Eric Chavez whisks through the locker room less than three hours before first pitch, gives one of his relief pitchers blasting reggaeton a quick vote of confidence and suddenly takes a hard left into the office that, as of a week ago, wasn’t his.
The manager’s office inside Smith’s Ballpark looks how you’d expect. Gear and papers strewn about and a laptop open on the center of the desk. That’s his least-favorite part of this new gig. The computer. He can work a computer, but now he has to enter data into a system, and that is the one part of his job that leaves the former Gold Glove third baseman flummoxed.
Everything else is easy. Filling out a lineup card or informing a player he’s sitting or starting, or making the walk to the mound and signaling down to the bullpen, that’s the skipper’s job. He thought he’d be nervous his first game officially in charge. No nerves bubbled up. He’s the manager now.
That’s Eric Chavez. At least for the next month. As for beyond? Don’t ask. He doesn’t know. Or says so, at least.
It’s been two weeks since the Los Angeles Angels decided to bring up longtime manager Keith Johnson up from their Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake and put Chavez, whose job title within the organization is special assistant to the general manager, at the helm until the PCL season ends on Sept. 3.
Now 40, Chavez was a star left-handed hitting third baseman during his 13 seasons with the Oakland A’s. He ended his playing days in pinstripes with the Yankees and later in the National League West with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The six-time Gold Glove Award winner picked up the phone a few weeks ago when his boss, Angels GM Billy Eppler, called and asked what his schedule for August looked like.
“What are your thoughts for going to Salt Lake City?” Eppler asked.
Chavez responded: “Well, you’re my boss. You’re supposed to tell me.”
He’d already filled in for Johnson when the Bees were in Sacramento in July and Johnson was participating in the Triple-A All-Star Game. So, heck, why not? Chavez has been around the Bees for years now, dropping in to help out players individually, to scout, to take stock of where the Angels are in their farm system.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said.
Managing has always been on back burner. It’s a question posed to him regularly by friends and family. Chavez vows he doesn’t want to get caught looking too far down the road. He says he’s a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. That’s why when Eppler asked, Chavez pulled up the schedule, saw a couple of weeks in Salt Lake, a couple weeks on the road, a series in Las Vegas, and told his boss he’s in.
The timing, however, became some what of a talking point.
The day the Angels announced their reshuffling was the same day baseball insider Ken Rosenthal broke news in The Athletic that longtime Angels manager Mike Scioscia is expected to step down at the end of this year. Scioscia, later that day, called the report “poppycock.” Rosenthal named three likely candidates as potential replacements in Anaheim. One was Chavez, who up until this year has had no managerial experience.
Was the writing on the wall? Is the future Angels manager getting a test run in, of all places, Salt Lake? Chavez has been with Eppler, the former right-hand man to Yankees GM Brian Cashman, since the glove and cleats were stashed away. Chavez only had this to say about potentially pursuing a big-league manager job one day: “If doors open up, I’ll address those when I come. But if I end up doing my special assistant role for the next 10 years, I’ll be totally happy.”
Chavez was hired in his former-yet-still-current role in October 2015 after serving as a special-assignment scout for the Yankees prior. And he enjoys the versatility of his lifestyle. He is happy to board a flight to Salt Lake and work third base prospect Taylor Ward or join Eppler on a flight to Japan to plan how to quickly the organization can assimilate two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani as they did in January.
He’s everywhere for the Angels. It’s worked. When he’s asked to describe his job in detail, Chavez goes with the same answer every time: “Everything. And I love that.” The front office part of the job is fascinating, the treks around the globe are eye-opening, but what he can do that other administrators don’t is get on the ground level, pull up to a ballpark somewhere around the country and help out a kid the club’s invested in.
The same day he sat down with an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Chavez saw one of players he mentored before arriving as the Bees manager get the call. Ward wasn’t anywhere to be found in Salt Lake Monday. He was on a flight to San Diego to meet up with the Angels. A day later, Ward roped an RBI double in his first career major league at-bat.
“Baseball people need to be around this game, so I don’t care if you’re wearing a dress to scout high school players or wearing a pair of slacks and a ball cap to scout high school players,” said Dallas Braden, Chavez’s former teammate in Oakland and now an analyst for A’s broadcasts. “Those people out there, boots on the ground, we need those baseball minds in the game.”
He marks Chavez as one of those minds. No, this wasn’t what Braden saw Chavez doing when he stepped away from the game. But Braden said he’s noticed a change in Chavez since joining the Angels organization. It helps, too, having worked for the likes Cashman and Eppler.
“I think he’s learned and he’s understood the game from a different side,” Braden said. “That has reinvigorated him and sort of lit that flame again. Because if you have the ability to communicate, you can really impact some young ballplayers, and ultimately, I think that’s something he would love to do.”
Chavez fashions himself as a baseball mind caught between two worlds: the old-school infielder who wanted to get that crisp white A’s uniform dirty versus the new-school analytics-first mind. Analytics in baseball is here and it’s not going anywhere. After all, he was part of the “Moneyball” era in Oakland under Billy Beane. His character was in the hit Hollywood movie, too. So, of course, he knows the numbers side of the game matters.
But how would he describe his managing style?
He wants to be that same guy who went 4 for 4 and the same guy who went 0 for 4.
“You could never tell if I was going good or going bad,” he said. “It was important to me.”
Bees infielder Dustin Ackley said Chavez has integrated seamlessly in Salt Lake. It helps, too, that his playing days are not too far removed. It makes players feel comfortable to work with a guy who understands today’s game and its expectations.
“The fact that he’s been around has been huge and everybody knows him on a personal level,” Ackley said. “I think there’s really no adjustment period for us. We just continue to roll right along. It’s almost like we’ve got another teammate here.”
The path to becoming a big-league boss isn’t what it used to be. You no longer have to cut your teeth as a bench coach or managing a pitching staff for a decade. Alex Cora and Aaron Boone, two former ESPN analysts, joined the game’s fiercest rivalry last offseason. Cora’s Red Sox are 50 games over .500. Boone’s Yankees are nearly above by 30. Might Chavez be the next in a line of former players who get their shot?
Braden is watching the man he grew up admiring now from afar, confident that if the situation calls for a lefty-on-lefty at-bat in the seventh inning against the El Paso Chihuahuas, Chavez will have game-planned for that scenario in the third inning.
“That,” he said, “is something Chavy knows.”
Eric Chavez is in Salt Lake right now. If a door opens, he’ll figure out whether or not he wants to walk through it.