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May 26, 2016

Reading Fightin Phils manager Dusty Wathan's livin' life as a 'lifer'

Phillies Minors
052616_dustywathan_ Donald Holohan, Dusty Wathan/for PhillyVoice

Dusty Wathan, the son of former Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan, was promoted to manage Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017.

Dusty Wathan has followed his father’s baseball steps since he was able to walk.

At age three he began scooting into the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, where his father John was a catcher for 10 seasons. By the time he was a teenager his father was manager of the team, a position he held until Dusty went off to college.

The father, now 66, was a first-round draft pick by the Royals out of the University of San Diego. He played 10 years in the Major Leagues. After spending just one year managing in the minors, he was back in the bigs.

He had 2,505 Major League at-bats. Dusty had five, and played for six MLB organizations. He was also a catcher.

Dusty played 14 seasons in the minor leagues before being promoted to the team he grew up with. In his first at-bat, he doubled in a run. He returned to the minors after five games and retired five years later.

He did not retire from the game.

This is his fifth year managing Philadelphia’s AA affiliate in Reading. He coached a couple of years at Clearwater, and also in the organization with Lakewood and Williamsport.

“I’m seeing guys with flat-out more talent than in the past. I thought we had some great drafts and great trades. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a couple of years we’re fighting for a championship.’’

Last season he was voted Eastern League Manager of the Year. Just 43, he has plenty of time to catch his father’s resume as a big league manager.

“It’s always been one of my goals, probably now more than ever,’’ he said recently, sitting in the dugout before a game against Trenton. Reading currently leads the Eastern Division and has the second-best record (32-15) in the league. “I feel I’m prepared, but you have to be in the right place the right time. You have to get your foot in the door. From a selfish standpoint, I think I can do it.’’

He believes the Phillies can too.

“I think we’re pretty close, but it’s hard to put a timeline on it. I think we have more talent right now in the minors than in any time I’ve been here. I’m starting to see guys with a chance.

“I’m seeing guys with flat-out more talent than in the past. I thought we had some great drafts and great trades. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a couple of years we’re fighting for a championship.’’

He has seen several players move up the chain in the past several years. Shortstop J.P. Crawford recently moved up to AAA from Reading. Kids who played for Wathan just a season ago, like pitchers Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson and everyday players Nick Williams and Andrew Knapp, are certainly cause for optimism.

Current Reading outfielders Dylan Cozens (12 HRs, 36 RBI) and Roman Quinn (4 triples, 21 stolen bases) are also highly-touted. Throw in AAA pitcher Mark Appel, acquired in a trade, and you can understand Wathan’s optimism.

Last September Wathan was called up to the Phillies to help out. While he tossed batting practice and hit fungos, from a personal standpoint he was reunited with guys who once played for him. 

Photo courtesy of Dusty Wathan/for PhillyVoice

Reading manager Dusty Wathan and his father John, who played 10 seasons for the Royals and managed another five.

“That was pretty cool,’’ he said.

“We’re in a good spot as an organization,’’ he added. “Some guys in the Lehigh Valley, some guys here, and Clearwater has some good players; it’s an exciting time. It’s tough to come to the ballpark when you know, ‘We don’t have much of a chance to win.’ And we went through that as an organization for a couple of years in the minor leagues.

“We’ve been taking out lumps a little bit in the big leagues, but we’re starting to be on the uptick now. There are guys down here who will help us win some ball games in the Major Leagues in the not too distant future.’’

His family remains in North Carolina, where his wife found their new home in just two days when they were moving from Arizona. “That’s how the baseball life works,’’ he cracked. “She’s bought two houses without me. My dad says he never bought a house either.’’

His dad remains in Kansas City, where he works part-time with the Royals. Dusty’s brother, Derek, who played minor league baseball for a time, is also in KC where he is a foreman with a construction company. Their sister also works for the Royals.

With two boys (13 and 6) and two girls (15 and 9), the family will as usual visit this summer. Wathan actually coaches both boys in basketball during the offseason.

"I’m dealing with twenty-five guys who are human. People forget that part of it. I’m dealing with dogs dying, girlfriends breaking up with them, having no money. But it’s in my blood. It would be hard to get a real job now."

“I run the girls to horse riding and sewing lessons and youth groups,’’ Wathan said, “and I try and give my wife a break with the laundry, cleaning the house, and do everything I can do that she has to do all by herself most of the year.’’

From March to early September, Wathan lives the game he’s been around the past 40 years. He never stops learning. And he never stops using his father as a sounding board.

“He comes here to see his grandkids, sits back and has a beer,’’Wathan said with a smile. “He comes a couple of times a year. I’ll ask him what he would have done in certain situations. When I was in high school he used to joke that I was worse than the media. I’d ask him, “Why’d you do that? Why didn’t you bunt there?’

“Every day is different, whether it’s during a game or off the field. I’m dealing with twenty-five guys who are human. People forget that part of it. I’m dealing with dogs dying, girlfriends breaking up with them, having no money. But it’s in my blood. It would be hard to get a real job now.’’

His AA job includes managing from third base – a spot he enjoys - where he sets up office when the team is batting. It is a job that can be mentally exhausting, which is underscored by him when he said he does not watch baseball on TV back at the hotel or even ESPN. “I’d rather watch ‘Alaskan Bush People’’’ he cracked.

“The game gets faster the higher you go,’’ Wathan offered. “For players, too. That’s especially true when you’re managing from third base and sometimes trying to make sure guys in the bullpen are warming up and ready. I would say my first year or so was really fast as a coach, but it’s slowed down a lot for me. I think that’s the big thing. The game seems really slow from the press box, but down here it gets pretty fast sometimes. So I’ve been able to slow things down and been able to think ahead, so I think it’s been a good five years for me.

“Sometimes there’s a fine line between developing players and trying to win games,’’ he added. “You try and put guys in situations where they’ll succeed, but also try and put guys in situations where they can succeed where they never have before, and maybe help them out going forward.’’

Fourteen-year veteran Jake Fox has experienced that line, one that got him to the Majors but now has him in Reading and playing for Wathan for the third season.

“I will tell you this,’’ the 33-year-old said. “Managers have unique skill sets and I think one of Dusty’s is the ability to get a team to play together. He knows the game really well and he played the game a long time so he understands where we’re coming from. Guys love playing for him and respect him because he shows them respect. He gets guys to play and teaches them how to win.

“He convinces them they’re out here playing for more than themselves. He gets them to play for each other, and in this business, that’s very, very difficult. It’s no secret there’s talent here. A lot of talent. I think there’s a lot of hope in this organization’’

With players being promoted and demoted, Wathan called AA ball, “Probably the most difficult level, other than the Major Leagues. You have multiple teams filtering into this and you get here and you have 30-year-old guys and 20-year-old guys and you’re kind of seeing the whole spectrum here on a daily basis. If a guy can have success on this level for a period of time,’’ he said, “there’s no reason to say he can’t have success in the big leagues.’’

The same goes for managers.