The wind whips at full blast, turning the flags atop the scoreboards at Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park into a nightmarish, cacophonous disaster. Standing on the outfield grass, Thunder players and coaches can only laugh as fielding coach Raul Dominguez sets up the apparatus to fire fly balls their way. Forget machine-like consistency; a conventional fly this afternoon has a potential margin of error about the size of a football field.
After a few minutes of laughter, Thunder manager Patrick Osborn -- a California native who now spends his offseasons in Tampa, Florida -- walks over to the infield dirt and asks, out of nowhere, the best way to get to New York. It’s tempting to play out the joke: Practice, naturally. But Osborn isn’t lobbing a comedic alley-oop. It’s his first week home with the Thunder in his first year managing at Double-A, and he’s planning a trip to Manhattan during an upcoming off day. April is feeling-out time for baseball teams at all levels, including on matters such as whether to drive or hop a train to go meet up with friends.
Every day is a new lesson in the Minor Leagues.
Osborn has managed in the Yankees’ system for six years, spanning five affiliates below Double-A. The former second-round pick of the Cleveland Indians is charged with developing a wealth of talent in a strong system and preparing them for the Majors. In short, he’s supposed to help them achieve what he, himself, never could. Because Double-A is where things start to get real, where the sandpaper smoothes the rough edges. In recent years, Osborn’s teams have had plenty of success, reaching the playoffs four times out of five, but he was dealing with raw prospects. At this level, the players have moved beyond the basics. “These guys are close to the players they’re going to end up being,” Osborn says before the Thunder’s April 15 game against the Akron RubberDucks. “They’re almost a finished product. So, in terms of instruction and really coaching fundamentals, that kind of takes a back seat to coaching the person, or the mental side of the game.”
And so, Osborn embarks on your ordinary six-coffee day. He’ll walk through the clubhouse door shortly after 11 a.m., and he won’t head home until some 12 hours later. He has reports to file, meetings to oversee, fungoes to hit and BP to throw. He’s also supposed to manage a nine-inning baseball game, the result of which only kind of matters. Wins are good; process is better. Osborn’s job is to develop Major Leaguers.
“If you can play here, you can play in the big leagues,” Osborn says. “We’re here to help them get there, to make that last little jump.” He looks at the roster and sees about six Major Leaguers, which he thinks is probably about average for a Double-A team; by the time they make it to Triple-A, it should be about half the roster. But the divisions, the real binary yes/no determinations of capable versus not, have mostly happened by the time players reach Trenton. “This is kind of a breaking point in terms of guys getting to the big leagues, or possibly having to choose another route in life.
“Which is what happened to me.”
Cups 1 and 2 came before his workout in the morning. The third cup, from a Starbucks across the Delaware River in Yardley, Pennsylvania, Osborn drank on the way to the ballpark. A few afternoons earlier, previewing an average day, the manager had joked that he would spend most of his time in his office, where he would “hang out and drink about 100 cups of coffee.” At the time, it had seemed like an exaggeration.
The 38-year-old Osborn is an easy fit among the young Thunder roster. He knows the Eastern League, having played three seasons with Akron from 2005 to 2007. Midway through, around 2006, was when he started to realize, “You know what, this probably isn’t going to happen,” Osborn recalls.
He was released out of Spring Training in 2008, then latched on with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League. Butch Hobson -- a former big leaguer who skippered the Red Sox in the early 1990s -- was managing Southern Maryland, and after three years, the Blue Crabs’ ownership group wanted to move Hobson to another one of its teams, one with a bit more prestige. “‘And I’m going to tell them to hire you to manage Southern Maryland,’” Osborn recalls Hobson saying. “That’s how I got my first managerial job.”
After three years managing independent ball, though, Osborn got the itch to see what else was out there. He put together a resume and sent it to all 30 Major League organizations. Two responded. One was the Red Sox. But by then he had already committed to the Yankees, the result of another connection. Pat McMahon managed Osborn at the University of Florida, where in 2002 the infielder set school records for third basemen with a .414 batting average, 17 homers, 104 hits and 76 RBI. Years later, McMahon was working in player development for the Yankees when he saw that Osborn was looking for a new job. Like Hobson before him, McMahon spoke up. Years later, McMahon says, the results show that he had the right idea.
“He really creates a wonderful culture among the players and coaches,” McMahon says from Trenton’s indoor batting cage. Now the Yankees’ coordinator of instruction, the 65-year-old lifer is in town as part of a tour of the organization’s affiliates. McMahon speaks of how Osborn’s demeanor can pay surprising dividends when he throws a change-up. He recalls when the boyish Osborn was managing Low-A Charleston in 2017, and the otherwise-playful manager got dead serious for a moment when he stepped on some gum in the dugout. There were garbage cans everywhere, and that kind of carelessness wasn’t going to stand; Osborn announced that he would fine any player who spit gum on the dugout floor. “He’s special,” McMahon says. “Some people don’t pay attention to those details. I think the very best ones do.”
Having managed in Low-A in 2017 and at High-A Tampa in 2018, Osborn has many familiar players in Trenton, guys that have been with him for years already. What they see is a calm, cool, confident coach, one who knows himself and is consistent with his expectations, and who has grown and developed along with them. He wants to get to the Majors as much as they do, but he learned long ago to worry about today first. “As long as you go about your business and do things the right way, he’s always going to back you and support you,” says left-handed reliever James Reeves. “He’s going to treat you the same way.”
As a result, the players can see when things are going great, and when things need to change. “When I flip the switch,” Osborn says, “they know I mean business. Because it’s rare that it happens. It’s real. When that other side comes out of me, it’s real and it’s from the heart, and I think that hits them.”
About a half hour before he heads to the bullpen for the 7 p.m. game, Osborn FaceTimes with his 4-year-old daughter in Florida, then makes another stop at the Keurig coffee machine in the clubhouse lounge. The sixth cup is hopefully going to be the charm as the Thunder try to extend a three-game win streak.
The 50 mph wind gusts caused Osborn to cancel outdoor batting practice, and he wonders just what might happen if any one of his players really barrels a ball during the game. As the team preps for the first pitch, the coaching staff runs through video in the clubhouse, showing the players scouting reports on the pitchers and batters they’ll be facing. The wind aside, the message for tonight is about nailing small-ball tendencies. Process is everything in the Minor Leagues.
Already in the young season, Osborn recalls an error he made while coaching third base. It was a first-and-third, one-out situation, and he didn’t specifically caution the runner against heading home on a short grounder. Sure enough, the player ran into an out. When the same situation with the same player came up a few days later, “I said, ‘Here we are again. Here’s the situation that I failed to let you know about the other day.’”
During tonight’s game, the wind is every bit the friend and foe Osborn had predicted. It carries a Chris Gittens blast over the fence for a homer -- part of a four-hit, five-RBI day for the first baseman -- but every pop-up is an unimaginable adventure. The players warm their gloves by a gas heater in the dugout, and Osborn coaches third in gear fit for Everest Base Camp. There’s not a ton of strategic managing in the minors; you don’t go for specific pitching matchups, and you barely pinch-hit unless there’s an injury. Instead, the players who are scheduled to throw will pitch the number of innings the chart dictates. Osborn plays out the real game in his head, though. “I’ll run a scenario in my brain,” he explains. “If the bottom line was to win this game right now, what move would I make? Who would we bring in to pitch? Or maybe I’d bring in the left-on-left matchup for one hitter. But we’re not going to do that here.”
Whatever the limitations, Osborn believes that results still matter. He wants the players to respect the outcome. “Winning, for me, is a learned skill,” he says. Thunder outfielder Jeff Hendrix remembers a loss when he played for Osborn in Short-Season A Staten Island. After the final out, the players retreated inside and headed to the dinner spread. “And he got on us a little bit for that,” Hendrix says. “‘Take it to heart that we lost. Reflect a bit. Don’t just go straight to the food like nothing happened.’
“That’s something that always stuck with me, and that was pretty early on in my professional career.”
For Osborn, it’s all part of the teaching process. “I’m a big believer that when you lose games, it should hit you a little bit,” he says. “You should take a little time to say, ‘What could I have done differently tonight? What could I have done to help the team?’ Because that’s the only way you get better as a player. And then, if everyone’s doing it, then that’s how a team eventually gets better.”
Tonight’s outcome, then, is a good one. The Thunder win, 8-6, and Osborn is proud of the way his team handled the awful conditions. He’ll hang out until about 11 p.m., then head to his new apartment in Pennsylvania. Maybe he’ll finally capitulate and subscribe to HBO so that he can watch the Game of Thrones season premiere. He knows that he can’t just go to sleep, though. He says that he has too much adrenaline, that he thinks about the game too much. When pressed, he’ll admit it could have something to do with the six cups of coffee. “And this might be a light day,” he laughs.
When the Yankees traded for Gleyber Torres in 2016, he reported to a Tampa team managed by Osborn. Right away, Torres saw the same thing that so many others -- both players and the front office types who control the chessboard -- have.
“The first day, when he came to my locker and started talking to me, all the things about the Yankees and how he liked the players to be and play, I saw something different,” Torres says. “The confidence he gave me made me sure that I was part of the family on the first day. I felt really comfortable because it’s not that easy to go to another organization like the Yankees and play really well the first day. But he gave me all the confidence and the opportunity to play. I felt really great on my first day.”
Just two years after that encounter in High-A, Torres was already in the Majors. For Osborn, that step hasn’t come yet. The next rung up the ladder -- whether with the Yankees or another organization -- will be totally new. But he is becoming better at evaluating players, at separating the Major League characteristics from the natural ability. He likes the numbers and he likes the strategy, the ways that the game is alive and changing. He sits with McMahon in the dugout and considers a different way that he could have had a runner make the turn at third base, which might have put him in position to score. And he just has fun; the guy smiles so much, laughs so fully.
These are small things because there’s not that much separating Osborn from the place he wants to be. It’s just a matter of pushing forward. He knows the book isn’t finished yet, that the final chapter doesn’t have to be getting cut from Double-A. “There are people in this game that have played at the highest level, that have done things that I’ve never dreamt of doing,” Osborn says. “But I believe there is value to everyone that comes across these players. And the bottom line for me is, it’s the way you handle people. I think when you’re one-on-one with a person, and you treat him right, and you treat him with respect, the stuff you’ve done in the game kind of takes a back seat. Because you’re able to get into their heart. And when you get inside someone’s heart, everything else doesn’t matter. The white noise, the stuff you’ve done in the game; instead it becomes a personal relationship with somebody.
“I’m a true believer that that will always be more valuable than what’s on my resume as a player.”