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Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco awaits second shot at major leagues

Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco smiles at a fan during their game against El Paso at Chukchansi Park Saturday, July 19, 2015.
Fresno Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco smiles at a fan during their game against El Paso at Chukchansi Park Saturday, July 19, 2015. FRESNO BEE FILE

Getting to tell someone that he’s being called up to the major leagues is the best part of a Triple-A manager’s job.

Tony DeFrancesco is in his 13th season as a Triple-A manager, including last year’s championship run with the Fresno Grizzlies. Dozens and dozens of times he’s been the bearer of wonderful news.

Only once, though, has DeFrancesco received such a call himself. It came in August 2012, when the Houston Astros jettisoned Exeter native Brad Mills and appointed DeFrancesco interim manager.

DeFrancesco went 16-25 for an Astros club that finished 55-107. He returned to Triple A the following season and four years later awaits the next opportunity.

“Every guy that sits behind this desk, I’m assuming that’s what their goal is,” DeFrancesco said before a recent Grizzlies game. “I had a small window. I got 41 games in, and it was like a dream come true. Hopefully one day I’ll get another shot at it.”

Looking at DeFrancesco’s résumé, one would think the call is coming. In his 22nd season as a minor-league manager, he’s within reach of 1,500 wins to go with four Pacific Coast League titles (2003-04 and ’07 with the Sacramento River Cats, 2015 with the Grizzlies).

If someone wants to take a look at me as a major-league manager, the first question is ‘What has he done?’ In my case, all you need to do is look in the media guide.

Tony DeFrancesco

Like the Triple-A ballplayer who hits .330 with 30 jacks, nothing left to prove at this level.

Unfortunately for DeFrancesco, he’s pedaling uphill against the trend. These days when MLB teams have a managerial opening, previous experience seems to matter little. Of the 18 managerial changes since the 2013-14 offseason, 12 of those jobs went to first-timers with little or no time in the dugout.

Of the 18 managerial changes since the 2013-14 offseason, 12 of those jobs went to first-timers with little or no time in the dugout.

Dave Roberts had not managed at any level before the Dodgers hired him in November. Same goes for the Mariners’ Scott Servais, the Brewers’ Craig Counsell, the Twins’ Paul Molitor and the Rays’ Kevin Cash.

Other names in that category: Mike Matheny (Cardinals), Brad Ausmus (Tigers), Walt Weiss (Rockies) and Robin Ventura (White Sox).

Then there are guys like Don Mattingly (Marlins) and the Astros’ own A.J. Hinch, who are on their second big-league jobs after landing their first without managerial experience.

DeFrancesco, who turned 53 on April 24, has certainly noticed but won’t admit to any accompanying frustration.

“It’s a cycle in baseball,” he said with a shrug. “They’ll go this route with first-time managers with no managerial experience, and if that doesn’t work they’ll go back to the traditional guys like Tommy Lasorda, Jim Leyland and Clint Hurdle who grinded it out.”

The other strike against DeFrancesco is that he didn’t play in the majors. Most of those recent managerial hires spent years in the big leagues. Their names are well known.

DeFrancesco’s isn’t. The former catcher made it as far as Triple A with the Red Sox and Reds.

It’s harder for guys who didn’t play in the big leagues to get those jobs. It just is.

Astros special assignment coach Morgan Ensberg

“Baseball is no different than any other business: It’s who you know,” said Morgan Ensberg, the former major-league third baseman who serves as an Astros special assignment coach.

“It’s harder for guys who didn’t play in the big leagues to get those jobs. It just is. You have to know somebody really close. The guys that get those jobs, somebody knows them or somebody is fighting for them to get an interview.”

DeFrancesco interviewed for the Astros’ opening in 2012 following his stint as interim manager. The job went to Bo Porter, who went 110-190.

“On the last day (of interviews) they told me, ‘You were close. You finished second.’ ” DeFrancesco said. “That could’ve been a changing point in my career. So you wait for the next opportunity.”

At this point, DeFrancesco’s clearest path would be to join a major-league staff. He spent the 2008 season as the Oakland A’s third-base coach – perhaps as a reward for those three PCL titles – but returned to the River Cats the following two years.

4 Pacific Coast League titles won by Tony DeFrancesco

His path to the majors seemingly blocked, DeFrancesco looked around and found employment with an Astros organization looking to tear down and rebuild.

When Houston lost 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011-13 while restocking the farm system, everyone laughed. Now teams like the Braves, Reds and Brewers are copying the blueprint.

Though off to a terrible start this season, the Astros remain loaded with young, homegrown talent that DeFrancesco played a role in developing. Proud as he is of that fact, the big leagues still beckon. Just as it does for each player under his direction.

“It’s my goal to go up to the majors,” DeFrancesco said. “I enjoy managing in the minor leagues and have been doing it for a long time. I enjoy the kids and getting guys to the big leagues.

“I really enjoy being an Astro right now. I like the direction we’re going, but if somebody called …”

DeFrancesco doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t need to.

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