Billy Martin, Jr. takes over as Manager of the Texas AirHogs, his first season as a manager at any level. The son of the legendary Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees Manager is learning on the job, but he has proven that he is a master at learning on the fly, as the AirHogs have won 18 of their last 27-games, making them the hottest team in the American Association.
For the Texas AirHogs, 2016 had to be one of the most forgettable in the team’s storied history. The former Grand Prairie AirHogs joined the American Association in 2008 and were an instantaneous hit. They won 56-games in their first season and went all the way to the championship series before losing to Sioux Falls. Three years later they would set a franchise record with 64-wins, a 21-game improvement over the 2010 campaign, and were the league champs, defeating the St. Paul Saints in five-games.
The next two seasons they would continue to put up wins, going 53-47 in 2012 and then recording a 54-46 record in 2013, earning a berth in the playoffs. The team was a model for creating a great organization and a winning atmosphere.
However, over the next three seasons, the AirHogs struggled in every way imaginable. In the 2014 season, they won 40 games and then 29 the following year. The owners of the team also controlled the Amarillo Thunderheads, and combined the two teams for the 2016 season. The results were not pretty. The teams evenly divided their 50 home dates between the two cities and won just 34-games. It was an improvement over the previous year, but not much of one.
Change Is Coming
In the off-season, Donnie Nelson, the President of Basketball Operations for the Dallas Mavericks and the son of NBA Hall of Fame Coach Don Nelson, took over the Texas AirHogs as part of an ownership group that included Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
The new owners wanted to restore the AirHogs to their former glory, and decided that a bold move was in order. Instead of opting to go with the conventional choice, selecting someone who already had managerial experience, or at least coaching experience, the team chose, instead, to name a manager with no real on-field experience at all. They opted to name baseball player agent Billy Martin, Jr. as the fifth manager in the organization’s history.
The move was shocking to say the least, not only for Texas, but for Billy himself. However, it was not as if he was a novice. The new manager had been a baseball player agent for over 20 years and was the son of one of the most legendary managers in the history of the game. Billy, Sr. won 1,253 games and a World Series title with the New York Yankees, plus he was the architect of one of the greatest rebuilding jobs in baseball history, when he turned around the hapless Oakland Athletics after years of mismanagement into an era that Bay Area fans adoringly called Billy Ball.
Clearly, Billy Martin, Jr. had been around baseball long enough to know what to do and so, after years of being on the agent side of the game, Billy Martin, Jr. wanted a new challenge. He was already flirting with the idea of taking a job with an organization, and it didn’t take long for Nelson to convince him to join the Texas AirHogs.
“This was Donnie Nelson’s idea, so it was not like I was looking to do this. I was walking down a path with another ownership group and then this came up. To get involved with this group, our ownership group, Donnie Nelson, he’s such a class act and, obviously, at my age I think it’s a good thing to get out of your comfort zone every now and then. It’s one of those things that I prayed about and said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
It is understandable that Billy was looking for a little divine intervention before making a decision. He was well aware of the struggles that the team had the previous season and, as a player agent, he understood how difficult it was going to be to attract players to Texas after the turmoil of the previous season. However, he was up for the challenge.
“You know the franchise had lost something a little bit. I knew the two teams (Amarillo and Grand Prairie) were going to be in one location and there was a lot of concern about what this would look like. There was a lot of reasons to say no, but I think we’ve got the right people in place now to right the ship.”
Turning the AirHogs Around
In the American Association, there are rules that allow only a certain number of veterans (5) on the 23-man roster. There also has to be at least five rookies on the team. The majority of managers spend considerable time looking for the top veterans that they can afford to sign under the salary cap and build from there, but Billy Martin, Jr. took an entirely different track.
“I started trying to find quality rookies, because I felt like when the more experienced players become available as guys get released from affiliate ball as it gets closer to spring training, that I would find my veterans. I knew going into this year that obviously the team was really bad last year. It would be hard to do any worse. So, I wanted to go with as many young guys as I could to change the culture of the team. There are some great rookies who have helped.”
