“I remember my 1999 team,’’ said Hale. “We were 92-50, had players like David Eckstein and Raul Gonzalez, but we were eliminated in the playoffs. Tony, on the other hand, has won two championships. I know how hard that is to accomplish at this level.’’
Chances are, when the 50-year-old Hale, now Boston manager and former Lower Makefield resident Terry Francona’s bench coach, and the 60-year-old Franklin meet, it will be like old times.
“I’m sure we’d be friends instantly,’’ said Hale.
Hale directed the Thunder, then a Boston affiliate, from 1997-99, and had the longest tenure as a Trenton skipper until Franklin’s run, which will be in its fifth season in 2011. The two have similar managing styles, without an abundance of rules, but a demand for adherence.
Now the “eyes and ears’’ of Francona in Fenway Park, Hale, who was a finalist in the Toronto Blue Jays managerial search this past offseason, feels his years in Trenton were a turning point in his baseball coaching career.
“I really grew up as a coach and manager when I was with the Thunder,’’ he said. “I was able to grasp what running a team meant, both on and off the field. In the majors, our main concern is what is winning each game.
“In the minors, it’s development, trying to win, working with the front office and helping with the business side and in the community. Trenton is a great baseball town, and I’m thrilled to see the community has continued to support the ballclub.’’
Hale was in the area last week to appear at the annual Hot Stove Dinner to benefit the Allentown High baseball program, an affair planned by Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy, a former Thunder voice and assistant general manager.
“I like coming back when I can,’’ said Hale. “I have a lot of good memories and made a lot of good friends.’’
Hale also understands why Franklin has been at the Double-A level for five seasons. Following his stellar 1999 campaign, he had to change organizations to move up. Hale managed Texas’ affiliate, the Oklahoma RedHawks, to second-place finishes in 2000 and 2001. His nine-season managerial record in the minors was 634-614.
His first big-league assignment came with the Rangers in 2002, where he filled the roles as first-base coach and outfield instructor.
Obviously there is a difference in handling players, but one thing is the key.
“In the minors, working with players, you always stress fundamentals,’’ said Hale. “In the majors, however, they are just as important. If you play a fundamentally sound game, you win games.’’
Then, in 2006, Francona, who had been the Rangers bench coach when Hale was the Texas first-base coach, brought him back to the Boston organization as the Red Sox third-base coach, succeeding Dale Sveum, a former Altoona Curve manager.
Hale became Francona’s bench coach before the 2009 season when Brad Mills was named Houston’s manager.
In the middle of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Hale enjoys the atmosphere.
“When Terry brought me to the Red Sox, I knew I had to grasp the whole matter of the rivalry. The fans are so into it that you get excited about everything.
“Put it this way, when I was coaching third base in Yankee Stadium, and say I sent a runner home and he was thrown out – maybe I made a mistake – there were 55,000 people in Yankee Stadium cheering. In Boston, meanwhile, I knew there were at least 40,000 watching the game on TV yelling at me at booing.
“There is no better baseball rivalry.’’
Sitting with Francona on the bench, he experiences every high and low.
“Sometimes strategy changes constantly,’’ Hale said with a smile.
Hale’s one remaining goal is to manage in the majors. He came close in Toronto, losing out to fellow Red Sox coach John Farrell. The Mets also talked to him before hiring Terry Collins.
“Certainly I’d like to manage in the majors,’’ said Hale. “As far as the interviews I had, I was glad they contacted me, gave me a chance and I was in the conversation. Whatever happens, happens,’’
There is this feeling Hale and Franklin, two of the most successful managers in Thunder history, will meet sometime soon. What a conversation that will be.
GRAPEFRUIT SCHEDULE SET: Yankees minor-leaguers are due to report to Tampa March 5, with the Thunder’s first game as a team March 19 in Bradenton, Fla., facing the Altoona Curve.
The Thunder will also play New Hampshire and Reading during the 14-game Central Florida swing.
These games are often a mix of youngsters, major-leaguers coming back from injury and free-agents trying to nail down a job. Starting pitchers throw two or three innings.
“We try to give as many players a look as we can,’’ said Franklin.
Neither Franklin, the media nor the fans really know the final makeup of the new Thunder squad until a day or two before camp breaks April 3.
In the Thunder’s first Grapefruit League game in 2010, also in Bradenton and Pirate City, pitcher Tim Alderson looked untouchable, with many Pirates officials feeling he might get a big-league callup before the end of the season.
That might have been Alderson’s pinnacle for 2010. He had a tough campaign and ended up in Class A.
Spring training, in ways, is always the same, but different at the same time.
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: Wally Backman’s appointment as Binghamton manager has generated a lot of offseason buzz about the B-Mets. Players responded well to Backman’s methods at Brooklyn last season as the Cyclones won a division title in the New York-Penn League … Washington super-prospect Bryce Harper will start at Class-A Hagerstown, but don’t be surprised if he reaches Harrisburg sometime during the 2011 season.