OREM Orem Owlz manager Tom Kotchman was fielding questions near the dugout during media day Monday a few days before tonight's home-opener against Ogden when he interrupted the proceedings to yell at one of his players performing a fielding drill, incorrectly, on the outfield grass in the distance.
"You got the first six-pack of the year! You just picked it up with your glove! Nice talkin' to you," Kotchman called out as the players and the assembled reporters laughed. "I can do the interview and see you at the same time. It's the first fine of the year."
What did the player do wrong? Kotchman was asked.
"He picked up the ball with his glove when it wasn't moving, so he has to give me a six-pack of Diet Pepsi. It's gotta have caffeine in it to help me stay awake," he answered. "The point of picking up the ball with your glove is, you don't throw the ball with your glove, you throw it with your bare hand. If the ball's not moving, pick it up with your hand."
Welcome to Boot Camp, Tom Kotchman-style.
Every summer, the bandy-legged skipper arrives in Utah Valley from Florida, where he spends eight months of the year scouting high school and college prospects for the Los Angeles Angels, the parent club of the Owlz. Of those players the Angels draft in early June, Kotchman signs a handful of them.
By mid-June, he finds himself here with a roster full of players many of whom he has never met.
"It's a different form of the soap opera 'All My Children,' " Kotchman joked. "I couldn't tell you half the names that go with the faces if my life depended on it right now. But that's my job. When they get the mug shots of them, I study them and study the reports and put the names with the faces. You depend on your staff so much because they've seen these guys in extended spring and last year. When you first meet with them, you basically do roll call, make sure their number's right and make sure you pronounce their name right."
Kotchman commands his players' attention, and their respect, right off the bat.
"I don't know (Kotchman) too well yet," said starting pitcher Trevor Bell, a first-round draft pick in 2005. "I introduced myself to him (Sunday). Just listening to him talk in the dugout, he seems like a great guy. He's an amazing coach. He knows how to win."
It takes a week or two, Kotchman explained, for him to get acclimated to his new team.
"That's the advantage all the other managers have over us, they've usually been with their teams during extended spring," Kotchman said. "We haven't seen the players. The only kids I actually know face-to-face are the kids I sign. Even some of them look different without their costumes on."
This year, Kotchman has signed seven or eight Owlz players all pitchers. "I can't look over at my pitching coach and say, 'Who signed this kid?' " Kotchman joked.
While Kotchman is adept at spouting one-liners, he has proven to be even more adept at transforming a motley collection of players into winners. The franchise has reached the Pioneer League playoffs the last five years, which includes capturing back-to-back league championships in 2004 and 2005.
"You tell the players that your food tastes better and your girlfriend or wife looks better when you win," Kotchman said. "I tell the players, look at the schedule but don't plan on going home until about a week and a half after the season is over with because we've been in the playoffs five times."
It doesn't take long for new Owlz players to become indoctrinated.
"We're here to bring another (championship) ring home," Bell said. "When we go to different places, people don't like us because we're like the Yankees of the minor leagues. We win a lot of games, and people don't like that. People play better against us. That means we have to step up our game."
Kotchman demands discipline and he makes sure his players know his regulations from the beginning.
Players receives three to four pages of team rules, which outline how they should conduct themselves on the field, in the locker room, in the training room, on the bus, in the hotels, on the road and how to deal with the media.
"You tell them this is what is expected and it's in writing," Kotchman says. "A new guy comes in, you give it to them and they read it."
Like last season, the Owlz are expected to have one of the league's best pitching staffs. "It looks similar to the team last year in the aspect that we will be covered with pitching early," Kotchman said. "We have plenty of arms."
Headlining the stable of pitchers is Bell, who played in the Arizona League last year and spent time in the instructional league before participating in extended spring training this year. "I've learned more about baseball the last year than I had in all my other years combined," Bell said. "We've all been working hard and we're ready for the season."
Orem, which was among the league-leaders in earned run average in 2005, boasts right-hander David Herndon, a fifth-round pick in the 2006 draft, and lefty Blake Holler, a 13th-round selection. Sean O'Sullivan was a third-round pick last year.
Meanwhile, Anthony Sullivan, a 19th-round draft pick in 2005, pitched for Orem last season. He's the only returning Owlz player from a year ago.
Then there are the two relievers on the roster who were closers in college Darren O'Day, who pitched at Florida this season, and Aaron Cook, who played at the University of Tampa. "Having two closers is a luxury," Kotchman said.
Josh Cowles, who was drafted in 2003 as a position player and played for the franchise when it was known as the Provo Angels, is back in Utah Valley. On this second tour of duty, though, he'll be taking the mound after being converted into a pitcher.
"(Pitching) was the key for us last year, we were among the top teams in ERA," Kotchman said. "This is not what you'd call a pitcher-friendly park down the lines. Obviously, our pitching was pretty good last year. Our offense wasn't really that good. We were in the middle or toward the end. We led the league in striking out the most. Hopefully that gets better."
Orem's position players are young, Kotchman said. Outfielder Peter Bourjos and infielders P.J. Phillips and Ryan Mount were all 2005 draft picks who will be counted on heavily this season.
"Hopefully we'll be able to scrap some runs together," Kotchman said.Eight of the Owlz's first 11 games are against their arch-rival, the Ogden Raptors.
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