Stories from the Past: Q&A with Johnny Goryl
Probably the most fascinating person in the entire Cleveland Indians organization to talk to is Johnny Goryl.
He is not a Hall of Famer and never was an All Star. He only played in 276 Major League games over six seasons and was just a career .225 hitter.
But Goryl played in an era that had the likes of Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and so many other stars of the 50s and 60s. He coached and managed with the Twins and Indians for over 20 years before moving into player development as the Indians’ Farm Director after the 1988 season. In that role he saw young players like Albert Belle, Charles Nagy, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and so many others begin their professional careers and turn into stars years later in Cleveland.
What makes Goryl so interesting is his long tenure in the game as this season marks his 64th straight year he has been involved in the game. With all of that time spent at every level possible and in every job imaginable in baseball comes a lot of unique stories and experiences, and I recently had a chance to sit down with him to talk about some of his most memorable moments in the game over the years.
During our conversation Goryl shared many anecdotes and experiences, and I have provided his comments in unedited fashion in Q&A format…
Q: You have been around the game for over 60 years. How and where did it all begin?
Johnny Goryl (JG): I had an unusual start, Tony. It started when I was living back in Rhode Island as a young player playing for a high school. An opposing coach for another school saw some things in me he liked, and he just so happened to have a friend in Roland Hemond who took a job in Hartford, CT in the Eastern League and distinguished himself and had a long career in baseball and is still active in it. They arranged for me to play in a ballgame up in Hartford in a semi-pro game. I was a senior in high school at 17 years old. We played a Sunday afternoon doubleheader and I happened to do some things that apparently a Braves scout that was there watching the game saw enough in me to offer me a contract. I had to wait until the next day as my dad had to sign with me as I was under age, and I signed with the Boston Braves in 1951 and went on to bigger and better things from there.
Q: It is certainly much different today getting into the game than it was back then with the advent of the draft in 1965 and the many renditions of it since then, not to mention how teams scour the globe internationally for talent.
JG: Oh my gosh, yes. You have the draft which the players have now, although the draft doesn’t necessarily find the best players. Some of the kids that we have signed that help us out throughout the summer are not even drafted. They come in here with a chance to get a professional job of playing throughout the summer and they sometimes turn out to be better players than the ones you drafted. The draft is different now than when I first broke in. The information is there for any scout on the players. They don’t rely on their judgment as much and don’t hide players out like they used to years ago so no one else could come in there and steal them away from them.
Q: So what was that transition like for you going from a player to a coaching or development role? How did you get into player development?
JG: I played 15 years total as a player, five of which was in the big leagues with the Cubs and Twins. I had the pleasure of spending some time in some pretty good organizations. When I got finished playing I was 32 or 33 years old and I was asked if I had any interest in managing and going on in that direction with my career. George Brophy was the Farm Director for the Twins at that time and offered me a job at A-ball in the NY-Penn League at Auburn in New York. I never did get to Auburn as I ended up managing a club down in Orlando in the Florida State League that year. I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot. I was in the Twins organization for 20 years wearing a lot of different hats, and then I came over to the Indians in 1982 and ended up being Dave Garcia’s third base coach and have been here ever since. I am going on 34 years with the Indians and 20 with the Twins, so between two organizations I have 54 years of the 63 that I have been in the game.”
Q: The minor leagues have changed so much over the last 50-60 years, especially in the last 10-20 years. What resources did you have at your disposal in the minors 40 years ago that maybe you have today?
JG: We never had the things that these guys have available to them as far as strength coaches, sports psychologists, and three coaches. It was just me and a trainer, and the trainer was usually a clubhouse guy. We did not have a hitting and pitch coach. Today it is an unending flow of information that they have available to them to help develop the players. The other thing they felt was taboo was a player messing around with weights. They thought it was detrimental to them to develop and they thought that flexibility was an important thing. I am going to tell you Tony, I am not sure if that wasn’t the right way to go about it. I think weights have their place in our business, but also the important thing is the player keeps his flexibility. We never heard of an oblique injury until recently and hamstrings were never a huge issue. A lot of our training was through a lot of running, a lot of sprint work, a lot of calisthenics. Stretching on the field was usually run by the manager himself or an older player who had some insight into what needed to be done.
Q: Even the makeup of the Player Development Department is much different today, not to mention the facilities themselves.
JG: We had one person to answer to, and that was the Farm Director back then. He had no assistant. If he did, he would stay back and do all the paperwork. We filed our reports after every game, but we mailed them in. There were no computers or telephones we used to get the information back to them. When we saw the Farm Director we probably saw them once a year, not like today where we get a coordinator like myself who will go see a club four different times not to mention all of the other guys that come in after me. You were pretty much left alone. They told you here is your ball club and they never told you who to play, where to play them, how often to play them, where to hit them in the lineup or anything else. There was no one else but a roving pitching instructor and maybe a roving hitting instructor. It was definitely different. Also, sabermetrics were not even a thought back then.
