Many ‘smart baseball guys’ from 2003 Blue Jays now in leadership roles

Chris Woodward scores during his time with the Blue Jays. (Aaron Harris/CP)

TORONTO — The Tampa Bay Rays will host the Texas Rangers on June 28 in the opener of a three-game series at Tropicana Field. Assuming the current managers of those clubs are still in place, that contest will carry significance in Toronto Blue Jays lore.

Rays skipper Kevin Cash will face off against Rangers’ first-year manager Chris Woodward — both former players on the 2003 Blue Jays, a team that, according to some alumni, possessed more than its share of impressive intellect.

“That was one of the smartest teams I’ve been on,” says former second baseman Orlando Hudson in a recent interview during Blue Jays Winter Fest.

“There were a lot of smart baseball guys that came from that team,” adds Frank Catalanotto. His quote can almost be viewed as an understatement. That ’03 club, which finished third in the AL East with an 86-76 record, boasted a roster brimming with future managers and coaches.

Cash and Woodward hold the highest-profile positions now, followed by current Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, Diamondbacks assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske and Howie Clark, an assistant hitting coach in Baltimore.

Ken Huckaby is a catching coordinator in the Blue Jays system, Mark Hendrickson a pitching coach for the Orioles’ class-A short season affiliate, while Dave Berg is now manager of the Mariners’ class-A team, following two seasons as a triple-A hitting coach in that organization and six campaigns as minor-league manager with the Marlins.

Not to be forgotten is Mike Bordick, who’s entering his eighth season as broadcaster with the Orioles.

“Bordick was definitely a guy who loved having a beer and just talking baseball,” says Catalanotto. “We even did it on the plane rides. He was older than me and an old-school guy who kept that tradition going, whereas the newer players weren’t doing it as much — once the game was over, they were out of [the clubhouse].”

Catalanotto, an outfielder and designated hitter for the Blue Jays from 2003-06, says his first season with the franchise was unique, simply because of the devotion to baseball that players demonstrated on a daily basis. He recalls a large group of players congregating in the dining area or in a corner of the clubhouse both before and after games.

“On other teams, that wasn’t done as much,” says Catalanotto.

Oftentimes, third-base coach/infield instructor Brian Butterfield and hitting coach Mike Barnett would even join in. And the conversations would naturally flow to the dugout, where Vernon Wells and Carlos Delgado were among Blue Jays keenly watching every move of the opposing pitcher. A plethora of teammates was constantly trying to pick up tendencies and observe any hints that could tip off pitches — a flare of the glove or a hurler coming set lower than usual.

“I really appreciated the fact that everyone was trying to get that edge and we all had a like mind trying to figure out what we can do better, or what that pitcher was doing to help us win the game,” says Catalanotto. “I played in the league for 14 years and there were some teams where I would go up to a guy and say, ‘Hey, when the pitcher does this, he’s throwing a changeup.’ And they’d go, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to know.’

“‘What do you mean you don’t want to know?’” Catalanotto remembers asking, only to get the response, “‘Well, that’s going to screw me up.’”

He says that particular Blue Jays roster featured a “perfect mix” of personnel who craved information and constantly sought improvement, also noting that Butterfield’s presence was instrumental in showing players the impact a strong coach could have.

Woodward — a utility infielder over 12 MLB seasons, including seven in Toronto — was that type of guide over the past three years with the analytically savvy Dodgers, coaching third, working with infielders and directing defensive shifts.

Hudson was Woodward’s double-play partner for the majority of the ’03 season and remembers how he played the role of field general, relaying to outfielders where they should be positioned for each hitter.

“He was talking all the time,” says Hudson. “Now, we have charts to move outfielders. Back then, the shortstop and second baseman would communicate to the field and run the whole program. Woody was a great communicator.”

Hudson, now a minor-league player development assistant with the Dbacks, had the chance to catch up with Woodward on a few occasions last season when the Dodgers visited Chase Field in Arizona. He’ll be watching with intent this summer, when his former teammates meet for the first time as managers.

Hudson is hoping the conversations in both dugouts harken back to his time on the ’03 Blue Jays, too.

“We had great conversations about baseball. Back then, it was serious. We didn’t have all the media we do now. We did everything by eye and by feel and touch. We went off our own minds and whatever we saw and felt, we would relay that information to our teammates.”

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