It was ironic that finding the right rookies for the team was the place where Billy started because he was a rookie himself. He had to learn a lot about managing on the fly and never really realized all the detail and nuisance that went into being an American Association manager.
“In my mind, this was going to be to get here and pick the team out, which I figured was going to be kind of easy for me. Then manage the game. There’s been a lot more to it than I expected. It’s not like affiliate ball where you’re given your team and your more of a monitor. This is old school baseball. This is a lot more naturalistic way of playing the game. It’s not about development, it’s about winning.”
That has been the part that Billy Martin, Jr. has enjoyed the most – playing to win. However, winning was not what Texas did a lot at first. Just 22-games into the season, the AirHogs were 4-18 and in the midst of a 14-game losing streak. That included being shutout four times and losing seven one-run games, a number that he was completely taking responsibility for.
“The team was still fighting. The manager just had to figure out how to turn all these one-run losses into wins, but the guys were playing hard.”
Billy Martin, Jr. Proving to Be Answer to Prayers
One of the biggest challenges that Billy Martin, Jr. faced when he took over the Texas AirHogs was that it isn’t easy to evaluate players. The American Association is not like affiliate ball where you get six-weeks to evaluate a player to see if he fits your roster. You have just 10-days, and that is not much of a time frame to make an honest assessment about someone’s skill set.
“As Rudyard Kipling said, ‘Our best day is a lie as is our worst day.’ The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s baseball. So that 10-day sample you have to make your evaluations when some of those guys only got to see 2 or 3 games. How am I supposed to develop an opinion about them? You see Babe Ruth on the wrong four days you’re not going to think he can help you. That’s a tough part of this business. Obviously, I have a lot to learn.”
There were also many influences around him that were trying to get Billy to lead as they thought he should, not according to what he thought was right. The trouble was that he was not exactly sure what kind of manager he was. Was he like his dad? Was he like other managers and coaches he had watched? Trying to define himself became one of the first orders of business.
“People ask me all the time if I’m like my father, and I don’t think I’ve really done this enough to know. I know I am similar to him in a lot of ways. I’m not a big rah-rah speech guy. I talk to guys more as individuals than as a group. I don’t like to sit around and hear myself talk. I’m sure everybody’s got a different way of getting their job done. I’m trying to learn what that is for me.”
Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Billy was still looking to mold himself as a manager, but one thing he made a commitment to from the start was relying on the veterans to set the standard. He knew he had a lot to learn and wisely realized that the confidence he had in signing these players should also transfer to his confidence in them to be good leaders.
“I wanted them to take ownership of this team. Like I told all the guys, this is our team. It’s not my team; it’s our team. I want them to stand up and shape it. If they don’t like what another teammate is doing, I want them to say something. Coaches can bark all that they want but players tune that out after a little while. However, when their peers says something to them then they look at it a little differently.”
After a brutal start to the season, the Texas AirHogs enter play Friday night as one of the hottest teams in the American Association. Not only are they 7-3 in their last 10, but the team is 21-15 over the last 36-games. They have been shutout just once in that span and are only 8.5 games back in the Wild Card race. If the team continues to win at a .700 clip over the next 20 games they could easily find themselves chasing the final playoff spot by season’s end.
Driven to Be a Good Role Model
Billy Martin, Jr. is just 58-games into his professional career, but it is clear that incredible skills as a manager and player evaluator must be part of the Martin family genes. Billy is doing an amazing job at turning the Texas AirHogs into a real contender, something that would surely have made his dad proud.
While that thought brings him great comfort, it is two people that really inspire him to make his mark on the field and in the way that he lives in life in general.
“My kids are huge inspirations. Watching them mature, one just started college this year and each one of them have stepped up significantly in their lives. They inspire me daily. I don’t have a lot of family left and it is incredible to see how they have grown. They want me to be better every day I wake up.”
Billy Martin, Jr. has his team chasing a playoff spot, something that a month ago most would have said would have required divine intervention for it to occur. However, the Texas AirHogs prayers look like they are being answered in many ways, especially in how their manager is learning the nuisances of the game. He is truly proving to be a chip off the old block. Now, if we can only get him to kick dirt.
Images By Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA