Dan Simonds stands on the well-groomed outfield grass of Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego shagging fly balls. It’s a warm summer afternoon, and the Chicago Cubs are preparing to play the San Diego Padres. Tom Trebelhorn, the Cubs’ manager, walks over to Simonds.
“Danny, see that sign over there?” Trebelhorn says, pointing to a wooden sign about 50 feet away decorated with the Padres’ logo—a robed friar swinging a baseball bat. “The first one to hit the Padre in the head with a ball wins; loser buys dinner. What do you say?”
Simonds agrees, and the challenge is on. After a few tries, Simonds nails the Padre right in the head. Crack. The sign breaks. Splits down the middle.
Like little boys who just broke a window playing backyard baseball, the two put on their innocent faces, go back to shagging flies and snicker as the stadium’s maintenance crew scrambles to fix the sign before the start of the game.
The next day, Simonds walks into the clubhouse and finds a $500 invoice for the sign. He runs into Trebelhorn’s office. “Tom, I can’t afford this.” Simonds is the team’s bullpen catcher and doesn’t make a big salary. Trebelhorn laughs and creates a kitty for contributions. Still not satisfied, Simonds runs to the stadium office and starts protesting. “They just looked at me like I was nuts,” he says. “They had no idea what I was talking about. The whole thing was a hoax.”
After 12 years in professional baseball, Simonds knows the ins and outs of the game—its plays as well as its pranks. And he’s now been put in charge of using that knowledge to handle a major challenge: rebuild a Xavier baseball program that deteriorated from a record-setting 32 wins in 1997 to a 16-38 record last year. It might take a while, he says, but he’s ready.
Simonds was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles after playing four years at Davidson College in North Carolina. For five years he wove his way through the minor leagues, earning a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a good mind for the game. One season he missed six weeks after suffering a broken jaw in a collision at the plate but still won the league’s best arm and best defensive catcher honors. He was part of the Diamond Diplomacy team that went to Russia on a goodwill tour. He was set to play on the Cubs’ Class AAA farm team in 1992 until the team made him an offer: Be a backup catcher in AAA or be a bullpen catcher in the major leagues, travel with the team, learn the game at the highest level and begin a coaching career. It wasn’t an easy decision, but at age 27 he felt his minor league days were numbered. So he began a new career. “I got the chance to talk to players and coaches at the big-league level and learn situations,” he says. “I was a sponge.”
The big-league gig ended with the lockout in 1994, so he took his first managing job with a Class A team in Alberta, Canada. “I was a little raw,” he says. “It was an independent league, so most of the players were renegades. But I learned a lot about dealing with players, different attitudes, different make-ups.”
The experience led to three years as a hitting/catching instructor with the Orioles’ and Padres’ organizations, and then to managing San Diego’s Class A affiliate in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Along the line he became teammates with a pitcher named Tracy Smith. The two became fast friends and kept in contact even after their careers went separate directions. While Simonds was in the professional ranks, Smith became head coach of Miami University in Ohio. After several attempts, Smith finally talked Simonds into joining his staff and getting into college coaching.
“I enjoyed the baseball part of the professional level,” he says, “but what got to me was the lifestyle—eating at McDonalds, 10-hour bus trips, four-and-a-half days off the entire season. And that kind of lifestyle isn’t the best thing for a family. So I loaded up the U-Haul.”
The biggest differences between the pro and college games, he says, are the athleticism, speed, confidence and concentration. The pros have more.
“But what’s better about college ball is the players play for the love of the game,” he says. “There are no ulterior motives; it’s not the money. And the relationships you develop are much more sincere. In the pros, a player may be here today, gone tomorrow. A lot of these kids’ careers end here. You’re developing the person as well and helping them do what they have to do to get a nice job after graduation. That’s what we preach when we recruit, because no matter where you’re playing, at some point it ends.”
It may take a few years to assemble a team that fits Simonds’ mold—fast, manufactures runs, good defense—but he’ll find the players, he says. A lot of it comes down to contacts. He’s got plenty of those. And that’s no hoax.