As the press gathered on a sunny media day in South Bend, they were greeted by a new sight. Emerging from the dugout was the leathery visage of Buddy Bailey, like a well broken-in baseball mitt. As Bailey gathered his team in a semicircle behind him and had them introduce themselves to the crowd, a sense of change was in the air.
In their fifth season as the Cubs’ Low-A affiliate, the South Bend Cubs have moved into a new era.
In a soft southern drawl than belied his roots in Virginia both as a prep and later at Lynchburg College, Bailey related what will be the biggest challenge with this group of players.
“The first challenge is it’s the first full season for all of them” said Bailey. “One hundred and forty games are another whole dimension for a lot of them. Hopefully, if they are smart enough in what we do, in July and August, guys are not only getting better but are saving some gas in the tank to get through the season.”
The resumé is impressive.
After being selected in the 16th round of the 1979 draft by the Atlanta Braves, Welby Sheldon Bailey played three years as a catcher in the Braves’ system. Playing four seasons, Bailey rose to the level of Double-A, appearing in 6 games with Savanah in 1982. For his career, Bailey batted .210 with 6 home runs and 45 RBI.
Following this humble beginning, Bailey moved on to manage in the Braves’ organization. In his second season as a manager, Bailey made the first of his six league championship appearances.
In 1991, Bailey moved to the Boston Red Sox chain and 2000 was named the Red Sox bench coach. Bailey moved back to the minors in 2002 and in 2006 was hired by the Cubs as their minor league catching and baserunning coordinator. Later that season, Bailey took over as manager of the Advanced-A Daytona Cubs and began his odyssey that led him to his current roost.
Bailey won the first of his league championships with Daytona in 2011. He also won the Carolina League championship in 2016 while piloting the Advanced-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans. In 2017, Bailey became one of only 11 minor league managers to compile 2,000 or more wins.
But the minor leagues are only a part of Bailey’s legacy. After being hired as their manager in 2002, Bailey helped to develop one of the best dynasties of the Venezuelan Winter League with the Aragua Tigers. The Tigres won league championships in five out of six seasons from 2003 to 2009, capping the final season by skippering Venezuela to a Caribbean World Series title. In 2012, Bailey once again won the crown as he had to shepherd his team through the trauma of having catcher Wilson Ramos kidnapped and the death of pitcher Rosman Garcia.
“Being in Venezuela has helped me learn some Spanish” said Bailey, “and the Venezuelan’s all know me.” “But really, baseball is baseball. The bases are the same. The mound is the same. The dimensions are basically the same.”
“It’s more of a culture thing” related Bailey. “Being a part of that culture makes you aware of what it’s all about”. “The number one sport in Venezuela is baseball. When you get to the finals, all of their television stations are covering it, not like one network here” said Bailey. “The year we won the World Series, the president declared every day a holiday in order for everyone to watch.”
As Bailey turned his attention to his present team, he was asked if there was a player or group of players that people should look out for?
“Well, I would say yes, but I never go public with that” said Bailey slyly. “Because the ones I don’t mention, it’s a bad thing. And the ones that you do mention get the big heads. So, I don’t publicly go into that kind of answer.”
As we were left to ponder which direction he was going with his answer, Bailey moved on, firmly directing the players from one drill to the next. The answer to unfold as the season, and the players, progress game by game.