Northern Michigan Attractions: Each spring, Traverse City Beach Bums coach Gregg Langbehn takes a bunch of young guys who've just moved to Traverse City, guys who've never played ball together, and creates a cohesive Traverse City Beach Bums' baseball team. Within a matter of weeks the Traverse City Beach Bums are playing a grueling 96-game season in the Frontier League. Here's how Langbehn does it:
At the end of the bench, elbows on his knees, Beach Bums manager Gregg Langbehn spits seed husks and studies his fingernails. His pitcher has just made a fielding error. Not what the Bums need—they’re behind in the series, and their win-loss record is barely .500 for the season. Yet Langbehn appears calm in the dugout on this breezy gray evening. After nearly 20 years in professional baseball, perhaps he takes the long view. It’s only June, it’s only his second year with the Beach Bums, it’s only …
Then the Bums’ pitcher hits a batter to load the bases. Langbehn stands up and leans against the dugout wall, arms crossed. He watches as the next batter hits for an RBI, and then a runner scores on a wild pitch. Langbehn signals the ump. He trots to the mound and dispatches his pitcher with a pat on the back.
Langbehn’s learned his lesson about being too patient.
Coaching the Beach Bums has been a whole new ballgame for Langbehn, 41, a former minor league pitcher who spent 10 years as a coach and manager in the Houston Astros farm system. With the Astros, his priority was player development, meaning it was more important to groom young players than to win games. He’d get kids fresh out of college or high school, some who barely spoke English, and prepare them for their next step in the system.
Langbehn’s laid-back style fit his role, says friend and former Astros colleague Tom Wiedenbauer. “Gregg was known as a player’s manager,” says Wiedenbauer, now minor league field coordinator for the Cleveland Indians. “Instead of the old school style of my way or the highway, Gregg was more communicative and willing to listen. Guys always liked playing for him.”
Nonetheless, Langbehn had trouble establishing the right rapport when he joined the Beach Bums in 2009. For starters, he lacked experience managing in present tense, the way of life for the Beach Bums and the other 11 teams in the independent Frontier League. Unaffiliated with major league franchises, these teams lack the deep pockets to keep prospects on multi-year contracts. Team owners need to fill their ballparks tonight. Players need quick results, too. Independent ball is their last slim chance to put up numbers that impress a big league scout.
“This is all about winning,” Langbehn says. “We don’t have time to develop players. They have to be ready and around right now.”
And they have to be young. Crash Davis, the fictional Bull Durham catcher with a crusty attitude and receding hairline, couldn’t do time in the Frontier League. Half the players on each team must be rookies. The other “experienced” players age out at 27, although a new rule allows each team to keep one veteran as old as 30.
Players come and go quickly. League rules allow up to 25 transactions during the season, and most teams make that many. A hitting slump or an injury that would be a speed bump in a big league career can be an exit ramp in the Frontier League.
“I get no pleasure in removing a uniform from a player,” says Langbehn, who was forced to cut fan favorite Bobby Spain last July when an injury hurt the third baseman’s performance. “I’ve been there. I’ve had it happen to me.”
Langbehn played for three organizations during eight seasons in the minor leagues. As a left-handed pitcher, he moved up the minor league food chain, then spent fours years bouncing between AA and AAA teams. Langbehn never made it to The Show as a player, although he did earn a post-season coaching spot with the Astros in their 2005 World Series bid. Still, reaching AAA is no small feat, and Langbehn came a long way from his start in the minor league cellar. “I signed out of high school at 18. I went to Tennessee (Mets) on my own, was thrown into the clubhouse,” he says, shaking his head. “I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.”
Few of his Beach Bums players are quite that young. Most played college ball, and about half have been drafted and released by the minor leagues. At an average age of 24, they have just enough experience to be in an awkward spot: Unless they get back to the minor leagues soon, it’ll be time to get a real job. Beach Bum players earn from $600 to $1,600 a month, less than a hardworking teen with a summer job.
