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Rockies' Walt Weiss is getting on-the-job training

DENVER — Fourteen months ago, Walt Weiss was managing Regis Jesuit High of Aurora, Colo., to a playoff semifinal game. Today, he's managing the Colorado Rockies toward what he hopes will be a National League playoff berth.

Asked to compare the assignments during a recent interview in his office at Coors Field, he said, "Obviously, here the stakes are higher and the demands are a lot tougher. But I don't have to deal with parents."

Along with some big differences, there are some similarities.

For example, Weiss built championship contenders in his rookie season with both teams. The unheralded Rockies enter a three-game series with the Dodgers here Tuesday one game under .500 but only two games out of first place in the NL West.

Weiss got both jobs despite no head coaching experience at either level. That isn't too unusual in high school, but in the major leagues it was rare until the last two seasons, when the Rockies, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins all hired managers who had never even coached at the big league level.

"There's opportunity now," said Weiss, who, like the White Sox's Robin Ventura, the Cardinals' Mike Matheny and the Marlins' Mike Redmond, played more than a dozen seasons in the majors.

"There's something to be said for the fact that we haven't been out of the game for all that long. There may be a bit of a connection still to the players. And what the players have to deal with on a daily basis and the grind of the season."

That was the case for Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who was batting a career-high .347 when he went on the disabled list three weeks ago because of a fractured rib.

"Former players … can relate to us better," said Tulowitzki, who grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., watching Weiss play shortstop for the Oakland Athletics. "They know what everyday battles bring in the big leagues. Speaking of my situation, it's pretty cool because he played the same position as me, dealt with similar injuries in his career."

Weiss replaced Jim Tracy, who resigned after the Rockies lost a franchise-record 98 games last season. Tracy went to Colorado with the kind of resume that seemed to attract big league teams: modest playing career, extensive minor league managing experience, stints as a bench coach with three big league teams, and seven seasons managing other teams in the majors.

But Tracy lost 14 more games than he won in four seasons in Colorado and when he stepped down, the team threw away the old template and interviewed Jason Giambi, Matt Williams and Weiss, all former major league All-Stars with no managerial experience.

Giambi hadn't even retired as a player.

In the end, Colorado felt most comfortable with Weiss, 49, a former Rockies player who spent seven years as a special assistant to the team but had to be prodded to apply to become its manager.

"It wasn't my dream to be a big league manager," Weiss said. "This one snuck up on me."

It was a job Weiss admits he studied for, though. In his last three seasons in the majors, Weiss was a part-time player for the Atlanta Braves and Bobby Cox, the fourth-winningest manager in major league history. And when he broke in with the Athletics, their manager was Tony La Russa, the only man alive who won more games than Cox.

It proved to be an invaluable, if unintended, apprenticeship.

"I was young and very impressionable when I played for [La Russa]. So I learned a lot about the game under him. I tend to look at strategy a lot like he did," Weiss said. "The things that I take from Bobby is just how he acted in the clubhouse. I learned a lot about how a manager should interact with his players or not interact with this players. Seemed like he was around the players just enough to be visible but at the same time he stayed out of the way."

Weiss rarely makes the short walk from his office into the Rockies' locker room — a room, he notes, that is for players, not ex-players.

But the most valuable asset Weiss brings to his new job managing one of the league's youngest teams could be something he learned not in a clubhouse but at home, where he raised four boys.

"He understands the younger culture," said Dante Bichette, Colorado's rookie hitting coach and a teammate of Weiss' for four seasons with the Rockies. "He understands these kids, and there's some young ones here."

Of course, as much as the Rockies may like new thinking, what they really like is winning.

"It's not where he came from," Bichette said. "It's whether he can get it done or not."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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