After winning 38 games at Long Beach State – the most wins for the program since 2008 – Troy Buckley has the ‘Dirtbags’ back on the map
The 1988 WCC Player of the Year, Troy Buckley hit .442 with 82 RBIs (both single-season records at the time) as a second-team All-American catcher at Santa Clara University. He signed with the Minnesota Twins after being selected in the ninth round of the 1989 MLB Draft, and after six years as a minor leaguer, he got his start as a coach in the professional ranks.
“I really didn’t know anything other than being a player,” Buckley said. “I was fortunate to learn from some really, really great baseball guys. Pete Mackanin (current Phillies manager) was my manager in Ottawa. Chuck Kniffen helped me a lot. Pat Roessler was my first boss – he was the hitting coordinator for the Expos at the time. Bill Geivett was the minor league coordinator.
My final most impactful mentor has been Jim Benedict. He is currently the Director of Pitching for the Marlins yet was the Minor League Pitching Coordinator with the Expos when I began my coaching career.”
“I was a complete sponge just trying to soak it all in, trying to learn and deal with that line between friendship and respect with the players while making sure that what the organization wants gets done. That was the big transition for me; understanding who I was, what needed to happen, how I was going to get things across from players, and following directions from the guys above me. I had a fantastic opportunity to go right into a high level of professional baseball in my first year as a coach, so I have a massive affinity for people that have put the grind in.”
Buckley earned the opportunity to cut his coaching teeth at the highest (Triple A) and lowest (Rookie ball) levels of the minor leagues.
“Triple A is a completely different level; those guys are grown men with kids and big league time,” he recalls. “When I got transitioned to the Gulf Coast League, I learned that rookie ball was the complete antithesis! I really had to learn fast how to coach at different levels, going from guys with discipline who care about their bodies to kids that don’t really have any idea what it’s all about just yet. You have to realize that in rookie ball, even the guys that make it to the big leagues are about five years away, so rubber position and grip and mechanics really aren’t as important at that moment. What is/was important was work ethic, professionalism, accountability, etc.”
As a former catcher, Buckley admittedly had some things to learn as a pitching coach.
“You can see things from a personality standpoint on how you need to address certain players, but when it came to legitimately helping guys with a mechanical flaw or issue, I wasn’t ready for that, so I just had to keep learning,” he said. “Jim Benedict was huge in my development and growth in the pitching department. I’m a position player at heart, but I’ve been trained to be a pitching coach, and I enjoy ‘both sides of the ball.’ It’s just so cerebral and less physical labor, sometimes guys just can’t strike the chord with that. Sometimes you love pitchers and sometimes you just have to tolerate them, but you’re not winning without them!”
“I was so green on mechanics and technique, I was just really thirsty to always have an answer for something. I wanted to have a response for every scenario as I continued to learn; you want to feel like you can help people that way.”
After two seasons as a coach in the Montreal Expos organization (1996 and 1997), Buckley moved on to his alma mater and would spend 1998-2000 as an assistant at Santa Clara, joining Long Beach State in 2001. All he did at ‘The Beach’ was mold five Big West Pitchers of the Year and in all, eight of his former pitchers would eventually be chosen in the top three rounds of the MLB draft: Abe Alvarez, 2004 National Player of the Year Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas, Cesar Ramos, Andrew Carpenter, Brian Shaw, Andrew Liebel, and Vance Worley.
After such heralded success, professional baseball came calling again, this time in the form of the Minor League Pitching Coordinator position with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I was probably overzealous and OCD in the beginning because you want things to get off to a good start,” said Buckley. “There was a lot of putting the plan together, putting the throwing program together, structure, discipline. With that, you have to engage the coaches who are in the trenches with the players at all the different levels. The communication and getting buy in from the coaches is vital and in order to do that, relationships need to be built so there’s a sense of ownership and collaboration. That was very challenging; I went from managing 16 guys to trying to oversee 90 arms and six different pitching coaches. It was overwhelming in the beginning – the first year with anything new is always the toughest – but it was fantastic from the standpoint that it’s all baseball. There are no academics, there was no fundraising. We were trying to develop Pittsburgh Pirates or trade for Pirates. You have to do it with good scouting, player health, and development. It got better and better as we went along and has continued to get better after I left.”
