PEORIA, Ariz. — During the pursuit of a major league dream that didn’t come true, Scott Steinmann discovered a passion.
A minor league catcher for less than three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Steinmann has been a coach or manager since 1998 at nearly every level of the organization. This year, he’ll manage the Class A Everett AquaSox, the team he played with when he began his pro career in 1996.
“This is my calling — to be a mentor, to help a young man become a man,” said Steinmann, 37. “It’s not only to help them grow in baseball, but to grow and mature as men.”
Steinmann was 22 when he signed with the Mariners as an undrafted free agent catcher, having grown up in Cincinnati hoping to emulate his childhood hero, Johnny Bench.
He played his first pro game with the AquaSox in 1996, a season that featured one of his most memorable games. He was the catcher when Randy Johnson pitched two innings on an injury rehab assignment at Everett Memorial Stadium.
“There were so many people crammed into that stadium,” Steinmann said. “Having that swarm of people around, I felt like a big-leaguer for a day.”
Steinmann had wanted to become a big-leaguer for life. Less than two years later, that goal ended.
Eighteen games into the 1998 season at Class AA Orlando, with a .189 batting average in 125 minor league games over two-plus years, minor league director Benny Looper delivered some harsh news.
“Benny pulled me in and said they’d run out of a spot for me,” Steinmann said. “It’s very tough to hear those words. You realize that it’s been taken away from you, that you didn’t get a chance to reach your goal.”
Then Looper said something else. He told Steinmann that the Mariners could release him and let him try to sign with another team, but they’d also welcome him to stay with the organization as a coach.
“I realized that if I wasn’t showing that glimmer of hope yet, I should go on with my life and go into coaching,” he said. “I wanted to stay in baseball. Coaching is what I wanted to do anyway, but it just came a little sooner than I’d thought. It was a great gesture that they offered me a job at such a young age.”
He was 24 then and ready to absorb every piece of knowledge he could get. Working the next 15 years under longtime coaches such as Roger Hansen, Mike Goff, Pedro Grifol and Andy Stankiewicz, Steinmann learned about catching, hitting, managing and molding young men.
He finished the 1998 season coaching at Class A Lancaster, then became a roving minor league catching instructor the next year. He coached at Class A Wisconsin in 2000 and 2001, then at high-A San Bernardino in 2002.
Steinmann got his first managing job in 2003 at rookie-level Peoria, where he produced winning records the next two seasons. Managing Class A Wisconsin in 2005, his team won its division title and took a lead into the late innings of the deciding game of the championship series before losing to South Bend.
Steinmann managed three more seasons — at Class A High Desert in 2007, Class AA West Tennessee in 2008 and Class A Clinton in 2009.
He never got as close to a championship as he did in 2005, until last year. As a coach with the AquaSox in 2010, he was part of the team that won the Northwest League championship, capped by a 6-1 victory over Spokane on Sept. 12 at Everett Memorial Stadium.
“I’d been close before, but to celebrate on the field like that … you have visions of that,” Steinmann said. “That was a great feeling.”
Making it more special, he said, was to see longtime athletic trainer Spyder Webb celebrate a championship in his 30th year with the organization.
“I came in with Spyder and he’s close to retiring,” Steinmann said. “To be there when he won his second championship in his career, that was special.”
Today, during a ceremony on the minor league practice fields at the Mariners’ spring training complex, Steinmann and others with the AquaSox last year will receive their Northwest League championship rings.
Then he’ll begin the three-month-long process of preparing another group of players for a season in Everett as the AquaSox’ manager in 2011.
It’s sort of a full-circle return to the place his pro career started in 1996. He has good memories of that season.
“It wasn’t a good year offensively for me, but I still enjoyed my time in Everett,” Steinmann said. “I liked playing up there and I always remembered the national anthems when we would look out over the outfield wall and see the mountains in the background. That was just beautiful, and to see that every night at home was a great way to start your day.”
Steinmann describes himself as an aggressive manager who isn’t afraid to have his teams steal, hit-and-run, bunt or harass base runners with pickoffs by the catchers. He wants his players to push themselves to the limit of their ability — even beyond — in order to teach them.
“I’d rather players make mistakes at that level than (later in their careers) on TV where everybody sees them,” he said. “We want to make as many mistakes as we can because that means we have an opportunity to teach, an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to grow. Be aggressive, learn what you can do and what you can’t do. That’s the only way they learn themselves, and that’s the only way we learn them so we know what to work on.”
Steinmann has managed every level but the major leagues and Class AAA, but at this stage of his life he prefers the short-season lower levels. Working with a June-to-September club like the AquaSox allows him to remain at extended spring training in Arizona, where he makes his home with wife Suzy and their children, 15-year-old daughter Alex and 14-year-old son Ben.
“There are a lot of sacrifices in this game, but the one thing you realize talking to people outside of baseball is that there are sacrifices in their jobs too,” Steinmann said. “There are things they have to give up for their families for their career development. My sacrifice is just a little bit of time away. I want to be around my family until my wife’s kids get out of school.”
Then, he can resume his quest to reach the major leagues.
“I still want to get to the big leagues as a coach,” Steinmann said. “The security of getting your pension from the big leagues is tremendous. There’s a big difference between a minor league pension and a major league full pension. For the security of my family that would be great.
“But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine. I love what I do and I have a passion for what I do. I can’t believe they pay me for what I do, that’s how much I love it.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and follow his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.