How Steven Vogt went from an 0-for-32 rookie to a big league manager


IT IS OPENING Day 2017. Stephen Vogt, the Oakland A’s multitalented, multidimensional, multipersonality catcher, was asked to perform something on tape that could be played on TV before his first at-bat that day — ideally, his hysterical rendition of Chris Farley’s riotous “In A Van Down By The River” skit from “Saturday Night Live.”

“That’s just for my teammates,” he said. “But I’ll sing something for you.”

So, in full uniform, only hours before the first pitch of the season, Vogt sang from three Disney songs, led by a heartwarming diddy from “The Little Mermaid.” It was played before his first at-bat of the game, and seconds later, he hit a home run.

From “Under The Sea” to over the fence.

From Ariel to aerial.

That moment, that day, captures who Stephen Vogt is. He is so secure in himself, so comfortable in his own skin. He is meticulously prepared, and “obsessively observant,” according to former teammate Elliot Johnson — traits that will be critical for a major league manager. He has tremendous communication skills, the most important attribute of today’s manager. And Vogt is relentless: He did not get a hit in his first 32 at-bats in the major leagues, yet found his way to two All-Star teams. This is why the Cleveland Guardians named Vogt, age 39 with no managerial experience on any level, to replace the irreplaceable Tito Francona as their manager.

“Within five minutes of our first Zoom call with him, we got the overwhelming feeling that he would make a great manager — five minutes,” Guardians general manager Mike Chernoff said. “Even though he had only coached for one year [2023 with Seattle], he already had a managerial philosophy in place. He walked us through it, and it was obvious that he would be great. And every reference call we made, we heard the same thing, like, ‘I only knew him for one year in A-ball, but I knew he would be a great manager.”’

It’s a sentiment echoed by plenty of Vogt’s former teammates.

“He is the perfect storm of knowledge and awareness and he just got done playing at a very high level,” Jerry Blevins said. “He checks all the boxes. He is all-of-the above.”

“The baseball gods single out their guys before they are even born,” former teammate Dallas Braden said. “And they picked Vogter. We all knew he would be a great manager.”

“It’s like he has been doing this for 10 years,” said Guardians catcher Austin Hedges. “His first speech to the team this spring was incredible. The energy in the room is amazing.”

“Vogter is one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever had,” said Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy. “He has all the makings to be a Hall of Fame manager.”

IT IS SPRING training in 2012 in Port Charlotte, Florida. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon organized a talent show.

“That put Stephen on the map,” said Johnson, then a utility man for the Rays. “He was in minor league camp. I had no idea who he was. No one had ever heard of him. He was one of the last acts. He killed it. He did impersonations [of Maddon, farm director Mitch Lukevics and coach Matt Quatraro]. Everyone was dying laughing. He won the pot. He probably went home with $2,000. The rest of that spring, when we needed someone from minor league camp to come over, we’d say, ‘Let’s bring that Vogt guy over so he can do impersonations for us.”’

Sure enough, Maddon routinely brought him over to big league camp.

“I had a couple of conversations with him that spring and thought, ‘My God, this guy would be perfect on any team,'” Maddon said. “I got a whiff of his humor. He did this impersonation of me where he rides in on his bicycle wearing a Rays jacket and glasses. He gets a fungo and puts it under his one leg and crosses over like I do. Then he starts talking using big words. We’d bring him over in the morning, we would have a huddle before our workouts, and he would rock it every time.”

Giants manager Bob Melvin was one of Vogt’s managers with the Oakland Athletics. “The hardest part of every meeting is, ‘How does it end?”’ Melvin said. “You just clap and say, ‘Let’s go.’ Our meetings always ended with Vogter. Levity. Funny. He is the perfect way to end a meeting.”

The “Van Down By The River” skit is among Vogt’s famous impersonations; he even provides his own table that collapses when porky, dorky motivational speaker Matt Foley falls on it.

“I still have that clip on my phone,” former teammate Sean Doolittle said. “I watch it all the time.”

The communication skills, the importance of inclusion, the sense of humor, the fearless ability to perform and entertain all come from the influence of Vogt’s parents, Randy and Toni. They insisted that Stephen and his brother, Danny, do more than sports. Stephen played the trumpet, sang in the choir and did several school plays.

“My mom said we needed to be involved in music because it allows you to appreciate everything,” Vogt said. “Music was a big part of our family. I sing all the time. What I miss most is singing with the choir. There is no pressure greater than singing a solo. Everyone’s parents are watching. Being in a church play, public speaking and performing allows you to tune out the audience and really just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing.”

How did his high school baseball and basketball teammates react to him being in the school plays?

“Obviously, I got made fun of, but not too bad,” Vogt said. “It was the person I was raised to be. People are into different things, that doesn’t make one weird. I had a teacher tell me once years after high school that I made uncool things cool. That was such a really neat compliment. Everything is awesome in your own way. Being able to put on your drama hat and go put on your baseball hat, your basketball hat, your student government hat relating to everybody and being able to interact with everybody is super important.”

Johnson sees another way that Vogt’s impressions impacted the way he played — and the way he’ll manage.

