Pete Mackanin is 68 now, but the idea of putting on a baseball uniform still has as much appeal for him as it did when he was a Midwestern Little Leaguer. It’s an opportunity he will get again in spring training, thanks to his old friend Joe Girardi, the new Phillies manager and a fellow Midwesterner.
“I’m eager to get to spring training,” Mackanin said. “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it because I really miss being on the field. There’s just something about being in spring training on the field. The only thing that could make it better is if I lived in Minnesota and was getting out of that weather.”
Mackanin lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., so the weather thing is a push.
But the fact that he’s going to be on the field again is fascinating for a variety of reasons.
For Girardi and Mackanin, this spring training will be a reunion of sorts.
“I was so happy for him and for the Phillies when I found out he was going to be our next manager,” Mackanin said. “He’s a hell of a manager and I don’t think they could have gotten anybody better.”
Maybe Pete Mackanin is part of the reason.
Girardi’s first manager in professional baseball was Mackanin. As a fifth-round pick by the Chicago Cubs in 1986, Girardi was 21 and just a few days removed from playing baseball at Northwestern University when he first met Mackanin, who was only 34 and in his second season as a minor-league manager.
Girardi was the only member of the low-A Peoria Chiefs who got to live at home because that was his hometown.
“He had this great physical body for a catcher,” Mackanin said. “He was a strong guy. He was quiet, but he was all ears. -- very coachable, pleasant to talk with and eager to learn. I still remember the first game he played against Quad Cities. There was a play at the plate and the guy was going to be out by a step or two and Joe just kind of reached out and casually tagged the guy.
“When he came back to the dugout I was like, ‘You have to secure the baseball. If he had tried to knock the ball out he would have been safe. You have to make sure that doesn’t happen. Make sure you have two hands on the ball. That could cost you a run.’ He looked at me kind of surprised, but he was the perfect student and I never had to tell him again.”
Mackanin later managed Girardi in winter ball in Venezuela and again in 1989 at the triple-A level after the catcher was sent down by the Cubs in the middle of the season. He watched him grow from a shy kid to a quiet but confident leader before their two careers went in different directions as so often is the case in baseball.
“We didn’t really keep in touch,” Mackanin said. “I wouldn’t say we were tight. But when you spend time together in winter ball, it always becomes a special relationship that you don’t forget about. My wife and I met Joe’s wife, Kim, at the hotel in Venezuela and she was so sweet. She and Joe would play games with my son.”
Girardi has mentioned the fact that Mackanin was his first manager in professional baseball often since joining the Phillies, and it’s obvious that means quite a bit to him. This, in fact, is not the first time Girardi has invited Mackanin to spring training as a guest instructor.
“When I got a job as a pro scout with the Yankees in 2008, Joe invited me to spring training that year,” Mackanin said. “I was there with Goose Gossage, [Ron] Guidry, and Reggie [Jackson]. It was a great experience.”
A year later, Mackanin was working as manager Charlie Manuel’s bench coach with the Phillies, who went to a second straight World Series and lost to Girardi’s Yankees.
Mackinin returned to the Yankees as a pro scout in 2013 but was back with the Phillies as part of Ryne Sandberg’s coaching staff in 2014, which eventually led to his job as the team’s manager for part of 2016 and all of 2017.
Since losing his job as manager at the end of the 2017 season, Mackanin has been mostly silent and invisible in his role as special assistant to general manager Matt Klentak. He made some cameo appearances during spring training in Clearwater, Fla., and during the season at Citizens Bank Park, but he shied away from interviews while also scouting on the West Coast.
Mackanin has always been loyal and he thought that was the best way to handle his situation.
But Girardi has given him a chance to slip back into uniform and Mackanin will join Manuel and Larry Bowa, two other former Phillies managers, as a guest instructor in the Phillies’ camp on Feb. 14, a nice Valentine’s Day gift from the team he loves and the manager he mentored.
“It will be great to be on the field with Charlie and Bowa,” Mackanin said. “I don’t think Joe is too worried about any of us wanting to take his job. I’m just going to enjoy the camaraderie – the coffee in the morning and then going through the work day. Spring training is a special time.”