As the Winnipeg Goldeyes close out the 2016 American Association season with an eye on the playoffs, many around the league look at Canada’s lone representative in the league and marvel at the talent of the squad. This is a team that has improved as the season has gone along. They have not only made several key acquisitions that have most teams not so quietly wishing they do not face Winnipeg in the post-season, but the success of the team goes well beyond mere talent.
It is the guy in the dugout who has helped to turn the Goldeyes into one of the most dangerous and successful teams in the American Association over the last 11-years. A man who has quickly learned how to inspire his players to work hard to be successful when they walk between the lines each and every time they take the field. That man is Manager Rick Forney.
A Long Tradition of Success
The Winnipeg Goldeyes began as a baseball city in 1954 when the St. Louis Cardinals stationed one of their minor league affiliates in the city as part of the Northern League. The team won three championships in their 11-years there before the team was moved. In 1969, the short-season team for the Kansas City Royals spent a single season there before moving on as well. The departure in 1970 led to 24-seasons of no professional baseball in the city.
That would change when a group of upstart owners started an independent baseball league, the new Northern League, which was dedicated to giving baseball players a new opportunity where they could hone their skills. In 1994, the Winnipeg Goldeyes joined that league, now disbanded. Their first year in the league they won the title and over the next nine seasons, they would appear in the championship series six additional times. It was an unprecedented level of success in which only the New York Yankees can claim that same kind of domination in the sport.
In 2004, the team began a span of two seasons where they did not qualify for the playoffs. It was time for a new voice to be heard in the dugout and so the team turned to one of its own to take over the squad. Rick Forney became the man that they turned to.
Creating a Legacy in Winnipeg as a Player
Rick Forney had been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 26th round of the 1991 draft and was sent to their rookie league club. He would spend five seasons with the Orioles organization, reaching AAA-Rochester in 1995 but, following that season, he was granted his release and moved to independent ball.
His first season was in Lubbock of the Texas-Louisiana League where he posted a 9-7 record in 22-starts. The next season he moved onto the Northern League, joining the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
In Winnipeg Rick starred for the team. He won 11-games in each of his first two seasons with the team and won nine more in 1999. That success earned him a look by the Atlanta Braves who purchased his contract. He was sent to AA-Greenville, where he pitched extremely well, going 3-3 with a 2.99 ERA in 12-starts.
He was proving that he earned his spot in affiliate ball, but a shoulder injury would side-track his career. After making seven effective starts with the Goldeyes in 2000, the right-hander decided that his shoulder was not going to allow him to pitch the way he was accustomed to, and so Rick became the team’s pitching coach.
“For me it was a way to stay in the game. I knew at the end of the 1999 season that after I had had a couple of surgeries I still wanted to play. So I had the surgery and tried to come back the next year to play and it just wasn’t right. That just kind of evolved into a pitching coach job.”
Leading the Team from the Dugout
Hal Lanier was the manager of the Goldeyes at the time and he saw a lot of talent in Rick to teach and inspire players to take their games to the next level. Forney has not forgotten the chance that his former manager gave him.
“I appreciated the chance he gave me. He took a chance on a guy who had never really coached and believed in me. He made it easy to want to play for him and to be a coach for him.”
The results for the pitching staff showed right away. The last year Rick Forney pitched was in 2000, and the staff had a 4.48 ERA. The next season they shaved that number slightly, but in 2002 they dropped over a full run from the season before (4.40 to 3.39), and would lower the number the next season as well (3.29). The team went to the championship series in each of his first three seasons as the full-time pitching coach, and the former Winnipeg starter had established himself as one of the brighter young minds in the league.
After the team missed the playoffs in 2005, Lanier moved on and the team was looking for a new manager. Despite having no managerial experience, the position was offered to Rick and he gladly accepted.
“I didn’t really give much thought to managing to be honest with you. I really enjoyed what I was doing. Ownership had conversations with me about me potentially doing it. I was interested in it. I love the league and I’d already been in it eight or nine years as a player and a pitching coach. I already knew lots about independent baseball and the challenges of fielding your own roster, doing things like that, so once those kinds of conversations started to take place that’s when the juices started to flow a little bit and I became even more interested in it. I’m certainly glad that I did, because I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t.”
Learning on the Fly
While embracing his new position, Rick admitted that it wasn’t always as comfortable to be the sheriff as it had been to be a deputy.
“It’s a little easier to be the good cop. Those conversations are a lot more pleasant. When you’re the manager you’re forced to have the uncomfortable conversations. No matter how much managing you do you never like to have those conversations. It’s not a good feeling because you feel for your players. It took me a little while to understand how to talk to guys and to approach players; how to treat everyone the same.”
It did take some time for Rick Forney to really understand the nuisances of moving to being the club’s manager. He, admittedly, had to grow some and develop a management style that would help him to better relate to his team. This required him to go back to school, of sorts, to better learn and grow into his new position.
