Commentary: If the Angels hire a new manager, here's their guy

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In this May 26, 2019, photo, Nebraska coach Darin Erstad attends an NCAA college Big Ten baseball game.
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad attends a Big Ten baseball game against Ohio State in Omaha, Neb. on May 26, 2019. Erstad resigned on June 3, 2019. (Nati Harnik / Associated Press)

Even with the almost supernatural intervention of Shohei Ohtani, the Angels were very nearly swept this week by the Kansas City Royals. The Royals are not a good team. The Angels might not be, either. As of Thursday, Baseball Prospectus projects them with a one in 10 chance of making the new and expanded playoffs.

If the Angels do not make the playoffs, they could launch a broad search for someone to replace interim manager Phil Nevin. Their best choice might well have been in the house on Wednesday, when the Angels celebrated the 20th anniversary of their one and only World Series championship.

The Angels should not consider Darin Erstad because he is a link to their past glory, the All-Star center fielder who caught the ball that clinched the championship. They should consider him because he is a born leader, a manager of the year in waiting.

Andrew Friedman has hired two managers. With the Tampa Bay Rays, he hired Joe Maddon for his first major league managerial job. Maddon is a three-time manager of the year.

In 2015, with the Dodgers, Friedman hired Dave Roberts for his first managerial job. Roberts has been honored as manager of the year. Same for the runner-up to Roberts, Gabe Kapler, with the San Francisco Giants.

The third finalist for the Dodgers’ job would have been Erstad, until he withdrew from consideration. Friedman had not known Erstad well, but Maddon had recommended him.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when we went through the process,” Friedman said Wednesday. “But, after the first interview, he blew us away.

“We just felt like the leadership qualities were off the charts. He was very thoughtful about how he sees the game.”

The Dodgers ran Erstad through several simulations, learning how he might establish and maintain expectations, manage personality conflicts, and communicate with his players. They would have been comfortable introducing Erstad into a clubhouse with Chase Utley and Yasiel Puig.

“He had a chance to be a really strong leader,” Friedman said.

On Wednesday, Erstad said the Dodgers’ interest had come “totally out of the blue,” no pun intended.

He had just finished his fourth year as head coach at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. He and his wife, Jessica, had three young children. Moving to California, for a job in which he would travel eight months out of the year, was not an option.

“I knew where my priority was, and that was with my family,” Erstad said. “I was going to see my kids grow up, and I have zero regrets. I was very humbled even to be in consideration.”

And then he paused, and smiled.

“The guy that’s there now,” Erstad said with a grin, “he’s doing just fine.”

In 2019, after eight seasons with Nebraska, Erstad resigned.

Angels' Darin Erstad high fives Tim Salmon after hitting a home run.
Angels center fielder Darin Erstad, left, high-fives Tim Salmon after hitting a home run in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series against the San Francisco Giants. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

“I was at a point where I might have loved the student-athletes more than I loved my own kids,” he said. “I didn’t like that feeling. I just wanted to be with our kids.”

That was three years ago. The kids are all teenagers now. Would he consider a baseball job at this point?

“I am just going to enjoy today,” he said.

And he did, with a speech that offered flashes of why he was such a respected clubhouse leader. He joked that he would keep his speech short because Tim Salmon was up next, and Salmon liked to talk.

He confessed how he was young and a bit of a hothead when he went into the new manager’s office to let him know about the team.

“This team is soft,” Erstad said he told Mike Scioscia.

“You worry about yourself,” Scioscia told Erstad. “I’ll worry about the team.”

Four years later, when outfielder José Guillén challenged Scioscia, Erstad stood up for him, putting himself between Guillén and the manager.

On Wednesday, Erstad also shared how the 2002 Angels defied the skeptics by winning despite no postseason experience, and after losing the first game in all three postseason series.

“My point is,” he said, “for anybody listening, you just never know.”

He spaced out those last four words, in a manner that commands attention. He did not tell the most famous Erstad leadership story.

The Angels were on their way back from San Francisco after Game 5 of the World Series. They had gotten clobbered, 16-4. They were one loss from elimination. The team bus was quiet.

Erstad rallied the troops. He roared. If someone told you that you could win two games at home and win the World Series, Erstad demanded, wouldn’t you take that chance? Why couldn’t we win two more games?

You. Just. Never. Know.

You just never know how well anyone might do as a manager until he gets the job, but Erstad demands accountability from everyone, himself included. He knows well what Scioscia mastered — the game is about the players, and they deserve the credit. He can relate to the super-talented player atop the roster and the scrappy player on the fringes of the roster, since he was both: the first overall pick of the 1995 draft, and an oft-injured gamer trying to will his body to cooperate.

In 2015, when the Dodgers called, Erstad said he had to listen, at least. If the Angels are hiring this fall, here’s hoping the first call they make is to Erstad, and he listens with interest.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.