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Leading the Herd

By: Brian Frank

Back in his playing days, Ken Huckaby had an idea he might get into coaching and managing. “I always knew as a player, with a little nudge from coaches I was playing for when I was in my mid- to late-30s or even my early-30s that I might have the potential to be ok coaching,” the former catcher said in an interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it until I started it and figured out that I actually love it. I love being with the players and helping them, and watching them when they achieve their goals. It’s just as gratifying to watch them achieve their dreams as it was for me.” Huckaby will bring 25 years of experience in professional baseball to Buffalo this summer when he takes over as the 21st manager of the Bisons modern era. He played 18 seasons, in which he was a member of nine different organization, and played in 1,241 minor league games and 161 major-league games. He’s also served as a minor league hitting coach, manager, and catching coordinator.

His best major-league season came in 2002, his rookie year, when he caught 88 games for the Blue Jays and became a personal catcher for a future Hall of Famer, Roy Halladay. “Roy and my relationship started slow,” Huckaby remembered. “When I first came up I was 31. I think he was 25. He was established in that rotation. He was just getting ready to break out.” Huckaby had already been in the majors for about a month before he had his first opportunity to catch Halladay in a game against the Colorado Rockies. “Honestly it had nothing to do with me,” Huckaby said, “but he threw a two-hit shutout, faced two over the minimum. I use the analogy from Seabiscuit that it doesn’t matter who the rider is, the horse is going to win anyway. That’s how it was that night. It didn’t matter who was behind the plate, he was going to do what he had to do.” In his next start, with a different catcher behind the plate, Halladay had a rough outing. Huckaby caught his following start, and Halladay was dominant once again, surrendering just one unearned run in a complete game against the Dodgers. From that point on, Huckaby caught every Halladay start for the rest of the season, 20 starts in a row. In the 21 games Huckaby caught Halladay in 2002, Toronto’s ace went 13-4 with a 2.45 ERA.

“We really didn’t talk too much,” Huckaby remembered of his relationship with Halladay. “Like I said, our relationship started slow. We really didn’t have any conversations, and then all of a sudden about two weeks into this thing he invited me to sit down on our flight to play dominoes and cards. Darrin Fletcher retired, that was his partner on the plane, so he invited me to sit down to play with (Carlos) Delgado and Jose Cruz Jr. So now all of a sudden I’m playing cards and dominoes with these guys on the planes, next thing you know we’re sneaking off to go to dinner together. I just finally asked him, ‘Why me?’ That was exactly what I asked him, ‘Why me? Why am I the guy?’ And I started catching Carpenter right after that time too. And he (Halladay) said ‘Carp and I were watching how you were catching Justin Miller and Esteban Loaiza and we just said look, there might be something to this guy.’ And so I got that chance.”

After the 2002 season, Huckaby and Halladay’s friendship continued to blossom. “The next spring training I think is when our friendship really kind of started to get a little bit deeper whereas our wives were getting to know each other in ’02. Then in ’03 we really started having some more family get-togethers in Spring Training with my wife, his wife, and his kids and my kid. And then it just kind of took root from there. We just kind of trusted each other and there wasn’t a lot of talk, because he wasn’t a talker, but we just kind of enjoyed being around each other. I let him be quiet and comfortable in our silence together when we’d go fishing or whatever we were doing.”

Huckaby played many games against the Bisons while spending parts of five seasons in the International League with Syracuse, Columbus, and Pawtucket. During that time, one particular play in Buffalo stands out. “I don’t even know who the player was, but they took me out at home plate,” he said. “Well, they didn’t really take me out. We had a minor fender bender at home plate, the kind that’s not allowed anymore.” The story illustrates the dedication and love the former catcher has for the game, because he ended up playing through a painful injury. “I went up (to Toronto) and played the rest of the season on a torn meniscus, because I didn’t want to miss… I knew I was going to go to the big leagues and I didn’t want to miss that by going out and getting surgery on torn cartilage. So I waited until the offseason to get it done and just played on the bad knee for a season, which will explain when you watch me hobbling out to third base this year.”

Huckaby at Spring Training with the Dodgers in 2007.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia.

When his playing career ended, he took four years off before rejoining the Blue Jays organization to become a hitting coach. “I was 37 and I just needed to take some time off, get away, decompress,” he said, “spend some time with the family that I had not been with for 13 years since my son had been born and my daughter had been born in ’05. When my son was a junior in high school I actually talked it over with my family and asked them if the timing was right. And they all agreed.” A conversation with his former hitting coach when he was with the Blue Jays got him back into the organization. “I made a couple calls and fortunately one of my really, really good friends and one of the best hitting coaches I ever had, Mike Barnett, was the hitting coordinator for the Blue Jays at the time and between him and Charlie (Wilson) and Doug Davis, they kind of got me into Bluefield in ’13.”

Huckaby spent two seasons as a hitting coach, one each at Bluefield and Lansing. The experience helped prepare him to be a manager. “I always kind of wanted to be a manager,” he explained. “I always felt like I saw the whole game, not just the hitting side of it. Fortunately for me I had a great mentor my first year in Bluefield with Dennis Holmberg. He taught me a lot about the game. Then I just had one more year as hitting coach the next year in Lansing. And if you talk to any ex-player, they feel like they can come off the field and go right into managing anywhere, whether it be the big leagues or Triple-A, because they played there. Maybe that’s true in some cases, but I definitely needed those two years as a hitting coach to kind of get acclimated with the way things are run, because it’s run different than you think as a player. The accountability and all that kind of stuff. I really enjoyed those two years as a hitting coach and learned a lot.”