Q: You spent some time on the big league staff in the 80s with Cleveland, but then transitioned back to a role in player development. Why?
JG: Actually, what ended up happening was at the end of the 1988 season I had just had a little boy and he was two years old at the time. I felt like it was more important for me to be home with him and help him grow and become a better person and a man. I asked them if they would consider me for a job in their minor league system. They asked me what I would like to do, and I said I would like to be their Field Coordinator and help run the minor league system. They ended up giving me the job as Director of the Minor Leagues while Danny O’Dowd was getting ready to develop himself into that role and after two years he took over and I became the Field Coordinator. Mark Shapiro was his assistant and came in and took the job over when Danny moved up to become the Assistant GM.”
Q: You stepped into things at the right time as the farm system at the tail end of the 80s and early part of the 90s was loaded.
JG: We had a lot of good players back then. Just check the 90s out and the players that were there that we developed. Scouting Director Chet Montgomery had an influence on it. He went out and got us some very good players to start that trend to develop players to our Major League club. After him Mickey White came and he was responsible for getting Manny Ramirez. Between Manny, [Jim] Thome, [Brian] Giles, [Richie] Sexson and [Albert] Belle, they all could hit.
Q: You definitely oversaw some pretty amazing young talent when you jumped into player development. Albert Belle was an extremely intense guy who had a prolific bat, but had his issues over the years. Did he struggle with his temper in the minors like he did early in his Major League career?
JG: I was the Field Coordinator when Albert was with us. He was a little different and hard to handle at times (laughs). He destroyed the commode at Akron-Canton. He demolished it. [General Manager] Hank Peters called me up at home and he says, ‘John, what are your plans for tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Well, nothing Mr. Peters, but by chance can you make a trip to Canton and talk to Mr. Belle? He just demolished the commode in the Canton clubhouse.’ We got him into the little clubby hole where they have the equipment stored and me and Billy Williams the manager was there and I asked him to sit in on the meeting with me as I had to have somebody in there while I talked to Albert. We sat in there and I said, ‘Albert, you gotta get your temper under control. You can’t go off and do things like that.’ And the whole time I am talking to him he is just smiling at me (laughs).
Q: Belle was certainly an intimidating person on and off the field, but he could sure impact a game with his bat.
JG: Let me tell you something about Albert Belle that you have to admire about him was he never wanted to give an at bat away and he never wanted anybody to take him out of a ballgame, because if they did he would let them know it. If he stayed healthy throughout his career and was able to keep playing, there is no telling what kind of numbers he would have put up for his career. They would be talking about it for years. I loved Albert. He was a very fierce competitor and to have him on your team was something special because he could win a ballgame for you with one swing of the bat.
Q: What about Manny Ramirez? What did you see out of him at an early age?
JG: He was a fun loving guy. There was no telling what would happen with Manny; like they said ‘Manny being Manny’ which was a special phrase they used when he was up in Boston. What I remember best about Manny is when he was a young kid out of the draft when we drafted him we had our minor league camp for all the draft picks at Baldwin Wallace and worked him out there and then sent him out to one of the two A-ball clubs we had. We had an inter-squad game there near the end of the week and I can remember I was umpiring behind the mound and I watched this young 18-year old go up to hit and he didn’t care if the pitch was a fastball, curveball, changeup or whatever. All he wanted to know was where the location was. He had a tendency to peek back to see where the catcher was setting up on the plate, and if the catcher moved and setup on the plate and they threw the ball in that area there was no telling who he would hurt in the infield. He had a knack where it never mattered what pitch he was going to get he just wanted to know where the pitcher was going to attack him and he would take care of the rest. I can remember going back to the ballpark after a workout one day and I talked to Mr. Peters as he wanted to talk about Manny. I said, ‘Hank, I am going to tell you, this kid is going to be special. He can hit with the best of them.’ The only thing about Manny is he could have been a better outfielder. Al Bumbry that year in 1997 or 1998 I think when he was working with Manny did as good a job as anybody with getting him to be a better outfielder.
Q: You were out of player development and back on the Major League coaching staff in 1997, but the Jaret Wright callup that year was about as impactful as it gets from a young player.
JG: It was magical. He carried us right into the playoffs. I happened to be the bench coach at the time to Mike [Hargrove]. The decision came through Mike, Mark [Shapiro] and John Hart. We wanted to call him up in September as he was throwing the ball well, but we brought him up a little earlier than that because we had an injury (Dennis Martinez). He pitched his ass off in the first game he pitched and we kept running him out there and he kept pitching his butt off.
