Off-field challenges prepare Espada to lead

Houston bench coach a candidate for multiple managerial openings

October 21st, 2019

Joe Espada’s reputation throughout the game has long been one of a hard-working, detail-oriented baseball man, always willing to put in the time to make his team better.

But as the Astros' bench coach goes through a second straight year of managerial interviews, the 44-year-old believes that the challenges he’s faced away from the ballpark have him more prepared for a top job than ever before.

During the 2017 season, Espada – then in his fourth season with the Yankees, his third as Joe Girardi’s third-base and infield coach – and his wife, Pamela, noticed some behavioral differences in their youngest daughter, Viviana, who was just two years old at the time.

Viviana was too young to be formally diagnosed with autism, Espada said, but that would come the following summer.

“People talk about challenges in our lives, how you approach those when they present themselves,” Espada said. “To watch her struggle communicating, going through her physical therapy, it’s tough. Seeing her not able to hang with kids her age, it opens your eyes to the importance of how hard it is sometimes to get someone to do certain things that we take for granted.”

Those challenges are far different than the ones Espada encounters at work, but he sees numerous similarities between the two.

“Seeing a four-year-old struggle to communicate with another four-year-old; you need to take time to spend with someone to teach them basic things,” Espada said. “That can be the case in a clubhouse, too. The more we get involved, they see how much you care. The compassion, the commitment to do something together, it makes you a better person. It’s made me a better father and a better coach.”

Given the amount of time baseball teams spend together, the family comparison is an obvious one. In some ways, Espada thinks of his players as his kids; there isn’t anything within his power that he wouldn’t do to help them achieve their goals.

“You go out of your way to do whatever it takes to get them to be their best,” Espada said. “It’s more than just the strategy part that means something; you have to connect with people. It’s about what’s in your heart.”

Espada considers himself “blessed” to have worked closely with both Girardi and AJ Hinch during the past five years, but he said he’s learned more from Viviana during the past year than he ever imagined he could. Espada said his daughter has “turned a corner” in recent months, showing vast improvement in both her speech and coordination.

Burton Rocks, Espada’s friend and agent, has seen the impact Viviana’s situation has had on him and the ways he’s used it to better himself both at home and at the ballpark.

“Joe’s off-field experiences with Viviana and her facing medical adversity have served him well for understanding today’s game,” Rocks said. “He’s an analytics-generation man with a solid heart and soul. He can cope and thrive under crisis.”

Espada met with the Cubs in Chicago on Sunday, his second interview for the club’s open managerial job. He’s expected to interview with the Giants sometime this week, while the Pirates have also expressed interest in talking to him about their managerial vacancy.

The interest in Espada is nothing new; he interviewed last year with the Angels, Blue Jays and Rangers, and although he didn’t land any of those gigs, the experience he gained from the process was invaluable.

Espada replaced Alex Cora as Hinch’s bench coach after the latter became the manager of the Red Sox following the 2017 World Series. The two years at Hinch’s side have proved to be priceless for Espada, whose responsibilities include handling all infield positioning – a tall task for a team that shifts as often as Houston.

As vital as the analytic side of the game has become for managers, Espada still considers himself both a teacher and a strategist. Finding the perfect balance between all three is the sweet spot he believes a modern-day manager needs in order to succeed.

“There’s a human side, an analytical side, a strategy side; how can I use the numbers and the information to make in-game decisions?” Espada said. “I have been blessed to be with two organizations in the Yankees and Astros whose infrastructures are designed for the new ways of thinking. It has been mind-blowing to surround yourself with smart people and smart front offices. It makes a huge difference.”

It remains to be seen whether Espada will have the chance to manage his own club next season, but as he was quick to point out, his current spot as Hinch’s bench coach is among the better coaching jobs in the game. He’s had a front-row look at what it takes to succeed in that role, and he’s hopeful that he’ll experience it firsthand in the near future.

“Being able to lead men, change their lives and create a winning culture,” Espada said when asked why he wants to manage. “Commitment and integrity; that’s what it’s about. I want to lead a team and turn things around in a clubhouse. I know I’m capable of doing it; I just want the opportunity.”