His first managing job was at Lansing in the Midwest League. The next season he managed at high-A Dunedin in the Florida State League. Both teams made the playoffs, with Lansing finishing the season 73-66 and Dunedin finishing 76-59. “When they gave me the manager’s job they gave me a really good staff and for the two years I managed I fortunately had some pretty talented players which allowed us to be successful,” he said. During those two seasons, he managed many players who advanced through the Blue Jays system and eventually played with Buffalo and Toronto, including Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis, Danny Jansen, Rowdy Tellez, Sean Reid-Foley, Justin Shafer, and Ryan Borucki.

He learned many lessons in his time managing in Class A, with the biggest ones being: “That it’s a long season. How to pace players to be effective going down the stretch, whether that be in A-ball, which is actually first half and second half. Also, I learned how to keep the guys who don’t play very much engaged in what’s going on. I mean I learned a lot from just a personal perspective. Just learning how to communicate with these kids and getting them to buy into what we were trying to accomplish. I learned a lot about that and different ways to deal with different personalities.”

Huckaby played for many different managers in his 18-year career, many of whom stand out to him as influencing his managerial style. “Three guys stick out to me at the big league level," he said. "Obviously, Tommy Lasorda for his passion. I was really young in my career when I interacted with Tommy. And then Buck Schowalter and Terry Francona, two polar opposites on how they run a team, but both with the same kind of organization and attention to detail. Terry’s a little bit more my way, where he’s a little bit looser with his players. He’s kind of a players’ manager. Buck is a players’ manager, but Buck is a little bit more regimented on how he wants things done. He just asks you to do your job. If you do your job, you’re good with Buck. I really like that aspect of it, because as long as I was taking care of what I had to take care of I knew Buck and I were going to be OK.” As for managers who influenced him when he played in the minor leagues, Huckaby mentioned Chris Spier, who he played for at Tuscon in the Pacific Coast League, and Ron Johnson, who he played for at Pawtucket. “I mean just guys that let the players play were my biggest influences and taught me a lot,” he said. He described his own managerial style as: “Loose but with boundaries. I’m passionate… I’m uber aggressive when it comes to the way the game is played. The more you aggressively play, the more we put the other team on defense and they have to adjust to us as opposed to us adjusting to them.”

In 2017, Huckaby became the Blue Jays’ minor league catching coordinator. “Gil Kim, Eric Wedge, and Ross (Atkins) and Mark (Shapiro) came in and we didn’t have a catching coordinator,” he remembered, “and we definitely had some pretty talented young catchers coming through the system. So, when they offered me the opportunity to become the catching coordinator, I kind of jumped at it to get the chance to really dig in and do something I was extremely passionate about.”

After filling the role as catching coordinator for three seasons, he felt the itch to get back into managing. “I missed the field. I truly missed competing every day,” he said. “On a day out as a coordinator, you kind of come in for five days, and I’m there specifically for the catchers. So winning and losing really didn’t affect me on a personal level when I watched the games because I was so hyper-focused on what the catchers were doing at that level and communicating with the catching coach and making sure that the plan was going in the right direction, and we were coaching everything we needed to. So when the game started, the work that I was there to do was done and I was just doing observations and giving advice to the coach on how to move forward from my observations in the game. I really missed that compete and the daily grind.”

Mike Buczkowski, president of Rich Baseball Operations and general manager of the Bisons, with the team's new manager.

Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

The desire to manage again is what brings him to Buffalo, to take over a Bisons team looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Speaking just before the start of spring training, well before coronavirus concerns caused the season to be put on hold, Huckaby made clear he couldn’t comment on what players might be with the Herd this season. “It’s too early,” he said. “I want these guys to have every opportunity to make the big leagues. I think it’s unfair to say I’m going to have this guy and I’m going to have this guy, because I don’t know. I honestly don’t know for sure.”

When asked specifically about top pitching prospect Nate Pearson, Huckaby had high praise for the young flamethrower, comparing him to a pair of superstars who came through the Blue Jays’ farm system. “Special talent, obviously," he said. "He’s like a Vladdy on the mound. He reminds me of Doc (Halladay), with the way he goes about his work and the way he focuses on what he’s trying to do… He reminds me a lot of Doc with his laser focus. Obviously, he’s not at that level yet, but I see the nuggets there that he could get that kind of laser focus, like ‘I’m going to be the best.’ And he obviously has the tools to be one of the best in the game.”

Huckaby made clear that his focus in Buffalo this season is to balance player development and winning. “The Toronto Blue Jays have done a phenomenal job over the last three and a half years of instituting the player plans and the action plans for the players to get better,” he said. “I mean we’ve knocked it out of the park. And we’re going to continue to knock it out of the park. But we’ve kind of lost the compete. We’ve kind of let that slide by the wayside. The manager and the coordinators and everybody involved, just because we were really focused on putting the player in the middle.” He noted that player development will be a focus “from the time they get to the park until about an hour before the game. We’ll put the player in the middle and develop them the best we can, get our purposeful work in, but once that hour before the game hits, it’s time to win. Throw that development plan out the window and let’s go win. If we’re doing our jobs right and do the work early, we’ll start to see little bits of what we’re working on showing up in the game… So that’s the way we’re going to approach it. As soon as they walk out those doors of the clubhouse to walk out to the field, it’s time to win. It’s not time to go out and play for yourself or play to get to the big leagues. It’s time to win. And the more games we win, the more guys will go to the big leagues.” Huckaby’s desire to field a winning team is surely music to Bisons fans' ears.

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