“He pays attention,” Johnson said. “When you can do voices and mannerisms, it shows being observant. Vogter was always locked in. He will be [the same] as a manager. When he talks to his players, he will already know everything about them. If someone is too high, too full of himself, he can bring that guy back to center. If someone is too low, he can bring him back up. Great clubhouse guy, secure human.”

“He has an innate ability to make everyone around him more comfortable,” Doolittle said.

That will be more important than ever as a manager.

“It’s being able to read your teammates and read the room,” Vogt said. “There are times when the tension gets really high over the course of six months. There are times when we are down as a team. The guys need to laugh. If you’re not smiling and laughing on the baseball field, you’re not going to play your best. For three hours a day we get to be 12-year-old kids again. If you lose that perspective, not many are good enough to overcome that.”

IT IS SPRING training 2024 with the Guardians. Stephen Vogt is wandering the field wearing uniform No. 12, carrying a fungo bat and observing, missing nothing. Matt Foley and the Disney balladeer are inside him, but as Muncy said, “once the game starts, it’s all about winning.”

Doolittle said, “He is one of smartest players I ever played with. He’s not a goofball. I would sit next to him on planes. When everyone else is playing cards, he’s doing his homework.”

“He is always asking questions,” Blevins said. “All the smart people I’ve been around ask the most questions. He would get into your head. He’d ask me, ‘You shook this, why did you want to throw that?’ I’d answer his question, and the next time he’d adjust.”

“We learn from failure,” Vogt said. “No one learns from success. And Lord knows I’ve had enough failures.”

Vogt was drafted by the Rays in the 12th round in 2007 out of Azusa Pacific College. He finally got to the big leagues in 2012. “He was always a good hitter,” Maddon said. “But I kept hearing in the meetings that he was going to be a 2-A or 3-A player. His defense was substandard. He heard all those things, too. He was very motivated.”

He went 0-for-25 in his first year with the Rays, then was sold to the A’s, where he went hitless in his first seven at-bats. That’s 0-for-32: the fourth longest hitless streak by a position player to begin a career in the expansion era (1961-on), trailing only Vic Harris (0-36 in 1972), Lou Camilli (0-34 in 1971) and Chris Carter (0-33 in 2012).

“I don’t know how I got through that,” Vogt said. “That was tough. You reach your dream of making it to the major leagues and then you go home 0-for-25. You have to look everybody in the eye. You’re giving hitting lessons and you’re wondering if the kid and parents are asking, ‘Why are letting this guy give our kids hitting lessons? The guy can’t hit.”’

But in 2015 and 2016, Vogt made the All-Star team with the A’s — and became one of the most popular players at the club. “When he was catching in Oakland, I’d come to the plate and sing what everyone sings in Oakland: ‘I believe in Stephen Vogt,”’ Hedges said. “We’d be laughing. Great banter. I’d have to say to him, ‘Hey Vogter, I got to get locked in here. This is a great conversation, but I’m trying to get a hit off your guy.”

Vogt was waived by the A’s in 2017, then played for the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Atlanta Braves, where he won a World Series ring in 2021.

As far back as A-ball, Vogt wanted to be a coach. After watching Melvin manage, he determined that he might be able to do that job someday. “A lot of things suggested that he would manage,” Melvin said, “but mostly, it was his interaction with me. The questions he asked me. Things you don’t get from a lot of players. He was not afraid to ask. Very inquisitive.”

It was with Milwaukee, where he was injured and couldn’t play, that he became certain about his career path. Then-Brewers manager Craig Counsell and general manager David Stearns “allowed me behind the curtain” to understand free agency, the draft, the whole process, Vogt said.

“I’ve been building for this for a long time, writing managerial philosophies in notebooks,” Vogt said of his job in Cleveland. “I’m in a great spot here. There is help everywhere. I need help. We have 200 years of coaching experience on this team. When I got here, we went to 201.”

It helps that Vogt was an active player only two years ago. He has never left the game; nothing has passed him by.

“He already knows exactly what that player is feeling because he constantly has the pulse of everyone around him,” Braden said. “He will relate to the 26th guy on the roster exactly the same way as he will relate to the star of the team. It takes a special set of skills to do that. He knows what it takes to get the best out of everyone, every day. And in this analytics world in the big leagues, that skill is more important than it has ever been. He nails it.”

The last player to become a manager only two years after retirement was Larry Bowa in 1989. Vogt’s final day in the major league was his most memorable.

“It was Oct. 4, the last day of that [2022] season,” Braden said. “He has already announced to the world that he is retiring. I go down to the bullpen before the game. Stephen Vogt straps on the gear and does a pregame, ball-blocking drill. He is never going to put shin guards again in his life, and what does he do? He gets his early work in so he could set the right example for everyone. It is always about doing the right thing.”

In the final at-bat of his career, Vogt’s three children, Payton (now 12), Clark (9) and Bennett (6), announced his name over the public address system at the Oakland Coliseum.

And, of course, as he always does in the biggest moments, he hit a homer.

“To hear your kids’ voices, them saying, ‘Now batting, our dad,’ it still makes me emotional,” Vogt said. “It was an incredible moment. The kids were like ‘Dad, no way, I can’t believe you did that!”’

Actually, with Stephen Vogt, and only Stephen Vogt, it is believable.

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