Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks manager Doug Simunic -- the man Winnipeg baseball fans love to hate more than any other -- is back in town this weekend.
Simunic has been a villain to Winnipeg Goldeyes fans ever since he called them stupid back in 1995 -- while he was managing the Goldeyes. Simunic took over as Fargo manager the following season and he's been sticking it to us ever since, winning five Northern League championships between 1998 and 2010, including the last two in a row, while Winnipeg won none.
The RedHawks and Goldeyes bailed on the Northern League last fall to join up with the American Association for this season and the question in the off-season was whether the fierce rivalry between the two clubs also make the move.
Bet on it. Free Press baseball writer Paul Wiecek sat down with Simunic Thursday afternoon at Shaw Park and found the Fargo skipper in vintage curmudgeonly form as he weighed in on the new league, the mistakes the Goldeyes have been making, the bet he made on Sam Katz last fall and whether it's true he's been cheating all these years.
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A new league -- what do you think?
"There are parts that are good. The travel up and down I-29 -- that's good. We've been down to the Siouxs already (Sioux City, Sioux Falls), it's right around the corner from home. St. Paul for us is right around the corner. So that makes it intriguing. Lincoln again -- that's good, always a fun place to go.
"So from that perspective it's good. But I won't pull any punches -- what we had to do coming down $15 grand on the cap (from Northern League levels), that was rough. I had a lot of challenges. I had a lot of guys who wanted to come back and give it another shot. And I'm not a believer in cutting salaries for good players. I don't do that. So consequently, I'm playing with 20 players on my roster."
"Yep, 10 pitchers and 10 positions. I'm splitting up the other two salaries to put towards the other people."
Is a $115,000 salary cap for an entire team for an entire season a joke?
"I think it definitely needs to be addressed by the league down the road."
The quantity of your team is down then. How about the quality?
"We've got a good team. Most of the guys are back from next year -- I've got a new catcher and a new third baseman, that's it. We can catch -- we're going to catch a grounder. Starting pitching is good. We're like everyone else in the bullpen -- we'll be a work in progress."
The consensus seems to be that this is a very competitive league and it's going to be much harder to win a championship this season?
"The playoff format is going to make it real hard. There's just one team coming out of every division and I don't think the wild-card is going to come out of our division."
"Because I think we're going to be pounding on each other all season. I think Forney and I are going to be playing the toughest teams in the league. That's my feeling. Every night will be like a playoff game."
You won six championships in the Northern League -- one in Winnipeg in 1994 and five in Fargo since. Can you carry that level of consistent success into this league then?
"It's going to be tough just to make the playoffs in this league. That will be a feat in itself. Whoever makes the playoffs in our division will be doing something. Is (Goldeyes manager Rick Forney) going to make the playoffs? Did you ask him?"
We've talked about the fact he is in the final year of his contract.
"I've won the last two championships in a row. I'm not under any pressure. I'm not under any gun."
How do you think the Goldeyes will do this season?
"I don't know. I talked to some of the guys they signed. But I didn't have the kind of money to sign guys like some other managers did. I was returning my guys to the same money, so I didn't have that kind of money to sign a lot of new products. So I opted to only sign what I need, not what everyone else perceived what they needed. Forney had a lot of tough decisions to make, didn't he?"
He did. He made six cuts.
"Why? What for? He should have never put himself in that position. We cut three guys, that's all. I'm not going to create competition for nothing. I'm not going to bring in someone to compete against (longtime infielder Carlos) Cota. It's not going to happen. He's good and I know he's good."
I get that -- but back to the question, how do you think the Goldeyes look right now?
"Looks like they want to steal a lot of bases, don't they?"
They were slow and fat last year, they want to be fit and fast this year.
"Yeah, you still have to hit though."
How come your teams are so consistently good?
"We've got a style of play. There's no pressure. And we mold our style into the kinds of players we have. I think our starting pitch pretty good and we don't make a lot of mistakes like other teams do. Our mistakes are pretty minimal. The talent on every team is pretty equal."
So you just manage better?
"I don't manage nothing. I watch the game better."
But I'm still not understanding why year after year after year, your teams win.
"I don't harp on my guys. They know I want to win. But I don't get on them. I don't say much to them. I post the lineup, tell them I'll meet them out there at 7 and then I go out and watch the game. I make pitching changes -- that's about all I can control."
You've heard the whispers from other managers -- they say you cheat on the cap.
"How's (St. Paul's) George (Tsamis) doing it. He's got three big league guys on his team right now. I don't know any big league guys who play for free."
You didn't answer the question though -- are you a cheater?
"Why would I. I don't give cars out to players. I don't have any."
There's other sweeteners though -- you telling me you never topped a player up when no one was looking?
"There's no other sweeteners in this league. Nothing."
So all these guys who've said you play fast and loose with the salary cap over the years -- that's sour grapes?
"I don't know -- ask them. The cap's the cap. It's all I got to say. I'm playing with 20 guys this year, spreading the other two salaries around."
Speaking of throwing money around -- You bet Mongo (Fargo pitching coach Steve Montgomery) last season that Sam Katz was going to win the mayoral election. Did you ever get your $50 bucks.
"He did bet me that and now that you mention it, he still owes me that $50 bucks. I'll never see it, though."
What's the bottom line -- you looking forward to this? A change might be good for an old guy like you.
"This is my 20th year, man. I like baseball. This is a different feel for me. New league, new teams -- a 90-second rule between innings."
You don't like the 90-second rule?
"No. Why? What for?"
Because baseball is ridiculously slow, that's why?
"Just wait. How long until Rick Forney gets up in an umpire's face because he tells his pitcher he can only have two warm-up pitches."
Good. Speed it up.
Have fun this year.
Doug Simunic snapshot
Born Jan. 17, 1956 in Charleston, W.Va.
Drafted as a catcher in 1976 by the Montreal Expos (third round, 58th overall)
Hit .248 with 61 homers in 715 minor league games over almost 10 seasons
Player/coach in Italian pro league for two seasons
Won the Nova Scotia Senior Baseball League Triple Crown with the Sydney Mines in 1990, hitting .531 with 54 RBI and 10 homers
Won a Northern League championship in 1994 as manager of the Winnipeg Goldeyes in their inaugural season.
Won five Northern League championships as manager in Fargo -- 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2010