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By being himself, Schneider’s message is resonating with Blue Jays’ stars

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TORONTO — John Schneider arrived at spring training in 2008 with a life-changing decision to make. Six years, seven concussions and a major back surgery into his pro ball career with the Toronto Blue Jays, he’d topped out at triple-A. He had enough raw tools — strong receiver, a knack for getting on base, some pop — that he could keep grinding and perhaps find his way to a cup of coffee in The Show. But Voon Chong, his trainer in 2006-07, warned that another blow to the head would be major trouble. Dick Scott, the club’s farm director at the time, suggested a transitionary job coaching in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League if the 28-year-old was ready to move on. The club thought enough of him that the offer that would stand even if he first wanted a release to pursue a playing opportunity with another organization.

All the possibilities swirled in Schneider’s mind and his lean was toward coaching, which he’d already kicked around during the off-season. “Give me a few days,” he told Scott after their meeting. One morning, before heading over to a minor-league spring game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as they were then called, he stopped manager Gary Cathcart. Bring another catcher for the trip, he said, because if he hit a homer that day, he was calling it a career right then and there. “Haha, OK,” is how Schneider remembers Cathcart’s response.

Sure enough, in his second at-bat, against a left-hander whose name he can’t recall, Schneider did indeed go deep. Cathcart gave him a knowing grin as they high-fived at third base. “I came in and literally took off my spikes, hung them up in the dugout and coached first the next inning. That was the last time I ever played,” says Schneider. “It was great. Went out on a high note. Because there are a lot of low notes in there.”

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The next morning, rather than sitting in the clubhouse with his teammates and friends, he was in the coaches room for his first day as hitting coach of the GCL Blue Jays, the beginning of a career arc that led to his promotion as interim manager of the big-league club on July 13. Like Cito Gaston in 1989, Schneider is a long-time franchise man with deep ties to his players essentially thrown behind the wheel of a speeding car that’s at risk of veering off the highway. The task for him now, just as it was for Gaston then, is to ensure a built-to-win club remains on course and accelerates into the playoffs. At 14-8 so far, Schneider’s helped steer the Blue Jays back on the road, but the finish line is still a long way off and a steady hand is needed.

“This is so much about the players,” Schneider says of what he most enjoys about managing. “Our job as coaches is to just get them prepared and have all the information. The greatest joy is watching guys have fun, play well, win, celebrate a win. Watching them interact with one another, watching the coaches interact. Being around this group for so long, four years with the staff and most of the players, every day when you see it work is the best feeling.”

***

Even as a kid growing up in Lawrenceville, N.J., Schneider tried to think along with the manager when he watched baseball on TV, drawn to the bigger strategies inherent to the sport. Fittingly, he ended up behind the plate as a player, relishing the games within the game every catcher must play, the vision of the entire field. Undrafted out of high school, Schneider ended up at the University of Delware, where he logged 171 games over three seasons, earning first team All-Colonial Athletic Association and American Baseball Coaches Association All-East honours in 2002. That year, the Blue Jays selected him in the 13th round and he was the prototypical college player valued by the J.P. Ricciardi-era front office, carrying both a high on-base percentage (.387) and slugging percentage (.519).

Once he signed, Schneider remembers the organization stressing the importance of on-base percentage over batting average, that the fewer outs a player made the more valuable he was, along with other principles that changed the game in those Moneyball days. Such thinking resonated with him and in 311 minor-league games across those six years, he had an on-base percentage of .340, compared to a batting average of .206, while slugging .336, rolling up and down the system almost annually.

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Interspersed through that time were six documented concussions, all off foul tips that struck him on the mask. Those followed a more severe incident in 2001 while he was playing in the Cape Cod League, when a backswing shattered his helmet. Add in the 2006 surgery to correct a herniated disc in his back, it’s understandable why Schneider was already weighing his options when he got to spring training in 2008. “It took a lot of prep work to just get ready to play three times a week, know what I mean?” he says.

The physical toll Schneider had endured and the leadership qualities he’d displayed on his various teams both caught the eye of Scott, who as a matter of course sought to identify potential future coaches among players who weren’t on a fast-track to the big-leagues. In Schneider, he saw “a hard-nosed guy who always had a sense of humour,” says Scott, now co-ordinator of coaching development and instruction for the New York Mets. “And when guys are likable and they’re good baseball guys and they care, plus being a former catcher, it’s like this guy could be a good coach in our organization. As it turned out, he was.”

Scott also valued hiring players from within the system because they understood organizational priorities and were more invested in them. Schneider checked all the boxes, which is why he broached the idea that fateful spring, leading to a choice. He could kick around for a couple more years and see where it took him. Or he could get a head start on a different career path. “It keeps you in the game,” Schneider says of the transition. “I always said, if I wasn’t going to be a coach, I would be a teacher. I don’t know why, but I like sharing experiences. I like getting to know people. Baseball is what I know best, so it’s easy to talk to guys about anything that the game has to offer.”

Those qualities helped him learn on the fly, which helped because he didn’t jump into coaching with preconceived ideas about philosophies and approaches. Mostly, he trusted his instinct, the way he builds relationships with an added a dose of cautionary tales he’d seen. A prime example? “Not being connected to your teammates. Not being connected to your staff,” he replies. An important early piece of advice he adhered to was, “try to spend one minute a day with each person. I literally tried to just talk to people, whether it was during BP, clubhouse, whatever.”

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That part came easy to him. As a catcher he was the same way. “Social butterfly,” Schneider says with a grin. “It’s easier when people trust you. Like when pitchers trusted what I was calling, it just made it easier. And that comes through conversations, not just game experiences. With relationships comes trust.”

Among his initial coaching influences were Dwayne Murphy, Ernie Whitt and Scott, who’d regularly visit with Schneider to dissect various decisions, kick around different approaches and generally offer support. Scott liked his work as hitting coach with the GCL Blue Jays so much that the next year he made him the club’s manager. Another promotion, this time to short-season A Vancouver, came in 2011, after Scott had left the Blue Jays when Alex Anthopolous replaced Ricciardi as GM.

“John probably wouldn’t like me saying this, but he’s probably a better coach than he was player,” says Scott. “He wasn’t a bad player. But sometimes guys, their makeup is just suited for leading and coaching other guys. That’s really something that he showed.”

***

After a leave of absence in August 2011 so he could tend to a personal matter, Schneider resumed managing in 2013 with GCL Blue Jays, returning to the Canadians in 2014-15 and then jumping to low-A Lansing in 2016. It was during this period he began to find a better balance between being demanding instead of too hard on his players, while learning to manage with a bigger picture in mind. Some of the philosophies he employs now, particularly being aggressive on the bases, started taking hold then, too. “I remembered how hard baseball was and I always found it easier to not wait around for a big play to happen,” says Schneider. “If you can kind of dictate the momentum of the game or the pace of the game, it’s just easier that way. Baserunning is a big part of it. Putting the ball in play is a big part of it. And just trying to take advantage of mistakes.”

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By 2017, when he was promoted to high-A Dunedin, Schneider’s star really started to rise as he was handed many of the organization’s most important prospects. That season alone, he managed Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Danny Jansen, Jordan Romano, Ryan Borucki and Tayler Saucedo, among other future big-leaguers, and led the club to a share of the Florida State League championship. The next year, with much of the same group at double-A New Hampshire plus Santiago Espinal, Jonathan Davis and Harold Ramirez, also ended with a title. “He did a good job of making us feel like a team,” says Bichette. “In the minor leagues, a lot of times it can feel pretty individual. He made sure that we remembered it’s important to be a good teammate, important to come on the field every day to win. Yeah, we had talent, but I think he definitely had a big part in us winning.”

None of that was by accident. Typically the focus in the minor leagues is on development. At times the way players are used and how they perform is based on growth priorities and organizational restrictions. Winning can become a happy by-product as opposed to the sole goal. But Schneider refused to let one come at the expense of the other because “I thought I’d be doing them and the organization a disservice if they didn’t appreciate winning, knowing how to celebrate a win, knowing how to learn from a loss,” he says. “In between, yeah, you want to get better, you want to improve your skills. But really those years, especially in 2018, I thought it was really important to preach this is winning baseball. There’s practice time. There’s development time. And then at 7 p.m., it’s ‘Hey, we’re going to try to win.’”

As important as that was, similarly critical to Schneider’s path was the way he embraced the latest information revolution sweeping over the game at that time. The Blue Jays in those years were both diving into the new opportunities created by advances in on-field data collection and completely rebuilding the entire organization after president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins took over the club following the 2015 season. Gil Kim, hired as the club’s director, player development, “challenged me to do things differently, think openly,” says Schneider, and just like he had during the Ricciardi/Moneyball years, he embraced all the new info filtering down to him, from new practice drills to unorthodox pitch usages.

At times, Kim concedes, the Blue Jays identified development concepts they liked but were unsure of how to implement. Schneider would “brainstorm with his staff, brainstorm with other coaches, come up with his own tweaks on it. And then the biggest key is that he was very consistent with implementing a lot of the new ideas that were being introduced. He was also very consistent in coming up with his own ideas as well. And through that process, we were all able to learn what are the best ways to go forward.” Kim laughs when he thinks back to some of the things they threw against the wall. “You’re not always going to agree with everything you see, read or hear,” he says. “But listening, taking time to digest the information, trying it out and then drawing conclusions is very important and that’s how he handled it.”

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Pivotal, too, is knowing what to change, and what to leave the same. The Holy Grail in baseball management is finding the right blend of traditional coaching/scouting and advanced methodologies. “When I was in minor-leagues with him, the game was still a little bit old school,” says Biggio. “Then probably about 2019, the game kind of changed, went more analytical and he learned that side of the game but ultimately maintained his feel, which is what made him such a great coach over the years.”

In a sense, then, that period of time turned out to be the perfect training ground for how the modern manager operates, buffering various inputs from the front office, fellow coaches, players and his own ideas in search of the best decision for a lineup, an approach, a pitching change, etc. Essentially, a manager must act as a translator to ensure the different parts of the organization understand what the other is saying, whether it’s why defensive shifts make sense, how to best leverage a pitching repertoire or what type of swing adjustment needs to be made. “It’s having the information and being able to answer why we’re doing it,” says Schneider. “Also it’s a credit to the players for understanding the information and being able to push back or ask questions, and never wanting to put them in spots where they’re uncomfortable. They know just about as much as we know. And then it’s coming together and saying, yeah, OK, this is important, to win we should do it. I think we do a good job of educating them on why we do certain things. It makes it a lot easier for us to have those conversations.”

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All of that progress led to speculation about Schneider as a candidate to become Blue Jays manager after John Gibbons parted ways with the club after the 2018 season. He wasn’t interviewed and the job eventually went to Charlie Montoyo, but Atkins and assistant GMs Joe Sheehan and Mike Murov did speak to him afterwards about a coaching position on the staff. They hired him initially as a major league coach but by last season he was the de facto bench coach, a title he officially took this year.

During that 2019 season, Schneider made a point of getting to know established big-leaguers like Justin Smoak and Clay Buchholz, plus guys he’d touched in the minors like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, to understand how their mindset and needs changed in the majors. He tried to soak in all he could from Montoyo, pitching coach Pete Walker, third base coach Luis Rivera and Dave Hudgens, who this year moved from bench coach to hitting strategist.

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That’s why when Atkins fired Montoyo last month, Schneider was ready to grab the wheel.

“I love this. This is what I do,” says Schneider. “The organization does a great job of giving you every piece of information you need. Being familiar with the staff is huge. Being familiar with the players is huge and having an idea of how they like to play. It’s not just like, ‘Hey, this is my style.’ You’re always evolving around your roster and the people you work with, both players and staff. So just being familiar with everyone has made it that much easier.”

