John Massarelli Teaching Lessons in Baseball, Character for Kansas City T-Bones
There are few men you will come across in life with as intricate of an understanding of the game of baseball as Kansas City T-Bones Manager John Massarelli. One might say that once he enters the dugout he is one who truly owns the diamond. That is only fitting. The name Massarelli has its origins in the name Massaro, which means “owner of the land.” For nearly 30 years now that is what the T-Bones Skipper has done.
Laying the Seed and Tilling the Soil in a Game that He Loved
John Massarelli has been playing the game of baseball for as long as he can remember. Born in Dover, OH, John grew up watching the Cleveland Indians, and baseball quickly became his passion. At Central Catholic High School, he starred and soon found himself excelling at the University of Akron. He performed so well on the diamond that in 1987 he was selected in the eighth round by the Houston Astros, and began his professional career later that summer.
His first three seasons he worked his way through the Astros lower levels, earning a selection in the Florida State League All-Star game in 1990. In 1991 his career took off. He started the season at High-A Osceola but made it to AAA-Tucson for nearly the entire last half of the season. He hit an impressive .268 in AAA, with 16-RBI and 10 stolen bases in 46-games.
In 1992, he began at AA-Jackson before moving back to Tucson. He would remain there for the rest of that season as well as all of 1993. In his final season at Tucson he played in 114-games, hitting .281 with 42-RBI, 66-runs, and 37-stolen bases, very impressive numbers for a catcher.
In 1994, he moved to the then Florida Marlins organization, playing 120-games at AAA-Edmonton. He continued to show great speed on the base paths, stealing 39-bases while hitting .261. In 1995, he split time between the Marlins AAA-Charlotte club, as well as moving to the team of his youth, the Cleveland Indians, where he played at AAA-Buffalo, and even spent 55-games at Canton-Akron.
In 1996, he moved to the San Diego Padres organization and split time between two levels. The then 30-year-old had already decided that when his daughter had reached school age that if he was not in the majors he would consider putting his cleats aside to spend more time at home. He opted to play one more season, heading for the Taiwan Major League for the 1997 season, but then decided it was time to start a new chapter in his life.
Helping the Budding Careers of a Future Generation of Stars
Deciding that his time as a player was over, John Massarelli quickly discovered that his insights and knowledge of the game made him the ideal person to move from between the lines to the dugout. John moved onto Walsh University where he became an assistant coach for the team. Coaching at the collegiate level allowed him to be at home more so he could spend more time with his family while staying in the game he loved.
His knowledge of the game and ability to teach soon caught the attention of the Astros, who hired Massarelli to be one of their coaches at their Midwest Michigan team. In 2000, he moved to Auburn where he became the manager of the organization’s Auburn Doubledays.
The next season he moved to Michigan in the Midwest League, where he would stay for two seasons. He proved to be an excellent teacher of the game and the team had winning seasons both years. Combined he was 161-116 there, and made trips to the playoffs in both of those seasons.
In 2003, he moved to the Astros High-A team in Salem. There his team went 73-65, finishing fourth in the Carolina League.
In 2004, John took over the Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League. He was the manager there for four seasons, finishing in first in three of those years, and making trips to the playoffs in each of those campaigns. In 2007, his team made it to the finals, where they lost, but John had shown that he had a real knack not only for managing but for building a team as well. In those four seasons he went 239-143.
Front there he moved onto to the expansion Lake Erie Crushers in the same league. In his first year there his team finished second during the regular season, but they went all the way to win the championship. He would spend four seasons there as well, appearing in the playoffs twice, and earning a 211-170 record. Despite having a winning season in all four years with the expansion team, Massarelli was inexplicably let go following the 2012 season. The team decided they needed a “new voice,” and John decided that maybe this was a time to take a little breather.
He sat out the 2013 season deciding that he wanted to just spend some time at home with his family. It was a great year for him, a time where he got to enjoy doing some of the things in the summer that he had not been able to do for nearly 30 years.
The Opportunity Blossoms in Kansas City
John Massarelli wanted a little time away from the game, but he knew there would be a point where he would be back. He had a lot to offer and teach, and some of his ideas on the game are things that coaches are still teaching today.
In 2014, that opportunity arose. The Kansas City T-Bones were in need of a new manager and decided that John Massarelli was the answer. Club President Adam Ehlert knew that Massarelli was the right man for the job, not just because of his skills as a manager, but also because of his level of integrity and how he carried himself on and off the field.
“We have a certain expectation of the kind of player we are looking for here,” the President explained. “John has the same vision, and because of the kind of man that he is we know that we are going to have a team that has quality players on the field and off. John is such a high character guy, and that is why we knew he was the perfect man for the job.”
For Massarelli, this was the perfect opportunity for him as well.
“It is recognized as one of the premier organizations in independent ball. So once I had left the Lake Erie Crushers I was not sure I was going to manage again unless it was the ideal situation. Lo and behold, I ran into it here.”
Managing an independent league team is ideal for the T-Bones Manager for another reason. Not only does he get to use his talents as a manager on the field but this also gives him the ability to build and assess players for his team, a talent he has proven to excel at since first coming to independent baseball.
“I enjoy it very much. When you get to play the baseball GM and the manager then you get to put your own team together. You have to do a whole lot of background checking, to make sure that the quality of the player is what you want. It’s the fun part of the job in the offseason, getting to build your team.”
The ability to evaluate players and build his own team gives John the capability to make character a key priority in building his roster. It is that character that builds the chemistry he is looking for. This ensures that the T-Bones Manager can count on his players to stay balanced no matter whether times are going well or his team is struggling.
“Chemistry of a team is key. When you have the right guys in the locker room then you can weather whatever may come. You can turn around a team that is struggling and have confidence in one another that things will turn around.”