“You’re always learning all the time, with everyone. Once you get into a management job you always think you’re ready for it, that you have all the right answers, but once you get into this job you realize you don’t even have all the right questions, much less all the right answers. As you get a little older in this you start relaxing a little bit more. It doesn’t mean you’re not as intense, you like to win every day. Obviously you learn things, whether it’s the way you instruct a player or just the way you have general conversations with people; it always changes.”
The challenges were not just about relating to his players. Rick had to learn how to find the right players for his team, not only ones who had the talent to produce on the field, but also ones that were a good fit for his clubhouse. Baseball is a game where you spend 120 days around the same group of guys every single day. That can wear on a team if there is friction, and the new Goldeyes Skipper had to learn that finding the right guy was not as easy as staring at a set of numbers.
“It’s all a big guessing game. You take a lot of gambles on guys. I’ve signed a lot of guys thinking that they would have such huge numbers and be a great success here, but then they fail. But there’s also guys that you signed maybe to be a fill in guy, but he winds up being one of the best players in the league. There’s not an exact science to it. You can look at numbers but that doesn’t always tell you the whole story. Sometimes when you talk to them over the phone and you know in that first conversation whether he’s the right fit for you are not. You can tell in your belly whether something is wrong just by his personality; that’s a pretty important piece for me when I try to put my team together. You have to keep in mind that you will be spending a whole lot of time together with these guys during the season and so you don’t have time to deal with guys that are going to be messing up in your clubhouse.”
It has not just been about finding players who are the right fit in Winnipeg. Sometimes that means that players have to be let go, the one part of the Manager’s job that he absolutely hates. These are young men whom he has come to respect and cherish his time with and letting them know that they will not be a part of the team is never a pleasant experience.
“I’ll be honest with players and tell them the truth, but I don’t like it. The hardest part for me in particular is that I know when a guy’s time is coming even a few days before, but it isn’t time to tell them yet. I don’t like letting them go. You have to do it, but it’s not what I want to do at all. When these guys put on this (Goldeyes) uniform we want them to feel like they are a part of something special, and when that doesn’t work out it is tough. Don’t like doing it at all.”
Rick is also wise enough to understand that he is not going to have success as a manager unless there are a group of veterans that he can depend upon to help keep the team focused. He depends upon them and they respond for their manager.
“Your veterans are very important. You have to have guys that are productive players and do what they’re supposed to do on the field, but you also need them to lead by example. It is everything they do away from the field, because you know the other guys are going to look up to that player. I hold them to a high standard. They know how I am. I’ll let them know if they’re doing something I don’t like. Whether you’re a veteran guy or rookie, I let you know how it is. When I’ve had a veteran guy who’s been around me for a little while that makes it easy because they know the lay of the land. I don’t necessarily have to have any conversations with them.”
The Rick Forney Model Has Proven Results
Watching a Winnipeg Goldeyes game, you quickly learn that Rick Forney is one of the more intense guys that one will see as a manager. A Billy Martin without kicking dirt. He wants to win and his team reflects his intensity as they are never out of any contest they are in, no matter what the score. That has included an improbable 11-9 victory over St. Paul where they were losing 9-1 against ace Mark Hamburger, yet battled back to win. His team is never out of it.
“We have guys who truly care about competing every day. They’re not going to take too kindly to losing. We play 27 outs. When that final out is recorded that is when we can relax and go back in the clubhouse because we know we’ve given everything that we’ve taken. My team competes.”
In his 11th season with the team the results speak for themselves. In his time as manager of the Winnipeg Goldeyes the team is 592-484, which includes the club’s second title in franchise history. That came in 2012, when Rick’s team went 55-45 during the regular season and then went all the way to the American Association title in the club’s second season in the league.
That was not the only year that the Goldeyes had big success with Rick at the helm. In 2011, they set a single-season club record for wins, going 60-40, and Forney was named the Manager of the Year. Three-years later they would break that mark, going 63-37. It has been a magical run for the skipper who is having as much fun now as he ever has.
“I spend the whole off-season miserable because I can’t wait to get back on the field. Each time the season begins I am even more excited. This is the best job in the world, and I get to manage for one of the best organizations in the business. This is more fun than ever for me, especially now that we are winning.”
Winning is what the Winnipeg Goldeyes have been doing a lot of lately. At one point the Goldeyes were 20-24 and in third place in the North Division. Since then, the team has gone 35-16, including a 10-, a 5-, and a 4-game winning streak. That has vaulted Winnipeg to just three-games behind the Saints and they are the leader in the Wild Card race, making it a near lock that they will make the playoffs.
Is a third title in the cards for the Winnipeg Goldeyes? That is a good question, but one thing is for sure. This team will be as tough as any to beat because every Rick Forney team plays hard to the very last out. The only question now is if that last out will be to conclude their third championship season.
Featured Image Courtesy of Winnipeg Sun
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA