Each year, millions of Americans decide that this will be the year that they will finally get out of the rat race and retire. They have spent 40-plus years in the workforce, and want to enjoy their golden years relaxing and spending time doing the things that they always envisioned they would get to enjoy once they stopped punching the time clock.
Hobbies and recreational activities become the focus for these men and women, choosing to spend their time fishing, traveling to exotic places, spending time with their grandkids, and learning new hobbies. It can be a fabulous time for those who embrace the opportunity to let these years be some of the most exciting of their lives.
While many look for leisure activities to spend their golden years, J.D. Droddy opted to take an entirely different pathway, truly redefining what relaxation looks like. He has spent the last five years as a baseball manager, and now, at 73, finds himself as the manager of the Salina Stockade, a team that will spend virtually every day of this season on the road. Clearly, those who retire want to do some traveling, but riding a bus to Fargo-Moorhead, Winnipeg, Gary, and Cleburne with 23 young men that are a third his age is not really what most would have in mind. However, if you knew J.D. Droddy you would totally get it.
A Modern Day Renaissance Man
Born in Hull, TX, J.D. Droddy was always a fan of baseball, but with no organized teams available to join after Little League, he found his participation in the sport would solely be one of spectator. J.D. grew up loving the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals primarily because of his boyhood heroes, Stan Musial and Ted Williams.
After graduating from Stephen F. Austin University, J.D. joined the Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant, where he flew in 44 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He would spend 20-years serving this great nation, earning a Master’s Degree in Business Administration during his time in the service.
Upon retiring, he chose to go to Harvard University where he earned a law degree and he would open a practice in Kentucky and Oregon before deciding that he wanted to do something else with his life. After earning a PhD in political science, J.D. took a job as a professor at Western Kentucky University and later he would move to Minnesota to become an administrator at Vermillion Community College.
His ability to move seamlessly from one profession to the next quickly earned him a reputation with his friends.
“My friends call me ‘Renaissance Man.’ I’m into everything. I do a lot of things and have found that I have really enjoyed doing them all.”
After serving two years at Vermillion, J.D. opted to retire. “I retired at 58 because I was still young enough to do things that I like and I like to do a lot of things.” The retirement was a short-lived one.
He opted to move to Alamogordo, NM, where his old passion would resurrect an interest in the sport. “I actually came across baseball by accident. The Pecos League started up in 2011. It grew out of an older league called the Continental League and I lived in Alamogordo, New Mexico at the time when they came here. I volunteered to be a host family for the White Sands team.”
In a single season, he had earned the respect of people within in the league, and when Justin Lowery left White Sands to take over the managing position in Trinidad, he asked J.D. to be his assistant manager. This was supposed to be a volunteer position but, prior to the season ending, Lowery was out. The team asked Droddy if he wanted the position, but he honestly felt that this was not his time.
“When he asked me if I wanted to be the assistant manager I thought it would be fun. So, I did that for a year, primarily coached first base and did a few other things. After he left, I was the interim manager for like four games, while the other manager came in.”
A New Career Spawns
When the 2012 season ended, J.D. Droddy reconsidered and decided that managing would be something he would like to do. “At the end of the season I was like ‘Ya, I would like to manage.’ They asked me if I would do it in the middle of the year but I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have that much experience, but at the end of the year I told them I was ready if they wanted me to, and they did.”
This was not only something that J.D. thought would be fun to do, but he proved to be quite successful at it as well. In 2013, he took over Trinidad as its manager and led the team to a 38-31 record and a trip to the playoffs. They finished second in the division and wound up making it to the semi-finals where they finally fell. The next season, they went 35-27 and made the playoffs once again.
It was an experience that he truly loved, but after three years of bus trips it was time to semi-retire once again. “After the 2014 season, I retired thinking I was too old for all this travel. I then served as the Pecos League adjudicator, sort of the disciplinarian for a year.”
J.D. was happy in his position, but 2016 saw a new opportunity arise when the league put a team in Tucson. Not only was this going to be a first-rate organization, but the fact that the team played in an 11,000-seat stadium made them quite unique. When he was offered the position he simply could not resist.
“When I was asked to start the team, it was a great opportunity. I knew that this was something I really thought was right and so I told them yes. Never regretted it for a second.”
J.D. had already proven that he could recruit and manage a team with great success, but he was about to demonstrate that on a whole new level. Tucson finished 51-14, earning the Pecos League’s top record and he was named Manager of the Year in the league. That was just the tip of the iceberg, however. The Saguaros knocked Roswell out of the playoffs in three-games before facing the manager’s old team, the Trinidad Triggers. Tucson swept both games, earning the team a championship in their first season and in what J.D. thought would be his last year in the dugout.
“That was going to be it for me. I was 72-years old and thought that I had achieved all that I wanted. It was time.”
No Barrier Could Keep Him from the Stockade
For the fourth time in his life, J.D. Droddy had retired, but an opportunity arose that led him back to the game. When the Laredo Lemurs folded, a 12th team was desperately needed and the Salina Stockade agreed to leave the Pecos League and join the American Association for a season. Pecos League Commissioner Andrew Dunn saw this as a great opportunity for the league and asked his Manager of the Year to step back into the dugout one more time.
“I had really decided that I was retired, but this popped up at the last minute, and so I said ‘Ok, one more year, but this is it,’” he retells with a smile.
This was going to be a big opportunity for the league to prove that they could put a team in the American Association and compete, but it was also a daunting task in many ways. The Stockade were added to the league just two weeks prior to the 2017 season beginning, so the manager had less than 14 days to put a team together and get it ready to open the season.
