In his first season with the Kansas City T-Bones, Joe Calfapietra has already created a winning atmosphere in the organization that has the team fighting for a place in the playoffs. It has been his commitment to relationships that has helped to generate the success the team is having.
Joe Calfapietra – Introduction
In their 15th season in existence, the Kansas City T-Bones wanted to make the 2017 American Association season a memorable one for their organization and for their fans. It has been nine-seasons since they had won their last title and that was when they were in the now defunct Northern League, creating an even greater hunger to develop a winning atmosphere.
In 2014, the team had hired one of the best managers in independent baseball in John Massarelli, but injuries and inconsistent performances kept “Mass” from having success in Kansas City and his contract was not renewed at the end of the 2016 campaign.
Looking to create a new chapter, the T-Bones were able to lure Joe Calfapietra from the New Jersey Jackals in the Can-Am League. It was not only the opportunity to bring on board another giant in the independent game, but to bring in a man who has nearly two decades of success in running the day-to-day operations of a baseball team.
Joe Calfapietra Proving There Is Something in a Name
In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks in relation to the rose, “What’s in a name?” The rhetorical question is her way of pointing out that it does not matter what a rose was called, it would still be as beautiful and sweet smelling no matter what word was used to name it.
The truth is that this can be said about a number of things. Rarely does a name really matter, but there are those instances where the word that is used to refer to something is almost prophetic, and that is the case with Joe Calfapietra.
The name Joseph traces its roots to the Bible where Joseph became the first son of Rachel, the second wife of Jacob. The name was given by her because she was sure that she would never have a child, but God had increased her job by giving her a son. Califapietra means partnership.
Combined, these names are the perfect description of the new Kansas City T-Bones manager. Joseph Califapietra has increased the success of whatever team he has managed by building strong, long-lasting relationships with his players, coaches, and ownership groups, partnerships that have endured and helped to make him an incredible success wherever he has gone, and this has already been seen in his first season in Kansas City.
Go North Young Man!
After graduating from Eastern College, Joe Calfapietra got into coaching, joining the Duluth-Superior Dukes of the now defunct Northern League in 1994. He spent a season there before joining the Aberdeen Pheasants for two years in a similar capacity.
In 1997, Joe became a coach for the Allentown Ambassadors, a position he would hold for three seasons under Ed Ott. In 2000, he was named as the team’s on-field skipper and spent two seasons in that role, making it to the playoffs in 2001.
The next season he would become the first manager of the Gary Southshore RailCats. The team went 35-55 in their first season, a pretty remarkable record considering that the Railcats did not have a home stadium, so they played all 90-games on the road that year.
Creating Prosperity in New Jersey
In 2003, Joe Calfapietra left Gary Southshore and took the job as skipper of the New Jersey Jackals in the former Northeast League. The success was instantaneous, as his team went 52-37 in his first season and would go 54-39 in his second, winning the Northeast League title.
Two years later, the Jackals would become a part of the Can-Am Association and it would take a few years for Joe’s team to have the same kind of success. He had set a pretty high bar in 2003 and, over the next five seasons, New Jersey made the playoffs just one time.
However, in 2010, the team started an impressive run. That season the team went 42-50 and made it to the playoffs. The next season they would finish 57-36, beginning a run of five straight trips to the Can-Am title series. His team won at least 54-games in every one of those years.
Last season, New Jersey had their best year under his direction. The team went 62-38 and advanced to the playoffs once again. However, after the season, the team was sold and Joe was looking for a new opportunity.
“I was there for a long time and we did have success. We were in the championship series five years in a row, and we won a championship in 2004. We also got a lot of players signed with organizations. We had accomplished a lot there and so I was just looking for something different.”
Returning to His Roots
With a new ownership group coming on board, this became the opportunity for Joe Calfapietra to see what new challenge was available. He had proven that he was a winner and that he knew how to build an excellent ballclub, but now he was looking to do it in another location. Kansas City was too enticing of an opportunity to pass on.
“Chris Browne, the general manager, contacted me after the season. He was talking to couple of different candidates and wanted me to be one of those. So, it interested me. We played interleague play out here, so I knew the set up in the city. The ownership group in New Jersey had been great to me for 14 years. They really let me do my job for 14 years and that was the biggest thing that I was so grateful for, was that they hired me to do a job and they allowed me to do it.
“My philosophy has always been to let me do my job, both sides of it, so if we’re not any good then there is no one to look at but me. I’m going to bring in the players that I’m going to manage and that’s why I’ve always felt that when you look at me at the end of the year or during the year then you can make a decision on what kind of job that I’m doing. In the meantime, I want to have the trust that I am not going to be micromanaged and I knew that would not be an issue here as well.”
In November 2016, Joe became the new manager of the Kansas City T-Bones. It was a unique homecoming of sorts as Joe had actually began his coaching career with the organization when they were in Duluth. To return to the organization that gave him his start was gratifying.
“You can’t imagine what a special opportunity this was. You want to show your gratitude for the people that show faith in you and this has given me the chance to do just that.”
The T-Bones organization was also excited about bringing in their new manager.
“Joe is a passionate baseball man and leader, who’s a highly respected recruiter in independent baseball circles,” explained Chris Browne at the time of the hiring. “He is very familiar with our league through the interleague matchups over the years, having played in the majority of the stadiums in our league and/or against our teams. I look forward to working with him.”
Building a Winner
One of the first challenges for Joe Calfapietra was to build his team. All independent league managers scour through the scouting reports and waiver wires to find talent for their team, but that really does not tell them if a player is a good fit. They also need to know how well a guy will be in the locker room.
