If you are a person who is over 45-years-old, you have lived in what is arguably the golden age of Major League Baseball in terms of managers. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen some of the greatest skippers ever. Guys like Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Davey Johnson, Tommy Lasorda, Billy Martin, Early Weaver, and Whitey Ford are just a handful of the incredible men who have guided their teams to World Series titles. They are names that all baseball fans are familiar with and there is a great reverence whenever their names are spoken.
It is not just wins and losses that has made these men so great. It was the style of baseball that they brought to the game and the manner in which they handled themselves that really aided in the mystique that surrounded them. These managers were great legends even while they were still in the game.
There is one name that will most likely not be mentioned among the greats, but it surely belongs there. A manager who has garnered just as much success and developed just as important of a style as any of these legends, yet, he has done so in almost complete anonymity because of the leagues in which he has managed. That man is Gary Southshore RailCats Manager Greg Tagert.
An Unlikely Path to Greatness
Greg Tagert grew up in Vacaville, California and would later go on to pitch at San Francisco State University. While being a quality picture for the Dons, his success on the diamond did not lead to a professional career. Upon graduation Greg took a job as the pitching coach at the University of New Mexico. That eventually led to him becoming a scout for the Detroit Tigers team.
In 1993, a very interesting event occurred which would change the pathway of Greg’s career forever. A new independent league was forming, called the Northern League. This was a fairly new innovation in the baseball world, but gave Greg an opportunity to take advantage of a new found passion that had developed – managing
During the summers, Tagert had spent some time coaching at the collegiate level and was really drawn to the idea of becoming a manager. He simply wanted to make sure that the situation was right for him and his family. This meant finding the ideal situation beyond just the product on the field.
“Every manager will tell you is if you get in the right spot – your club, your ownership, all of those kinds of things, all the things about the baseball side of it – then that is what you really want. You don’t simply want to take a job if you know your heart is not going to be the right fit.”
In 1995, Greg found that opportunity he been looking for. The Ohio Valley Redcoats of the Frontier League were looking for a manager and hired him. Tagert would spend one season there, compiling a 36-34 record.
It was a good start to the manager’s career, and the next season he would move on to the Brainerd Bobcats in the Prairie League. This was an interesting opportunity for Greg; one which would not last for long. The team was in their first season and was looking for a guy that could make a winner of the club right off. However, just 16-games into the season, ownership was unable to pay their bills and the club folded.
Not wishing to take a chance like this again, Greg returned to the Frontier League, this time to manage the Evansville Otters. This was a golden opportunity for him to prove his managing skills and the team thrived under his leadership. In four-seasons in Evansville, the Otters made the playoff every year and made it to the finals in two of those seasons.
In 2001, Greg moved onto the Dubois County Dragons. He would spend two seasons there, making the playoffs both years. In 2003, he managed the Kenosha Mammoths and in 2004 he moved onto the Springfield/Ozark Ducks, both teams in the Frontier League.
That would be his last season in the league. Greg spent nine seasons in the Frontier League, and became the winningest manager in the league’s history, compiling a 412-336 record.
Go North Young Man
After nine seasons in the Frontier League, Greg Tagert was looking for a change, and that came in the Northern League. The league had always interested Greg since its inception, and when the Gary Southshore RailCats job became available, he took a chance. The team has been blessed ever since.
The RailCats had joined in the league in 2002. In their first three seasons, Gary Southshore had never finished better than ninth. Their winningest season to that point was 2003, when they won 36 games and lost 54. It had been a tough start for the franchise, but that was about to change.
Tagert took over the team in 2005, and there was instantaneous success. His first season with the club, the RailCats went 54-42, finishing third in the league. They made the playoffs and he led them all the way to the championship series where the team won their first title. That title was just the beginning.
In 2006, Gary recorded a 51-46 record, a third place finish once again, yet, the team rallied again, going all the way to the championship series. This time they would fall short as the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks avenged their loss from the previous season to take the title in four-games.
Unfazed, Greg led the team in 2007 to the best record in franchise history. Gary Southshore went 58-38, the best record in the Northern League, and downed the Calgary Vipers in five-games for their second title in three seasons.
The success of the RailCats had many facets. One of the biggest of these was that the core of the team remained intact, allowing Greg to add players as needed, while still retaining key veterans that understood what he was looking to accomplish on the field.
“What made us so successful for so many years is that we had a core group of like seven, eight, nine guys, who hung around and helped to transition the next group of players. That allowed us to be able to really build off of them and to keep a connection to what really worked here.”
The Success continued past the 2007 season. In 2008 and 2009, Gary Southshore made it to the championship series but would fall short both years. That Kansas City T-Bones won their first title in 2008, and the RedHawks won their fourth title in 2009. Both teams won in four-games.
Those two runs to the title series enabled the RailCats to become the only team in the 18-year history of the Northern League to reach the championship series in five straight seasons. In fact, no other team had been in the finals more than three successive seasons. The accomplishments of his team early on are of great satisfaction to Greg.
“Those were special teams for sure. The core of those teams were a great group of guys who had a lot of talent. They were the kind of guys that any manager would like to manage, and they really helped to establish what we wanted to do here. They have been a standard for what the RailCats fans and the organization expects in terms of the way that players carry themselves and how they perform on the field.”
