Widger Named New Manager - Sussex County Miners
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Widger Named New Manager

Widger Named New Manager

Widger Named as New Manager

     The Miners will have a new manager in the dugout when they take the field in 2023 – a former major leaguer who played in a World Series and played for some legendary managers over the course of his 10 seasons in the big leagues.

     He’s also got experience as a manager, himself, both in independent and affiliated minor leagues.

     Last year, Chris Widger was managing the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A team of the Kansas City Royals. Now, the 51-year-old graduate of South Jersey’s Pennsville High School will take over at Skylands Stadium. 

     Bobby Jones, the Miners manager since 2016, has left the team to take an off-field job as vice president and chief business officer of the New Jersey Jackals, the in-state Frontier League rival who will be moving from Little Falls to historic Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson next year. But, before Bobby departed, he helped Miners’ ownership in the search for a new Miners manager, and he predicted that Widger would be a great one.

     That’s certainly been true in the past. Widger was a coach, then manager of the independent Camden RiverSharks before moving on to the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks and the High-A Quad City River Bandits, where he was named a Minor League Manager of the Year.

     When he received that honor, the Nov. 30, 2021, edition of Baseball America Magazine quoted Alec Zumwalt, the Royals’ Director of Player Development, as saying: “His players love playing for him and, in turn, he creates a winning environment in the clubhouse that plays out on the field.”

     No doubt, Widger picked up a few managerial tidbits during his MLB catching career, playing for celebrated managers like Lou Piniella, Felipe Alou, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who, with Widger as a 34-year-old backup, beat the Red Sox and Angels in the AL playoffs on the way to a sweep over the Astros in the 2005 World Series.

     Earlier in his lifelong baseball journey, Widger played for Torre’s 2002 New York Yankees, batting .297 as a backup to Jorge Posada behind the plate. While in pinstripes alongside Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, Widger caught for a pitching staff that included Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, David Wells, and the GOAT, Mariano Rivera.

     “That was a big deal every time,” Widger recalled. “Catching Mariano never got old. I caught a lot of great pitchers over the years, but he was definitely something special in your career.

     “People talk about how great his cutter was, and it was good, but there were other guys who had good cutters, too. The difference with him was that most of the time, he could pinpoint it wherever he wanted it, up, down, in, out, wherever he wanted it that’s exactly where he put it. That’s what nobody else could do.”

     No doubt that catching the best closer in baseball history was a milestone in Widger’s career, but he had a lot of other highlights throughout his life in baseball, and he feels he learned something from every manager he met throughout the years.  

     Now that he’s been managing for a few years, Widger has begun to develop his own approach with his players and describes himself as “flexible” when it comes to an overall baseball philosophy.

     “You can’t believe there’s just one way to play the game,” he said. “It all depends on your personnel. You’ve got to use what you have, get the most out of what you have. If you’ve got guys who can run, then you run. If not, then you don’t. 

     “Not everybody’s going to hit a lot of home runs. Not everybody’s going to throw a hundred miles an hour. As a manager, you use players for a lot of different roles. I believe there’s a place for a guy who throws 88 to 91 and a place for a guy who’s a pretty good hitter who can slap the ball around.”

     One drawback to managing in an affiliated league is that the main purpose for the team’s existence is to try to groom players to move up that organization’s ladder, so managers must use players how and when organization executives want them used. However, in independent leagues like the Frontier, the team’s only purpose is to try to win games, which is fine with Widger.

     “I’m into all the new analytics and technology and all of that stuff, but I’m also old-school in another way,” he said. “I want to see guys play hard, play the right way. I want to put guys into the lineup who want to win, who are going to play hard on every play.”

     Bobby Jones said that Widger, whom he played against years ago, was a clear favorite as soon as he entered the conversation for a new Miners manager.

     “He speaks the right language, and he has the right presence,” Jones said. 

     And, he has all those nuggets of knowledge he stored away from that who’s-who list of managers from his playing days.

     Piniella: Widger’s first big league manager was not the most patient guy when it came to young players, and Widger said he was “scared a lot of the time” of the loud, fiery boss. But, after he’d left and then returned to the Mariners a few years later, he came to “respect the heck out of him,” admiring the way Piniella was “always up front with his players.” And, as a catcher, he’ll always remember Lou’s emphasis on “never getting beat on anything inside late in the game, no long balls late in the game.”

     Alou: “Allowed you to make mistakes,” Widger said. “He gave me the chance to play every day. You didn’t have to fear for your job every day as long as you played hard.”

     Torre: The exact opposite of Piniella. “He was unflappable,” Widger said. “He never raised his voice. He was the best manager of personalities. There were so many big-time players on that team, and he handled it all so calmly and got people to work together on the same page. He was that guy that you just didn’t want to disappoint.”

     La Russa: “He was always a lawyer,” Widger said. “He was extremely well prepared, like he was going to court. He never had to look anything up. He always had all the facts in front of him in advance.”

     Guillen: “What you see is what you get,” said Widger, who was a 34-year-old backup to A.J Pierzynski in Chicago in 2005, when the ChiSox would beat the Red Sox and Angels before sweeping the Astros in the Series. “He let his backup guys play a lot. If I was up in the seventh inning of a tie game, I didn’t have to look over my shoulder for a pinch hitter. 

     Widger began his pro baseball career in 1992 as a third-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners out of George Mason University. He spent three years in Seattle’s farm system before making his MLB debut in 1995, catching a combined shutout by Tim Belcher and Bobby Ayala in his first big league start.

     After the ’96 season, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, where he enjoyed some of his best years under Alou, playing in 125 games in 1998 and 124 games in 1999, when he batted .264 with 14 home runs and 56 RBI.

     He returned to Piniella and the Mariners in 2000, had shoulder surgery in 2001 and signed a free agent contract with Torre’s Yankees in 2002. In 2003, he signed on with La Russa’s Cards and, in 2005, with Guillen’s Series-bound ChiSox. He finished his 10th big league season in 2006 with the Baltimore Orioles.

     Being a Jersey guy, he’d heard of the Miners, but his first visit to Augusta came just a week ago, when he was happy to see that the area reminded him of his lifelong roots in Salem County.

By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.