Back in the bigs

STEUBENVILLE – Rich Donnelly is back in the major leagues and, he said, it feels like he never left.

“It’s great to be back,” the Steubenville native admitted during a day off Monday. The Mariners visit Cleveland for a three-game set beginning tonight. “The first time I walked into Safeco Field, it was opening night with King Felix (Hernandez) on the mound and 40,000 in the stands. The whole atmosphere was great.

“Then the center field gate opened and out walked Pete Carroll and the Seahawks in their uniforms. The crowd roared. I really felt part of the community. They have a love the for Seahawks and their fans are our fans.

“It was pretty surreal.”

Seattle opened the season March 31 in Anaheim and swept the Angels.

“I had coached against Albert Pujols for years and here I am back in the big leagues,” Donnelly said. “Albert came by and said, ‘good to see you back.’ Mike Trout was running to the outfield and said, ‘Rich, glad to see you back.’ I didn’t know he knew who I was.

“The biggest kick I’ve gotten, though, is out of the umpires. Being the third base coach, I talk to the umpires the whole game. It’s been great seeing guys. I think there are four or five from Youngstown. Joe West has probably thrown me out of about 12 minor league games. It’s good to see them.”

Donnelly has spent a baseball lifetime coaching third and did so when he was the manager for the Brooklyn Cyclones.

“It’s a little different in the major leagues,” he admitted. “In the big league it’s a little more crtitiqued. I call myself a player traffic controller. As long as the runners are safe, no one cares if it’s a good decision or a bad decision.

“You have to have thick skin over there because the fans will let you know.”

A Catholic Central High School graduate, Donnelly had been manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones, the New York-Penn League short season affiliate of the New York Mets, since 2011. He played baseball at Xavier University and spent 14 seasons (1986-1999) on Jim Leyland’s staff with three organizations – Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado. In 1997, he earned a World Series ring with the Marlins.

He was originally hired in December to be the manager of the Tacoma Rainiers, Triple-A affiliate of the Mariners.

John Stearns stepped down the first week of March due to a difficult recovery from hiatal hernia surgery and Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon gave Donnelly a call to the bigs.

Donnelly was on Leyland’s staff during McClendon’s days with the Pirates from 1990-94.

“It’s great to be with him,” Donnelly said of McClendon. “Mac, (bench coach) Trent Jewett and I probably spend about 18 hours a day with each other, whether it’s in the clubhouse, the office, the dugout, wherever. We laugh a lot. About a week ago I was throwing BP and I felt a pinch on my left side way in the back.

“I didn’t know what it was and then I remembered that we were laughing so hard one day we had to pull the far off the road. I think I hurt myself laughing.

“Mac has done a tremendous job with this team. Nobody predicted us to be here this late in the season. He should get serious consideration for manager of the year. He has been great with the injuries we have had and somehow were 1 games back of the wild card.”

The San Diego Padres were in Seattle the day that superstar Tony Gwynn died from cancer.

“Knowing Tony for years, he was arguably the best hitter of our generation,” Donnelly remarked. “Before he passed away, I pulled up a stat that said Tony Gwynn had just over 9,000 at-bats and had 3,141 hits and Pete Rose had just over 14,000 at-bats and 4,256 hits. Imagine what Tony would have done with 5,000 more at-bats?

“The guy was phenomenal. He had one of the sweetest swings you ever saw. He was an outstanding defender. When you say ‘a big league player’ you thought of Tony Gwynn. He did everything with class. He respected the game and his opponent. He was a great ambassador for our game. I still pinch myself about how lucky I am to have coached against him and been on the same field with him numerous times. I watched in awe as he killed us. You couldn’t get him out.

“The ultimate respect we had of him is with a 3-2 count and one out, if they sent the runner, we wouldn’t cover second base. If Tony would have seen the second baseman or shortstop go to cover the bag, he would hit the ball to where the guy just left. He was that good to hit the ball where the guy was.”

One of the things Donnelly said he appreciates about being back in the show is all the talent that’s around him.

“King Felix is held in high esteem in Seattle and in baseball,” he said. “Seeing Robbie play every day, I never appreciated what kind of defender he was and what a great teammate he is. Mike Zunino was catching for the Florida Gators two years ago and how he has 15 homers in the major leagues.

“It’s a great organization to be a part of.

“Our bullpen is No. 1. Our defense is No. 1. But, our offense is last. We have to shore that up. But, when your pitching and defense is No. 1, you always have a chance.”