Chris Maloney is two weeks away from finishing his fourth season as manager of the Memphis Redbirds. As of Sunday, the Redbirds trailed Iowa by 3.5 games in the Pacific Coast League’s American-North division. Having led the ’Birds to the 2009 PCL championship, Maloney now ranks fifth in career wins among Memphis managers with 279.
FM: You can go to the ballpark a thousand times and still see something you’ve never seen before. Last week, your bullpen retired 27 batters over nine innings — essentially a perfect game — after the seventh inning had been completed.
CM: Something like that happens every night. Anything can happen, and it usually does. I’ve never had a pitcher playing the outfield, and bat right next to our pitcher in the lineup. [Pitcher Brandon Dickson played rightfield late in the 16-inning win over Colorado Springs.] This club has proved to be very resilient, especially here at home.
You’ve had a challenge this year, with three of the Redbirds’ top players — Allen Craig, Jon Jay, and Tyler Greene — spending much of their time in St. Louis. How does the roster volatility affect your approach to managing?
That’s just part of it. The Cardinals have had to make a lot of adjustments, dip down here and get a lot of our guys. You can rest assured, injuries are going to happen in baseball. There’s always going to be movement. You understand it, and put your best foot forward every night.
You’ve had a fairly steady starting rotation led by Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson. How have these two pitchers developed this season?
They’re both first-year guys in this league. Lance started well, then got on a really bad jag, but he’s rebounded. This last month, he’s pitched well. Dickson started out well. He had some games when he gave up runs early, but he kept pitching, and got some wins out of those. We’ve been trying to get him to the 10 [win] mark.
What do you look for in starting pitchers that might indicate they’re big-league material?
The first thing is arm strength. Then, is his secondary pitch a swing-and-miss pitch? Does he have an out pitch? Can he make a pitch when he needs to? You’re always teaching; trying to find ways to get better. And be consistent. That’s the name of the game in professional baseball: consistency.
Did you foresee the kind of impact Jaime Garcia would have in St. Louis?
I knew Jaime had the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, and be a really good pitcher. But he was hurt last year. Came here at the end of the season and had a couple of so-so starts. Then the playoffs got here, and he had two really good starts. One of those games, I remember thinking to myself, he could have beaten the Yankees tonight. Those five innings [in Albuquerque] were as dominant as he could be. [Garcia pitched a three-hit shutout against San Francisco Sunday in St. Louis.] <p>Among this year’s players, who has surprised you with the progress he’s made?
Amaury Cazana. When we first got him [in 2008], there was never any question about his power. The ball jumps off his bat. But he was a little more muscular, and he had trouble catching up with a good fastball. This year, he’s more selective at home plate. He’s not swinging at everything. And he’s hitting the fastball better. He’s tailored his workout program to not include so much heavy lifting. He gets more extension on his swing.
What have you enjoyed most over your four years as Redbirds manager?
We’ve had a lot of success here. The last three years, we’ve been in the running. You hope to play meaningful games in August.
Anything unique to Memphis among baseball towns you’ve seen?
It’s a downtown park, the best-built park, the infrastructure, the atmosphere. It’s just like a small big-league stadium. I think people are missing the boat by not coming out as much as they once did.
Did that first season in Memphis (56-88 in 2007) seem like it would last forever? How do you survive a season when the team’s out of the playoff hunt by the All-Star break?
The games are on the schedule, so you’ve got to play them. You’ve got to keep on keepin’ on, like Bob Dylan says. You know it’s not forever.
Looking back on 2009, what was the key component to the championship run?
We were down a good bit entering August. We got some players back from St. Louis: Nick Stavinoha and Allen Craig. Craig was remarkable the last two months, getting big hit after big hit, driving in runs. Jon Jay had a slow start, but he caught fire. We lost Stavinoha with about 13 games to go; he broke his wrist. It was gonna be tough to get there without him. Then Craig went down with a hamstring pull.
But the guys just had momentum. It’s funny: you can feel that as a manager. The pitching sharpened up. You could just see it in their eyes. They were ready to go. We were loose, but we were focused. I could see something good might happen. You gotta be intense without being tense.
Did you see Jon Jay playing every day as a Cardinal in 2010?
I didn’t see him doing what he’s done this quickly. The thing about Jon Jay, there’s no one who enjoys playing baseball more than him. He’s like a Little League kid out there. He really comes to play every day. Now, he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a very natural player, has great instincts on the bases and in the outfield. He has enough speed, and knows how to use it. He made a little change with his bat, shortening up his trigger. He could always go the other way; now he’s learning how to turn on the baseball and pull a few home runs.
Do you aspire to manage (or coach) in the major leagues?
Absolutely. I want to get there one day. I think it’s gonna happen, and when it does, I’m going to be grateful. I’ll probably have to coach before I manage in the big leagues, but that’s all part of it.
Which players did you admire growing up (in Jackson, Mississippi)?
Johnny Bench was always my guy when I was a kid. I ended up catching my second year as a pro. But I hurt my shoulder, and I could never really throw well after that. Kinda ruined my catching career.