Saturday, May 27, 2017
Denver Sports Memories: Billy Martin and the Denver Bears
Legendary New York Yankees manager Billy Martin got his first managing job in Denver - taking over for the Triple A Denver Bears midseason in 1968. The Bears had a record of 7 wins, 22 losses when Martin took the helm, and under Martin’s fiery leadership the team had a complete turn around, winning 66 games and losing 50 in their remaining games.
The success with the Bears led to Martin being promoted as manager to the American League Minnesota Twins the next season. Martin would never manage in the minors again, serving as manager for the Twins, Tigers, Rangers, A's, and of course the Yankees over his career.
One of the stars of that Bears team, third baseman Graig Nettles, would later star for Martin’s New York Yankee teams. Art Fowler was Martin's pitching coach for the Bears - Fowler also followed Martin to serve as pitching coach in New York.
And Denver came calling again to Billy Martin when the Colorado Rockies were awarded a National League franchise in 1993. “The Colorado people were going to let Billy run the whole show," said Billy's wife Jill (1). Had Martin accepted that offer, the Rockies of the 1990's would have looked very different I'm sure!
During that 1968 season the Denver Bears hosted a “kids day” at the stadium for area youth baseball teams. I played second base for my team and I was in attendance that day. Billy Martin was always very personable with the fans, and he was on this day, too, giving a small group of young second basemen (including me) personal attention in showing us the finer points of playing the infield.
As a baseball fan all my life, I always remember the job Billy Martin did to turn around that 1968 Denver Bears team. It impressed on me that a good manager in baseball can have a positive effect on a team more than a head coach in any other sport. The Colorado Rockies of today are proof of that too, with new manager Bud Black leading the team to the best record in the National League as of May 27th.
(1) from the book Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius by Bill Pennington, page 475.