Van Tol's hard work pays off with manager's job
Tabbed by Cubs to pilot Class A Boise when season begins June 14
CHICAGO -- For the last five seasons, Gary Van Tol has spent endless hours working with the Cubs' Class A Boise Hawks. He's thrown batting practice, hit fungoes non-stop, guided the infielders, coached first base, and charted the catchers. He's probably pulled the tarp and helped carry water coolers to the dugout.
Even though Boise plays a shortened season, Van Tol has put in long hours, and all as a volunteer. On Tuesday, he was rewarded.
The Cubs named the former college coach as Boise's 10th manager, and he'll be calling the shots June 14 when the Hawks open the 2013 season.
"To be quite honest, when Brandon called me and offered the position, it took me about five seconds to say 'Yes,'" Van Tol said of his conversation with Brandon Hyde, the Cubs player development director.
Five seconds? Why did it take so long?
"I had to swallow first," Van Tol said, laughing.
He isn't the most recognizable name on the Hawks' coaching staff. That distinction goes to former big league batting champion Bill Buckner, who played for the Cubs from 1977-84. Buckner will be on Van Tol's staff for his second season as the hitting coach.
Van Tol, 45, does have the credentials. He has 20 years of coaching experience, working at Gonzaga University (1991-93 and 2006-08) and the University of Portland (2003-05). He also managed at Centralia (Wash.) Community College in 1994 and at Treasure Valley Community College from 1997-2001. Plus, he played on Canada's national team in the 1992 Pan Am Games, and played two seasons in Holland.
He got his first college coaching job after he'd completed his Master's degree, and was paid $3,500 a year. He had to sleep on a mat in his office, and got plenty of grief from family and friends who wondered what he was doing. He has been on the Cubs payroll as a scout, but his time as an assistant coach with the Hawks was truly a labor of love.
"The organization has always treated me first class, like I've been a full-time employee, and that's one of the neat things about the whole experience," Van Tol said Tuesday by phone from Boise. "Everybody has treated me like one of their own."
He's been able to volunteer with the Hawks because his wife, Christine, works at Boise State. They have four children: Gehrig, 13; Amaia, 11; Peyton, 8; and Gibson, 5.
"I have the support from the organization to work with my schedule and within our dynamics, where the family is at, and Chrissie's position and where the kids are," Van Tol said. "That, to me, makes the biggest impact -- to be offered the position and the adjustments the organization is willing to make to have me in this position. That's very humbling."
Van Tol was a little worried he might be bumped after the changes in the Cubs' front office, with the arrival of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, the new player and scouting director.
"To be honest, I was expecting this might be [the end], with the new direction, so I was prepared to do some things on the scouting side and help out with the high school players in the area," Van Tol said. "Just like anybody in this business, you take it one day at a time, and don't take anything for granted. You go to work and roll your sleeves up and do the best job you can and know this business is a tough business to be in."
He's done more than volunteer for the Hawks, too. Van Tol started a program called "Idaho Cubs," which includes a camp in mid-January and another in February for kids interested in baseball. Coaches and players attend to give clinics.
Teaching is a requisite for the manager of a low Class A team like Boise. When Van Tol and Hyde discussed the job, they both agreed that people often remember their first-grade teacher or first high school coach more than anyone else. Van Tol will be the first professional manager for some of the Cubs prospects.
"You always remember that 'first,'" Van Tol said. "For a lot of these kids, coming into the professional game, for me being their first manager, I take that very seriously and it's a privilege. I want them to obviously not forget me, but in a way influence them and help them in every possible way to climb the ladder in our organization and fill all the goals everybody has to win a World Series."
He'll have his work cut out for him. The Hawks often field the youngest roster in the Northwest League. Last season, they won the second-half East Division title with a 24-14 record under manager Mark Johnson, who has moved up to Class A Kane County in 2013. The Hawks won the East Division series, but lost to Vancouver in the best-of-three finals, 2-1.
Van Tol recalls starting seven 19-year-old kids in some games. Sure, they made mistakes, but it didn't deter him. On Tuesday, he was counting the days until Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz.
"I couldn't be more excited," Van Tol said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.