Heading west

A knowledge of the game and a knack for fundamentals are two requirements for being a professional baseball coach.

A tolerance for travel, though, may just be the most important.

Steubenville native Rich Donnelly knew that as soon as he signed up for his lifelong career.

“It’s always hectic,” Donnelly said. “That’s the way I like it.”

This past week was one of the busiest of his 30-year coaching career. Donnelly, 67, was flown to Orlando, Fla. on Tuesday where he was interviewed for the vacant managerial job with the Tacoma Rainiers, Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.

After a two hour meeting with general manager Jack Zduriencik and director of player development Chris Gwynn, younger brother of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Donnelly flew home the same day.

At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, he got a call with a job offer.

After three years as manager of the short-season Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones, a New York Mets affiliate, Donnelly accepted a new post out west.

“The Mets had to give permission for me to talk with the Seattle staff,” Donnelly said. “It was awful nice of them. I have a tremendous relationship with a lot of people in the New York organization. It was a great three years there.”

Donnelly called his time with the Cyclones, where he compiled a 126-95 record with one New York-Penn League playoff berth, “almost like gingerbread.”

“It was fun,” he said. “It’s a beautiful ballpark on Coney Island and we would draw about 8,000 fans a night.

“The fun part was coaching those kids. A lot of them are approaching AAA now, so we’ll be playing against each other this year.”

The Steubenville Catholic Central graduate is flying to Seattle today where he will meet with team officials, take a physical and officially sign his contract.

It’s the first of many trips to the Pacific Northwest as the Rainiers are a member of the Pacific Coast League known for its intense travel schedules during the season.

There are teams scattered throughout the country and across three time zones. The PCL is represented in states such as Washington, Texas, Iowa, even Tennessee.

From Tacoma to Nashville, where the Sounds, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate plays, its nearly a 2,000 mile trip.

“There’s going to be a lot of those trips,” Donnelly said. “It’s a tough travel league. You fly commercial and get up every morning and go.

“My good friend Ned Coletti (general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers) once told me that every time a guy wants to get into baseball they have to be willing to be up real late at night and up real early in the morning.”

When the Cyclones would play the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in Niles, OH, Donnelly would always take the hour trip down Route 11 to spend nights at home. It’s also why he plans to be back early this week after a quick visit with the Mariners’ brass.

“I have racquetball to get back to and Big Red basketball games to watch,” Donnelly said. “I have some speaking engagements already planned for January, too, so the slow time is starting to wind down a bit.”

Donnelly was recommended for the Rainiers’ job by former Pirates player and coach Gary Varsho, who is a close friend of Mariners’ bench coach Roger Hanson. In turn, Donnelly has a tight relationship with newly-named Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon.

“He’s like a brother to me,” Donnelly said. “I coached him in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s and talked to him a lot when he was on Jim Leyland’s staff in Detroit.

“He’s a great baseball man, but a greater person first of all. He’s loyal, right to your face and tells you what he thinks. There’s no bull with Lloyd. We get along great and he’s been one of my favorites of all time.”

McClendon earned a 336-446 record as manager of the Pirates from 2001 to 2005. He’s stocked with some of the game’s hottest and freshest talent as Zduriencik signed second basemen Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. He also acquired former Brewers outfielder Corey Hart and first baseman Logan Morrison of the Miami Marlins.

“They’re not doing this to make a splash,” said Donnelly, who will also coordinate Mariners’ spring training. “They’re doing it to contend. They’re going to keep adding because in the major league if you think you get enough pitching or hitting, all you can do is get one more.”

Donnelly spent six years managing the Texas Rangers Triple-A affiliate in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so the jump from low level ball with bright-eyed and fresh faced prospects to seasoned pros ready to sniff the big leagues won’t faze him at all.

“When it all comes down to it,” Donnelly said, it’s how you communicate. Players are players whether they’re 28 or 18. They want honesty and loyalty. You coach from the heart.

“It’s like what my good friend Reno Saccoccia says: You want your players to play with passion and your coaches have to have even more passion.

“Baseball is my passion.”