PITTSBURGH – Derek Shelton needs his freedom. Maybe now more than ever. Fortunately for the first-year Pittsburgh Pirates manager, bench coach Donnie Kelly made it a point to provide it.
Each day Kelly puts together a meticulous schedule designed to find a way for separate groups of players to get their work in during the most unusual training camp in major league history. Shelton's name isn't on it. While Shelton jokes it's because Kelly doesn't want him to “screw anything up,” the truth is Shelton's omission is Kelly's way of doing his boss a favor.
Rather than be tied to being in a certain place at a certain time, Shelton instead can float from spot to spot as he tries to play catch up on the kind of relationship building that was supposed to happen organically during the languid days of spring training.
When Major League Baseball shut down for three-plus months in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it forced Shelton and his fellow rookie managers to get creative when it came to forging the bonds necessary to become something more than a team in name only.
It's a path David Ross of the Cubs, Luis Rojas of the Mets and Jayce Tingler of the Padres are all trying to figure out.
Shelton would crash weekly Zoom meetings with the starting rotation each Wednesday, laughingly suggesting he did it to give him an excuse to get out of teaching his daughter fourth-grade math. He'd touch base frequently over the phone. Still, it's not the same as being together physically. That's what makes Shelton's informal roaming so important, particularly during a year unlike any other.
There's the ongoing fight with the spread of the coronavirus, the heightened sensitivity to social justice in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody. And the undercurrent of a looming labor fight between players and owners and a slew of rule changes.
Navigating a way forward given the current environment is tough enough for established managers, let alone guys who are still finding their footing in their new gig. The decidedly laid back, '90s alternative rock-loving Shelton presses on by focusing on empathy.