Matt-er of FactSeptember 19, 2012
The biggest, widest smile hopping off the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers bus happened to belong to the first man to step foot off the coach with hardware in hand. Appleton native Matt Erickson had the Midwest League Championship trophy in tow, and the manager of the Milwaukee Brewers Class A affiliate looked like he might just cradle the team keepsake home for display on the Erickson mantle.
“It was a great feeling, no doubt about it,” said Erickson, after the Timber Rattlers captured the Midwest League pennant, dispatching Fort Wayne 3-1 in a best of five finale. “There’s a bunch of emotions for our players and staff, and for me personally, I’m very proud. There’s a sense of relief too because you put all that time and work into it and they had to believe in it.
“They believed in the process, went out and executed…it was fun to watch.”
Erickson had the catbird seat for a season that featured a Western Division title and a playoff run earmarked with stingy pitching, clutch hitting and suffocating defense. It was the calling card for this bunch of Baby Brewers all season long, defying the odds with a collection of overachievers and gamers.
“It’s a great group of guys, and the character of this whole team was phenomenal,” said Pitcher David Goforth. “The biggest thing we did all year was when some guy didn’t get it done, the next guy was right behind him to pick him up. If the pitchers gave up seven or eight runs, we knew the hitters could score 10, 11 runs a game. Everybody was in it together and everybody had each other’s back.”
“We knew we were going to show up to the ballpark and have every intention that we’re going to win,” added First Baseman Nick Ramirez. “As a team, we were convinced we could win every ballgame.”
An attitude and culture clearly instilled by Erickson and his staff. After serving two seasons as the Timber Rattlers hitting coach, Erickson was elevated into his current role as skipper of these baby-faced Milwaukee prospects in2011. As this 140 game season played out, Erickson saw his teaching skills put to maximum use.
“The professionalism is most satisfying,” said Erickson. “You’re dealing with such a wide range of personalities and discipline coming in, so to speak. But watching them grow and develop a routine to where, it’s never going to be push button by any means, but when you get to the point late in the season, guys have a good idea of what it takes to get themselves ready to play.”
What Erickson absorbed from his first go-around being in charge of a ballclub came in handy for his sophomore season. Once the message was sent and channeled into a players repertoire, he allowed the leash enough slack to turn his unbridled ballplayers loose to run free and show off their talents on the diamond.
“You don’t have to constantly check and recheck them because there’s a trust that develops between the staff and the players,” explained Erickson. “Earlier in the season, there’s not always that trust. There are constant reminders of how you’ve got to get yourself ready and they may skip some things. But over the course of the season they figure it out.
“The guys in that clubhouse got on board and understood what it takes to play a full season now and that’s probably the most rewarding thing…watching an individual take ownership or accountability for their preparation.”
Gamers and grinders made up the roster Erickson was handed on Opening Day. The team didn’t have a label or identity back in April, and even Erickson struggled at times to define how the group would perform. By shrugging it off and turning the talent base loose, the Timber Rattlers field boss discovered that keeping the environment airy and light was the ticket to the best mark in the first half of the Western Division chase.
“I don’t know if there is an exact blueprint for it, but what we do as a staff is come to work every day and we enjoy our jobs,” said Erickson, who had Hitting Coach Dusty Rhodes and Pitching Coach Dave Chavarria by his side. “I think that’s not easily faked and the players understand that we come here to help them any way possible.
“We spend a lot of time together over the course of a six month season so I encourage looseness, get to know each other off the field, and get to know something about the families. That doesn’t mean everybody has to be best friends, but you’ve got to be able to respect one another and their families and where you come from. I think if you can create that in your clubhouse there’s a better understanding.”
“I love Matty, he’s a great manager,” said Ramirez. “He lets each person be themselves. There were no rules or regulations on how to do things, he really lets you be yourself and do your business. If you go about doing your job the right way he’s not going to say anything to you. But if you’re doing something wrong he might mention something to you. He enjoys being around us.”
