CHUCK McGILL: J.R. House finds his niche as minor league manager

J.R. House, the first-year manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ short-season affiliate, isn’t sure if former big leaguer Mark Grace will be on his coaching staff when the Hillsboro Hops begin play this summer.

“But,” he said in a phone interview, “I will get to yell at Doug Drabek.”

The 34-year-old House, who is three years removed from his professional baseball career, is just joking, of course.

“We like to get after each other,” House said of his relationship with Drabek, who is 51.

House, a first-year manager for the Oregon-based minor league club has a strong relationship with Drabek, who is back as the team’s pitching coach. House, who worked as the Hops’ hitting coach last season, is getting a feel for his new managerial role during spring training. He might eventually land the services of Grace, who is currently working with the big league club but could join the Hops once the regular season begins in June.

That’s an impressive crew: Cy Young winner, the MLB hits leader during the 1990s and one of the most prolific quarterbacks in high school football history.

If the last one seems like an odd fit, it’s not.

“Being a quarterback is kind of like being a catcher,” said House, who set national records as a quarterback at Nitro High School before embarking on a 12-year professional baseball career. “It’s your job to be a leader and I enjoy having that influence, you know? I let the Diamondbacks know if there was ever an opportunity to manage I’d jump at it. So I did.”

House finished his long journey through pro ball in 2011 after a season with the Long Island Ducks, an independent league team. House played 32 games (77 innings) in the Majors with the Pirates, Astros and Orioles, and played 12 seasons and 1,140 games as a farmhand. He wanted to stay involved with the sport, so he connected with fellow West Virginian Ken Kendrick, the Diamondbacks’ managing general partner who is from Princeton and graduated from West Virginia University.

Those aren’t House’s only Mountain State ties in the Grand Canyon State. University of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, for whom House played during the 2005 season when Rodriguez was the head coach at WVU, is nearby and stopped by spring training this month. Former Nitro High School baseball standout J.R. Bradley had a 2.38 earned run average in 22.2 innings with the Hops last season with House on the coaching staff. Former Marshall University baseball star Aaron Blair, a first round pick of the D’backs last summer, debuted for the Hops and tossed 31 innings before a promotion to low-Class A.

The development of MLB aspirants is what intrigues House about his role as manager. He wore the jersey of 12 different minor league teams during his career, which began as a 1999 fifth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“We’d love to make a big leaguer out of all of them,” House said. “Right now it is kind of frustrating because you only have half your team and the other half you haven’t met because they’re still playing in college somewhere. Seeing them develop from college to pro ball and go from kind of wide-eyed to the last month of the season when they get the hang of it.

“That’s what it’s about.”

House’s days are long now. He wakes up at 4 a.m. and heads to the ballpark by 4:45. There’s a lengthy to-do list waiting for him, including lineups, the organization of batting practice groups, communication with the grounds crew and equipment crew followed by meetings with all the coaches. After that is breakfast and a workout with the other coaches.

“Kirk Gibson’s thing is he wants the coaches to stay in shape and work out and be energized for every day,” House said of Arizona’s manager. “We have to stay in shape.”

The rest of the day is filled with work on the field, stretches and fundamentals. After lunch, there is a game. After that, the hitting coaches go to the cage and the managers start on the day’s reports.

In the brief moments of respite, House spends time with his family, including 5-year-old daughter Riley and 2-year-old son Camden.

House put his Florida home on the market and moved to Arizona one day after Camden turned 2. That’s a move he felt he needed to make after Camden was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in late December. Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks play their home games, is the location of Southwest Autism Research and Research Center (SARRC), one of the top autism facilities in the country.

“We were in a bad place a couple months ago,” House said. “Now we are in this great facility.”

In the middle of spring training in his first year as a professional baseball manager, there was little doubt of the top highlight of House’s month. It was when Camden finally said that long-awaited first word.

“It was pretty neat,” said House. “We got it all on video.”

The word?

“Ball,” House said.

How appropriate.

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