By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 12:15 AM
IN VIERA, FLA. The man who may very well be Bryce Harper's first minor league manager has never known what it feels like to be a phenom, a prodigy or a prospect. But then again, Harper, the Washington Nationals' 18-year-old wunderkind, has never known what it feels like to squeeze every last ounce out of a modest amount of talent, to force yourself onto a team's radar screen through sheer will and effort, or - for that matter - to play in the big leagues.
It was no accident the Nationals chose Brian Daubach, a self-described "grinder," an original "Dirt Dog" of semi-fame with the Boston Red Sox a decade ago, to manage their low Class A Hagerstown, Md., affiliate this season - the farm team with which Harper is expected to debut next month.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the discrepancies in their relative talent levels - Harper is perhaps the most-touted hitting prospect in history, while Daubach, 39, spent nearly nine years in the minors before reaching the big leagues - the Nationals believe there is plenty the prodigy can learn from Daubach.
"With all he's been through," Nationals farm director Doug Harris said of Daubach, "there won't be too many questions asked that he hasn't faced. He's been in some tough places in his career."
Among those tough places: He was released, "granted" free agency or otherwise trash-heaped no fewer than eight times, including once, by the Florida Marlins, a few weeks after being named MVP of the Class AAA International League. He has been given false promises, and he has made choices that would haunt him for years.
Sixteen years ago this spring, at age 23 and still not out of Class A ball, Daubach served briefly as a replacement player during the 1994-95 strike - coerced and lied to, he says, by New York Mets officials. The repercussions lasted throughout his playing days, underscored by the fact he was denied union membership as a big leaguer.
"There's not much I haven't done or been through, particularly at the minor league level," Daubach said. "I missed years due to injuries. I struggled for years, from feeling like I was going to get released any day and always looking over my shoulder, to turning into a pretty decent player and having a couple of good years in Triple-A and expecting to get the call [to the big leagues], but never getting it, to finally getting to the major leagues [in 1998] and hitting third in an ALCS game [in 1999]."
Daubach's managing career consists of only one job - in the independent Canadian-American (or "Can-Am") League - but about a dozen gigs. That is to say, as manager of the Can-Am League's Nashua, N.H., franchise - which, after being kicked out of its stadium for failure to pay rent in 2009, was relocated to Pittsfield, Mass., in 2010 - Daubach served as manager, general manager, hitting coach, quasi-pitching coach ("We had a pitching coach, but he was also our closer," Daubach explains) and part-time salesman. "Tickets, sponsorships, signage," Daubach said. "Whatever we could sell. I got pretty good at it."
During those two seasons, he also maintained a presence in the Boston media, serving as a part-time host on a sports-talk radio station and as a pregame and postgame analyst during Red Sox telecasts.
"I like the fact he was in the Can-Am League, because he had to do a little bit of everything," the Nationals' Harris said. "And I like the fact he's been in the media, because that's another aspect of his experience he can share with his players."
The man who gave Daubach his first managing job - one of the owners of the Nashua/Pittsfield franchise - was the same man who gave him his first real big league opportunity: former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette.
In December 1998, having been released by the Marlins a month earlier (following a season in which he hit .316 with 35 home runs and 124 RBI in Class AAA), Daubach was weighing an offer to play in Japan in 1999 when Duquette called, offering a non-guaranteed, minor league contract with the Red Sox.
Daubach chose the Red Sox, and by the end of that season he had clubbed 21 homers, slugged .562 and finished fourth in the AL rookie of the year balloting. It was the start of a four-year run for Daubach in Boston during which he hit a total of 84 homers and became a cult hero of sorts for his blue-collar ethic.
"He's up-front. He's a hard worker. And he understands the life of a ballplayer," Duquette said of Daubach in a telephone interview. If Daubach is Harper's first minor league manager, Duquette said: "They'll be a great match. Brian will teach him to go to the plate with a clear mind and a plan. He's a top-notch hitting instructor."
Perhaps because he has played in the baseball cauldron that is Boston, Daubach seems unfazed by the possibility of having Harper on his opening day roster. But Harper's likely presence means Daubach almost certainly will have a different experience than that of any other manager in the low minor leagues.
"First and foremost, the media attention will be different," Daubach said. "But I'll try to take it as, everybody's equal on our team. Nobody's going to get special treatment. I don't think they'd expect anything different. I think you get more respect as a manger if you treat everyone equally. We'll work our butts off, and guys will play hard, but I'll treat everyone the same."
If, in fact, he gets Harper, Daubach may only have him for half a season, or maybe a couple of months. The kid will go on to the next level, and perhaps, eventually, to levels never before seen. But the Nationals would be pleased if a little bit of Brian Daubach rubs off on him.