No one had a better gig in the Midwest League than Erickson, who had the coveted luxury of sleeping in his own bed following every home game played in nearby Grand Chute. Those Fox Valley roots not only kept Erickson grounded, but it served as a direct life lesson he shared with his players.
“Appleton is a great baseball community…I grew up here and remember going to the old Goodland Field, watching the players and thinking I was going to be one of those guys someday,” said Erickson. “When I come out here on a daily basis, I see those same families and young kids wanting to be in our dugout, wanting to be our players. Once and awhile it was good to remind the players about that, remind them where they came from and where their passion is for the game, because sometimes this can become a business, a day in, day out grind. But if you can step back and take it all in and realize what baseball means to this community, you have a little bit more fun at the ballpark.”
Goforth was on board, adding, “He keeps it fun. As a little kid growing up you’re always told to go out there and have fun. That’s one thing I’ve noticed being around Matt is that he’s always energetic, always fun, never a dull moment. The biggest thing is he keeps all of us loose and relaxed, and that’s one of the big reasons we did so well in the postseason, because everyone has been loose and relaxed going out there and playing a game we’ve loved since we were kids.”
The second set of 70 games was nowhere near the machine that spit out 44 first half wins to assure a spot on the postseason dance card. With success came promotions within the organization, the call upward going out to ten players earning a bump up the Brewers food chain to High Class A Brevard County. Erickson lost a plethora of players but quickly discovered a fresh set ready to fill in the blanks.
“(Jason) Rogers was a big bat in the middle of our lineup, (First Round Draft Pick Mitch) Haniger came in and did a nice job and is a player to be excited about, but got hurt 12 games into it,” said Erickson. “We lost (John) Dishon, who added some speed to our team, but the rest of the position players remained intact and we continued to play solid defense. We lost eight or nine pitchers and that’s been a struggle at times with the consistency of our ballclub, and the reason we got on some runs in the first half was because our pitching was locked in. But some of the guys who were locked in on the back end of our tandems, (David) Goforth, (Chad) Pierce, (Mark) Williams really did a great job on the back end to rest our bullpen and use them at key times.”
Erickson didn’t allow panic, and offered comfort in the opportunities gained rather than the bodies lost. Back-end piggyback pitchers in the first half got kicked up to the front of the line in the second half, and by the postseason, were seasoned and lights out performers on the bump.
And when the squad hit a late season lull, Erickson pulled the group together and provided a new twist on the daily routine.
“There’s a period where the season gets long and gets to be a grind, but I think one of the things we do as a staff is try to mix things up, try to create some energy in different ways, try to add a little bit more competition in our pregame so it doesn’t become monotonous,” said Erickson. “They understand that they are here trying to get to the next level and that the season isn’t over until it’s over. You never know when that one thing might click for you as a position player or a pitcher, so work until the last day because something might click that they can carry on into the off-season and bring to spring training that will set them apart from everybody else.”
With a Midwest League Championship on his resume, Erickson will certainly set himself apart and draw interest from the Brewers brass for a promotion of his own. But what of the ideal setup he has in Appleton? Would a change of address change the mind of this home grown product?
“I really appreciate the job here,” said Erickson. “Now, with that being said, there may come a time when it’s time to move on. If that time is next year or ten years from now that’s a decision that I’ll have to make with my family and myself. There will definitely come a time when I’ll want to move on and try to pursue the coaching profession at the highest level.
“I enjoy the age group, because there is a lot of teaching that takes place here. I’ve always thought of myself doing this, went to school as an education major, and I like to teach.”
Until opportunity knocks, and Matt Erickson will be faced with the prospect of mentoring prospects in less than familiar surroundings, this Wisconsin native will soak up and savor the championship season that unfolded right in his very own backyard.
“There’s no question I’m in a great situation here from a professional standpoint and from a personal standpoint because I’m here with my family,” said Erickson. “I really enjoy the ballpark and the community, and in my opinion, Appleton is by far the best atmosphere.”
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRAD KRAUSE AND THE WISCONSIN TIMBER RATTLERS)