Q: Speaking of 1997, that is the year the team came ever so close to winning that elusive World Series. I know Game Seven is something the fans took hard and continue to think back on and wonder what could have been. How did you take it?
JG: I have a video of those playoff games and I have yet to open the box to look at them. That is how heartbreaking it was not to win that seventh game. No question about it, it is probably my biggest disappointment in the game not winning that seventh game of the World Series. We had the lead with two outs to go and we couldn’t put it away. If we would have added a run the inning before (Alomar out at home) it would have made all the difference in the world for Jose Mesa. Just think about how much pressure that was. It was also hard on Mike Hargrove too. I am going to tell you something though, the Baltimore and Yankee series leading up to the World Series was the greatest experience I have ever had in my lifetime in baseball. And we almost lost [Game Five to the Yankees] as Paul O’Neil hit a ball that came close to going over the wall!
Q: You are now an advisor. What exactly does that role entail?
JG: My role is defined as somehow that can help our young managers transition into being a manager. Bud at Lake County, Dave Wallace was like that, Scooter Tucker is another who was like that and even Chris Tremie. So every one of our managers at one time or another - with the exception of Ted Kubiak - there was work I did with them to help them out. Also, I am the eyes and ears of [Vice President of Player Development] Ross Atkins on the fields and I let him know what is going on. If I see something that needs to be addressed I let [Field Coordinator] Tom Weidenbauer know about it so he can put it into his schedule. If someone is doing particularly well down here and can go up there and help them I will pick up the phone and call Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona to let them know what I am seeing. My job is mostly in the player development role. I love teaching. It has always been a favorite thing of mine to do.
Q: Which player stands out to you most as a player that came into the system with a lot of question marks but turned himself into a pretty good player?
JG: Jim Thome turned out so much better than I thought he would. He was a shortstop that we converted to third base. Charlie Manuel probably had as much influence on him as anybody with his hitting. Jimmy seemed to settle down when he was given the first base job in 1997 when we had Matt Williams come over in a trade as that really settled down the whole infield situation for us defensively. Jimmy seemed to take to first base pretty good and let his offense come. Manny, God dang, he might have been the one of the top young right-handed hitters I have seen in the game.
Q: What young player right now really stands out to you in the system?
JG: I will tell you what, we have a kid right here and now in Clint Frazier. I am going to tell you, people ask me about him and I say at the same age as Manny Ramirez that Frazier has more power than Manny did when he was a young player at that same age. Frazier is going to be an awful good player. He is strong as hell. Another thing about Frazier, he is not satisfied with just being good. He wants to be the best. That’s what you love about him. We have another young kid here by the name of [Yu-Cheng] Chang from Taiwan. He is 18 years old. You watch him play and you say ‘Man, he is pretty special.’ You can look at him and wonder what he is going to be in four to five years. He is going to be a pretty special kid.
Q: Are there any sleepers to keep an eye on?
JG: Jordan Smith has a chance to be a helluva player. He is going to hit for some power too once he figures it out. When I was running Instructional League for the Twins years ago, Kent Hrbek came in as a signed high school player in Clearwater, Florida. Hrbek was a left handed batter and couldn’t pull a ball into right field. Everything he hit was foul into the stands when he was playing in games. Finally he learned how to turn on the ball and that is when he started being the great power hitter he ended up being. Somewhere along the way something is going to click with this kid and he is going to have it, but it is going to be him that makes it happen.
Q: You recently turned 80 years old. Did you have a big party to celebrate?
JG: I tried to forget it (laughs)! I was up in St. Louis where my daughters live and they tried to do something special and I said I didn’t want to know I am 80! I told Carl Willis the other day, my body keeps telling me I should retire but my mind says I am having too much fun so keep going. So I am listening to my mind (laughs). I never ever expected to last this long. Think about that. I was 17 years old back in 1951 and getting an opportunity to play; who would have thought it would go on for 63 years.”
Q: So how much longer are you going to keep doing it? Have you ever thought about stepping away?
JG: Every year. But you know what brings me back all the time? I told Mark Shapiro the same thing, and it is getting out here in Instructional League in the fall and getting around all of these young players. They bring your energy back. The teaching part of it is exciting for me because I feel like I am part of something. When I am not part of something then I feel like it is time to step away and let somebody else do the damn work (laughs). I feel like I am part of what we are trying to get done here and I still enjoy it. I will see how I feel at the end of this year and how I feel when I get to Instructional League this year and go from there.
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