Ten years ago, Anthony Contreras made his first visit to the Tri-Cities as a rookie infielder with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
In his first professional at-bat, he faced Tri-City Dust Devils pitcher Shane Lindsay, a young Australian fireballer who led the Northwest League in strikeouts that summer and was named the NWL’s top prospect. Contreras flied out, but the visit to the Tri-Cities made an impression on the ninth-round draft pick out of San Jose State University.
“I can remember where we stayed, the Red Lion. I remember the (Columbia Center) mall across the street,” Contreras said. “There was a whole scouting report on Lindsay. He could throw hard. I remember Pedro Strop, and (former SJSU teammate) Travis Becktel was a good friend of mine.”
This year, Contreras will return to Gesa Stadium as the newest manager of the Dust Devils, who open their 2015 season on the road for a five-game series against the Boise Hawks beginning Thursday. The 31-year-old native of Los Gatos, Calif., is in the beginning stages of a what he hopes will be a long career leading young players to the major leagues.
“I ask questions to other managers. They said to look back through the managers you played for and what you liked about their style, and that’s what you’ll see in yours,” he said. “For me, it’s about being honest with guys and not just screaming at them. I’ll take them one-on-one and talk to them on a personal level. The younger guys seem to appreciate that more.”
The Dust Devils make their home debut with a three-game series against the Vancouver Canadians starting June 23.
Contreras has been hard at work at the San Diego Padres’ player development complex in Peoria, Ariz., a site they share with the Seattle Mariners. He experienced spring training as a player, spending nine minor-league seasons in the San Francisco Giants and Padres organizations. But he’s never been on the other side of spring training.
“It’s a new one for me. It was a grind. A few days got long. You had to figure out ways to keep things from getting monotonous,” he said. “We had to keep it fresh.”
Contreras, who skippered the Padres’ Arizona rookie-league club last season to a 20-36 record, is thrilled to have two strong coaches in Nelson Cruz and Marvin Benard.
Cruz split six major league seasons between the Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies. But he has shown considerable talent as a pitching coach.
“He’s the most veteran (pitching coach) in the Northwest League. I look to him a lot for information,” Contreras said. “I was a utility infielder, so one aspect I was unfamiliar with was pitching. He’s a great guy who gets along with everybody. I’ve never seen him mad.”
Benard, who makes his home in Kennewick and spent nine major league seasons with the Giants, will make his pro coaching debut as Dust Devils hitting coach. According to Contreras, who watched Benard play at Candlestick Park, he’s a natural.
“He was one of the guys I’d see all the time (with the Giants). He’s very knowledgeable about the hitting part and gives a lot of detailed information to the kids.”
Contreras said Benard also doesn’t mind taking a few cuts in the batting cage from time to time.
“He took an at-bat in a simulated game and drew a walk against one of our toughest pitchers,” Contreras said.
NOTE: The Dust Devils have not released an official roster, but Contreras singled out a pair of outfielders who could be poised for a big year. One of them is Rod Boykin, a 12th-round pick by the Padres in 2013 who has hit .275, scored 34 runs and stolen 18 bases in two minor league seasons.
“He’s fast. He can cover a lot of ground,” Contreras said.
Another is Mason Smith, a fourth-round draft pick in 2013 out of Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, Idaho. Smith spent the past two seasons with the Padres’ rookie club in Arizona, scoring 33 runs and legging out four triples in 280 at-bats.
“(Smith) would most likely be our right fielder,” Conteras said. “A lot of the guys I had last year will be here with me. They might be more comfortable knowing the way I coach.”