Buckley would return to LBSU as the associate head coach after two seasons with Pittsburgh, having gained valuable experience and perspective on the differences between working in pro ball and coaching at the college level.
“Travel is completely different,” he added. “The amount of travel and the volatility of the job in pro ball is much higher. In college, you have a little bit more of a family life, but you’re not dealing with the same talent level. The amount of repetitions that pro ball produces is unmatched. You just can’t get the same reps in college and you’re not going to get the same talent to begin with, so it’s fun to work with superior athletes at the professional level. In college it’s more about growth and maturity.”
Upon his return to Long Beach State, Buckley had the challenge of assembling his own staff.
“I wanted to take care of the strengths that I thought I could bring to the program as a pitching guy,” he said. “But there’s just a lot of administrative stuff, a lot of fundraising, a lot of non-baseball responsibilities. And you know what, the [Jered] Weavers, the [Cesar] Ramos’, the [Jason] Vargas’, the [Vance] Worley’s of the world were pretty darn good when they got here. I wouldn’t say they were completely polished, but if you didn’t teach them anything, they would still be very successful at our level.”
“When I got back from Pittsburgh as a pitching coordinator, I had noticed that recruiting was changing,” he recalls. “Guys were committing earlier and the Power 5 schools’ resources were taking shape, and we didn’t have as much time to evaluate. In the past, if we had enough time to evaluate, we’re going to pick the right guys more often than not. Instead, it was ‘see guys twice and make the call.’”
“I just came to the point where I couldn’t do as much of the heavy lifting with the pitchers, I couldn’t organize all the bullpens and watch all the video and do the PFP, I couldn’t teach controlling the running game. As an assistant you really have two responsibilities, one is recruiting and the other is the field. That’s when I decided to hire a pitching coach; the first one was Mike Steele, who is now at Wichita State. I brought him in, he knew me, he knew our system and what I wanted, and it went really well. Then I hired Danny Ricabal. Those guys are in the trenches with the players now, so I just oversee things, a little more like a coordinator of the position. Greg Bergeron is our other assistant, and he’s basically had the entire offense; he’s earned it based on his experience and results.”
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Buckley’s job is embracing the ‘Dirtbag’ title, earned by the LBSU program after the 1989 season, when Coach Dave Snow's first team was comprised of nearly all new players. At the time, LBSU played without a home field and held its practices at a local all-dirt Pony Field. They would go on to win their first 18 games and advance to the school’s first College World Series. Assistant coach Dave Malpass famously took his infielders through a demanding workout, returning covered in dirt and you guessed it, the ‘Dirtbags’ were born.
“Like any school, we have gone through the branding challenges,” said Buckley. “We’ve been Long Beach State, CSULB, and the Forty Niners. The school has allowed us to keep the Dirtbags name…quite honestly, that name is nationwide, people know what that is. We’ll go to some parks and visiting teams will put ‘Dirtbags’ on the scoreboard, some will put ‘49ers’ and some just put ‘Long Beach State,’ and it’s all fine and good. The bottom line is that you have to earn it through results.”
Being the head man at one of the country’s most prestigious programs has added responsibilities, including educating current players about the Dirtbag tradition.
“It’s really important to continue to educate our current players about the history of our program,” Buckley notes. “There’s an indoctrination that there’s nothing entitled to this. There is a process of the grind, of ‘us against the world,’ you need to know who created this program and that you’re fortunate to be here. It’s not just the flagship big leaguers like Weaver, Vargas, Tulowitzki, Longoria, Espinosa, Duffy. Those guys are great and they’re fantastic brand names for us, but there are also guys whose names and pictures don’t fly on our concourse banners. It’s important for our players to know who they are too, because there are way more of those guys.”
LBSU has plans to make several upgrades to their facility in the immediate future, including a 9,600 square foot batting facility, locker room improvements, a new weight room and more.
“You want improvement, but you also don’t want guys to feel entitled,” said Buckley. “It’s a very fine balance. We don’t want everything, but we need to have enough. Regardless of your facilities, you still need to make sure that the players you bring in are good culture fits. That’s really important to what we do and what we symbolize, to how we play the game. I’m not saying we do it better than everybody else, but we have a brand, we understand who we are, and we need to find the people that want to be here for that.”
“You don’t just show up here and win, and we’re very sensitive to that. You always respect the game, respect the program, and try to make really good choices with the program in mind, both individually and with team decisions.”