Managing a baseball team isn’t supposed to be rocket science. Or is it? Whether we like all of it or not, the game is changing, and to be a baseball lifer requires new layers of knowledge.
That’s why Watertown’s Rico Brogna, one of the great baseball players to come from Connecticut, got out for a bit to finish his thesis and earn a master’s degree in cyber security.
“An area I’ve always been fascinated with is the computer,” Brogna says. “The aeronautical, astronomy, rockets, all that kind of engineering. Even though I could work around a computer pretty well, I didn’t have the ‘deep within.’ I really had to learn how to do better research, intensify and focus my research abilities. That would help with baseball, and learning up-to-date, modernized communication systems, that’s relevant in baseball.”
We’ve all heard phrases like machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), but most of us (myself definitely included) have only a vague understanding of what they mean. Most MLB front offices, however, are very deep into analytics, and look for field personnel who can break down complicated information and make it digestible for players.
“If there’s an inability to do that, possibly from not having playing experience, which really matters, then players will push away,” Brogna says. “There’s still an element of, ‘I can’t cloud my mind with too much information at the point of attack. If I’m in the batter’s box, on the mound, I have to have a clear brain and one thought.’ The players at the highest level, the coaches at the highest level, love it when they can filter information out, and it narrows. An athlete knows when the heat is on and the heart’s beating down and the sweat’s pouring down the face, you need one thought. Not two, not three.”
So Brogna, 50, has found his way back in, and will manage the Oakland Athletics’ Class A affiliate at Stockton in the California League in 2021.
“I feel like there’s a really good momentum to my future in baseball,” Brogna says. “Kind of a second wind, career-wise. I think getting back in uniform does that for a former player. I’m really happy with where I am at, with what the A’s want me to do to try to help the organization. I feel like I’ve filed a lot of experience and knowledge, and I’m ready to jump-start the second half of a career.”
The first wind, first half, was pretty good. Brogna was a three-sport standout at Watertown High, and passed up a chance to play quarterback for the Clemson Tigers when the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the first round in 1988. He reached the majors in 1992 and played for the Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Braves, though spinal arthritis curtailed his career. At his best, he was a high-level defender at first base and put up back-to-back, 100-RBI seasons for Terry Francona in Philadelphia, 1998 and ’99.
His post-playing days have been mercurial, though he and his wife, Melissa, daughter Alexa and son Hunter have always made Connecticut home. Rico has coached football, basketball and baseball at the high school and college levels, and he has held a number of roles in pro baseball.
He managed Double A Mobile to a 75-62 record in 2010, and he has had scouting, coaching or front office positions with the Diamondbacks, Rays, Angels and Phillies. In 2014 and ’15, he was the Angels’ “player information” coach, where he combined all his baseball experience with his passion for information technology in a major league clubhouse.
“Players took me in right away with of my playing history and experience,” Brogna says, “which enabled me to understand what they needed, didn’t need. There was a quick mesh, and that piqued my interest. I was talking a lot with our office decoders, the guys who were doing the dot plots, the deep within computer language and analytics for Big Data in baseball, and I’m loving talking this stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
After the 2017 season, Brogna left a minor league coaching job with the Phillies to drill down on his studies with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His thesis was titled “Cybersecurity Management and Policy.”
He first joined the A’s last winter and was to coach at Vermont of the NY-Penn League, but he was furloughed for most of 2020 when the pandemic forced the cancellation of minor league baseball. In the new minor league alignment, he’ll be managing again. Oakland, an organization that looks to the cutting edge to find and develop undervalued players, would seem an ideal philosophical home for Brogna.
“I’m very thankful the A’s gave me this chance,” he says, “and I don’t want to blow it. I want to contribute to their organization. I’ll enjoy this level and where I’m going to be this year very much, and I would not feel I failed in any future goal if I stayed at this level for the rest of baseball, however long that is for me. I think the impact you can have on a young professional is important.”
Brogna’s first big league manager was Sparky Anderson. He later played for Bobby Valentine in Triple A, Dallas Green, Francona and Bobby Cox, so he’s been taught and influenced by Hall-of-Famers, near or soon-to-be Hall-of-Famers, from different generations.
“If there’s any person I’d tend to be like as a manager,” Brogna says, “it would be Tito [Francona]. We really meshed, and I admired the way he did things. Bobby [Valentine] taught me more about some of the technicalities in baseball in three months than I had ever known up to that point. And Bobby Cox, my last year, wow, what a great communicator.”
All of this Rico Brogna brings to the table for this “second half” of his baseball life. Looking at those who get the major league managing jobs today, the old, conventional routes to the dugout no longer apply, and Brogna’s resume appears stacked, what with playing, managing, player development, scouting experience, and he can hang in any conversation about math, analytics, technology. That’s bound to one day catch the eye of a front office looking for a manager who can empathize with players, and embrace new ideas.
“I’d be lying if I said that wouldn’t be just a dream come true,” Brogna says, “but the best way to do that is to be doing the best job you can at the job you have at the moment. I have that practical or engineer’s way of thinking, just focus on the moment. Whatever the future is, it is. I’m just going to try to keep learning about the game.”
Dom Amore can be reached at [email protected]