In their 25-years, the Sioux Falls Canaries have had a great deal of success. That has included a trip to the American Association championship series in 2010 as well as winning the league’s title in 2008.
One of the keys to that success was Mike Meyer, who served as the team’s pitching coach from 2007-2014, and also spent time filling in for then manager Steve Shirley when he was out with an illness. That included in the 2008 season, when the team won the American Association title, proving that Meyer truly had what it took to be a professional manager and to have a great deal of success.
However, in 2014 when Shirley moved on, the team opted to look outside of the organization to find its new manager, choosing Chris Paterson to lead the Canaries instead of looking to their pitching coach as the team’s successor.
Before the 2017 season began, that situation was corrected when Mike Meyer became the manager of the Sioux Falls Canaries. Now Mike is leading the team back to heights that the Canaries have not seen in some time, aiding one of the original founders of independent baseball to become proud as a peacock once again.
Experience Helps to Build Understanding
Mike Meyer grew up in Tucson, AZ, where he loved baseball from the moment he could pick up a bat. He loved the game, but was not allowed to play as early as he would have liked.
“My older brother started playing Little League and I was a year younger than him. I was four when I would go to his practices and sit on the side. I just couldn’t wait to get onto the field, and the coaches let me go out and take ground balls and practice with the team. I just fell in love with it instantly.”
Mike would play baseball from about the time he was four all the way up through high school, primarily playing shortstop. He did play other positions but, oddly enough, did not get any real time on the mound, not until he reached college.
While not having much experience as a pitcher, three times Mike was drafted, twice with the idea of converting him into a pitcher. The selections surprised him for that very reason.
“I got drafted in 1996 as a shortstop and then I went to the University of Arizona, where I played in the field there. I didn’t’ really start pitching much until my junior year. I got drafted by the Giants and I still didn’t want to be a pitcher so I went back to school and played in field and got drafted the next year by the Cardinals as a pitcher.”
In 2000, Mike was drafted in the 23rd round by the St. Louis Cardinals with the idea that his career was going to be on the mound. He was not thrilled by the idea, not at first, and it took him some time before he really started to feel comfortable on the hill.
“I didn’t pitch much in college so when I got there all the pitchers that we had on each of the rosters had a thousand more innings than I had. I was just starting from scratch, I had a good arm, but I had no idea what I was doing. So early, the first month was really challenging for me. Just trying to figure out how much I needed to throw pregame, how much long toss, how to get my arm strength built, then once I toed the rubber, I had no idea what I was doing. There was a lot of learning curve for me. There were a lot of failures early, then I started to get into a rhythm a little bit, and by the end of my rookie year I started to feel things out a little bit, and I started to have some of that success that really led into my next spring training.”
Learning through Experience
Mike Meyer spent a little over two seasons in the Cardinals organization. He reached High-A Potomoc in 2002 before being released by the team. To that point, the right-hander had always thought that when he was released that it would be time to move on to another chapter in his life. However, he wasn’t ready to hang up the cleats, yet he did not see independent baseball as a viable option. He had developed a bias against the leagues, but that quickly changed when he found himself looking for a place to continue his career.
“I really had no interest in playing independent baseball. Like many of our players, you’re in affiliate baseball and you kind of think that if I don’t make it and I get released that I don’t want to deal with independent baseball. If they were any good they would be with an affiliate right now. That is until the day you get released and then you wonder ‘now what will I do.’ I was just fortunate that the manager that I had in the Cardinals organization was friends with Darrell Evans who was the manager in Allentown in the old Northern league. So, I showed up, and I was pretty cocky thinking I’ll just walk into this and dominant. Then you start looking around and you realize, hey that guy was in the big leagues, and he was at AA, and that guy was at AAA, and these guys were all in high-A. It’s like, wow these guys are good players. They are all just like I was.”
While having a negative impression of the independent ball at first, his attitude changed quickly. Most of all, it helped him to fall in love with the sport again, primarily because it refocused Mike on the reason that he played the games – winning.
