Once the No. 1 pick in the 1968 amateur draft, Tim Foli forged a long tenure as a journeyman shortstop for the Mets, Expos, Giants, Pirates, Angels and Yankees. The highlight of his 16-year career occurred 30 years ago, when the Pirates acquired him in a trade with the Mets and installed him as their starting shortstop. Foli responded with his best offensive season ever, hitting .291 during the regular season and .333 in World Series play as the Pirates won the 1979 world championship.
Nicknamed “Crazy Horse” for his periodic flares in temper and his on-field fieriness, Foli has become a successful (and calmer) minor league manager in the Washington Nationals organization. As the skipper of the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs (currently in second place in the International League’s North Division), Foli recently traveled with his team to Doubleday Field to take part in the second annual Cooperstown Classic. Before that afternoon’s game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, a thoughtful and well-spoken Foli talked to me about his influences, his managerial style and some of the famed players and managers he’s encountered along the way.
Markusen: Tim, as you look back on your playing career, you played for a number of teams and a number of managers, including some prominent men like Gil Hodges and Gene Mauch. As you look at your managerial style, are there one or two guys that you’ve borrowed from more, that you’re influenced by more than another?
Foli: Well, I try to borrow from all of them. But I also understand that it’s only dictated by the players. If they ask me, ‘What kind of manager are you gonna be, what kind of team are you gonna run?’ the players dictate that. If they have speed, then we’ll try to utilize that speed to put the other team in a defensive mode. And you use that speed to score runs. If you don’t have speed, you’re gonna have to play the game a little bigger, stay back and not run. If we have pitching, defense, we’re gonna try to execute early to get a run.
So yes, all those managers taught me a little something about the game. Gene Mauch taught me the most obviously, because I was with him the longest. But it’s a game where the players dictate the way that you play, not the manager.
Markusen: What about Gil Hodges, he was your first manager early on. What kind of an influence has he had?
Foli: He was a big influence. I was 19 years old, so I watched the way he ran the game. He didn’t talk much to me, like I would sit on the end of the bench and he would point at me and then point to the field, and say go ahead. And I’d just go out there. And if Bud Harrelson didn’t show up, or Ken Boswell (didn’t), or whoever it was, I went out there and played. I played all the infield positions. I was ready to play, I was excited, and it was a good experience.
Markusen: As a ballplayer, we know you were fiery and very aggressive. You played the little game very well. Do you bring those same qualities to the table as a manager, or have you changed?
Foli: I try to bring the same quality, I try to teach that to the people that need to play like that. If you’re not a power hitter, if you’re a good defensive player, and you need to get on base and make contact on the hit-and-run, if you need to learn how to bunt or steal bases, I can help you with that. And I try to make them understand that there’s a place for you.
A player like me is not an impact player; a player like me was a role player. A team needs to have role players to be successful. Basically I went my whole career and did the same things, and then I went to the ’79 Pirates and they needed a player like me to be a role player, to catch the ball on the infield, to protect Omar Moreno, to move runners so that (Willie) Stargell and (Dave) Parker could drive in runs. I wasn’t any better player (in Pittsburgh), I was just on a team that when I saved a run and we won a game, 2-1, it meant something. Before when I played on bad teams, when I saved a run in a 7-2 loss, it didn’t really mean that much.
Markusen: It seems like when you joined the Pirates, that was just the perfect situation that you came into.
Foli: It was perfect for me without a doubt. I just played my game and I was pretty good on defense. I just did those things and then I was in a lineup where my job was to advance Omar Moreno, whether it was with a hit or a bunt, no matter how I did it, my job was to advance Omar for the other guys who were impact players to drive in runs and it worked out fine.
Markusen: In terms of managing at this level, Triple-A or perhaps even Double-A, does it help that you’ve been a former major league player and also been on a world championship team in terms of giving you additional credibility with these players? Or does it not matter at all?
Foli: No, it doesn’t matter. I had a talk with Robin Yount when I was coaching in Milwaukee and Robin asked me at the end of my career, ‘I want to be a coach; what do I do?’ And I said that you have to acquire a lot of knowledge about the game, you have to learn the game, you have to be secure in what you know, so that you can teach it right. I said to him that you’re going to get the credibility because you’re going to be a Hall of Famer. I said that you’re going to get the credibility and the respect initially. But after a month or two, they’re still going to respect that you were a great player, but they’re not going to respect you as a coach unless you know what you’re doing. And you have to earn that respect. It’s no different for anybody. You go out here, whether it’s a Hall of Famer or somebody likes myself who was a guy who survived in the major leagues, it doesn’t really matter. You have to earn their respect; if you don’t earn it, you’re not gonna get it.
Markusen: What’s the best part of managing Triple-A ball?
Foli: Well, the best part for me is when I see a guy develop and he gets over the top and climbs that hurdle that gets him to the major leagues and then a guy has success in the major leagues. That’s the biggest thing for me. that’s the thing that I get more excitement from, when somebody I’ve worked with as a minor leaguer and maybe developed a little bit, and had a part in his development, and he goes up to be successful in the major leagues, that’s probably more gratifying to me than even winning the World Series.
Markusen: I would imagine telling a ballplayer that he’s been promoted to the major leagues, that’s a pretty good duty to have.
Foli: Well, it happens a lot here. You know, with the way our Nationals have been going, with guys getting hurt over the years, we made about 180 transactions last year between Washington and Triple-A, and we’re gonna be on pace to do the same again. But yes, it’s satisfying to tell a guy he’s going to the major leagues, and hopefully he just keeps doing what he’s been doing.
Markusen: Final question for Tim Foli. I’m working on a book about unusual and colorful characters in baseball history. I know that you had a lot of teammates over your career in the ’70s and ’80s. Is there one guy that really stood out as offbeat, quirky, funny to be around?
Foli: Bert Blyleven (a teammate with the Pirates). Bert Blyleven, when you looked at him, you laughed. And then he’d do stupid stuff all the time. I mean, he’d run out to the mound and trip over the first base line. He’d do something in the middle of 50,000 people, and you’d go, “Oh, Bert, no.” He was a great guy (to have as a teammate) and he was special.
Markusen: A pretty good pitcher, too. Thanks, Tim. I appreciate your time.