Sunday, March 30, 2008


FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Stan Cliburn addresses his Triple-A Rochester clubs early Wednesday morning with two items on his agenda.

Several players with major-league hopes just learned that their dream had suffered a temporary setback. Instead of riding planes and playing before 40,000, they’d be bumping along the all-too-familiar highways of the International League with Rochester. Cliburn had to restore any competitive edge that may have been drained by disappointment.

As a means to that end, Cliburn’s Red Wings had a date with his old club, the New Britain Rock Cats, now managed by Bobby Cuellar. Cuellar’s Cats would be bolstered by a start from big-league right-hander Scott Baker, and Cliburn saw the opportunity as a tonic to awaken his troops.

Cliburn took center stage, an interesting mix between a fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, perhaps a latter-day Will Rogers or a comedian flexing his shtick on a Las Vegas stage. He admonished, joked, philosophized and motivated all at the same time.

“Look at this lineup card,” he said with a straight face. “It’s blank. I’m as confused as you are. … You never know what’s going to happen in this game and that’s the beauty of it.”

Among those on the bench at the Fort Myers back lot were veteran pitcher Danny Graves, who was getting his first dose of Cliburn’s country charm. Infielder Chris Basak, once a Mets prospect, played in three games and got an at-bat with the Yankees last year.

On the home-grown list, popular ex-Rock Cat and Fort Myers native Tommy Watkins went 10-for-28 in a brief stint with the Twins last year, but he apparently had been nosed out for a big-league job by Matt Tolbert.

“I’ve been in this game for 27 years,” Cliburn quipped. “I spent one month in the big leagues last year and I’d go 27 more to get one more.”

He glanced over the heads of the seated players and saw that I had arrived in town. I quoted Cliburn for five years as he dragged a colorful brush stroke over New Britain Stadium from 2001-05.

“Respect the media,” he told his players, his voice lilting back and forth in his prominent Mississippi manner. “They can carry you a long way. Kind of reminds me of Clint Eastwood -- the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

He spoke of other players he’s managed who he’s had to address the same way. He talked about Rich Aurilia, once a “bubble” player who ended up hitting behind Barry Bonds. He related the story of Casey Blake, a former Twins farmhand who is thriving with the Cleveland Indians.

He equated his job to that of an orchestra leader.

“I’m waving the same old baton,” he said. “I have the same old goal and the same old beliefs. It’s just a different orchestra with a different piano player and a different drummer.”

Different drummer, indeed. Very few have moved to a beat as exotic yet simple as that of Stan Cliburn, not since Casey Stengel.

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