“I kind of fell in love with the game again because in independent baseball it’s all about winning; it’s all about your team. In affiliate ball you want to win, but it’s more of a feeling like as long as I have good outings, as long as I’m getting my numbers, then I’ve got a chance to advance and you worry about winning when you get to the big leagues. So, you kind of lose a lot of the fun, lose the team stuff when you’re in the minor leagues. Then you get to independent baseball and your back to being in high school, being in college, being in Little League, where everyone’s pulling for each other, everyone wants each other to do great because everyone wants to win.”
In 2002, Mike joined Allentown in the Northern League – East, where he was 2-9 with a 5.01 ERA. The next season he moved onto Baton Rouge where he completely turned things around. He started 13-games that season, going 10-2 with a 1.52 ERA. He completed six games and had 2-shutouts.
It was an absolutely dominating performance that caught the attention of St. Paul Saints Manager George Tsamis. Mike would be signed by the Saints, and spend three seasons in St. Paul. He was 26-21 in that span, but his time with the Saints offered him a great opportunity to learn under his manager.
“When I got to St. Paul, that was kind of the turning point for me as a starting pitcher. I had whole new perspective sitting on the sidelines for four days charting or watching the game, just watching how the other managers in the league and how George managed our in-game, not only our in-game, but the personalities in the clubhouse. When I got to St. Paul I figured that it was probably over for me playing wise, but I always thought I would be good as a coach or a manager some day, and so I just started watching, and watching and watching. I studied everyone, their personalities, their verbage, their strategies in game and that, to me, was when I started to look at it from the manager’s seat.”
Knowledge to Application
After the 2006 season, Mike Meyer decided that his playing days were over. Instead, he was ready to take his knowledge and apply it to a new craft – pitching coach. Steve Shirley offered Mike the position and he could not have been happier that this was the career path that he chose to follow.
“I was at the point where it was too much pain and there wasn’t enough stuff for me to continue playing, so it was kind of a crossroads for me. Do I go back to the real world or do I try to make a career out of coaching and I was fortunate enough that Steve Shirley hired me in Sioux Falls. We talked on the phone for about 20 minutes and he hired me and I was there for eight years. From the first day that I got the Sioux Falls and I was on the other side, it was my staff to handle, it was a new challenge and it was tremendous. I loved every second of it.”
Moving from player to manager posed some special challenges for Mike. He had to move from wanting to improve his own game to wanting to help 11 or 12 guys to do so. Quite a challenge when you have different levels of professional and not everyone may be receptive to wanting to hear the advice he had to offer. Fortunately, he had an answer for that as well.
“A lot of it is listening. I just listen to what they say, try to read their personalities. Some guys you get to kick their butt a little bit, some guys you got to pat on the back, some guys it’s a daily grind where you have to remind them of certain things day after day. Some guys you tell them once and you let them be for a while.
“I think the coaches that I had that I really enjoyed working with were the coaches who would listen to how I would feel. They would listen to the issues and concerns that I had with the things that I thought I was doing well and so I try to take that with my guys. They will tell you if they don’t feel comfortable with their breaking ball, they’ll tell you, ‘Hey ma,n can we work on spinning breaking balls.’ A lot of the time that works better than me going up to them and telling them their breaking ball is not where we want it to be. Especially if they’re doing well. Because then it’s like ‘I’ve got a one ERA, why should I listen to this guy.’ If they come to me first and say, ‘Hey man, I think my breaking ball or my fastball command is dragging a little bit,’ then it opens up to where they’re ready to listen. They’re ready to hear what I have to say.
“The biggest challenge after that is finding the words that they can process. I may use terms for one guys that another guy has a hard time understanding, so you have to figure out a way to word your words to them so that they can grasp the concept, so you can help them make the adjustments.”
