After long ride, Trembley reaches first class

The Baltimore Sun

Dave Trembley grabs a cloth napkin from the table of an Inner Harbor restaurant and wipes away a tear streaming down his cheek.

It's a busy lunch crowd, with waitresses buzzing about and patrons shouting small talk as the 55-year-old Trembley, unrecognized and undeterred, chokes back his emotions and tells his story.

It would be much too simple to say that Trembley, a career minor league nomad, received his big break in June when he was named the Orioles interim manager. Or that his dream came true yesterday when club president Andy MacPhail announced that Trembley's contract had been extended through 2008, with a club option for 2009 - meaning he finally has a baseball home from one season to the next, this one in the majors.

"I get real emotional because I am doing what I have always wanted to do. And people don't quite understand," Trembley said. "I know where I am from. I am so grateful for the opportunity. People have no idea."

Trembley's story digs much deeper, his climb much steeper. It's a tribute to anyone who's had to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, sleep on a buddy's couch for weeks at a time and drive a jalopy with more than 200,000 miles on it. It's why one day he can talk about, and appreciate, the path taken by a journeyman to reach the majors, and the next day forcefully remind his veterans that they have to report on time for team stretching exercises. It's why he can lose his composure at a Legal Sea Foods in the middle of the afternoon and not have to apologize for the tears.

Chilly roots

The baseball odyssey of Dave Trembley (pronounced Trem-blee) begins in a modest, two-story home built by his carpenter father in Carthage, N.Y., a paper mill town of about 3,000 people located 30 miles from the Canadian border.

It's an unlikely hometown for a perpetual boy of summer.

"When it snows here, it doesn't snow in inches it snows in feet," said Trembley's mother, Jean. "And when it gets to be 40 below, you better stay in."

Harsh winters aside, it was an idyllic upbringing, three Italian Catholic kids raised by a quiet, hard-working, sports-loving dad and an energetic, compassionate mom. The kids avoided trouble by playing sports.

"We were raised on old-fashioned values," said Mary Ann Keefer, the only girl and the youngest, by a decade, of the three Trembley children. "We were a very close family, kind of like a Norman Rockwell family."

Trembley's late father, who worked in the local paper mill for more than 35 years, was a volunteer basketball referee and passed on his love of sports to his two sons, Bill Jr., the oldest by 11 months, and Dave.

Once a year, they would make the 300-mile trek to Yankee Stadium to see the Bronx Bombers and Trembley's favorite player, Mickey Mantle. At night, Trembley would scan the transistor radio for any game he could get.

The "Leave it To Beaver" existence includes worn patches of grass in the front lawn where the two Trembley boys played catch continually, and a picture window that once fell victim to an errant throw.

"We were scared to death," said Trembley, who admits to breaking the window as a kid.

His father walked to the front door, and said, "Boys, come get your ball."

That was it. No explosions, no punishment.

The boys eventually took their fun and games to the local Catholic high school, where Bill pitched and Dave caught during baseball season and where Dave was the quarterback and Bill was his wide receiver in football.

The duo separated in the spring of Dave's junior year. Dave transferred to the public school partially because he could play baseball at a higher level, partially because, as his brother jokes, "Dave didn't quite see eye-to-eye with the Catholic nuns."

After high school, Trembley stayed in upstate New York, getting his bachelor's degree in physical education and his master's in education from the State University of New York, Brockport, the closest school he could afford.

Because his dream of playing professionally never materialized - a stint catching in a Canadian summer league was as far as he got after college - he turned his attention to teaching and coaching. He taught high school for a year, followed by a year of sports psychology graduate work at Penn State.

Then came the biggest risk of his life, the key trip in his baseball journey.

Look West, young man

It was the late 1970s, Trembley was 26 and still had the baseball bug. He knew his choices were limited near his hometown.

"So I flooded the market with resumes, Arizona and California," he said. "If I wanted to get into baseball, I had to get to warm weather."

A Catholic school in downtown Los Angeles called him for an interview.

Trembley had to borrow $350 from his father for the trip, but he didn't need a return flight. He landed the job as physical education teacher, baseball coach and behavior modification specialist, receiving extra pay for staying consecutive semesters.

He'd have his students unload their weapons before gym class and promised to return everything once the bell sounded. In his first year, he said he broke up a fight and inadvertently took a knife slash to the right jaw. He needed seven stitches and still has the scar. After that, his principal gave him a piece of advice: Act once the fight has ended.

"I learned that lesson very quickly," he said.

He coached baseball with one bat and ball - for fear his players would hit each other with any extra equipment. The experience changed his life.

"You learned about how to talk to people," he said. "How to show compassion to people."

After three years, he moved to Antelope Valley College in Los Angeles County and spent five seasons coaching junior college players. It's where he formed his mantra: "Be on time. Be professional. Respect the game."

It's also where he established a reputation for treating every player the same - even if they weren't on his club.

Jim Slaton, a veteran major league pitcher, would spend his winters working out at Antelope Valley because it was near his offseason home. Once, Slaton left his glove on the field after practice.

The next day, Trembley gathered his team, held up Slaton's glove and then held up his other hand and said, "Slate, that's five."

"Five laps around the field. And I took off running," said Slaton, now the Seattle Mariners' bullpen coach. "All his players just loved it. Now whenever I see him, I hold up my hand and say, 'That's five.'"

Salvaging players

Marty Reed is the first of a long list of players whose baseball careers Trembley saved.