A New League, Same Success
In 2011, the Northern League broke apart and the Gary Southshore RailCats joined the American Association. The first season in the new league, Gary finished 54-46, fifth best in the league. In 2012, his team was 50-50, the first time in his managerial career that a team managed by Greg Tagert did not have a winning season. In his first 16 seasons, his teams had been above .500 every year.
Some began to question if the talent in the American Association was too much for the RailCats and Greg answered that question the very next season. In 2013, Gary Southshore finished 58-41, third best in the league. They downed their old nemesis, the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, in the first round and then took on the highly favored Wichita Wingnuts. The 2013 Wingnuts are considered by many to be the best team that has ever been assembled in the American Association, and they were highly favored to down the RailCats. Yet, Gary won the series in four-games, giving the organization their third title.
It was a big victory for the team, but it came at a big price. Independent baseball was changing, and keeping a team intact became a lot more of a challenge than it had been in the past.
“One thing that I probably will need to adapt to that is the most difficult transition in the last couple years is the player movement at the independent league level. You see players who play in one place one year, then they want to try something somewhere else the next year. From 2005 to 2014 we had some similarity in the players that we had in our core group. We always had six, seven, eight guys who hung around and transitioned into the next group. When that 2013 season came to a close and we won the title, many players retired and that core group got smaller in 2014.”
This has caused Greg to have to make some adjustments in how he has managed and built his team, as he does not have the luxury of leaning on a group of veterans to help him to teach the Railcats’ way.
“There is no connection to the past and I want our players who come here to embrace that history, so that when they walk through the clubhouse they feel a sense of responsibility. This is tough to put on the players. To them, they’re coming to the RailCats just for one reason, to further their career. No one ever dreamed when they were a little kid that they would be playing for the RailCats, but we want that to be different for them. We want them to feel good about playing here. If they’re going to play at this we want them to see that they can have a great career here if they wish, unless something greater comes along for them. We want to try to develop that next great core group.”
A Benchmark to Be Proud of
The last two seasons were tough ones for Greg Tagert. His 2014 team led the Central Division of the American Association for most of the season, but a late run by the Lincoln Saltdogs enabled them to win the division on the final weekend.
In 2015, the RailCats finished 45-55, giving Greg his first losing season as a manager. While it was a disappointing season for Gary Southshore, he reached a personal milestone when the RailCats won their last game of the 2015 season. That was his 1,000th victory as a manager, making him one of the winningest managers in independent baseball history. It is a remarkable achievement, but not one that Greg is taking a whole lot of credit for.
“It is humbling for sure, but there are a whole lot of people who are playing a part in making that happen. I said that I had to be in the right situation to take a job, where the organization, the owner, the community was a right fit, and they are the ones that have made this happen. It is the players who do the work, and I am thankful that I have had great players and great ownership that has put me in a position to win games.”
Developing the RailCats Style
Winning games is what Greg Tagert’s teams do. What is amazing is that they win games when it seems rather unlikely that they should be doing so. No season has been more representative of this then the 2016 one.
When the American Association season began, the Gary Southshore RailCats were filled with rookies and second or third year players. There were very few veterans on the roster, and many around the league envisioned another losing season for the manager. When they began the season 2-6, the scoffing appeared to have some merit. Oh, how times have changed.
Since then, the team is 42-36, and is just 2.5-games out of the Central Division lead. They are the hottest team in league right now, winners of five in a row and are doing it with 15-players that are rookies. For those who did not grasp that, 15 of the 23-players on this roster are rookies, including all but one of his infielders and all but one of his outfielders. To call that remarkable may be the understatement of the year.
It has truly been amazing what Tagert has done with this team, but it has come about because of the way that he manages his squad. U.S. Steel Yard, where the RailCats play, is a difficult place to hit homeruns, so his team has to play incredibly sound fundamental baseball to win. This has led to a special way of play that has affectionately become known around the American Association as “RailCatted.” This style is a complete and total commitment to fundamental baseball and to doing all the little things exceptionally well. Many marvel at how successful it has been for Greg, but he sees no uniqueness in it at all.
“It’s probably a little overanalyzed and not as factual as it may seem. I’ve heard talk of a small ball team and I will tell you that we don’t play a particular style at all. Now the players that we may sign maybe be attracted to that kind of game, but I will tell you that I love the home run just as much as anyone else does. The style of play has always been that we’ve been a pretty good pitching staff in terms of guys who throw strikes and we usually play really good defense. I don’t know if there’s a manager alive that when an interviewer comes he doesn’t say that the first thing that he believes in his pitching and defense. It’s the same that it was 70 years ago, 20 years ago; that hasn’t changed. I think it’s the style of player, the type of player, that I have been accustomed to signing.”
Maybe the style of play is really not that different. Maybe what makes Greg Tagert so special as a manager is that he is getting his team to do all things that other teams are doing, he is just getting them to do it much better. Maybe that is what makes RailCats’ baseball so special.
No matter what the reason is for such success, no one can argue with 1,044 wins and counting. Greg Tagert has taken some of the most fundamental principles of the game and turned them into a sure fire remedy for success. He has clearly proven that playing old school baseball has its place in this age of sabermetrics, shifts, and WAR. It may not be flashy, but that is ok with the Gary Southshore RailCats Manager. Few will be mentioning his name alongside of LaRussa, Cox, or Lasorda, but spend a day watching his team and you will find that it surely belongs there.
Featured Image Courtesy of NWITimes.com
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA