Leones skipper Oberkfell magical once again
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com | 02/05/12 9:13 PM EST
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The men that make up Leones de Escogido's rich history are among the most familiar figures in Latin American baseball.
Hall of Famer Juan Marichal played for the Dominican club, as did all three Alou brothers, Felipe, Matty and Jesus. David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa, Julio Franco, Octavio Dotel and Mario Soto all suited up in Escogido's red, white and black uniforms. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez played his winter ball for the Leones.
Former Major League outfielder Moises Alou is the team's current general manager.
Manager Ken Oberkfell has his Leones del Escogido rolling in the Caribbean Series. (AP)
But there is a new man making a name for himself with Escogido: former Major Leaguer and current manager Ken Oberkfell.
The locals refer to Oberkfell as "El Mago de los Leones," Spanish for "The Leones' magician" because of his mystifying success since taking over the club for the 2009-2010 season.
"I never even thought about going to a foreign country being from the United States. I never dreamt it," said Oberkfell, who played in the big leagues for 16 seasons. "I never played winter ball. I was never involved in it. So for me to come here from way back when, it's pretty amazing."
Oberkfell led the Leones to their first Dominican Winter League title in 18 years in 2010 and a Caribbean Series, the third title in club history, a few weeks later. This year, Oberkfell's Leones are undefeated after their first four games of the Caribbean Series, after Sunday night's 2-0 victory over Mexico.
Venezuela defeated Puerto Rico, 7-0, in Sunday's first game.
"The first thing I ever heard about any kind of winter ball was when I was in Triple-A with the Cardinals," said Oberkfell, who won a World Series with St. Louis in 1982. "I'd just finished the season and they contacted me about possibly going to play in Mexico. I said, 'Sure, I'd love to.' I thought as a young player that maybe it would help me progress quicker, but about two weeks before I was supposed to go the deal fell through and I never went to winter ball. Then after that I got to the big leagues, and really never needed or wanted to go to winter ball because I was in the big leagues."
Oberkfell is making up for lost time. He managed the Leones during the regular season last year, but left before the playoffs because of his obligations as the Mets bench coach. Escogido didn't make it out of the round-robin without him.
In October, Oberkfell was let go by the Mets and was offered the Escogido's manager job a few weeks later. Tony DeFrancesco started the season as Escogido's manager, but was fired down the stretch leading into the playoffs. The Leones won the Dominican League title last Monday in a dramatic come-from-behind victory in Game 9 of the finals against Santiago's Aguilas Cibaenas.
That's right, nine. The league finals in the D.R. is a best-of-nine series.
"Moises wasn't sure if I wanted to do it, so he went with Tony DeFrancesco, which was great," Oberkfell said. "I told him, 'Mo, if you need me, I'm here for you,' and he said, 'Well, if I need you, I'll call you.' He called me right before Thanksgiving and he said, 'I need you.' I get here and the team wins again -- it's a pretty special feeling."
"Special" is one word to describe Oberkfell's run with Escogido. "Magic" is another.
"Oberkfell is type of manager the players love playing for," Escogido president Luis Manuel Bonetti said. "He's the type of manager that lets them play. He doesn't put any restrictions, and really understands the culture that we have here."
Oberkfell said Hall of Fame skipper Whitey Herzog, who managed him in St. Louis, is his biggest influence. He also credits Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who managed him in Pittsburgh, for helping him become the manager he is today.
Oberkfell, who also managed in the Mets system for six years, will manage the Newark Bears in the Independent League this season.
"Whitey would make sure every day that he'd talk to every extra player he had," Oberkfell said. "He didn't have to talk to the regulars. He made sure he communicated with everybody else. That's something I really took from my playing days, knowing that I wanted to get into coaching and managing. Jim was similar to Whitey, but he was more in your face."
One thing Oberkfell learned on his own, is how to manage the expectations that come with managing a team in the Dominican Republic. The manager knows he is loved by the fans when Escogido wins, and hated when the team loses.
He's also aware that there is very little job security for a manager in the Dominican Winter League.
"The fans love their team and expect you to go 50-0. If you lose a game, you stink," he said. "They're passionate. When you try to compare the baseball here with the baseball in the States, there's not a lot to compare. The fan base is unbelievable, the way they love their team and or hate their team when they're losing, but I've been very fortunate to have won two of the three years I've been here."
Oberkfell is up to his old tricks this week. He would become the first Escogido manager in history to win more than one Caribbean Series if his club wins the 2012 championship. Phil Regan managed the Leones to a title in 1988. Felipe Alou's team won the Caribbean Series in 1990.
"Everybody's told me that it's quite an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with Felipe Alou and Moises Alou," Orberkfell said. "Do I feel part of the Dominican Republic? Absolutely. Do I feel part of the Escogido family? Absolutely. I want to come back next year. I love winter ball now."