This philosophy was no more prevalent than at the start of last season. The Kansas City T-Bones started out 1-10 and the season had disaster written all over it. However, the team turned things around and they challenged for the final wild card spot until a stretch of 33 games in 30 days simply wore out the pitching staff. Despite not making the playoffs, his philosophy proved itself prophetic.
“We had a good chemistry group. Things were not going right at first, just not going our way. We would hit and not pitch or pitch and not hit. We just kind of rolled through it and didn’t make any major changes. I just trusted our group, and they proved to be trustworthy. We then won like 16 or 17 series in a row after that.”
A Man to Be Trusted
It is so poignant that trust is what he put in his players last season. He counted on that they would turn things around and they did. Part of that evaluation process he undergoes with each player is understanding what kind of man they are and what they can do on the field when times are tough.
On his show, Mass Appeal, John has been asked about players struggling at the plate early on this season, and his response is to always have confidence because of what they have done in the past. “You know a guy has done it before, so you put your confidence in the fact that they will do it again,” John Massarelli explained. “You know the player and what kind of man he is, so you know he will turn it around.”
His players appreciate the fact that their manager has that kind of confidence in him. Earlier this season, Jake Blackwood was struggling at the plate, but has since seen his average steadily rise. He is thankful that John has shown confidence in him. “When you’re having a tough start you got to work yourself out it, and I play in a place where I get the opportunity to work it through. You can’t say enough about your manager who will work with you like that.”
Shortstop Vladimir Frias agrees. “The best place to play (Kansas City) because you know that the manager has your back. If you are struggling, he stands behind you and works with you to help you.”
As part of putting trust in his players, he expects them to act responsibly with that trust. That is especially true of his veterans who he entrusts to set the tone for his team.
“I expect the veterans to act professionally. I want them to show the younger guys that it is not about what you are doing at 7:05 but what you are doing at 2 o’clock. That’s when you are supposed to be preparing yourself for your job that night. The rookies are eager to learn and just don’t know or don’t understand what is involved. So that is the veteran’s responsibility.”
Trust also plays a big part in building a team. Often, the initial introduction that he has to a player comes only from the statistics that player has amassed. He has to go out and find out about the character of a player, and that can require a lot more work than knowing about their baseball skills.
“They would not be coming here without being character guys. I get different references from different people. I get to know them before they come to Kansas City so it is easy to communicate about what is expected.”
Helping to attract the right kind of player means building relationships with people so that he knows that he can trust them. Those relationships have come from decades in the game, and they have enabled him to quickly determine if a player that is recommended to him is someone that he should give a serious look at.
“It takes time to develop the right kinds of relationships. You have to know who you can trust and that comes from knowing the character of the people that you are getting references form. Fred Nelson is the farm director with the Rockies and was my farm director when I was with the Astros. I have known the guy for 30 years. When he calls me up and tells me to take a look at a guy, I don’t even have to wait for the numbers. He’s a guy who, when he calls me about players, there are two things I know: he can play and he has character.”
A True Teacher at Heart
While faith in his players is an important character trait of John Massarelli, it is the ability to teach the game that really sets him apart from many managers. Most of the players in independent ball are guys that were cut by affiliate clubs, primarily because there was one part of their game that was keeping them from staying around. They are in need of some additional instruction and that is right in the wheelhouse of John Massarelli.
“I most enjoy teaching. My passion in this game is to teach and I love teaching these young guys. Teaching that type of guy. One of the most enjoyable parts of this league is that these guys have a real passion for the game. They want to be coached and they want another opportunity. They want to stay in the game so they are a lot of fun to teach. They are eager to learn because they love it so much. In the affiliate organizations the passion isn’t the same. They were drafted and there is a lot of money in their pocket and so the passion isn’t the same.”
It is the legacy as a teacher that John Massarelli will likely leave behind. There are many teams that are still using a technique that he designed for blocking the plate (even though the play is banned under most circumstances nowadays). He has helped in the progress of hundreds, if not thousands of players over the years. That is the most satisfying part of his career to John Massarelli; to know that he has passed something beneficial onto another person.
“For the guys that played for me, it feels great when you know that you have passed something on to someone else. I love when a former player or coach of mine will call me up and tell me he is using techniques or drills that I taught them. That is when you know you have made an impact; when you are positively influencing others.”
A positive impact is what John Massarelli has had on the game of baseball for over 30 years, and that is just the professional side. His influence clearly dates back to his team as an amateur. In 2010, he was inducted into the Akron Baseball Hall of Fame, recognizing his role in helping young men mature into players who excel at playing a little boys game.
His desire to teach has also led the T-Bones Manager to open his own baseball and softball instructional school (MassarelliBaseball.com). Kids from all over are learning the intricacies of the game from some of the best instructors in baseball, including John himself, and they are also learning to grow up to be players of integrity. Who would expect anything less from a school run by John Massarelli?
In this third season with the Kansas City T-Bones, John Massarelli has yet to produce a winning season, but no one should think that will not occur. In 14-seasons as a manager, he has 11 winning seasons and eight trips to the playoffs. With those kinds of odds, it is only a matter of time before the T-Bones are entering into the win column a lot more frequently.
There can be doubters. There can be those that think that the Central Division in the American Association may be too tough to take, but if one understands the chemistry of this team then they should not have reservations. They say that if you keep playing the right way that the results will soon take care of themselves. With that in mind it is clear that Kansas City will soon be back on top. After all, if anyone knows about teaching the right way, it is John Massarelli. If you want to know how to play the game the right way, head out to a T-Bones’ game. There, class is in session.
Catch Mass Appeal with John Massarelli
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA
Mass Appeal with Kansas T-Bones Manager John Massarelli - Minor League Sports Report
June 20, 2016 @ 10:35 pm
[…] Read Feature on John Massarelli […]