SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. − Torey Lovullo played professional baseball for 13 years and then started over in 2002 to try to get back to the big leagues again. It all culminated this spring, one day in February when the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer stood at the front of the room to welcome the Arizona Diamondbacks − his Arizona Diamondbacks − to spring training.
In preparation for his first team talk as a big-league manager, Lovullo spent weeks before thinking back on '02 in Class A ball in Columbus, Ga., in the Cleveland chain. To Class A Kinston, N.C., and Double-A Akron. To three years managing the Bisons from 2006-08, the final years of the affiliation with the Tribe. To a year apiece in Columbus (Ohio) and Pawtucket. Then to coaching roles under John Farrell in both Toronto and Boston, including the bench coach of the 2013 World Series champions.
All the experiences, all the memories got Lovullo hired in November. In February, it was showtime. That first meeting of spring is a huge one for a big-league manager. It sets the tone for the entire camp, the whole season and Lovullo knew that from his days as both a player and a coach.
"I'd thought about things I wanted to say for 10 years and I had to get that stack of papers in my head down to one piece of paper," Lovullo, 51, said a couple weeks ago in a chat at the D-Backs' spring complex. "The message was one that I felt went well. I outlined my thoughts and concepts. Being a good teammate is important to me. Earning your status is important to me and competing each day with what you have is important. You practice the things that are going to come up during the year and I want a fundamentally sound team.
"I know that may be a cliche but it's what you start from and they seemed to really respond to that. I want pitchers to stay on the mound and know they've put in work behind the scenes. I want hitters at the plate knowing they're comfortable and ready for the moment. I focused on the moment. I had more anxiety as I was preparing for it. When I finally got up in front of the team, I looked at my papers one last time, put them down behind me and let it rip."
Preparation and attention to detail have long been Lovullo hallmarks, and that's the approach he's taking to get the Diamondbacks moving in the NL West.
"What I've been talking about with these guys from day one is we want to win a pitch, every pitch," he said. "If you win a pitch, any pitch, you can win that moment. It might help you win an inning and ultimately win a game. We know about the National League West, how tough it was. If we can win one extra game that way, we're all for it. It doesn't sound like a lot but when you break it down to the level we try to break it down to, it does matter."
Lovullo is taking over a team that's a major work in progress. The Diamondbacks palatial spring complex, dubbed Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, is the envy of the majors. Chase Field is not, with the team already pushing for significant upgrades for the park that opened in 1998. On the field, Arizona hasn't been over .500 since winning the NL West in 2011. Since winning the World Series in its iconic seven-game victory over the Yankees in 2001, the only playoff round it has won is a three-game sweep of the Cubs in the 2007 division series.
Lovullo has an MVP-caliber bat in Paul Goldschmidt, a potential ace in Zack Greinke and a lot of question marks. It's a tough task that Lovullo is taking on. But anyone following his career figured he would be a manager someday.
Lovullo was originally signed by Cleveland as a minor-league free agent for the 1995 Bisons, who lost the decisive fifth game of the American Association finals to Louisville. Lovullo played 132 games, batting .255 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs. He returned early in 1997 but struggled mightily during the season (.227-12-40) before erupting for a .440 average in the Association playoffs to earn the team's MVP honors.
In 1998, Lovullo batted .326, fourth in the modern era, and led the Bisons to back-to-back league championships for the only time in the history of a franchise that dates to 1877. Inducted into the Buffalo Hall in 2003, the stories of Lovullo's leadership have been told multiple times over the years but bear repeating now that he's become a major-league skipper.
When the Bisons won Game Three of the Association finals at Iowa in 1997 to win their first title in 36 years, it was Lovullo who started the title-clinching double play at second base and then took the ball to the clubhouse for the celebration. He called for quiet amid the chaos, stood on a crate and presented it to Bisons owner Bob Rich Jr. to honor the team's long-awaited championship. Rich has the ball to this day.
The best sign of Lovullo's future as a manager came on an August night at Syracuse in 1998. The Bisons were coming off a 17-3 home loss to Pawtucket the night before and stood 8 1/2 games out of first place in the International League North with 27 to play. They quickly fell into a 4-0 hole in the second inning before Lovullo walked in from second base and called the entire infield and battery to the mound.