Time for a Challenge
After serving eight years as the Sioux Falls Canaries pitching coach, Mike Meyer would be moving on. Steve Shirley left as the club’s manager, and Chris Paterson was brought in. He had his own staff in mind, and so Mike was heading south. He joined the Laredo Lemurs in 2015, but was still a little surprised that he was not offered the managerial position in Sioux Falls.
“I was a little disappointed. We had a good run in Sioux Falls for about five years. Unfortunately, the last few years haven’t really worked out that well. I felt like we did a lot of good things there.”
While disappointed, He arrived in Laredo ready to turn the Lemurs pitching staff into a winner. Mike had already established himself as one of the brightest minds, and Laredo Manager Pete Incaviglia was happy to have him leading the pitching staff.
The results were instantaneous. The Lemurs had a 4.08 ERA in 2014, but dropped that number by better than half a run in 2015 (3.52). One player who saw a dramatic improvement was right-hander John Brebbia. He had been with Mike in Sioux Falls the year before and followed his pitching coach to Laredo. In 2014, he was 3-2 with a 3.31 ERA. A year later, Brebbia was 7-2 for Laredo with a miniscule 0.98 ERA. Brebbia almost single-handedly led his team to the American Association title that season and was so impressive that he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals organization, and is now pitching in the Major Leagues.
Mike had done such an amazing job that he had earned the trust of his manager. In 2016, he became the team’s bench coach, and Incaviglia’s right-hand man.
Time to Return Home
Midway through the 2016 season, Patterson was let go by the Canaries, and Shelby Ford took over for the remainder of the year. At the end of the season, Sioux Falls was looking for a new manager and decided to rectify their decision from two years earlier. The team wanted to make sure that they made the best choice and one name really seemed to make sense.
“Throughout our search for a new manager, Mike’s name continued to stay at the top of our list,” explained Canaries General Manager Duell Higbe. “His passion for the Canaries Organization, the city of Sioux Falls, and the fan base is immeasurable. We are confident in his ability to attract top tier talent, and turn Sioux Falls into perennial contenders once again.”
Mike Meyer took the job and was excited about the opportunity, but he has had to change his personality a bit. The Canaries Manager understands that his approach to the game can be infectious, and if his team is going to succeed he has to set the tone.
“Your ballclub takes on the personality of the manager. If you’re bipolar and you’re a hothead then that is how your team is going to react. If you’re nice and calm and collected and you stay relaxed when you’re playing well and you stay relaxed when you’re in tight games and you stay relaxed when you’re getting your tails wooped, then they stay relaxed. So that’s what I’ve tried to do from that 08 season on. To try to be the same personality whether I get a flat tire or whether I win the lottery.”
This job also gives Mike the ability to do one thing that means the most in his coaching career – to look after his players.
“I’ve always been an advocate for my guys. That’s one of the biggest responsibilities that I have is to protect them and to do whatever I can to give them the best opportunity, to not only be the best pitcher, but to be the best person they can be. I hope that somewhere down the line that I’ve touched a couple of guys as much as they touched me. I learn every day from these guys and want them to learn from me as much as they can. I would hope someday that guys will look back and say that I was a good person and that I fought for them and that I cared about them.”
Early on, the results have been a step in the right direction. Sioux Falls is 24-27, but has shaved nearly a run off of the team’s ERA from last season. They have also issued the second least number of walks. With these kinds of numbers, it is only a matter of time until the Canaries are competing for titles once again.
The Sioux Falls Canaries are on the rise. As of July 13, the team has won four straight games and has allowed just nine total runs in those four contests. There is a lot to like about the direction the team is headed and that is thanks, in large part, to the job that Mike Meyer is doing.
This team is dedicated to giving it their all every night, which starts with the commitment from their skipper. The Canaries Manager is fond of saying “I’m expecting my guys to give me everything, so I better give them everything.” As wise and knowledgeable as Mike Meyer is about baseball and people in general, the Sioux Falls Canaries players are receiving a whole lot.
Featured Image Courtesy of Argus Leader
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA