Pittsburgh Pirates: Through the Eyes of a Coach With Dave Turgeon
By Cody Potanko
In the third installment of ‘Through a the Eyes of a Coach’ I spoke with the new manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve, Dave Turgeon.
Coaches, what do they do? For most fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and baseball in general, they think coaches or, in our case, skippers just yell, clap their hands, fix their junk, and spit amirite?! Well, your wrong, and let me tell you why skippers not only set the lineups, make double switches, or leave imprints on a pitchers backside after pulling him.
One of the most unforeseen aspects of a skipper is their ability to motivate, console or light a fire under their players behind closed doors. One man who can do all of those things rather well is my next interview with newly hired manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate in Altoona, Dave Turgeon.
Turgeon spent 13 years playing professional ball with some time in the minors as well as international ball. One of the things I wanted to know from Turgeon was what were some of the things he learned and what was his baseball experience like.
“I’ve learned so much it’s unbelievable. Being here in the United States going through the Yankees system, I learned what championship culture in baseball looks like. I’ve taken a ton of wisdom from some of the guys I played for and with. Going overseas and into a different setting, I had to learn the culture and the culture’s version of the game. Going overseas taught me how to be adaptable, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
Turgeon continued, “International ball taught me two fold. The first thing it taught me was it gave me a heart in the future for all of my foreign players and what they went through. The second piece is very simple. It wasn’t based on you being a prospect, it was based on performance.”
You can already tell this interview is going to be good because he had to more to say about this topic.
“You had to perform to get paid as opposed to being a prospect and having a longer leash for failure. Going to places like Mexico, Taiwan, and all of these other places, they didn’t care if you were a prospect or a suspect. There was something very gratifying in that and being able to not only survive but thrive in some spots.”
He then shifted the conversation to Taiwan specifically.
“In Taiwan, I had a Japanese pitching coach, and he really helped me change my definition of what hard work is. He really raised the bar on how I went about my job, how I took care of myself, and, most importantly, on how to be a teammate. I’m very grateful for that experience in a way it made me grow up by having my lenses expanded on a whole new world and culture.”
Did you think that story was fun? Well, let me warn you now we’re just getting warmed up, baby! With Turgeon experiencing so many different places and events, I had to know what story was his most memorable during his playing days.
“In 1989 we (Prince William Cannons the single-A affiliate for the Yankees) had a really good club in the Carolina League. We had a good band of brothers that year, but we just couldn’t get it going. We ended up firing the manager, and at that time, we were in last place. They brought in Stump Merrill as the new manager, and he instantaneously freed up an entire clubhouse. We went from last to first and ended up winning the championship.”
Turgeon continued, “We actually won where they filmed Bull Durham. Grady Little was the manager there at that time, and Grady and I still talk to this day. That series and that year showed me what leadership, culture, and mindset can do. That was my favorite championship and memory. I still keep in touch with most of those guys today.”
Lord almighty, this interview has to be one of my favorites. Not only is Turgeon a great person and coach, but he’s also an amazing storyteller. The pictures he paints in my mind resonate with me even to this very minute! He acts as some sort of Picasso in my mind, and I’m living for it.
Now let’s get to the inspirations, shall we? Turgeon got into coaching around the year 2000 and has fallen in love with it ever since. That love is helped to lead him to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. I wanted to know if a particular coach in his life inspired him to stand at the top of the dugout and manage a team.
“I take a little something from everyone no matter where I went, and I’ve been so fortunate because of that. I feel like, at heart, I’ve always been a teacher. I used to do tutoring and substitute teaching during the offseason, and I realized I have a love for that and helping kids. I think coaching was a natural transition of being able to do that on a field. I think when you’re given the role of manager or coordinator, you’re given a platform to effect change and impact people.”
Turgeon continued, “When my playing ended, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had a couple of opportunities to stay in the game, and when (ex-Pittsburgh Pirates general manager) Neal Huntington was with the Cleveland Indians he gave me that opportunity, and I’m very grateful for Neal. I was exposed to so many great teachers in good men that influenced me in that regard. It was a combination of many of those guys to keep me in the game.”
He then discussed the long laundry list of influences that he still keeps in touch with to this day.
“Buck Showalter influenced me professionally. He was a really well prepared manager, very systematic and organized. One of the greatest mentors I ever had is Ted Kubiak. He had three World Series rings with the A’s. He is honestly very much a teacher, and he poured into me both as a player and a coach. He made me realize that you have to learn, read, watch, and tap into your players to get an understanding and help them.”
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He mentioned another very big influential figure in his life.
“Karl Kuehl wrote the mental game of baseball. It was a book I read later on in my career. He was one of the earlier guys to tap into the mental side of the game. The first human being I met as a Cleveland Indian was Karl Kuehl. I went to my locker, and his was next to mine.”
Turgeon continued, “I was unpacking my bag and pulled out his book, and it had yellow highlights all over it, and I asked him, are you the same guy? He said YEAAA, but I’ve evolved more since that book let me tell ya, kid! He was a really strong mentor for me, and all the stuff he was saying about the mental side is now being talked about 25 plus years later. All of those guys really poured into me as a professional and as a man, and I’m really grateful for that.”
Turgeon is going on a decade-plus within the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. His most recent job before being named Altoona’s manager was the coordinator of instruction. I got the individuals covered if they don’t know what that job entails because I asked him what that job means.
“As a coordinator, you coach coaches essentially. You try to help steer the cruise ship because it’s such a large group of people, and you have to effect change and move something, which is why I use the analogy steering a cruise ship. I was charged with looking at how we were training and skill acquisition, and how can we do that better. I tapped into a lot of our resources like Bernie Holliday and Andy Bass. I would then translate that to the coaches into good edible pieces. Then I would look at how we can translate that to making our players more prepared for seven o’clock, and that was one of the things I loved with that job.”
He then went on to talk about how he’d have different conversations at multiple levels with the players. Dave mentioned to me that it’s a whole different animal when you’re in the Dominican than Indy. In Indy, there’s a lot more at stake.
“I think the challenge for me was having the ability to get guys to see what they’re doing and ask themselves how can I make things better. I rearranged the furniture in their head a bit. When guys are being pressured to perform, you have to feed them things in bite-size pieces that they might even consider.”
Minor league managers have a tough task dealing with guys trying to make their dreams a reality every day. So I asked him what it is like dealing with guys right on the cusp of glory and how patient do you have to be with them.
“You have to meet players with where they are. The reality of it is you have to understand where they’re at and understand they are chasing their dream. They just want to know if they can trust you and if you can help them. It’s an unbelievable performance enhancer to know your manager is in your corner. As a player, there is no better feeling than being understood. You can be struggling, or on a high patch, he knows that you have his back, and it’s such a pressure reliever. The word empathy is big. You don’t wake up and automatically go YUP I’m going to the big leagues, it’s about improvement and work. That’s something that we taught when I coached in the Arizona Fall League recently.”
The buzz word nowadays in baseball is advanced analytics. I know I know it’s a very polarizing topic for some folks. It’s okay, I promise it’s not a bad thing. I asked Dave how much stock does he put into advanced analytics and how much does he use it in his teaching points.
“I’m a huge fan of analytics, and I’m a huge fan of fundamentals. I realize there is a blending there that could really help players. When you use analytics as a coach and a teacher, you can use it like I do and use it to sharpen the image you see in front of you. When you slow things down and you say oh ok, I see he’s having problems with this pitch. Then you look at the advanced stats, and you see it’s worse than you thought. When you use it when teaching a player, you have to be careful about how you use it.”
Turgeon continued, “If I go overboard with it, I’m afraid the player is going to be chasing numbers instead of looking for a pitch to hit or making his pitches. You have to be careful with the wrong personality; it could take a player away from his process. You start thinking oh shoot I need more strikeouts per nine, and that’s not who he is he could get lost in the numbers. By chasing the shiny new objects on the horizon, it takes him away from being who he is.”
He mentioned the last thing you need to do with analytics. “You can’t make someone self conscience. You can’t play baseball that way and worrying about what I’m looking like. That takes away from that guy’s ability just to play his own way. Analytics are good, but they are a tool, and it needs to be used, in my opinion, judiciously.”
This next answer to my question shows how wise this man truly is. I wanted to know if there were any players that he saw currently in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system that could be a potential superstar. If your jaw isn’t dropped after this answer, I don’t know if you’re human.
“Let me tell you a story about the basil plant. I was on the road for two weeks a couple of years ago. I come home, and my wife was out somewhere. I went out on my porch and saw a plant, and I thought to myself, what kind of plant is that?! I asked my wife when she came home, what is that plant? She told me it’s the basil plant we have. So I was gone for two weeks, and she put it in a big pot and put it outside for the rain and sun to get at it.”
Do you see where this is going? No? Okay, well, Turgeon continued, “This basil plant that I bought two weeks ago is now incredible. I couldn’t believe what it became. I tell this story to coaches, and I tell them if you put a guy in the right environment, he could become something you can not identify. It’s not going to be overnight, or on a two week road trip, it’s going to take a long period of time. You can’t make a call on a guy early because that means you’re labeling someone, and if you’re doing that, you’re not giving your A-game as a coach.”
But wait, there’s more (Billy Mays voice.) “You don’t know what’s inside of a guy that can make him what you can’t identify. If you put him in the right environment and he has this desire to be great, there is no telling of what he can be. Obviously, there needs to be ingredients for the players to become that person you can’t identify like the basil plant. There’s no ceiling on potential, it all depends on their desire to be great and if they’re in the right environment.”
Now here comes my favorite part of the interview, and that is the food question. My fellow foodies and big-time eaters, I beckon your call now and listen to what the wizard from New London, Connecticut, has recommended. On the road, he loves to find the local mom and pop shops and loves BBQ and Brisket. In New London, he talked about a place called the Road House with great burgers, but unfortunately, they closed it down. He did recommend to get a pizza from Pepe’s in New Haven or Modern Pizza next to Yale.
Overall, Turgeon is an amazing individual with such insight for the game. It’s unbelievable. Altoona definitely is in good hands with this man. I look forward to calling him up on his offer, sharing a cold one with him, and just listening to his incredible stories of the game we all love!