Bailey finding success in Venezuela
Longtime Minor League skipper building dynasty in Aragua
SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic -- Buddy Bailey's Minor League managerial career has had a lot of stops over nearly a quarter-century, from Pulaski to Pawtucket, from Greenville to Lynchburg.His Winter League career has one stop in five years, and a Tigres de Aragua dynasty to go with it. Add it all up, and he has a very long work calendar that includes four months in a foreign country. But he doesn't consider it work. "They call it work," Bailey said, "but it's not. It's a game." That's the attitude that brings him to Venezuela for the last five years each October, when the chill of fall begins to creep in on the United States. By the time he returns most years, it's time for Spring Training. And that's the attitude that has allowed him to become one of the most successful American managers anywhere in winter ball, better than some of the greats in the game. The history of American managers in the Winter Leagues is longer than some might think. Before Tommy Lasorda took over the Dodgers, he managed Dominican power Licey to back-to-back league crowns in 1973 and '74 and one Caribbean Series title to go along with it. Phil Regan managed Escogido to consecutive Dominican and Caribbean Series crowns in 1989 and 1990 before taking his career to Venezuela. Terry Francona and Art Howe managed teams to Dominican crowns in the mid-90s, as did current A's skipper Bob Geren in 2002. None of them can match the success Bailey has enjoyed with Venezuela's Tigres de Aragua. None of them can match his longevity, either. It wasn't exactly Bailey's plan when he took the job, but he wasn't planning on a quick stay, either. Never mind that all he knew about Venezuela going in was that it was in South America and it had baseball. If he was going to make a serious effort at winning, he couldn't be in and out. "I think a lot of Americans, when they go to winter ball -- like players, coaches and instructors -- they want to go for one year and then, that's it," he said. "If it's convenient this year, they go. But to me, if you're going to do it right and help the organization that wants to pay you to come, you have to be willing to go a couple of years anyway. It takes a year to get acclimated to the league, especially as a manager or a pitching coach working with the pitchers, to manage and really evaluate what you have and don't have in each player. "And then as time goes on, once you get that under control, you start to evaluate what the opposition doesn't have, what their hitters can and can't do. And then, of course, if you've evaluated your pitchers right, then you can get the best matchups with your pitchers and their hitters." It's not a prototypical approach for a manager going overseas. But Bailey has long proven he's not a typical winter-ball manager. Though he was learning on the job, his team's success was immediate. Aragua set a Venezuelan League record for winning percentage in a season during Bailey's inaugural season of 2003, but a general strike in the country cut the season short and prevented the Tigres from going on to the Caribbean Series. Just for good measure, they won the next two titles after that, and now have back-to-back championships again. With that kind of success, why leave? "I didn't think I'd be with the same team in the same city in the same league six years in a row," Bailey admitted, "but we've had a good formula. We've been successful, so it makes it a lot easier to go back, especially when you're able to get to the finals every year and go to the Caribbean Series." Players who have been on the opposing side against Aragua in the Venezuelan League have an appreciation for what he does. Former big league prospect Andrew Lorraine has played winter ball each offseason for nearly a decade. He has faced Bailey's Tigres on several occasions, most recently in the Venezuelan finals with the Cardenales de Lara. Now he's playing for Bailey as a reinforcement draft pick by Aragua. "It's just experience and knowing the players so well," Lorraine said. "He gets every little bit out of them. If it's a close game, they usually find a way to pull it out. Maybe the odds are against them, but they don't really care. In that [finals] series against us, they just kept answering. Some games we'd play well and beat them pretty soundly, but other games it was close, close, close. I don't think you can measure that. "The team's good talent-wise, but they just play their tails off -- every at-bat, every pitch." Having Major League All-Star Miguel Cabrera for the past several years helps. Yet when he was held without an RBI for the entire Venezuelan finals, the Tigres still pulled out wins. To Giavanni Carrara, it's a matter of game management. "All the moves he does, everything works," said Carrara, also a past opponent of Bailey. "I guarantee you a lot of managers don't agree with what he does, but it works. He's a different style of manager." Carrara pointed to Monday's win over Mexican champion Yaquis as an example. Aragua held a 5-0 lead in the ninth with a runner on first and two outs. One out away from victory and five runs up, Bailey replaced reliever Victor Moreno with Jose Guanchez to face Armando Rios, who promptly flied out to end it. In the meantime, Bailey has grown to appreciate the style needed to connect with Venezuelan players. He maintains a steady, sometimes cold temperament to keep his younger players from becoming too excited with the flow of the game. He wants them to learn to channel their emotions. "How do you handle your emotions? You have to be disciplined," Bailey said. That's one way he connects with his players. Communicating with them, well, that's still a challenge, no matter how much Spanish he picks up. "With the Spanish pronunciation and my Southern accent, I speak Spanish and I know what I'm saying, but they don't," Bailey joked. "The words don't come out right. A lot of people don't understand me in English, so how are they going to understand my accent in Spanish?" The one area where he has struggled has been here at the Caribbean Series, an event he has yet to win. That's where success has arguably worked against him. Because they've been to the finals so many times, their season consistently runs close to the start of Spring Training. Many players have to bow out before the Caribbean Series to prepare for camp, and Bailey understands. This year, 15 players from his Venezuelan finals roster were unavailable for the Caribbean Series. Tuesday's 2-1 loss to Licey guaranteed Aragua wouldn't win it this year, dropping their record to 1-3. Those three losses, however, have come by a total of five runs. "Every Caribbean Series, man, they're hard to beat," Licey second baseman Ronnie Belliard said on Saturday. "It's not that easy." For Bailey, it has become a matter of pride. "I've managed enough in Venezuela, I have a lot of pride in coming to the Caribbean Series and representing Venezuela, because I've lived there every winter for six years," he said. "You're taking their team to represent their country on an international level, so it gives you pride of being able to do that." He doesn't know how much longer he'll do it, but he has no plans of stopping soon. He's grown to love the winters there, even though he'll go from here to Chicago Cubs Spring Training, where he'll manage their Double-A affiliate at Tennessee this year. Plus, well, it's baseball, no matter what continent he's on. "Baseball's a kids' game, and it's a game that we all played when we were kids," Bailey said. "Why can't we go do it every day as adults? I work over 300 days out of the year in baseball. If it wasn't for baseball, I'd be trying to play golf or bowling or playing poker against my buddies, something competitive every day. "It's a kid's game. The only difference at this level is you have to have a kid's heart and a man's head."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.