Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Keister has seen Nationals' growth first-hand
The Washington Nationals ended a multi-decade drought when they won the National League championship and qualified for the World Series, which starts this week.
For one of the Nationals' minor league managers, one with Pittsfield ties, it promises to be an exciting week ahead.
Tripp Keister, who played for the 1992 Pittsfield Mets, has been in the Washington Nationals' organization for eight seasons, all as a manager.
"To tell you the truth, since I've been here in 2012, for the most part, we have had to win every game in the big leagues from 2013 to now," Keister said. "I don't know if it's the pressure or what, because that comes with the job. There's definitely a sense of urgency — let's see this thing through."
The Nationals hadn't gone this far into the playoffs since they were the Montreal Expos back in 1981. This Washington team is the first to make it to a World Series since 1933.
Four times since 2012, the Nationals made it to the postseason and four times, they lost. But this year, the Nationals beat the Dodgers 3 games to 2 and swept St. Louis 4-0.
"We've felt like we've had a good team. We haven't won those series in the big leagues. We've had some tough series," he said, when we spoke over the phone while he was at his Delaware home. "It's really kind of been that self-imposed pressure. It's felt like we've done a good job of scouting and developing and adding those free agents, and made trades. Let's see this through. It's never happened, and I'm kind of glad it did this year."
You always want to know how many of the current Nationals were managed by particular minor league managers.
Keister said that it's a trick question, because his Carolina League team had a lot of big leaguers come through on rehabilitation assignments. But two of the Nationals' regulars spent a full season in Potomac under Keister's guidance.
Center fielder Victor Robles and left fielder Juan Soto were two of the more promising minor leaguers to play for Keister. In 2019, Robles plays center and hit .255 with 17 home runs and 65 runs batted in. Left fielder Soto hit .282 with 34 homers and 110 RBI.
"When I got Robles, and getting a chance to see him every day and see what he brings," said Keister. "He was a lot of fun. He's a very, very exciting player. He can win a game in a lot of different ways. Defensively, with his speed and with his arm. A dynamic player. I say he'll continue to get better."
"Soto was so offensive right away. He can hit. The hit tool was so far advanced from the other parts of his game," Keister said of his former player. "His strike-zone awareness is just uncanny for a kid like that. Those two, you could tell, were a different type of player."
Keister got as high as Class AA Binghamton after being drafted in the 33rd round out of the University of Delaware. He was, however, a teammate of ex-big leaguers Edgardo Alfonso, Guillermo Garcia, Brian Daubach and Bill Pulsipher with the Pittsfield Mets. Keister hit .290 in 67 games, stole 23 bases in 31 attempt and had only two errors in 107 defensive chances in the outfield.
Any conversation with a former Pittsfield player always leads to Wahconah Park and the famous, or infamous, sun delays. Keister said he had never experienced them before, and hasn't since.
But what he remembers most about a 1992 season where the Mets went 37-37 and finished second in the McNamara Division of the New York-Penn League, was the play of Alfonso, who had a solid big league career.
"The thing that always stuck out to me about that year was how great a year Edgardo Alfonso had," Keister said.
Alfonso hit. .356 with an .831 OPS. He won the New York-Penn League batting title, and that was the highest batting average in Mets history. It has not been duplicated in the friendly confines.
"He never stopped hitting," Keister said. "To see what he did. He's one of the key members of that team that went to the World Series in 2000. Offensively, I remember how great it was."
Keister has nothing but fond memories of his first season in pro baseball.
"As a team, I still remember how great we were treated," he said. "The fans really did come out. It was my first taste of pro baseball and it was a really great experience."
Nothing ever comes without connections to Pittsfield and Berkshire County, and the Nationals' run is no exception.
Mark Scialabba is Washington's director of Player Development, and Scialabba developed as a player at Williams College. Backup first baseman Matt Adams played for the Pittsfield Dukes of the NECBL, and was the most valuable player.
But one thing I did not know is that Keister is, in his words, "really good friends" with current Williams field hockey coach Alix Barrale.
"Her father [Steve] was a legendary coach in the state of Delaware. We had an All-Star game and he was the coach. I had a chance to play for him in Delaware. That's how I got to know him, and how I got to know her and her brother Mike, who was a quarterback [and who played defensive back for Dick Farley at Williams].
"It's a small world."
Small world, indeed.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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