Tim Wallach seizes chance in minors

ALBUQUERQUE -- It was 5 o'clock in the afternoon, hot, and nothing about this mid-August New Mexico afternoon was signaling mercy.

Tim Wallach had just thrown two rounds of batting practice to the top of his team's lineup. The only shade nearby was a corner of the Albuquerque Isotopes' dugout near the bat rack. Wallach grabbed a seat.

There were no fans in the stadium yet. This is Triple-A. Unless there's a promotion to get a coupon to some local restaurant that requires fans to be there early, Isotopes Park is pretty empty until 30 minutes until game time.

After each game Wallach goes back to the hotel room near the airport he rented for the season. If there's glamour to be found anywhere within a 100 miles, there'd have to be a flashing sign for anyone to notice.

And yet, Wallach said he loves it.

"I loved being at home," he said of the 10-year period after he retired when he had one foot in family life and one foot in baseball. "But I was playing a lot of golf. ... I didn't have that competitive thing that got my juices going.

"Honestly, I probably get more excited doing this [managing] than I did when I was playing. I knew exactly what I was doing when I was playing third base. I knew my own game plan, but now I've got 24 guys I have to be aware of and on top of what they're doing.

"Once the game starts there's so much going on. That competitive thing gets going. I just love it."

He's in Albuquerque by choice. He's also here knowing that doing well here guarantees him nothing.

Last season, Wallach was the Manager of the Year in the Pacific Coast League, his first in Albuquerque when he went 76-63. This year, despite a constantly changing roster, Wallach had the Isotopes in playoff contention until the final weekend of the season. Baseball America recently named him as the top managerial prospect in the PCL.

But if and when Joe Torre retires as manager of the Dodgers, the club Wallach played for from 1993 to 1996, Wallach will simply be one of the top candidates along with Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly.

There is no great way to chew on that thought, except to do what he tells players in Triple-A to do every day: Put your head down, prepare, work hard and focus on the things you can control.

Whenever he is asked, Wallach politely declines to speak about managing the Dodgers one day, saying he has too much respect for Torre and Mattingly to comment on the subject. In another man, those statements might seem falsely modest.

But as Wallach sat in that sweaty dugout in Albuquerque, dressed in black shorts and a gray warm-up shirt, sunglasses covering his eyes, his message was plain and simple.

"I'd like to manage in the big leagues someday," he said. "That's always been a goal. There were some things I had to do, so I'm doing them and hopefully somebody will think I'm ready after this year."

Fork in the road

Wallach was thought to be on the fast-track to a managerial job five or six years ago when he was the Dodgers' hitting coach under Jim Tracy, but he was let go after Grady Little was hired and brought in Eddie Murray as hitting coach.

It was an unexpected and potentially annoying fork in the road. Instead, Wallach used it as an opportunity to spend a couple more years at home with his three sons, who all went on to be drafted by the Dodgers.

"I'm glad I was able to spend that time [with my family] because those are the times you never forget," Wallach said.

But after a couple of years Wallach was ready to jump back in. Golf could wait.

He figured the best place would be at the minor league level, where he'd get an opportunity to manage a club and not simply work with hitters.

"Honestly, looking back at it now, I don't think I would've been prepared [to manage at the major league level] if I would've done it straight from being a hitting coach," he said.

"I'd always heard 'You gotta be ahead of the game, you have to think ahead, a couple innings of where you're at, a couple days ahead' -- but you don't realize how fast it is until you actually do it.

"Things happen fast. You don't realize until you do it and you get caught, and I did get caught last year. Just not having a guy ready in time, managing a bullpen, stuff like that."

I wasn't around for any of those times Wallach "got caught" last year, and he didn't seem to be in a mood to relive any of them, so I asked around the Isotopes clubhouse for examples.

Johnny Moses laughed at me.

"He said that?" said Moses, the Isotopes' hitting coach the past two seasons. "I never saw that. He doesn't ever show that the game is speeding up on him. And that for me, is the sign of a good manager. A manager that's not panicking or making last-minute decisions.

"If that's what he said, that just shows you how much poise he has. He's been around the game a long time. He knows how to slow the process down."

Moses, an outfielder for the Mariners, Twins and Tigers from 1982 to 1992, has worked in the Dodgers' system for the past three seasons. He and Wallach were two of the top candidates for the manager's job in Albuquerque when it opened up two years ago.

