American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions going on with teams around the league. In today’s edition, we feature Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks Manager Michael Schlact, as he looks to cast his own shadow of success over the team.
Introducing Michael Schlact
At 6’7, there are not many who tower over Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks Manager Michael Schlact, especially when they are seven inches shorter but, as the 2018 American Association season approaches, there may be no bigger shadow being cast over the Manager than that of Doug Simunic. Simunic became RedHawks baseball by being the only manager in the team’s 22 year history, but his dismissal with 24 games left in the 2017 season opened the door for Schlact who has proven in a short audition that he has what it takes to be a winner in this league.
A History of Success
To understand the position that Michael Schlact enters, one must grasp the winning tradition that Doug Simunic established. The Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks made 16 trips to the playoffs in 22 years, including winning championships five times, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2010. Few organizations in baseball can claim that kind of dominance.
Simunic established himself as truly one of the greatest in independent ball history, winning 1,330 total games, including 1,202 with the RedHawks. He clearly established a level of greatness that even he could not continue, and with the team looking like they were headed to a fourth straight year without reaching the post-season, the team’s ownership decided that a change was in order.
The New Era Begins
Michael Schlact took over the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks on August 13, 2017. There were already rumblings that a change may be in the works, but the termination of his contract was still a shock to the team and the community as a whole. However, no one was more shocked by it than Schlact himself.
“It was the hardest day in my professional baseball career to be totally honest with you. No. 1, Doug hired me. (Lincoln Saltdogs Manager) Bobby (Brown) kind of introduced me to coaching but Doug literally hired me with no full-time Pro experience. He took a chance on me along with the Thom family. I sat next to Doug for two and a half, nearly three years in the dugout, and he was a mainstay in that town. He put in 20+ years to Fargo baseball, and it was very, very tough from a human standpoint to see him go.”
Owner Brad Thom offered the interim manager’s position to Schlact. While troubled by the loss of Simunic, the new manager saw this as an opportunity to prove that he had what it took to guide a team.
“We all know that baseball is a business, we get that side of it, but from a human aspect for two-plus decades he was the manager of the RedHawks and then no longer was. For me to step in behind him there is obviously a lot of pressure but, also, when the man that hired me is not there all of a sudden it was really tough. Personally speaking, I was excited for the opportunity because I felt like this is what I was supposed to be doing in the long term. I didn’t know that my opportunity would come in that way, but I felt like I wanted to be a leader in my life and this was the opportunity that arose.”
A Background Built on the Love of Baseball
Michael Schlact had never been a manager prior to taking the interim job, but he had been involved in the game since he was eight years old, thus there was little about the sport that was a surprise to him. The right-hander had starred for Wheeler High School (Marietta, GA) before he was selected out of high school by the Texas Rangers in the third round of the 2004 MLB amateur draft.
He was just 18 at the time, but the Rangers could tell that he had the potential to star for the organization. By the time he was 21, Schlact had already reached AA, but injuries began to take their toll.
In 2009, he required shoulder surgery that ended his season only four starts into it. In 2010, the righty returned, but a disappointing season led to his release. The right-hander was not ready to hang it up, so he opted to don his cleats for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs (Atlantic League). Schlact had a solid 2011, going 6-4 with a 4.61 ERA. The next season, he started the season with Southern Maryland, but a second surgery was required just three appearances into the campaign.
With the entire 2013 season erased, Schlact returned in 2014 to play with the Amarillo Thunderheads (American Association), but his season was a short one. After two appearances, the right-hander realized his time on the diamond was over. However, his understanding of the game was exceptional, something that caught the eye of his former manager.
“In my final year in Amarillo, Bobby Brown was the manager. I went into retire, I had talked to my wife and I just physically couldn’t do it anymore as a pitcher. I went into his office and I told him I was retiring and he asked me if I could stay around the remainder of the season and be the bullpen coach. He said he saw qualities in me – communication, stepping up for the younger guys, that kind of thing – which made him think that maybe it could be something that I could do on the coaching side. So, I did. The next day I showed up, I left the clubhouse and I went into the coach’s office. Instantly I just loved every second of it. I just knew that that was what I was supposed to be doing.”
While there was a period of adjustment, it was clear that this was the path he wanted to follow. In 2015, Simunic hired Schlact to be his pitching coach. Within two seasons, the clubs ERA dropped by more than half a run. In 2017, the RedHawks pitching staff finished first in several categories, including shutouts and complete games, and were second in strikeouts.
