First-year manager brings success to Pirates' organization while learning on the job

Blake Butler has a division championship in his first three months on the job. What might be next?
Pittsburgh Pirates v San Francisco Giants
Pittsburgh Pirates v San Francisco Giants / Lachlan Cunningham/GettyImages

As a teenager growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, Blake Butler had a summer job selling cotton candy at Greensboro Grasshoppers’ baseball games.

15 years later, at age 30, he is now the manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Pirates' High-A affiliate of the South Atlantic League. Although Butler has been with the Pirates as a developmental coach since 2020, this is his first managing job.  Not just with the Pirates, but his first managing job anywhere. And it just happens to be in his hometown. “It’s hard to dream it up any better,” Butler told Rum Bunter this week.

Last week, Greensboro won the first half Northern Division title of the South Atlantic League, thus clinching a spot in the South Atlantic League playoffs to be held later this year (first half winners play the second half winners in the playoffs).

With a division title in the first three months on the job, one could say that Pirates minor-league manager Blake Butler’s career is off to a great start.

But if you ask Butler about the Division championship, he takes no credit. “No, no, no. This is all about the players. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of players and coaches to begin this journey with. The Pirates surrounded me with great players and great coaches. They worked so hard for this, day and night, working to be better players and better teammates. It’s great to see all that work pay off with a successful first half.”

“This is also a success for the Pirate organization as a whole,” he continued. “From talent acquisition, to player development, to an outstanding coaching staff and to an outstanding support system top to bottom that has supported this team from the get go.”

Butler did not always have a dream of being a manager. Like many college and minor-league players, he dreamed of one day making it to the major leagues. After high school, he played baseball at the College of Charleston as a middle infielder. In his third year at the College of Charleston, he batted .325 with 13 home runs and had an OPS of .950. That success led the Cincinnati Reds to select Butler in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft.

Butler signed with the Reds and began a three-year journey in their minor-league system, reaching the High-A level of the minor leagues with the Reds’ affiliate, the Daytona Tortugas.  He was released in the offseason following the 2017 season.

However, he had a memorable last game in the minor leagues, even though he did not know it would be his final game. 

“It was the last game of the year and my manager, Ricky Gutierrez, called me into his office and said, ‘We’ve got to figure something out.' 'Figure out what?' I said. 'Figure out how we’re going to play you at every position for this final game,' he said."

“And so together we mapped out a plan where I would play a different position every inning, including catching in the eighth and pitching in the ninth.”

“We were winning 4 to 2 in the ninth when I was called in to pitch. I was throwing at best 55 miles per hour. I wanted to make sure I threw strikes. Didn’t want to walk anyone. I got the first batter out. Then there was a hit. And then a hard hit grounder that was turned into a double play.  So, I not only got to pitch that ninth inning, but I also earned a save. It is a game I will never forget. And I am eternally grateful that Coach Ricky gave me that opportunity.”

After the Reds released him, Butler began his baseball coaching career first at Francis Marion University, then moved onto Davidson College as an assistant coach. In 2020, he joined the Pirates as a developmental coach. 2020 was the year that COVID caused a shutdown of minor-league baseball action. As Butler noted, though, "We still worked through COVID, albeit with no games. And I was grateful to the Pirates that they kept us on the payroll through that COVID season.”

Butler was a developmental coach on the 2021 Greensboro team that played for the championship of the South Atlantic League ("I was in the hitting space,” he said). Those Grasshoppers lost the championship series in five games to Bowling Green.  Several current Pirates and major leaguers played for the Grasshoppers that year, including Nick Gonzales, Jared Triolo, Blake Sabol, Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, Quinn Priester and Carmen Mlodzinski.

Butler moved to Altoona for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, again as a developmental coach.  Throughout that time, Butler said the Pirates “encouraged him to think about what [he] wanted to do in the future."

"I participated in coaching seminars, leadership training, baseball strategy sessions, skill acquisition camps, and mentorship," Butler continued. "The Pirates have various baseball camps in Florida during the offseason for players and coaches. We’re always looking for ways to find an edge, to find a way to gain a competitive advantage.”

“Ultimately,” Butler said, “the Pirates decided that this was the time for me to take the next step; to become a manager. It was a very easy ‘yes’ for me to accept the position and the challenge.”

Although the Grasshoppers have won the first half division title, Butler says the job is far from over.  “Our job is to support winning in Pittsburgh. Our job is to develop the players for the next level and beyond. If we do our job correctly and the players do theirs, they (the players) have an opportunity to earn a living that will change their lives and the lives of their families.”

“Nothing against the players,” Butler added. “I like them all. But I don’t want them here. I want them in Altoona. In the meantime, we’ll be doing everything we can to continue to develop them.”

Butler appears to have a good rapport with his players. In an interview with Greensboro Sports, Grasshoppers third baseman Jack Brannigan said of Butler: “He’s a great manager. He keeps it light and about having fun. 

"He has us focusing on baseball and focusing on getter better,” Brannigan continued, “but Blake does a great job of balancing the getting good at baseball part with also having fun.”

Butler is appreciative of not only the opportunity to manage, but the support and mentorship he receives from others throughout the Pirates organization. He praised fellow Pirates minor-league managers, Jim Horner, Robbie Hammock and Miguel Perez as great mentors for him. 

“They have been doing this a lot longer than I have,” he said. “And it’s great to have them as a resource whenever I encounter new situations that I haven’t had to deal with before. We speak often to compare notes and to discuss coaching techniques, baseball strategy, personnel, and whatever else this job might throw at us.”

When asked if his team celebrated the first half division title, Butler said, “Yes, we had an extra long club house that evening. Some victories you celebrate longer than others. But we still had a game the next day. So, yes, we celebrated our first half division title, but to the credit of the players, they showed up the following night, ready to play.” The Grasshoppers won that “day after the celebration” game by a score of 10-3.

The season is not over. There is still another half of a season to be played. The development process never ends. Not for the players. And certainly not for the Pirates organization’s newest manager.

“I’m just grateful to the Pirates for the opportunity to manage,” Butler concluded.

Later this summer the Greensboro Grasshoppers will be playoff bound. If they can win a championship, it will not only be an accomplishment to be celebrated by the players and the Pirates organization, but also the city of Greensboro and their own hometown manager, Blake Butler.