ST. PETERSBURG — Having just been hired by the Pirates, Derek Shelton was slated to manage his first major-league game — fittingly — at Tropicana Field, near his longtime offseason home and against the Rays team with whom he spent seven seasons as the hitting coach.
But then the pandemic shut down the sport, with the 2020 season delayed, abbreviated and played under a regionalized schedule.
So now, 821 days and 291 games (and 109 wins) as a major-league manager later, Shelton finally gets that opportunity.
“I’m really excited,” he said Wednesday from Pittsburgh. “Initially, it was supposed to be in 2020, the first game that I ever managed, so that would have been really cool.
“But it’s special. No. 1, the Rays organization is special to me. I spent seven years there and have a lot of great memories. Then the second thing, it’s home. It’s been home for almost 25 years now. So to be able to come home and have friends and family there, it’s going to be really cool.”
Managing in the majors after 15 years as a big-league coach with the Indians, Rays, Blue Jays and Twins has been everything Shelton, 51, anticipated it would be.
Especially for a team in an extensive organization-wide rebuild, with the fewest wins in the majors and third-worst record (109-182, .375) during his tenure.
“I definitely have a lot more gray hair and a very gray beard,” he said. “Do I think it was good for me? In some respects, yes. Because you learn a lot about yourself.
“The biggest challenge is when you start to create a culture, you have to stay consistent with it every day. And it can be challenging at times when you go through a losing streak or things aren’t going your way because you’re making young mistakes.
“That’s where the biggest challenge comes in for me personally … just making sure that that I’m the same person every day,” Shelton continued. “People will feed off that, and you really have to make sure that consistency is there.”
Being a coach when Kevin Cash went through his first season managing the Rays in 2015 and when Rocco Baldelli did the same in Minnesota in 2019 helped prepare him.
“Initially when you start, there’s a lot of things you don’t realize that go on day-to-day,” Shelton said. “You think you have a grasp of things. And you really don’t until you sit in the chair. It’s completely different.”
When Shelton was fired by Tampa Bay in September 2016 as the Rays opted for the “new voice” of Chad Mottola, who had been a minor-league hitting coordinator, he had multiple offers to be a big-league hitting coach elsewhere.
His wife, Ali, told him they needed to talk.
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“Basically, she sat me down and was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I think I want to manage,’ " he said “And she’s like, ‘All right, then we need to do something different.’ "
He did, taking a job in 2017 as Toronto’s quality control coach, which exposed him to other areas of the major-league game. He further expanded his knowledge and experience by going to the Twins in 2018 as bench coach for then-manager Paul Molitor. Then, after interviewing for but not getting the manager’s job after the Twins fired Molitor following the ‘18 season, he stayed in the same role in 2019 for new Minnesota manager Baldelli.
Shelton, who managed three years at the low end of the Yankees’ minor-league system in 2000-02, also interviewed for the Mets and Rangers manager’s jobs before getting hired by the Pirates in November 2019 following the firing of Clint Hurdle.
“A lot of credit goes to Ali, because I could have been comfortable and just stayed taking one of those hitting jobs, because it’s what I had done for 14-15 years at that point,” Shelton said. “But she really kind of challenged me personally to do something different, and ultimately it’s led to a really good situation.”
Cash, who has remained friends with Shelton, said he wasn’t surprised Shelton sought to manage.
“Totally felt that he had a lot of the quality attributes to be a manager if that’s what he wanted to do,” Cash said. “Good communicator. Pretty upbeat personality. Well-liked by players; that helps a lot. Intermingled very well with the front office, as much as anybody.”
Shelton prioritized making open communication a pillar of building a new culture around the Pirates’ recent losing history and the logistical hassles brought on by the pandemic. Effort — read: playing hard — was a “non-negotiable’' factor.
Several former Pirates said he has done well and was the right man for the job, given the challenging circumstances and need for patience.
“ ‘Shelty’ was great,” said Clay Holmes, now a Yankees reliever. “He’s just a great communicator, especially with that clubhouse dynamic and stuff. He was able to communicate with young guys, older guys. He was really good, a fun guy to play for.
“He just understands the player side of things. It feels like he’s relatable. He has a good energy about him. He knows how to lock things in, but he knows how to have fun, too. There’s just a good atmosphere around there. It was fun being in the clubhouse with him.”
Starter Jameson Taillon, now also a Yankee, appreciated how Shelton made him feel included and important in 2020 even though he was recovering from a second Tommy John surgery. He said he liked what he saw of his new boss’ style.
“He’s kind of got an edge to him, like you don’t want to cross him by any means,” Taillon said, recalling one fiery moment regarding starting pitchers needing to be in the dugout during games. “But other than that, behind the scenes he keeps it really loose. Seems like he’s always got a prank running with people, like long-running pranks. He and his staff have some really good banter.”
Taillon thinks enough of Shelton that, knowing the Pirates were following the Yankees into Tropicana Field, planned to leave a gift for him in the manager’s office, a bottle of bourbon with an apparent backstory. “Stay tuned,” he said.
The Pirates have improved in each of Shelton’s three seasons, with the promise of graduating more of their projected young core players to the majors. He has made progress as a manager, too.
“I hope I’ve gotten better at it,” he said.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
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