The pitching coach had proven that he could handle a staff and that they would respond to him, so it was no surprise that he was offered the interim manager’s position when it became available. While it was a shock to the team that the legend was gone, the RedHawks responded, closing out the season 16-8 and finishing just one game out of the playoffs.
The success was extraordinary considering the circumstances, but it was the way that the new manager dealt with the adversity that really enabled the team to come together.
“The day that Doug was fired I had a little meeting with everyone and I told him that I wanted them to know that this is less than an ideal situation for everyone, that I care about each and every one of them, my door is always open, and that was something that I watched Doug do well. I saw that guys knew that no matter what he said, he had their backs. If they played hard, then he was going to fight for them. That was a really good leadership lesson for me. So, as I moved forward through those 24 games I learned little things every day. How to handle conflict, the little issue if it’s not properly taken care of can become a big issue. I learned about the power of communication. I learned about having fun above all else. If I as a leader was able to lessen the pressure for these guys in any way, remind them in a small way that this is still a game, that if I’m going to get the best out of them then they need to have fun doing it.”
Communication was an essential part of the success, because building relationships was what Michael Schlact wanted to do more than anything. Baseball is a sport where you spend long hours with each other, every day, for four-plus months and that can create some very awkward situations. The new manager wanted to make sure that he understood his players and that they could feel that he had their best interests at heart.
“I found it really important to build relationships with the players as best as I can, as much as they will let me. Everyone has a story, everyone is in independent baseball for a reason and it is important for me to learn who these guys are as people, where they come from, what they’re all about, what motivates them. I’ve found that when I’m able to love these guys as people, then they will let me lead them better. On the flipside of that, when you learn what motivates somebody, where they come from, when you know their story, it helps you on the field because you are able to tap in to the way that they learn. You are able to tap into what motivates them. It’s been exciting to watch that evolve.”
While looking to develop this culture, Schlact was not reinventing the wheel in anyway. He had learned a great deal from his former manager.
“You watch a guy like Doug Simunic, who was always, always, always honest with players, whether you wanted to hear it or not. That was an important leadership quality that I took. Because it is easy to beat around the bush or to take a guy’s feelings too much into account. To be brutally honest with someone, as long as you do it the right way, is going to be really impactful to them. I watched Doug be honest with people so that they knew where they stood, they knew what they needed to work on. With Doug you always knew where you stood.”
Into the Fire
For 16 seasons, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks were not just one of the best organizations in all of independent baseball, they were one of the very best in all of the sport, who made winning an annual tradition. Owners Brad and Bruce Thom, as well as player personnel manager Jeff Bittiger, made it clear from the start that they expected the tradition to return under Michael Schlact’s direction. It was good that the team had rallied and nearly made the playoffs in 2017, but nothing short of a regular trip to the playoffs was going to be acceptable any longer.
“Fargo is like the New York Yankees of independent ball in a lot of ways. Given the track record and the number of championships, they did tell me that they expected a return. When I was hired as the pitching coach, from the get go the Thom family talked to me about the excellence of the organization, the standards of the organization, what the fans, what the media, and more importantly what they expect. You walk into that town and you are instantly immersed in this excellence that is Redhawks baseball.”
While it is a challenge to compete in the same division with the two-time defending American Association champion Winnipeg Goldeyes, the St. Paul Saints, the Gary South Shore RailCats, and the Sioux Falls Canaries, the RedHawks manager never doubted for a second that he had what it took to lead this team to a championship. So, when the position was offered to him permanently after the 2017 season, he knew that he had what it took to make Fargo-Moorhead everything that his predecessor had.
“I had confidence in myself, obviously, that if I can manage the right way, I can have success. I know the game, I’ve been around for 13 or more years in pro ball, and I trust my abilities. This was an great opportunity and I felt I had been prepared for it.”
A Community Built for Success
The great thing about managing the RedHawks is that the skipper is part of a culture that is built for success. It starts with the owners and with the team’s player personnel manager, who have helped to mentor and assist Michael Schlact in building the 2018 team.
“Every day I give thanks for the mentors that I’ve had in my life, Jeff Bittiger, who is the player personnel consultant, who used to play for the RedHawks. He’s played a pivotal role in this transition for me. The Thom family, Bruce and Brad, who has taken a more prominent role with the team, and the business savvy that he has in running an organization, the ideas that he has are really important. That helps, too. We’ve kind of embraced that we’re in this together between the three of us – Brad, Jeff, and myself – and having them around me has really helped to make the transition and the pressure lessen for sure.”
The community, itself, is also a key part of why Schlact has found this to be a dream job. There truly is nothing like Fargo-Moorhead, and that fact is not lost on the Manager.
“I feel like Fargo has a fan base and media coverage on its own scale that is like a Major League team. You come to Fargo, you hear about the Redhawk’s, you see Redhawks’ advertising, you go out in the community and people ask you about the Redhawks. It’s a big deal here. You walk around as a player and I have had multiple guys say that this is almost like being in the big leagues. The way that they cover us each and every night, we go out and eat and people are telling us ‘Good game.’ They actually know who we are. So, when you come to Fargo you step into a community, but you come home. That’s how the people make you feel. They make you feel like you are at home even if you aren’t at home.”
A Strategy for Success
Since having the interim label removed from his title, Michael Schlact has been busy building his team for the 2018 American Association season. The vast majority of managers wait until March or April to start building their team, but the RedHawks Manager could start Spring Training tomorrow. This was a purposeful strategy Schlact implemented from the start.
“That was something that I brought up to Jeff right away. I said that I wanted to hit the ground running. I expressed that to Brad Thom. I wanted to be able to pick and choose and talk to guys that we had on the team last year. I wanted to get those guys locked up, because I wanted a core of guys that were important in the last 24 games to come back because they knew what I was all about, and they were the foundation of this new Redhawks look that we had.”
This strategy was not just about finding the best players. It was a focus on the culture the Skipper has made a priority. After all, the longer that a player is signed the more acclimated they will become to the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks way of doing things.
“The more time that you have separating the day they sign from camp means a longer time for you to build a relationship with a guy who might be on the fence about signing, or once you sign them early you get a chance to talk to them every week or every other week and instill in him what it means to be a Redhawk, what our expectations are. It gives us a chance to follow up in their off-season training, the way they’re going through their workouts, how they’re throwing their bullpens, how they’re hitting in the cage. There have been a lot of benefits to doing it that way.”
Behind Every Great Manager…
Being the manager of an independent baseball team is a lot different than most other leaders in the sport. You not only have to manage and build strategies, but you also are responsible for building your team. This means there are a lot of long hours, time spend away from their wife and children.
Just as a player needs a supportive spouse or girl friend to help him to be at his best, a manager needs that same kind of support. Fortunately for Michael Schlact, he has an amazing wife who has been there for him from the start.
“My wife and I are high school sweethearts. She was sitting next to me when I got drafted. Two years later we got married. Since 2007 until now she has been traveling with me everywhere I go, she has been there from high school player to Pro, from Pro to coach, from coach to pitching coach, from pitching coach to manager. She understands, she is the rock of this family, there is no other way to put it. During the season is when you’re gone a lot, and that’s when the brunt of it is on her. I am thankful for her for that that she is 100 percent on board and committed to our family and to me.”
The Fargo-Moorhead owners and management are also 100 percent committed to Michael Schlact. They made a potentially unpopular move to put their trust in a rookie manager. In 24 games he has shown he can inspire a team to win, and there is a lot of positive feeling around the team for 2018. It is likely that a shadow will be looming over the RedHawks when the season begins but, with the new manager in place, expect the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks to shine like a star in the sky.
Featured Image by KVRR News
American Association Daily Notes
On Friday, the St. Paul Saints announced the signing of infielder Jake Hager. Hager is an outstanding talent who was drafted in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011. He spent last season at AAA-Durham, where he hit .229 in 73 games. Hager can play short, second, and third…The Winnipeg Goldeyes announced that LHP Mitch Lambson and RHP Victor Capellan re-signed with the team. Capellan has arguably been the best reliever in the American Association the last two seasons. In 2017, the right-hander was 4-4 with a 1.25 ERA in 50 appearances. He struck out 75 in 50.1 innings. Lambson had a solid season for the Goldeyes in 2017, going 7-3 with a 3.98 ERA in 39 appearances…Daniel Minor re-signed with the Gary Southshore RailCats. Minor was acquired late in the season from Winnipeg, and he was dominant for the RailCats, going 3-1 in six starts with a 1.47 ERA. He allowed just 26 runners in 36.2 innings pitched…The Lincoln Saltdogs announced the signings of LHP Josh Blanco and 1B Jake Wark. Blanco was with the Texas AirHogs last season, where he went 2-2 with 3 saves and a 5.08 ERA. He struck out 52 in 39.0 innings pitched.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA