OREM When Orem Owlz owner Jeff Katofsky calls his team's manager, Tom Kotchman, the best in all of minor league baseball, it's not empty rhetoric or gushing hyperbole.
Katofsky has the numbers to back up the assertion.
Though he toils in the relative anonymity of the Pioneer League, Kotchman is the winningest active manager in minor league baseball. And now the Owlz's skipper, who has embarked on his 30th year of managing in the minors, has surpassed yet another magnificent milestone 1,500 all-time victories. Entering the season, Kotchman needed 10 wins to reach the 1,500-victory plateau, which he accomplished after his team battled back to defeat the Ogden Raptors in 10 innings last Friday night.
While it's a big deal to people in the Owlz organization, Kotchman downplays the milestone.
"Right now, it doesn't have any real meaning. It's something for other people," Kotchman said. "I don't want to sound boring, but I'm just doing my job."
That's spoken by a man who also has 1,275 losses on his ledger. When pressed about the milestone, Kotchman deflected the praise to others.
"It means, first of all, you had a lot of great players. Second, it means scouts had to find those players. Third, it means your player development people did their jobs. I've had a great staff. (Pitching coach Zeke Zimmerman) has been with me about 10 years. The key to any club is pitching and he's a master at it. You are who you surround yourself with."
As astonishing as the 1,500-win milestone is, consider this for most of those 30 seasons, Kotchman has managed a short-season club. Imagine how many wins he would have right now had he managed full-season teams all those years.
It's somewhat ironic that Kotchman is being recognized for win No. 1,500 when Kotchman's job isn't primarily to win games it's to develop players for the major leagues. That's something he's done amazingly well. Over the years, Kotchman has managed Roger Clemens, Devon White, Dante Bichette, Garret Anderson, Troy Percival, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Howie Kendrick, to name just a few.
Nevertheless, during his 30-year managing career, Kotchman has done plenty of winning. Prior to landing in Utah County as the manager of the Provo Angels in 2001 (the Angels moved to Orem in 2005), Kotchman spent 11 seasons in Boise of the Northwest League, where his teams won four league titles. With Kotchman at the controls, the Provo Angels/Orem Owlz have won league championships in 2004, '05 and '07. They claimed division crowns in 2001, '02, '03, '04 and '05.
Yet ask Kotchman which of his nearly 1,500 wins stands out most and the one that pops into his mind has nothing to do with a championship. His answer reveals volumes about his approach to baseball and to life.
One year, on opening night in Boise, the general manager of the team introduced Kotchman to a woman who was a longtime Boise Hawk season-ticket holder. Her husband and two children had been killed recently and she told Kotchman how much she enjoyed going to the ballpark.
By the ninth inning, Kotchman's team was trailing by three runs.
"I was standing in the third-base box," he recalled. "Usually, I don't hear the fans or anything said over the (public address system) because I'm busy coaching. But that night, I heard this woman get on the microphone before the bottom of the ninth and say she wanted to dedicate that inning to her husband and two kids who had died."
Later that inning, a Boise player hit a walk-off grand slam to lift Kotchman's team to a dramatic one-run victory.
"As soon as he hit it, I had tears in my eyes," Kotchman said. "After the game, the woman was standing in the runway of the locker room. She wanted to tell the players how happy they had made her. I remember going into the locker room and telling the players how she had lost her husband and two kids and she was thanking us. I was thinking, 'This is wild stuff. Wow.' You talk about being numb. Some of the players were visibly shaken by that."
It's clear that for Kotchman, people are more important than victories. He always gives his players his card with his e-mail address and phone number, encouraging them to contact him if they need anything.
"That's what's important teaching these kids about reality. What happened that night in Boise was an extreme example, but it hits home really hard," Kotchman said. "That means more to me than wins and championships being an influence on kids who don't make the big leagues, because most of them don't. I enjoy helping them in their lives. It's a lot like being a teacher."
Kotchman, who will turn 54 in August, is in the middle of his eighth season managing in Utah County, but the Florida native won't be here forever. He just takes it one year at a time, acknowledging that the job is tough. He spends half the year scouring his native Florida for major league prospects, scouting games throughout the state. The first game he scouted this year was on Jan. 17 and that continued up until the draft in June. Kotchman travels hundreds of miles every day to scout a high school or college or junior college game. Then, in mid-June, he returns to Utah County to manage a team that plays 76 games in 82 days.
"It's a nonstop grind. As you get older, the bus rides get tougher," Kotchman said. "The hotels we stay in on the road aren't five-star hotels. They don't have any stars."
After games, Kotchman is up until 2 or 3 a.m. filling out reports for the parent club about Owlz players.
Katofsky, the owner of the Owlz, hopes Kotchman will stick around as long as possible.
"I told Kotch before the season he can't leave until I leave," Katofsky said. "Not only is he an unbelievable manager the best manager in the minor leagues he's the winningest manager in the minor leagues. You look at how his ballplayers, and even his children, react and how respectful and polite they are, what he demands and what he teaches on the baseball field, you can't replace it. He scouts a lot of these guys, and he signs some of these guys. I tell my kids, 'If you make it one day, I want to make sure you play for Tom.' That's the highest compliment I can give anybody. It's one thing to be able to understand the game of baseball. It's another to be able to teach it. He's got both, which is why he is where he's at."
Before his first season in Provo in 2001, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim drafted Kotchman's son, Casey, in the first round (No. 13 overall). Now, Casey is the starting first baseman for the Los Angeles Angels. Casey Kotchman belted what turned out to be the game-winning, two-run home run in a 2-0 victory over Atlanta on June 15. As seriously as Tom Kotchman takes his job, that's the kind of victory Tom Kotchman truly savors."It was a really nice Father's Day's gift," he said. "It was pretty neat."