Once in awhile, Goldeyes hitting coach Tom Vaeth's phone rings and retired pitcher Ace Walker or another one of the old guard is on the other end, looking to get the gang back together and go fishin' one of these days. "When I come up, you're gonna take me out," one of them will say.
See, after all these years guiding the Goldeyes, Vaeth knows where all the real fish are lurking. He likes casting his line in the sun-speckled waters of the Whiteshell, or yanking them up from the depths of Lake of the Woods. Then there's his secret spot somewhere in the Manitoba wilds, where he once hooked 70 hungry small-mouth bass in a single day. He won't let slip where this fish party sits, so don't ask him, but it's a good recruiting tool.
'I'm the first one that feels great for these guys, I really do. But I'm also the one that hurts, probably more than they do, when they go bad. I know what it was like when my playing days were taken away, and I'd never wish that on anybody'
-- Goldeyes hitting coach Tom Vaeth
"Baseball players usually fall into one of two categories," Vaeth explains, ballcap warding off the spotty rain that spattered Shaw Park Wednesday. "Either they like to golf or they like to hunt and fish. I can't help 'em with the hunting, but I've got a friend who guides for catfish on the river, and he's nice enough to take the guys out a couple of times in the summer. That's one of the reasons we had Ace and Zach Baldwin for all those years."
It's funny, because the fishing was a worry for Vaeth when he first came to Canada almost 11 years ago -- or rather, the not knowing anyone to go fishing with. But he was looking for work after years running practice with his hometown Baltimore Orioles, and a fresh coaching job sounded appealing.
Besides, Rick Forney -- then the Goldeyes' pitching coach -- just wouldn't stop calling. Eventually, Vaeth told him yes.
"I didn't know what to expect," he says, but he still came up to the new job, err, swinging. "That first year or two or three, I was kind of a hothead. Just young, and being stupid; that's well-chronicled. Arguing with umpires, stuff I had no business doing."
Now, Vaeth is freshly turned 41, and the fire in his belly burns a little cooler. He's settled into the rhythms of a Canadian life: He met his wife Shelley here, their two teen boys play hockey in the winter, and he's as woven into the Fish fabric as anyone next to Forney himself. Yet maybe, a Goldeyes spokesman suggests, not as much ink has been spilled on the hitting coach as he might be owed.
"That's by design," Vaeth insists, because as much as his jokes fill up the clubhouse, he shies from the world outside the Shaw Park bubble. He likes his privacy, his fishing, his quiet family life in a house outside the city. So at first, he demurs from an interview request with a crack, "You stay off the radar, 'cause if you don't, somebody might wake up and say, 'Why are we even paying this clown?' "
Oh, the players answer that question with a grin and a laugh: Vaeth is "great," smooth-swinging outfielder Ryan Scoma says, and a lot of fun to hang out with by the batting cage. Veteran Fehlandt Lentini admits the two stubborn men butted heads when he first came under Vaeth's wing in 2006; now back with the Fish this season, the outfielder has leaned more on the hitting coach's advice.
"I let him tell me what he saw and give it a chance, and Tom helped me get right," said Lentini after delivering two hits and two RBI in an 8-1 win over the visiting Sioux Falls Canaries Thursday. "He tries to keep things light when things are going rough for us, and he puts in a lot of work."
Indeed, Lentini added, it's hard to get into the cage sometimes this season, as batters line up to work with Vaeth on their swings. That can make for some long hours, but the hitting coach likes it that way. He feels almost like a father to the guys that cycle through the clubhouse, most of them on their way to or from the big-league dream.
It's hard, because the indie Goldeyes aren't sitting on a mandate to develop prospects, so players either perform or go home. So Vaeth can't be their buddy, but he can offer a shoulder to lean on. He describes his gig as almost more confidant than coach, all about learning the right buttons to push.
"You try to let them know that even when things are going bad, you're still on their side, you still want the best for 'em," he says, and he means that. "I'm the first one that feels great for these guys, I really do. But I'm also the one that hurts, probably more than they do, when they go bad. I know what it was like when my playing days were taken away, and I'd never wish that on anybody."
Not, Vaeth hastens to say, that he was any big prospect before a career-ending nerve surgery left a scar snaking down his right arm. Before that, he chased the dream with more love than raw talent. It's all he really knew after growing up throwing balls around the steel-mill town of Sparrow's Point, Md., which was known less for athletics and more for churning out girders for wars and ships and the Golden Gate Bridge.
After a few rambunctious teen years, Vaeth went to work in a mill. But it wasn't as fun as baseball, so he quit to go play catcher at junior college instead. Sadly, the injury scuttled any potential he might have had, but a scout liked how he thought the game. That's how Vaeth got his first chance, not on the field but scouting in the stands.
Long story short: The change of plans worked out. Eleven seasons now Vaeth has stayed with the Goldeyes, and while affiliated teams have come knocking for his services, he's not planning to leave. He's happy here. He's got his baseball family, he's got his privacy, and he's long since made those fishing buddies he worried about finding when he first decided to come up Winnipeg's way.
"I just love being on the baseball field still," he says. "It makes life a lot more fun than if I had to go sit in the office 9 to 5 every day."