In 1984, Trembley left Antelope Valley for a $300-per-week job working in the Florida Instructional League for the Chicago Cubs. Within two years he was asked to manage a co-op team in Kinston, N.C., a Single-A Carolina League club made up of players from four organizations. The California Angels sent Reed, a 24-year-old pitcher in his third year of pro ball.

In the team's first meeting, Trembley, who was the club's only coach, told the players they were there because no one else wanted them. But he promised to make them better.

Reed, a starter, had a disastrous April, going 0-3 with a 12.58 ERA. The day after a terrible start he sat by himself at the end of the bench pondering whether he should quit baseball.

Trembley joined Reed and said he'd still get the ball every fifth day if he vowed to work hard. Reed agreed, and took off after that pep talk, going 16-3 for the remainder of the season and finishing with a 3.10 ERA.

In August, the Angels asked Reed to go to another Single-A team for a playoff push, but he declined - so he could finish the year with Trembley.

"Here is a guy that did something tremendous for me and I can't walk away from him," said Reed, who eventually pitched in Triple-A and is now the Dodgers' minor league pitching coordinator. "I was at a crossroads in my life, and this guy has a knack for making you believe in yourself."

The next year Trembley landed a job with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization. After a rough start, he led the team to an Eastern League title, earning the first of his three Manager of the Year honors in the minors.

It's where he met Venezuelan infielder Carlos Garcia, who was in his second year of pro ball. Garcia remembers not running out a ground ball and being confronted by Trembley. He told the kid he had the talent to make the majors, but he had to work at it.

"That was enough for me," said Garcia, who spent 10 seasons in the majors and made one All-Star team. "He was the first guy to give me that kind of confidence."

Earlier this year, Garcia, the Mariners' third base coach, saw Trembley at Safeco Field. They embraced, and tears filled Garcia's eyes.

"It was pretty emotional, but I love Dave and I am happy he got this opportunity," he said.

From a bus to a buss

For two decades, Trembley rode the minor league carousel. He nurtured players and watched them rise while his ceiling held steady.

A dozen stops. Sixteen straight years of never making more than $35,000 annually, managing 2,800 minor league games, not including playoffs, spring training, instructional league and winter ball in places like Mexico or Venezuela.

He put more than 225,000 miles on his 1973 Datsun hatchback. For more than a decade he used a post office box to get his mail and a storage facility to hold his valuables since he was never in one place for more than a few months. Sometimes, after winter ball and before spring training, he'd live on friends' couches.

"The minor leagues are no picnic. I was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," Trembley said. "There were a lot of things you couldn't do, a lot of places you couldn't go because you didn't have any money.

"I had to work for everything I've gotten. And I know what it's like in the minor leagues. In the minor leagues, as a player and a prospect they try to beat you down. They try to find out what you can't do, not what you can do."

When he turned 40, he considered seeking stability.

"I thought maybe I should go do something else. If you're not careful, this game will cost you something," he said. "It will cost you relationships with your family or other people. It will cost you your health. It'll cost you time that you will never get back. And I have lost a lot of time."

But baseball had a hold on him. So he kept at it. And good things happened. Like at Single-A Daytona in 1995 when he kept seeing that pretty girl in the stands behind home plate sitting next to an elderly couple that he knew.

He got her number and eventually asked her out.

"We laughed so hard at dinner that my cheeks hurt the next day," said Patti Trembley, who married the minor league manager in 1999.

During the 2002 offseason, he joined the Orioles' organization. The Orioles wanted Trembley to bring some discipline to their Double-A Bowie affiliate, where, Trembley said, the players were running the club.

He was there two years, impressing the front office. Then he managed at Triple-A Ottawa for two more years. This winter he was named the newly created on-field coordinator in charge of running spring and pre-game practices.

Within weeks, Rick Dempsey resigned as Orioles bullpen coach and Trembley replaced him. Then bench coach Tom Trebelhorn had to take care of his ill wife, and Trembley assumed that role.

By mid-June, Sam Perlozzo was fired, and Trembley was appointed interim manager. "I think back to February and I am making copies on the copy machine in the backroom of Fort Lauderdale Stadium and stapling things ... and now I am managing in the big leagues," he said, his voice cracking.

Rewarded at last

Patti Trembley, 45, doesn't consider her husband a crier. A hugger maybe, like his mother. But not a man who easily breaks down.

That's why it is, perhaps, so significant that he became emotional while talking about his career during a lunch earlier this month. Or again yesterday in the news conference and subsequent media session after his extension was announced.

"Look where I have been, look where I have come from in order to get where I am now at," Trembley said. "I must have done something right along the way, and maybe somebody saw it. Maybe somebody was listening."

That Trembley is one of seven men in baseball history to have managed in the big leagues without playing professionally is not lost on the Orioles, who have gone 29-27 since he replaced Perlozzo.

"When you don't have any experience in pro baseball as a player, the first reaction is kind of like, 'This guy has not been in the foxhole, or this guy hasn't been through the trenches,' " said Orioles veteran Kevin Millar. "But there is a handful who grasp the respect of the players immediately. ... And Dave Trembley brings out that same aura that demands respect."

Millar, an undrafted free agent who played in the independent leagues before his solid big league career, said Trembley's struggles might have earned him even more respect "He has ridden a lot of bus rides. He has eaten a lot of Taco Bell," Millar said. "He hasn't made bazillions amounts of money in this game. He manages because he loves it. He is a baseball man."

And that may be the best compliment of all for Trembley, who for decades has given his blood, sweat and, yes, tears to the sport.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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