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OSIPOFF: Pivotal season ahead for Greg Tagert, RailCats

Manager Greg Taggert speaks group pitchers during an open tryout for spots Railcats Gary Thursday May 2 2013. | Andy

Manager Greg Taggert speaks to a group of pitchers during an open tryout for spots on the Railcats in Gary Thursday May 2, 2013. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:39AM



This season could be the end of an era for the RailCats.

Or not.

That such uncertainty even exists speaks to the pivotal nature of 2013 for the franchise.

In the largely transient world of independent baseball (there are exceptions that prove the rule), Greg Tagert enters his ninth season managing the RailCats. Could it be his last?

He’s in the final year of his contract, having signed an extension before the 2010 season, after having signed an extension before the 2008 season through 2010.

As this season is on the verge of beginning, no extension is imminent.

“Greg and I have not talked about his contract in some time, not by any sort of design or not that anything negative can be read into it,” RailCats owner Pat Salvi said. “I think everyone in the organization, including Greg and myself, wants to see what happens this season. As grateful as I am for his success and his hard work and his effort and his dedication to the franchise to date, I think it’s important to see what we do this year, especially not having made the playoffs the last two seasons.”

Indeed, since joining the American Association, the RailCats have gone 0-for-2 as far as reaching the postseason, ending a run of six straight appearances. They went 50-50 last season, Tagert’s worst record in his 17 years as a manager, as none of his teams had previously finished lower than two games above .500.

Having left the Frontier League as its career leader in wins, Tagert took over the RailCats in 2005, and promptly — and beyond improbably — led them to a title, after the 2004 team had set the Northern League record for most losses in a season. The RailCats added a second championship in 2007.

But Salvi bought the team in April of 2008, meaning he has not tasted the sweetness of a championship. Sure, the RailCats advanced to the title series in both 2008 and ’09 — they reached that round a remarkable five straight times — and made the playoffs again in 2010.

So the RailCats have been close under Salvi. But he’s growing increasingly impatient to get his hands on the trophy. It’s not a championship-or-bust ultimatum for Tagert, but …

“When the season is over, we’ll make an evaluation about how the season went, the performance on the field, how we do — hopefully — in the playoffs,” Salvi said. “But my expectation is that we compete for the championship. If we don’t do that, I’m going to have to have a long, hard, discussion with Greg about where we go from there.

“We want to field a team that at the end of the regular season is one of the favorites for the championship. That doesn’t mean if we don’t make it to the finals there’s going to be a managerial change. In baseball, in a best-of-five, strange things can happen. You can have the best record in the league, then run into a hot team, or get some bad breaks, and get eliminated. So I’m not going to have any absolutes. But my expectation is that Greg is going to field a team, have a roster, and manage it in such a way that we compete for a championship.”

And what’s Salvi’s sense of this team and its chances of achieving to that level?

“I have a really good feeling about this team,” he said, before providing a virtual scouting report of the roster.

“I’m very optimistic. If we stay healthy, we should be very, very competitive. I think Greg Tagert is certainly among the best, if not the best, manager, and he has to be given a lot of deference for what he has done. I’m certainly going to take that into account when the season is over. What he has done for the franchise will weigh heavily in the decision. But we have to get back into the playoffs and compete for a championship.”

Tagert downplays the idea of being under any extra pressure — mainly because he has those same goals and expectations. Both he and Salvi want to win badly, and each knows it about the other.

“It’s status quo with me,” the two-time Northern League Manager of the Year (2007, ’09) said when asked about his contract situation. “My only focus is on this season. I’m fortunate to be in a place I want to be. But at the same time, I understand we have a job to do. We have to put the best team possible on the field. And, something that’s always been important to me, a team the community is proud of.

“We haven’t had the success we’ve wanted to the last couple years — believe me, fans remind me they want to win another championship, too. From our perspective, any time you have the success we had early, the standard is set, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ownership feels the same way. This franchise, in every way, expects to be the best. We need to do our part on the field.”

Before the 2008 season, Tagert and his family moved to Chesterton from Vacaville, Calif. He and wife Mary’s youngest child, Elaine, graduates from Chesterton High this year (with the RailCats closing a series at Amarillo on June 5, he’s already well into making arrangements to ensure he gets back in time for the June 6 ceremony), though she will attend Valparaiso University. Their next-youngest child, Sam, goes to Ivy Tech, with an eye toward his next step. Their second-oldest child, Josh, graduates from Purdue North Central this month, with plans to head to California for at least a couple of months. And their eldest child, Ben, remained in the Bay Area, where he’s working on his master’s degree at California Maritime Academy.

So Tagert’s ties to the area will be reduced as this season unfolds. Still, there’s a good chance he will continue to live in the region, though he quips about he and Mary downsizing, with the possibility of no kids living in the house — just two dogs and three cats after the recent addition of a kitten. He jokes about last winter having fooled him into thinking he had gotten accustomed to the cold, before this year was a reality check.

But seemingly more certain than Tagert’s place of residence is his desire to continue to manage the RailCats — though it remains to be seen what transpires.

“There’s no place I’d rather be,” he said. “I love the landscape of independent baseball. We’re in a unique position that’s so different from the players — the players are trying to make the major leagues, they’re trying to get signed by an affiliated club; as a manager, our job is to make sure our franchise, the RailCats, is the best it can be. There’s no place I’d rather be, there’s no job I’d rather do. Unless a major league team is going to go the Bill Parcells way (where one person is both the coach/manager and general manager) — and we know that’s just not the structure. I love what I do, and I love where I’m at.”



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