“I had a week and a half to build this team from scratch and three-days of spring training, and then we played Wichita. Wee won our second game and so we are happy that we are doing what we are doing.”
The biggest challenge was to find the players to add to the 23-man roster. This is where the Commissioner became instrumental, helping to stock the Stockade with some of the best talent in the Pecos League.
“Every single position player on this team played in the Pecos League last season. We didn’t have tryouts. We knew what we were getting with most of these guys. We tried to find some pitching. Some of it came from our league, some of it came from colleges and the rest of it we got from the Frontier League or the American Association. We are put together with the leftovers, but they are determined to show that they belong here and, so far, I think we have.”
The challenge is going to be as daunting as any manager may face anywhere in the world. Not only did he have 10-days to put this team together, help to build some chemistry, and build a rotation, but the team will only play two series in their home stadium. Despite this, J.D. is not complaining at all.
“We are excited about this opportunity. I keep reminding these guys that they were rejected by all of these teams. So, they have something to show these other teams. No one wanted any one of these guys. Several of my pitchers were let go by teams in this league who said they don’t want them and I can have them. I’ll gladly take them. They want an opportunity and this is their chance to prove that they can play with anyone.”
While excited for the opportunity, J.D. is not a dreamer when it comes to what he expects this season. His team won the title last season in Tucson, something he is far from expecting in Salina this year.
“We were 55-15 last year, probably about the opposite of what we will be this year, but that’s ok. Our job is to be competitive for the league, and to make these other teams earn every win that they get. If we do that then we can hold our heads high.”
A Summer of Challenge in Salina
Many in the league don’t have high hopes for the Salina Stockade this season. This team could easily lose 80-plus games, but J.D. Droddy is looking for his team to get a lot more out of the season than simple wins and losses. He wants them to understand that it takes a lot more to be a great ballplayer than talent.
“I tell my players, usually at the beginning of the year, if you are going to play for me, you have to have character, you have to have talent. If you lack either one of them you’re going to be gone. The character part is not less important than the talent part. I teach them to play with class, I don’t allow guys to chirp from the dugout. I want them to learn to play with class, to win with class, to take lumps with class, and when we get knocked down that we get up and we keep coming. It’s easy to be the right kind of player in the dugout or locker room when you are winning, but when things aren’t going your way is when your real character appears. That is the part that teams look for when they are deciding upon who they want in their organization.”
He also expects his players to support one another. In a season where a team will spend so many hours in hotels and on buses, there is no room for bickering and so he expects the 23-guys on this team to support each other with every pitch, every at-bat, every out.
“We are on the road this whole time, and the guys need to be supportive of each other. When I have two players that are bickering, we get it settled fast or one or both are gone, because that affects the whole team. I am just really pleased with the character of the team. The great thingng about this group is that they know we are going to get knocked down. I think in August, no matter what the record is, that we will have our heads up. You will see the same character that you see right now.”
Most important to J.D. Droddy is that his players get a chance to prove themselves. To reach those aims he has promised every player who makes the Salina roster that they will get at least two full series with the team to prove that they belong. He understands that a player can have a bad start or put too much pressure on himself early on, and just needs a little time to shake things out.
“I think some managers in leagues like the Frontier League can be a too impatient. They give a guy three at-bats and if he doesn’t get a hit they release him. I don’t do that. I didn’t do that in the Pecos League and I am not going to do it here. Every guy here was guaranteed two full series. I would not release anyone until they had been here for two full series. That gives them the opportunity to show what they can do. We had one guy who struggled mightily for many, many games, but he finally broke out of it. I know he can hit. He hit .400 last season in the Pecos League. I don’t expect him to hit .400 here, but I do expect him to hit. It was just a timing issue. He just needed a little time and now he is hitting.”
The Results Don’t Always Show in the Standings
As the Salina Stockade open their four-game series against the Wichita Wingnuts starting on Memorial Day, it is important to remember that the guy manning the visiting dugout at Lawrence-Dumont is a war hero, accomplished attorney, admired college professor, and championship manager. He knows that his team is going to struggle to win games this season, but is doing all that he can to ensure that the experience of playing for the Stockade is one that his players will look back on fondly for years to come.
“When I started in the Air Force I was their age. I was 22 when I joined which is about the same age of most of the guys on this team. People are people, no matter what the task is. You have to deal with them in a positive way, create a positive situation to keep them going. The more positive you are, the more they are going to enjoy being here.”
He is also relishing the fact that he is helping players to reach their big dream of playing professional baseball. That was no more prevalent than on May 24 when he watched Kevin McGovern shut his team out for seven-innings. The left-hander had played for J.D. in Trinidad, and he got to admire the left-hander’s performance like a proud dad was watching his son. That is really the aspiration that he seeks. To make a difference in the lives of these players so that they can become better ballplayers and even better men.
St. Paul Saints outfielder Anthony Gallas explained one time that when it is all said and done, you won’t remember the big home run you hit to win a game. Instead, you will remember the group of guys that you got to celebrate that home run with. It is your teammates and coaches who will make those moments truly special. There may not be a lot of game-winning home runs for the Salina Stockade this season, but no one has any doubt that when these young men look back on the 2017 American Association season that they will have nothing but fond memories of the season when J.D. Droddy was their manager. The manager will probably remember it that way as well when he retires at the end of this season…that is until the next job comes along.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA