Taking Flight With....Fran Riordan
Under normal circumstances, Fran Riordan would've packed up his belongings earlier this week in Mesa, Arizona-site of the Oakland Athletics' spring training facility-and headed north to Las Vegas to begin final preparations for his 20th season as a professional baseball manager, including his second as skipper of the Aviators.
These circumstances, of course, are anything but normal.
With much of the world quarantined because of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday life as we've known it has been paused indefinitely. As a result, the 15 Major League Baseball stadiums that were set to celebrate Opening Day on Thursday instead will be vacant. So, too, will Las Vegas Ballpark, where last year Riordan guided the Aviators to an 83-57 record and a Pacific Coast League Pacific Southern Division championship during what was a remarkable and record-breaking inaugural season.
So instead of overseeing workouts at the ballpark and getting to know his team-as he ordinarily would be at this time of year-Riordan is back home in Buffalo, New York, where he returned after MLB shut down spring training on March 12 as concerns over the coronavirus outbreak escalated.
With the start of the 2020 season on hold, Riordan has no idea when he'll be heading back to the West Coast. One thing he does know, though: He's itching to get back on the field, in part because the 44-year-old baseball lifer has an inkling that the talent he'll get to work with in Las Vegas this year could be even better than it was in 2019, when the Aviators-among numerous accomplishments-obliterated the 37-year franchise record for home runs and came within two wins of matching the single-season franchise record for most victories.
Fran Riordan, talking with Mikey White on third base. Photo by: Steve Spatafore
We recently caught up with Riordan to talk about the prospects for this year's ballclub, as well as his abbreviated stint in spring training, his memories from last season and why he believes baseball's return will signal a return to normalcy.
First off, how are you and the family doing, and what have you been doing to pass the time?
Everyone is doing good. It's obviously a very weird time for the entire country-and the world, for that matter. I'm back in Buffalo and spending a lot of time with my wife and three kids (ages 13, 11 and 8). We're playing a lot of games, doing a lot of puzzles and spending a lot of good quality time together. All three of them go to the same school, so they've also been doing their assignments every day. We're all just trying to adapt to what is kind of the new normal.
How was the off-season-what did you do before heading to spring training?
I went back to work at my printing company here in Buffalo and tried to collaborate with my brother on how to grow business and helped out wherever I was needed-same thing I've been doing every off-season for the past 20 years!
Because of the coronavirus, the majority of Americans are now working from home. How does a Triple-A manager work from home?
Honestly, there's not much I can do. I try to reach out to the players regularly through text and phone calls just to make sure they're doing well both mentally and physically-make sure their families are taken care of and let them know if there's anything I can do from afar, I certainly will. So right now, it's pretty much about communicating with them and letting the guys know that I'm thinking about them and making sure that once we do get started again that they're ready to go.
Did you receive any direction from the A's when you left Arizona in terms of when the season might start or what to expect moving forward?
No. The uncertainty that prevails in general is the same uncertainty that exists in the baseball world right now, whether it's the major leagues or the minor leagues-"When is the season going to start? Are we going to have a season?" It's just such a fluid situation, so nobody felt confident saying anything [specific] with regard to steps moving forward. We're just trying to keep our players sharp and make sure that they're doing as much baseball activity as they possibly can, given the circumstances. Sometimes, that's not a lot.
Let's talk about baseball, specifically what you saw with the A's in spring training. What did you make of the players in big-league camp, many of whom will wind up in Las Vegas this season?
We got off to a slow start as far as winning games, but then we started to take off and were in that groove where we were pitching well, playing really good defense and the bats were starting to come around. I really like the minor league free agents [that Oakland] signed who were battling for [major league] roster spots-the roster we're going to have in Las Vegas is going to be really good. So there were a lot of bright spots in spring training, and watching 25 or 26 games provided a good sample size to [evaluate] some of the new guys and see where guys were in terms of their improvements from last year.
For those who might not be aware, explain the role of a Triple-A manager in spring training.
Well, there are 60-65 players in big-league camp. Obviously not all of them are going to make the A's 25-man roster, and the majority who don't are going to start the season with us in Triple A. So besides taking care of whatever the major league staff needs me to do on any given day in terms of baseball activities, my responsibilities include evaluating the [minor league] free agents we signed in the off-season who I hadn't seen before-guys who might be on the Triple-A roster-and getting to know them both as players and as people. Other than that, my job is to get these guys ready for either the major league season or the Triple-A season.
Obviously, it'll be some time before you know exactly what the Aviators' roster will look like, but you hinted that you like the potential. Can you elaborate on that?
We're going to have a lot of guys who have had a lot of experience and success in Triple A, who if not for the quality of team we have in Oakland would be playing in the big leagues every day. There are going to be some familiar faces back from last year's team and some new faces who have experience in both the big leagues and Triple-A. We're going to be a strong hitting team, a strong defensive team and we're also going to have some really good arms.
You've had about six months to digest last season, which was record-setting in many ways and included a first-place finish and a trip to the PCL playoffs. When you reflect on 2019, what thoughts come to mind?
It was awesome just to be a part of that experience of the stadium opening up, playing in front of so many sold-out crowds, winning the division and having a really fun team to be around from a staff perspective and, hopefully, from a fan perspective. We were a fun team to watch and we had a bunch of good guys who played the game hard, played the game right and were very talented.
As a Triple-A manager, what you're most proud of isn't so much the wins and losses; it's how you prepare guys to go and perform in the big leagues. And we had several guys who were able to go to Oakland and produce at a high level. So there were a lot of great things to take from last year and a lot of great things to build on moving forward in Las Vegas.
Lastly, what's your message to Aviators fans who are anxious to get out to the ballpark and watch some baseball?
I know this whole situation has put a damper on so many things we do in our everyday lives. But I know the players, the coaches and the game of baseball are ready to go as soon as they tell us it's safe to start playing.
To me, baseball has always been a calming presence and something that represents normalcy in our country. Once the baseball season gets going, I think that will be a representation that our country is on the upswing and ready to move forward from what have been really trying times.
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Pacific Coast League Stories from March 26, 2020
- Taking Flight With....Fran Riordan - Las Vegas Aviators
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