***

After parting with Gibbons, the Blue Jays conducted an exhaustive search for his replacement. This is how Atkins at the time described the attributes they were looking for: “Tough, smart and passionate. Those are the overarching themes as I think about what it means to lead an environment in here to sustain championship-level expectations, understanding what it takes for communication to keep not just 25-man roster, but also the 40-man roster, the 200 minor-league players, the 100-plus scouts, the 100-plus coaches and medical staff people pulling in one direction and feeling connected. That person has to be an organizational leader and spokesperson, not just a leader of the 25-man clubhouse.”

Montoyo was Atkins’ first attempt at fulfilling that vision. How the Blue Jays fare the rest of the way will determine whether Schneider eventually has the interim tag removed to become the second. That will sort itself out in due course.

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For now, Schneider is in charge and running things the way he always has. He tries to sleep seven hours, gets to the ballpark around noon for a 7 p.m. game, makes the rounds a couple of times, stopping to chat with everyone from the security guards at the clubhouse door to the chef in the kitchen to players as they arrive, holds a staff meeting at 2 p.m. and then gets into the day’s routine. He’ll throw batting practice and watch some video, seeking out a weakness or a tendency that can perhaps be exploited before running the game, where every decision he makes is subject to internal and external judgment.

A lot of the work happens during the pre-game staff meeting. Schneider is very organized, to the point “I’m almost OCD sometimes with certain things.” The group will try to plan for various scenarios, using all available information to identify ideal matchups and possible opportunities they can exploit and debate the merits of different plans. “Some of it is projection, some of it is percentages,” Schneider explains. “Doing things consistently and not shying away from saying this is how we’re going to do it, this is collectively how we feel we’re going to win and staying consistent with that is key.” There’s still room for instinct. “Totally,” he continues. “You’ve got to still use your eyes. You’ve got to feel out what this guy is doing that night, how has his work been? Where is he at mentally? There are so many numbers and pieces of information you have where it’s like you could just go by the book and there’s always a handful of decisions each game that you go, OK, this is what I feel is best, along with the staff, you’ve got to make it and live with it. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong.”

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And then there’s managing a group of 26 highly driven, uber competitive players who will have varying needs and desires at any given moment. A big part of what Schneider does when he’s making the rounds is taking the temperature in the clubhouse because “you’re never going to have perfect attendance — someone’s always going to be pissed off at you,” he says. “Someone’s always going through something and you kind of just try to stay ahead of it.”

To that end, he believes in “being brutally honest with players” but approaches difficult conversations with empathy “and always having their best interests in the forefront,” he adds. “It’s not being afraid to say, hey, that’s not up to standards, that’s not up to par, this needs to be better or, hey, man, way to be aggressive. Whatever it is. But that’s the delicate part. Being consistent in who you are. I’m not going to come in and bang tables and pound my chest and say I’m in charge. That’s not how I operate. But them understanding yeah, I want to have fun and be loose, but at the same time there’s definitely a standard we’re going to hold you to.”

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That’s something Biggio has long appreciated about Schneider, whom he’s played for every year since appearing in nine games with Lansing in 2016. Especially now that he’s in a super utility role, the stream of communication about why he is or isn’t playing is especially important on a personal level, and it eliminates the guesswork on a collective level, too. “You want someone who has your back and sets you up for the best chance to succeed,” says Biggio. “And then one of the biggest parts is having poise. John embodies all three of those things really well.”

Dick Scott saw the ingredients for Schneider to provide all that way back in the day and now that his focus is on developing coaches, he still sees all the current elements a manager needs in him, too. “There’s a lot more to it than X’s and O’s. There are guys who are good managers that know the X’s and O’s and there are guys who communicate well. When you get a combination of that, you’ve got yourself a good guy,” explains Scott. “From the periphery the players seem to like the vibe in the clubhouse, and that’s so important. It’s really the vibe, guys comfortable being themselves, they can go play, no extra tension coming from the manager’s office. It’s effective, especially in this day and age. That’s what players want.”

For the time being, that seems to be what the Blue Jays have. “I just know how I’ve always done it and it just feels natural for me to do it that way,” says Schneider. “I’ve always said that great teams at the end of the year, they always say what a great group of guys, we loved coming to the field every day. I always try to keep that in the forefront and make sure that vibe is consistent, both with staff, players, support staff, everyone. That’s just how I operate.”

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