"After he got it, I really thought that it would be interesting to see how Tim manages. ... But I'm telling you, he, for me, is a big league manager," Moses said. "He handles his players well, he keeps a relaxed clubhouse. He gets the most out of his players and he knows how to manage.

"He manages the game like it's supposed to be managed."

Playing days: Quick rise

Wallach played only two seasons of minor league ball before the Montreal Expos made him their starting third baseman for the next 12 seasons. After being drafted 10th overall in 1979, he signed quickly and convinced the Expos to start him at Double-A. By the end of the 1980 season, he was in the big leagues.

In all, he played just 209 minor league games (134 at the Triple-A level) before making his major league debut. So it's not easy, based on personal experience, to relate to all the players in his current clubhouse.

"Being here, I think I've learned more respect for what these guys go through," Wallach said. "As a player, fortunately, I played all the time. And I hated to sit. It drove me crazy when I didn't play. So now, remembering how I was, and now having to deal with guys that are on the bench, I can really understand that a lot more."

It is, in a word, empathy. It's a trait rarely attributed to great managers, but one that almost all of them possess.

It's the ability to relate to players, to understand what they are thinking and feeling, and then to know what to say or do for that player to help him.

"He definitely is what I'd call a 'players' manager,' but I don't want to just say that, because sometimes with a 'players' manager' you think they're not tough," said Albuquerque outfielder Michael Restovich. "Wally's tough, and he has everyone's respect.

"Most coaches and managers played at some level, but a lot of times when they get to the other side of things, they forget what it was like. Wally still seems to have a good grasp of what we're going through, what it was like to play.

"But at the same time, if he sees something going a little bit wrong, he definitely comes in and nips it in the bud right away. He's got a great mix of discipline and being respected, but also being casual and calm."

Outfielder Trent Oeltjen had been in Albuquerque only a few months when I met him. He had come over in July after starting the year with the Brewers' Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds.

He had been up to the big leagues once, for 24 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, and was eager to get back. Nashville wasn't the right fit, so he moved on quickly.

"I didn't know what it was going to be like to start fresh in the middle of the season," said Oeltjen, who was called-up by the Dodgers on Sept. 7, a day after the Isotopes' season ended. "But Wally just sort of threw me right into the fire and I just sort of came out running.

"I love playing for the guy. He's a player's manager and he's totally got everybody's back.

"One thing I've noticed that if anything happens out on the field, if there's a strike that we argue or something, he can't tell from the [dugout] but he's always right beside us arguing with the umpire and getting thrown out of a lot of games. It's great to run out on the field and play for someone like that."

Family matters

After all those years of choosing family over baseball, Tim Wallach could someday have to manage one of his three sons, which would be an ironic place to meet in the middle.

It could've happened this season if the Los Angeles Dodgers hadn't traded his middle son, Brett, in their July 31 deal with the Cubs for Ted Lilly. And it could happen again next year, with his oldest son, Matt, a catcher who hit .264 with 11 home runs between Single-A Inland Empire and Double-A Chattanooga this year.

His youngest son, Chad, drafted in the 43rd round this spring, will likely play for Cal State Fullerton before jumping into minor league life.

During a recent trip to Portland, Wallach was met at the park by his wife and Chad, who came down onto the field and took batting practice with the team. The father hit ground balls to the son at third base. After a couple rounds of BP, Chad stepped out and Wallach threw to the rest of the hitting group.

"I'm kind of torn on that," Wallach said of managing his sons. "I think it'd be great, but you have a lot of factors involved. This isn't youth baseball.

"I'd love to do it, but I do worry about perception from some players. I don't think it'd be a problem, because hopefully I've been fair enough [the last two years] that people would just see I'm doing the right thing."

Part of the plan

He had a dream, not a plan when he retired after the 1996 season.

He wanted it all, a family life and a career as a big league manager. To make both happen involved what others might perceive as sacrifice. But Wallach couldn't imagine it going any other way.

He wouldn't trade those years at home, playing too much golf and going to his sons' baseball games. He wouldn't even trade the two seasons he's spent living out of a hotel by the airport in Albuquerque. He had more to learn, and he's still learning.

While he'll never get tired of baseball, you get the sense in a few years he might start thinking about Triple-A the way he now thinks of golf.

"I know that being here, these two years, has been great experience for me," he said. "I know I'd be willing to come back next year, but beyond that, I haven't thought that far ahead. I want to manage in the big leagues. That's a goal. That's always been my goal.

"But there were some things I had to do, so I'm doing them and hopefully somebody will think I'm ready after this year."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.