Managing players at this stage of their careers requires subtlety, and motivating them is probably impossible, as Langbehn learned the hard way his first season.His friendly, relaxed approach didn’t get results, so he had to “get on the guys.” That didn’t work either. His 2009 debut ended with 42 wins and 53 losses.
“Maybe I was too patient,” Langbehn says. “It was just a long, frustrating season.”
In fact, 2009 was the third losing record in a row for Langbehn. The Beach Bums hired him after he’d been let go by the Astros, in the wake of two dismal seasons as manager of the Class A Lexington Legends and an overall shakeup of the farm system.
Langbehn’s initial losing season didn’t jar the confidence of the Bums’ management. They knew from the start that he “had the stuff” the club needed—experience, passion, and professionalism, says general manager Jeremy Crum.
Maybe so, but Langbehn wasn’t satisfied. As soon as the 2009 season ended, he cleaned house. All but two players were let go. Then, for the first time in his career, he started building his roster.
With the Astros, Langbehn was far removed from the scouting and signing process. So when he got his chance with the Bums, he dove into player recruitment, working his connections and trading leads with Jason Wuerfel, the team’s director of baseball operations. “We wanted new blood and enthusiasm,” Langbehn says. “We were trying to find the right pieces, the right personalities.”
By the start of the 2010 season, Langbehn believed he had a roster of players motivated to win, players still trying get back to the minor leagues. His next task was to build confidence and, especially, teamwork. Although the team would log 9,300 bus miles together during the season, Langbehn didn’t leave camaraderie to chance.
Langbehn sat at the front of the bus during road trips, wielding the remote control for the on-board movies, says Ned Taylor, one of two charter bus drivers for the Bums last season. “He’s the leader,” Taylor says. Yet the manager kept the atmosphere friendly and made sure everyone was included in the fun. “There’s never the outcast on the team,” says Taylor, who drives for Air Bear Travel out of Cheboygan.
Getting to know his players makes all the difference, says Langbehn. He has always tried to have a non-baseball chat with one player each day. “Being from the Upper Midwest, I talk to them about hunting and things,” he says. “It’s amazing how a 10-minute conversation can turn into an hour.”
Here Langbehn is a natural, an easy conversationalist who mixes his professional and personal lives unapologetically. Talk to him for more than a few minutes and you’ll hear about his wife Shelly and their two young children in Rothschild, Wisconsin, just outside Wausau. For Langbehn, the main perk of his Beach Bums gig is being closer to Wausau where he grew up, where he coaches seventh grade basketball in the off-season, where he indulges his passion for the Green Bay Packers. Last summer, his family made the eight-hour drive to Traverse City several times.
“Gregg’s a real family man,” says Crum. “It’s great to see him out there on the field with his little guy, tossing him balls.”
Langbehn, it seems, is all about relationships. So it’s not surprising that when the 2010 Beach Bums won their way to the Frontier League finals last September, Langbehn attributed the success to “the right chemistry.” He also credits players like J.T. Hall and Chase Burch who stepped up as leaders.
“If there was not hustle on a play, you know, I’m on third [as base coach], so they addressed it before I got back in the dugout,” he says.
Langbehn brags that the Beach Bums made only eight transactions during their winning season, probably the lowest in the league. With the right players, he could be more patient, reverting perhaps to his old style. No complaints from the Bums. They renewed Langbehn’s two-year contract in November with accolades.
Over this past winter, Langbehn and Wuerfel have worked to load the 2011 roster with as many returning players as possible. But churn is inevitable given league rules and real life—some players will leave baseball for more stable employment. Plus there’s always the chance that one of the Beach Bums’ best will be called up to the minor leagues. If that happens, Langbehn says, no one will be prouder and happier than he. Hmmm. One suspects that for Langbehn, baseball isn’t only “all about winning.”
A steady flow of between-inning give-aways, fireworks and special promotions keeps the energy high all season long. Single game ticket prices: Lawn $6 adult, under 3 free; Chair back $10 adult ($12 on Friday nights); Private table $80 includes four seats; Private suite $200 for up to ten adults; Season and half-season package deals available. Check traversecitybeachbums.com for complete ticket information. 2011 regular season runs May 20–September 4.