Screaming and pounding his fist into his glove, Lovullo gave what he's called his "dot the i's and cross the t's" speech to wake up his team. And he put his money where his mouth was too, belting a tying home run in the eighth inning off a hot Toronto prospect named Roy Halladay. The Bisons won that game to kick off a four-game sweep and finished the season 18-9 to win the division by a half-game.
And it was Lovullo who addressed Buffalo fans during the '97 and '98 championship celebrations − talking through heavy rain both times − to remind them how rare and special those moments can be.
Memories of the Herd
When MLB Network came to town on its spring training tour, its correspondent interviewing Louvllo was longtime big leaguer Sean Casey, a stud at first base for many years with the Cincinnati Reds. But back in '97, Casey was a 23-year-old one month up from Double-A who won the Bisons their Association title with a 10th-inning home run in their clincher at Iowa.
"You were our captain. He was our team leader," Casey said to Lovullo during their talk, which started with their memories of that Buffalo team.
"When the camera was off and the time when it was just us and nobody was around, it was awesome," Lovullo said. "You talk to 'Case' and you feel like you're on a roller-coaster. He's so intense and fun and genuine. We went back and reminisced about the days in Buffalo. We're always so proud of that group. For some reason, it's a group where a lot of us stayed in the game and you're always talking to somebody about those great times.
"They mean a lot to all of us. We were winners. We won championships there and it meant a lot to a lot of people. Sean loves to bring up that home run in Iowa. He deserves all that credit. We go over a lot of those old times. There's a wave of emotion. You remember the times that brought you together in Buffalo and that's why it's always a special place for me."
Lovullo was brought to Arizona by new general manager Mike Hazen, whom he worked with in both Cleveland and Boston. When Hazen was signed by Arizona, Lovullo was immediately pegged by many to finally get his chance. Lovullo had interviewed often in the past, with teams such as the Dodgers, Indians and Twins, who chose Hall of Famer Paul Molitor over him in 2015.
"Beyond having watched him be a great tactical manager, he's a great relationship builder and a tremendous communicator," Hazen told MLB.com during the spring. "He has a lot of skills in those areas and that was one of the biggest separators for me."
Lovullo has long said Cleveland manager Terry Francona has been a big influence on him. Francona was the Phillies' manager during Lovullo's last year as a player (1999) and was still in Boston during Lovullo's '09 stint in Pawtucket.
"He was our last cut that year with the Phillies," Francona said at Indians camp in nearby Goodyear. "That minor-league free agent who had a great spring and was with you right to the end. That was a hard one and he handled it like you're supposed to. You never want to see guys get let go but it's part of the job sometimes. But it's exciting and fun when you see people who've worked hard and have a lot to offer finally get their chance. You're always proud like that and I'm happy for him."
Lovullo and Hazen are huge believers in analytics, with Lovullo talking one day during camp about the benefits of hitting pitchers eighth in the NL possibly meaning 5-7 more runs per season.
"We have some really, really smart people upstairs that are earning respect daily," he said. "The conversations are exciting between everybody. They know how to reach players and the players are accepting of that knowledge. We've made it clear to our guys that this kind of thinking is going to be part of our decision making going forward.
"The feel, the book, the experience is all going to be added in. But as many components as you can put into one decision, it can help you make the right decisions. We think these players understand that."
Buffalo brains in the dugout
The hiring of Lovullo means three members of the Buffalo Baseball Hall will be managing in the National League in 2017. Former Bisons manager Terry Collins continues at the helm of the New York Mets while Dave Roberts, Buffalo's modern-era leader in stolen bases, will be an NL West rival of Lovullo, directing the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The roster of MLB managers also includes three other Buffalo players − Boston's Farrell, Texas' Jeff Banister and San Diego's Andy Green. Farrell was a player in the Cleveland era (1987 and 1995), Banister in the Pittsburgh days (1991-92) and Green in the first year of the Mets affiliation (2009). And there's another Bisons connection in first-year Colorado skipper Bud Black, who was the pitching coach on Buffalo's '98 champions.