“Everyone uses scouting reports, but a lot of scouting reports are pretty black-and-white. I really try to use former players, current players who I have on my roster. I try to use them more as recruiting tools and to give me insights into a person, not only on the field but in the locker room, in the clubhouse.”
It is the relationships that he has built with former players that has enabled him to get a real good indication of how well someone will fit in with the club he is managing. One such example of this was when Cody Winiarski was available earlier this season. Joe was looking to improve his bullpen, specifically adding a guy who could close out games and lots of managers were looking at Winiarski. Joe awoke one night and with one phone call used the Calfapietra system to land his new closer.
“I knew that there were four or five other independent teams that were trying to land him. He was very hesitant on where he was going to go. In the middle of the night I woke up and was looking at his background and I tried to match people up. I saw that way back when he was in college at Virginia that he had a possible teammate that might’ve overlapped with a player that I had in New Jersey that had signed with the Nationals. So, I called him, Whit Mayberry, and I said, ‘Cody Winarski, does not name mean anything to you?’ He said, ‘Joe, we were roommates in college’ I told him the story and I told him I was really trying to sign the guy and he told me, ‘Joe, don’t worry about him. He’ll call you tomorrow and he’ll sign with you.’ Sure enough, Whit picked up the phone and told him how I was as a person and, sure enough, he felt comfortable enough with a good friend of his recommendation. Keeping those relationships really helps.”
This is just one of the many examples that he can give of how the partnerships that he has created over the years, the close friendships have enabled him to get ahead of the others in winning players to his team.
“Having good people and having good relationships when there with you; the players don’t forget that. I’ve had players three or four years later that have made phone calls for me. You can be in different locations managing, but they always remember the person that you were and so it doesn’t matter whether I’m in Kansas City, New Jersey, Hawaii, it really doesn’t matter. You’re selling yourself more than anything else to these guys.”
Understanding that Relationships Are the Key to Success on the Field
In the history of sports, most of the managers and coaches that are lauded are those who are recognized for their great strategies, the way that they outmaneuver their opponent to give their team a better chance of success. While brilliant in this part of the game, Joe Calfapietra understands that there is a part that is far more important if his team is going to be successful.
“I’ve always felt that managing personalities and relationships are more important than the Xs on Os on the baseball field. During the course of a baseball game you make decisions, am I going to bunt, am I going to hit-and-run, am I bringing this guy in, am I pulling this guy out, there’s a few decisions that you have to make that definitely have an outcome on the game, but it comes down to the players.”
The Proof Is in the Results
While building good relationships may get players to work harder for you and help in getting the right kind of ballplayers for your team, the truth is that if you don’t win then partnerships mean nothing at all. You need to have results, and you will be hard pressed to find someone who is more committed to winning than Joe Calfapietra. It’s part of what he loves so much about being a manager in independent baseball.
“The emphasis on winning is always very, very important. That’s what I tell the players during spring training. This is going to bring you back to your college, your high school, your American Legion days because of the emphasis on winning. When we walk out that door, we’re trying to win the game. In the minor leagues that’s overlooked because the development part is so crucial. They’re trying to develop their guys to move up the ladder and to perform at the Major League level. It’s amazing how many people come into independent baseball and find that it was the most enjoyable summer of playing baseball because the true love of baseball has come back. This is the closest to the fundamentals of winning outside of the Major Leagues.”
Winning is what the Kansas City T-Bones have been doing a lot of since Joe Calfapietra took over the team. The team is 47-34 entering Wednesday night’s game, fourth best in the league, and they are the leader in the Wild Card race. The T-Bones have held a share of first place in the Central Division during different points in this season, and are currently just three-games behind the Lincoln Saltdogs.
It is a remarkable turnaround that will likely see Kansas City make their first trip to the post-season since 2010. However, the manager is not patting himself on the back for the success, understanding that he may be good at what he does, but the moment one starts lauding himself, things can turn quickly.
“In this league, there are a number of great managers. So, I’ve never gotten ahead of myself. I work hard at what I do. Do I think I’m good at what I do? The answer is yes. But do you ever have it figured out that you have all the answers? The answer to that is 100 percent no. There are a lot of good people who are trying to do what you’re doing and it’s not easy. Once you start thinking that you have everything figured out then you lose something.”
Joe fully understands that this is not about his success, but that all parts of the organization must come together for the team to triumph.
“I have never considered myself bigger than what I was. I’m here every day just like they’re here every day. We’re trying to get better, to win ball games, trying to improve ourselves in our profession. I try to stay on that same keel. I never think that I’m bigger than the game or bigger than my players. They are the ones who are out there every day trying to win baseball games for the organization.”
Thankful for the Opportunity Provided
Sioux City Explorers Manager Steve Montgomery once explained that when he won the Manager of the Year trophy in 2015 that the person who really earned the honors was his wife. It was her dedication to taking care of the family, allowing him to be 1,500 miles away that made his success as a manager possible. Joe Calfapietra is in full agreement.
“There is a lot that falls on her shoulders with taking care of our two daughters. I try to do my best to stay involved and to be as good a dad as possible during the season, but the job doesn’t always make that possible. She really has a big load to carry and I appreciate the things she does to make my job here so much easier.”
His marriage is just another great example of the Calfapietra way of doing things. It is a philosophy built on creating and maintaining great relationships and partnerships that has helped him to succeed both on and off the field. There is no doubt that this strategy is going to lead the Kansas City T-Bones to great heights, maybe even their first league championship since 2008. With Joe Calfapietra at the helm, that kind of success seems inevitable.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA