trying to help. And I try to help that way with these guys that I’m managing now.”

Meacham instructing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on Vladdy's first day with the Bisons. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles

Even though he played for such a variety of successful managers, Meacham never aspired to be a manager during his playing days.

“No, no - I never, never thought about coaching or managing,” he chuckled. “I just focused on playing. The first time I ever thought about managing was actually after my first year of coaching, I thought I might want to take a chance.” After playing the 1990 season with the Omaha Royals, Meacham was unable to find a job as a player the following season, but was offered a hitting coach position in the Royals system with the Class-A Eugene Emeralds. “So, I went to Eugene, Oregon and coached for the Royals there. It was a half season team. It was just out of necessity. I needed a job and didn’t have a place to live, basically. At the end of that season I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the game. I remember the strategy part that I really enjoyed as a player, and at that point after that season I knew I wanted to manage and take a shot at running a team and implementing the ideas that I’d already learned.”

Asked how he’s changed since that first season in Eugene, Meacham laughed: “You have no idea what I was like when I first started. I was more abrasive. I was less tolerant of not necessarily mistakes on the field, but more the attitudes of players that came to the field. Maybe it’s the guys that didn’t want to work as hard as I did, or guys that didn’t seem to care enough about their teammates and things like that. I was really intolerant of that and I had to learn quickly that my job isn’t to make sure it’s all the way I want it, but it’s to make sure that I help these guys to understand what’s important. To help these guys understand what it takes to be a great teammate, what it takes to be a quick learner, so you can keep moving up the system and get to your dreams. I’m more tolerant now of it and I’m more understanding of the process and how long it might take for a player to make those adjustments.”

Meacham moved on to manage the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League in 1994, the Calgary Cannons in the Pacific Coast League in 1995, and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League from 2002 to 2004. After coaching in the major leagues with the Marlins, Padres, Yankees, and Astros, he returned to managing in 2013, this time in the Blue Jays system for Dunedin in the Florida State League. He then worked his way up through Toronto’s system to New Hampshire and eventually came to Buffalo in 2017.

Talking to Cavin Biggio at third base. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles

Meacham explained that managing at the Triple-A level is much different than managing in the lower minor leagues and presents its own set of challenges.

“It’s obviously different because of what’s at stake," he said. "I think the stakes are so much higher for the players that surround you. Those that are trying to get back up that have already been to the big leagues, they typically are in a hurry to get things fixed. Whether it’s their swing or defense or just the perception of how good they are to the people who are determining if they get called up.”

Triple-A managers also have to learn to deal with both young guys coming up through the system and veteran players who have already been to the big leagues.

“The young guys that are coming up through think they’re just going to buzz right through here and try to reach their dreams so it’s one of those things where they’re just getting drowned with information.”

Sometimes players pass through the Triple-A level quickly, which can present its own set of challenges for a manager trying to prepare players for the major leagues.

“It can be tricky. I learned over the years that what I need to help them and to really teach them is to harp on every little detail from day one. What I did when I first started was say ok they’re going to be here for a while so we’ll kind of slowly develop their ability to learn this and tell them in little stages what they need to know to play in the big leagues. Because you know, it’s just going to be a process. But I don’t think that way any more. My process now is just to basically inform them ‘I’m going to flood you with information because I don’t know how long I’m going to have you here, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give you as much information as possible. In the meantime, it’s your job to figure out how to sort through it and sift through it and use what you can for now, and store the rest away for later, so you can use it somewhere down the road.’”

“In the lower minor leagues it’s more of a case where that’s a dream that’s further away, so we have a lot to work on and everybody understands that… but here at the Triple-A level, everybody feels more like they’re right on the edge. And what happens is most players try to do good so they can get there and I’m trying to help them become really good so they can be the best they can be, which is ultimately, hopefully getting them to there. But there’s a big difference from doing it for a couple of days and being good for the long hall.”

Giving in-game instructions to Dwight Smith Jr. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles

Meacham said the toughest part of his job is helping players manage the end of season reality when it doesn’t match their early season goals.

“The hardest part is this time of year, towards the end of the year, (helping them manage) their expectations of what it was going to be like. You know, I’m going to make it to the big leagues. I’m going to hit .300. Or I’m going to give up less than three runs a game. Sometimes the reality is not there and towards the end of the year it’s not possible because they’re running out of time. Or maybe their dream of getting to the big leagues doesn’t look as good. So everybody’s kind of almost trying to think what’s going to happen. We have almost a month to go until the end and they stop focusing on getting better and becoming a great player and they’re more focused on the daily things instead. So that’s the hardest part is to keep everybody focused on today, and letting everybody else make their decisions on your progress and your ability later. To me that’s always been the toughest.”

“The part I enjoy the most is when guys get called up for the very first time. Being able to be the one that breaks that news to them is pretty cool. You see a myriad of reactions really, but the biggest reaction is basically just a big weight off everybody’s shoulders. After being seven years old and wanting to play in the big leagues, the dream has come true, and it’s just that big weight off their shoulders and it’s just the joy that comes right after that. It’s pretty cool to watch and be a part of.”

The number of players Meacham has been able to give that exciting news to the last three seasons is evidence that his methods are working. Meacham is always teaching, whether he’s passing along something he learned from one of the legendary managers he played for or he's implementing something he picked up during his long career as a coach and manager. The former Yankee shortstop is preparing players to be the best they can be and reach their ultimate dreams.

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