A growing pile of black and orange duffel bags waited to be fed into the exposed cargo belly of a long motorcoach late Sunday afternoon as Ken Joyce shared a final few moments with family members in the parking lot between a now-empty Hadlock Field and the Portland Expo.
The weekend had gone all too fast, as it always does when the Richmond Flying Squirrels make their annual August trip to Maine, bringing their hitting coach back to his hometown.
“First time I got to sleep in my own bed since February,” said Joyce, who parlayed a volunteer gig with the Portland Sea Dogs into a two-decade career in professional baseball. “The visits are never long enough. But the fortunate thing is that it’s near the end of the season so it won’t be long before I’m back here.”
Twenty years ago, Joyce strode through this same parking lot carrying a catcher’s mitt and a dose of apprehension. He was 29, teaching middle school health and physical education and coaching JV and American Legion baseball, and he had just met the manager of Portland’s new Eastern League franchise, the Sea Dogs.
Carlos Tosca took an immediate liking to Joyce, appreciated his background in education and eagerness to learn.
Is there anything I can do to help out, Joyce had asked Tosca.
We could use a bullpen catcher, Tosca had replied. Have you ever caught?
Not since Little League, but Joyce had played middle infield at Deering High and the University of Southern Maine and been a three-year assistant to USM Coach Ed Flaherty. True, Joyce had never played professionally, but neither had Tosca.
Soon enough, Joyce had earned a Sea Dogs uniform and a succession of thumb sprains (thank you, Jarod Juelsgaard). Throughout the 1994 and 1995 seasons, Joyce soaked up as much baseball knowledge as he could from Tosca (now the Atlanta Braves’ bench coach after spending 17 years in the minors), from Florida Marlins farm director John Boles and from a succession of coaches and roving instructors. All while working as a volunteer coach and still as a teacher.
During the 1996 All-Star break, the foundering Marlins abruptly replaced field manager Rene Lachemann with Boles, and Boles chose Double-A hitting coach Jeff Pentland to join him in Florida. Suddenly, the Dogs had a vacancy for a paid coach on their staff. They also had an apprentice ready to fill the role.
“Baseball is always looking for good people,” said current Sea Dogs manager Billy McMillon, an outfielder on the ’95 club managed by Tosca. “(Joyce) was around. He paid attention. He went out of his way to help out when needed. Then, because he was such a good person and he worked well with everyone, when an opportunity opened up in the organization he was offered a position.”
Joyce finished out that season as Portland’s hitting coach and spent the next three with Florida’s short-season affiliate in the New York-Penn League. After two years in the independent Northern League, Joyce returned to organized baseball and spent eight years in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system. He managed for three seasons in Class A and, as a hitting coach, rose as high as the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2009.
Over the years, he’s been feline (Alley Cat, Cougar, Fisher Cat), avian (Raven) and ursine (Grizzly). He’s been sartorial (Blue Sock), mechanical (Lugnut) and paranormal (Area 51). True to his Maine heritage, he even spent a season as a Lumberjack.
This season marks his fifth with the San Francisco Giants, who kept him in the Pacific Coast League for a year before assigning him to their Double-A affiliate in Richmond, Virginia, where he is nearing the end of his fourth season.
“Longest I’ve been anywhere,” Joyce said. “We’ve had a good season. Similar to what Portland’s gone through, we’re not the same team we were a month ago. We’ve done our jobs and had guys promoted.”
Indeed, three starting pitchers earned promotions to Triple A and two position players – Matt Duffy and Jarrett Parker – got called up to the big leagues. Duffy, a utility infielder, remains with the Giants. Parker is now in Triple-A Fresno.
The Flying Squirrels, who entered the week leading the EL West, also lost manager Russ Morman for much of July due to a previously undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes. With Morman out, Joyce took over as manager and guided the team to a 13-8 record.
“It reminded me of my days with Carlos here (in Portland) and how much I learned from him, being able to do double switches and things like that,” Joyce said. “That’s something I’ve tried to help Russ with all season.”
Morman returned at the end of July but the team lost its next seven games. The Flying Squirrels left Portland Sunday on a 4-12 skid with their lead over second-place Akron shrunk to half a game.
“He’s done a tremendous job,” Morman said of Joyce, who continues to coach third base as Morman eases his way back into the routine. “Not only as a hitting coach but also in stepping into my place as manager.”
Richmond outfielder Devin Harris, a fifth-year pro who played for the Sanford Mainers in 2008, said Joyce is an upbeat instructor who continually emphasizes the positive.
“When we’re doing early work, he wants to make the atmosphere real light,” Harris said, “but he also has a lot to teach.”
Three players under Joyce’s tutelage last year – infielders Adam Duvall and Joe Panik and catcher Andrew Susac – are playing for San Francisco.
Now approaching 50, Joyce has nearly 10 Eastern League seasons under his belt. Not until the fall will he learn whether a return to managing is in the cards or whether he will continue as a hitting coach. All 30 of the current major league hitting coaches – along with the assistant hitting coaches employed by 16 teams in the majors – have professional playing experience, the one line missing from Joyce’s resume.
“Everybody would love to get there,” Joyce said, “but you see how hard it is and you see guys like (former Sea Dogs manager and current Red Sox first base coach) Arnie Beyeler and how he grinded it out. You’re happy for guys who have made it up there and you hope to get an opportunity.”
Until then, Joyce remains content with his position, occasionally breaking out his three World Series rings (1997 Marlins, 2010 Giants, 2012 Giants), working with young hitters, riding minor league buses and looking forward to another reunion with wife Janet, son Tommy (a Portland High sophomore) and daughter Jill (an eighth-grader). A Portland-Richmond championship series would mean a bonus visit home.
As players trickled out to the bus Sunday afternoon, Joyce considered the approaching 12-hour trip from Maine to Virginia that would eat up much of his summer’s remaining off day.
“You know what?” he said. “I’m living the dream and I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”