TInCaps home opener
First pitch: TinCaps vs. Great Lakes, 7:05 p.m. Thursday at Parkview Field
For updates on the opener, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1
His friends call Michael Collins by the nickname “Tubby,” which carries some irony considering he's still in lean, mean baseball shape.
“That was the nickname I got when I was 14 and it stuck,” Collins said. “I was a kid in a baseball program where I was younger than the other kids. I wasn't a fat kid, but I was a soft, tubby kid and the other kids were older.”
Tubby remains young, even today. At 29, he'll be the youngest manager in the history of the TinCaps (or the former Wizards) when they open their season Thursday night at Parkview Field.
He'll try to put his youth and energy to use. Collins might have more in common with his players than any manager in Class A baseball, a fact he intends to put to good use.
At 16, Collins left his home in Australia to join the Angels minor league system. So he can relate to some of the youngest Dominican players on the roster who are in a foreign country.
“Just like any of these guys, I signed a deal and the Angels sent me to Arizona in that league,” Collins said. “Here we are, 14 years later, and it's much different (to be the manager), but it's the same game.”
Collins bounced around the minor leagues, playing in the Midwest League with Cedar Rapids at one point. He had some strong seasons, but never reached the majors. Eager to remain in the dugout, he switched to managing. The last two seasons, he's guided Australian teams and he managed the AZL Padres in the Arizona rookie league last summer.
Thirteen of the TinCaps' 25 players played for Collins in the Arizona League last season. He worked with the rest in spring training and some in instructional league ball.
“I try to make it helpful being closely removed from playing, and I have a pretty good understanding of what these kids are going through,” Collins said.
Is it an asset that he managed so many of the players with the AZL Padres? Collins smiled wryly and said, “You might want to ask them.”
“I think that's definitely a good thing,” TinCaps infielder Josh VanMeter said. “He knows a lot of us pretty well. He knows how we play and how we go about our business, so that's a very positive thing.”
TinCaps catcher Dane Phillips, who played 58 games in Fort Wayne and 14 in Lake Elsinore last season, said he likes what he sees in Collins so far.
“He's funny; he has a dry sense of humor,” Phillips said. “He's had great success managing, winning in the Australian league and he's done well with the Padres. I think he's way beyond his years as a manager. I'm excited about playing for him.
“This is the Padres' nicest facility in the minor leagues,” Phillips said. “They wouldn't put a coach here unless they thought he was very, very good and could be very, very successful.”
Collins led the Canberra Cavalry to the Australian Baseball League title this past season. The Cavalry claimed their first Claxton Shield, the championship trophy of the ABL.
"He has a great baseball IQ and has amazing leadership abilities,” Canberra general manager Thom Carter said on the team's website. “Watching him manage our team over the last two seasons, you can see how players want to be their best for him. The players, management and fans in Fort Wayne are lucky to have him."
While it would seem natural to assume Collins has his sights on becoming a Major League Baseball manager, he emphasizes he doesn't want to look too far ahead.
Given his age, it's possible he could manage the TinCaps for two or three years, depending on his success and Padres management's plans.
“I don't necessarily set out and say I want to be a big-league manager or a big-league coach of any sort; that's probably a bit of a far-off thing,” Collins said. “I got into this as an opportunity to stay involved in the game. I love it. I love seeing the players have success as individuals and as a team. I get a real kick out of that.”
Collins will be joined on the staff by returning pitching coach Burt Hooten and hitting coach Morgan Burkhart, so he'll be able to bounce ideas off experienced colleagues.
The team has some quality returning players, including Phillips, pitcher Walker Weickel, first baseman Luis Tejada and outfielder Mallex Smith. Eleven players, including six pitchers, return after playing at least some of last season in Fort Wayne.
“It's a young team all the way around,” Collins said.
That includes, of course, the young manager with the incongruent nickname.