Ex-Tiger Placido Polanco teaches, still 'willing to learn' as he cuts path toward manager

By Evan Petzold
Special to The Detroit News
Former Tigers infielder Placido Polanco is a special assistant for player development with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Midland — Placido Polanco entered the dugout five minutes before first pitch, dishing out high-fives, fist bumps and hugs to players and coaches from the Great Lakes Loons, the Single-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Donning the No. 14 jersey, Polanco threw in a cheek full of sunflower seeds and watched intently. His job isn’t to play anymore; it’s to teach the sport he fell in love with as a boy in the Dominican Republic.

“This job the Dodgers gave me was a way to stay relevant in the game, contribute and learn from the game, coaches and players,” Polanco said during a recent chat before a Loons game. “The more you learn, the more knowledge you’ll have.”

And yes, this is the same Placido Polanco you remember — the one who wore the Olde English D for five seasons, collected 2,142 hits in his 16-year major-league career, leaped around the base paths like a little kid on Christmas morning when Magglio Ordonez hit that walk-off home run to send the Detroit Tigers to the 2006 World Series, and he’s the same guy that struck fear into his opponents with his quick swing and fielding expertise.

As for that Ordonez homer, Polanco remembers it like it was yesterday. He called it the happiest moment of his entire playing career — the defining moment in a season that signaled baseball was back in Detroit.

“I was so happy. I don’t think I’d call that running. I was jumping around the bases,” Polanco said. “To watch the fans having that much fun, and carrying Jim Leyland around the field, it was a special moment.”

Polanco was named Most Valuable Player of that series sweep of the Oakland A’s for hitting .529 in those four games. He said the 2006 team had an unprecedented amount of chemistry, and he’s still close with Craig Monroe, Pudge Rodriguez, Ramon Santiago, Joel Zumaya and others.

“Those are my closest friends,” Polanco said. “When you have good chemistry on a team, you spent more time with teammates than with your real family. They were my family.”

Seems like yesterday, but that was 13 years ago, and a lot has changed in Polanco’s life since then. Polanco settled down, retired a few years earlier than he would’ve liked to be with his children, and, oh, he got two 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame votes. 

Then, he got back into baseball.

Polanco works as a special assistant for player development with the Dodgers, and he’s spent this season traveling the country to instruct minor-league players in Los Angeles’ organization.

“I’ve been a baseball guy since I was 5 years old,” said Polanco, who’s now 43. “I like it, I love it, and I’m willing to learn. I’m very fortunate that I was able to play for that long and now I’m working in baseball.

“I’m very, very grateful.”

Second baseman Placido Polanco played five seasons with the Tigers, from 2005-2009.

‘He’s a lot like Leyland’

Polanco always seemed destined to be a coach. He carried himself well on and off the field, was often a voice of reason, and learned the ins and outs from the likes of Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa, two of the greatest to ever manage the game.

Now, he’s beginning his own journey.

Will Rhymes, the Dodgers director of player development and a former Tiger, too, and Brandon Gomes, assistant general manager, invited Polanco to start his coaching career last September in instructional league. For Polanco, it was a no-brainer, he said.

Polanco taught prospects in Glendale, Ariz., and eventually traveled to instruct players from the minor-league teams once the season began in April.

“To go around the league and work with the guys, it’s a really good feeling when a player comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, what you told me really works. It’s easier that way,’” Polanco said. “That makes my day and is really gratifying.”

Recently, Polanco made a stop in Midland, working with the Loons. When he landed at the airport in Detroit, he said it immediately felt like family, like home. Polanco’s goal is simple: manage a baseball game in the big leagues, maybe even for the Tigers someday.

Polanco has a 19-year-old daughter, Aide Rose, and a 15-year-old son, Ishmael. They were the reason he officially retired in 2016, three years after he played his final MLB game. He missed out on too many birthday parties, graduations and other milestone events in his children’s lives during his playing days. Once his children are out of the house, Polanco said he might take his wife on the road again to find a full-time job at the major-league level.

And it definitely means something that Polanco has the endorsement of John Shoemaker, a coach in the Dodgers organization dating back to 1981 who is managing the Loons. Shoemaker could’ve cracked an MLB coaching staff on multiple occasions, but his passion stems from teaching and developing young ballplayers.

“If someone wanted to take him right now and put him on their major-league coaching staff, he’d fit in very easily,” Shoemaker said. “He’d be a great man for the job. He’s a great communicator and knows the game.”

Polanco also has Leyland’s vote of confidence as a first-base coach, third-base coach, bench coach, or even a manager of a big-league club. Leyland managed 3,499 games in his MLB career, winning a 1997 World Series with the then-Florida Marlins and earning Manager of the Year three times.

The relationship between Polanco and Leyland was tighter than Gorilla Glue, so much so that Polanco called his old manager a “friend, dad and mentor” to the entire 2006 squad.

“He was one of my favorite players of all-time,” Leyland said. “I liked the way he went about his business. He’s prime cut to be a coach or a manager. There’s no doubt about it. He has all the ingredients — a personality, hard worker, and he will get instant respect. 

“I think the world of him.”

Leyland has two suggestions for major-league teams aiming to bring Polanco into the organization. His recommendation would be to either hire him right now as an assistant coach or send him to the minors to manage for a year to get experience before bringing him up to the majors.

The most important aspect of coaching that Polanco took away from Leyland and La Russa was preparation. For a 7 p.m. ballgame, Leyland always was ready to go at 4 p.m. Polanco, as a player, quickly learned to do the same.

He was consistent in his preparation. If you were new to the team and wanted to find Polanco, it wouldn’t be difficult. The second baseman got dressed, hit batting practice, watched film and ate food at the exact same time before each game.

“He’s a lot like Leyland in that way where he’d have his spikes and jersey on early,” Monroe said. “He was always the first one there to compete and last one to leave. That’s Polanco.”

Santiago, the current first-base coach for the Tigers, was Polanco’s teammate and partner up the middle on defense. From what Santiago has experienced coaching for Detroit this season, he knows Polanco could do the job.

In fact, most of what Santiago knew as a player and now knows as a coach were originally taught to him by Polanco.

“He’s one of the most disciplined guys I’ve ever played with,” Santiago said. “He can be a great coach because he knows about hitting and defense. He always prepared.”

Besides preparation, Polanco has instructed minor-league players for the Dodgers on staying level-headed, turning double plays and what to do in certain counts at the plate. He keeps it light, often flashing a cosmic smile for all to see his love for the game.

“It’s awesome to have a guy that you grew up watching and that has played at the highest level around the team,” said Daniel Robinson, Dodgers outfield prospect and Detroit native. “He’s showing us how to stretch, hit and handle the ups and downs of the game because he played for so long. He’s helping us get to the highest level ourselves.”

Former Tigers second baseman Placido Polanco, who is a special assistant for player development with the Dodgers, hopes to one day become a manager.

‘He was a deep-down competitor’

Polanco approached the game in three categories, in this specific order: Defense, base running and hitting.

And, oh boy, did he ever succeed.

He retired with the highest all-time career fielding percentage for second basemen and third basemen at 99.27 percent and 98.34 percent, respectively. He is one of two players ever to win a Gold Glove at two different positions (Darin Erstad of the Los Angeles Angels was the other). He holds major-league records for consecutive games and consecutive fielding chances at second base without an error.

Polanco was a defensive wizard, and he did it while hitting .297 at the plate with 2,142 hits, 1,009 runs scored and 723 RBIs in 1,927 games played in his career. In 2007, he hit .341.

“I don’t think people will ever realize just how tough of a player he was,” Leyland said. “When he got in the batter’s box or to second base, he was as tough and consistent as they came. He didn’t talk much, but he was a deep-down competitor.”

For a 5-foot-9 kid drafted in the 19th round of the 1994 MLB Draft with not many high expectations from the draft experts, Polanco did well for himself. He’s also the product of one of Dave Dombrowski’s greatest trades when he received the second baseman from the Philadelphia Phillies for right-hander Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramon Martinez in June 2005.

Urbina was arrested in November 2005 by Venezuelan authorities for attempted murder and served seven years in prison. Martinez spent the next five seasons as a benchwarmer or on the disabled list before making his final MLB appearance in 2009.

It wouldn’t have taken much for Polanco to exceed the careers of Urbina and Martinez, but he did so much more. He was a focal point in bringing competitive baseball back to the city of Detroit.

The 2019 Hall of Fame ballot came out and Polanco’s name was on it, but he only received two votes, meaning he now has to wait 16 years after his 2016 retirement date to get back on the ballot — considered by a veterans committee. In his humble and personal opinion, he said more voters should observe his defensive statistics when making their picks.

“You can be the best hitting team, but you won’t hit every day,” Polanco said. “If you’re defense and base running is there, you can win a lot of games. They should put more of an emphasis on those little things.

“If they put me there, it’d be great. I’d probably go crazy.

“I’ve lived and died baseball my whole life.”

Baseball again has taken over his life — for a second chapter that, if you will believe Leyland, Monroe, Santiago and Shoemaker, will be just as good as the first.

Evan Petzold is a freelance writer.