Like the first rain shower, the first robin, the first bloom on a tree or the first massive pothole to seemingly swallow your street, the sight of Rick Forney in a Winnipeg Goldeyes uniform has become an annual rite of spring around here.
The 50-year-old native of Annapolis, Md., has now spent more than half his life in River City, back for a 26th straight campaign with the baseball club. That makes him the most tenured member of any professional sports organization in this city.
On the eve of beginning his 17th season as skipper — the Fish begin the 100-game American Association slate Friday night at Shaw Park — I sat down with Forney in his office for a revealing and wide-ranging hour-long chat that covered plenty of bases.
The biggest takeaway? While the passion still burns bright, the end of his Goldeyes career is drawing near.
"I’m getting closer to that point. Closer than I’ve ever been," Forney told me. "A lot’s changed in my life over the last couple years. I’m much closer to that point, whether it’s going to be this year, next year…I’m getting closer to it. But I want to win here. I want to try to win here one more time."
Indeed, the last two seasons have taken a major toll on Forney and his family including wife Erika and their children, Chris, Rebekah, and Erik, who don’t join him in Winnipeg and remain back home.
His 22-year-old son, David, an offensive lineman on the football team at the U.S. Naval Academy, died suddenly in February 2020.
COVID wiped out half the teams, and nearly half the season, that summer, forcing the Goldeyes to play exclusively on the road out of a home base of Fargo. That was followed up last summer by another pandemic-impacted season which saw Winnipeg operate out of Jackson, Tenn., until they finally got the all-clear to come back to town and host games with fans last August.
“A lot’s changed in my life over the last couple years. I’m much closer to that point, whether it’s going to be this year, next year…I’m getting closer to it. But I want to win here. I want to try to win here one more time.” — Rick Forney
Not surprisingly, the Goldeyes missed the playoffs both years, which is almost unheard of for the marquee franchise in the league, with Forney leading them to championships in 2012, 2016 and 2017. But trying to recruit quality free agents willing to sign with a team that has no real home, or getting fully-vaccinated athletes who can cross the border without issue, was nearly impossible. Not to mention emotionally draining.
"The big thing, Mike, is I didn’t even have a sales pitch to make. I didn’t even know where we were going to play at the time," said Forney. Swing and a miss, more often than not.
Given all that, it would have been easy and perfectly understandable for Forney to take his ball and stay home. And yet, just like Canadian Geese, he’s once again come north of the border once the snow started to melt.
"I love (owner) Sam (Katz) and (general manager) Andrew (Collier), I love the organization. I love the fan base. I love it," Forney said of deciding to take at least one more crack in his home away from home.
Yes, baseball is in his blood, and the Goldeyes are a major part of his DNA ever since he signed here in 1997 as a hard-throwing starting pitcher trying to keep his Major League dreams alive, compiling a 31-13 record for Winnipeg over three seasons. He hung up his cleats and transitioned to pitching coach under Hal Lanier in 2000, then took over from the legendary manager in 2006.
With so much turnover year-after-year in independent baseball, Forney said trying to build a roster nearly from scratch on a shoestring budget every year (the league salary cap is approximately US$125,000) that can withstand the rigours of a four-month grind that includes several hundred hours of bus travel as the only Canadian team in a 12-team loop and nearly no off-days hasn’t lost its lustre.
“I love (owner) Sam (Katz) and (general manager) Andrew (Collier), I love the organization. I love the fan base. I love it.” — Rick Forney
"It’s the journey. It’s the challenge of trying to put that puzzle together every year. It’s fun," said Forney, noting independent baseball has several other "lifers" such as him. "I think for a lot of us, we just like doing what we’re doing."
Forney admits baseball is going through a bit of a renaissance period right now, with plenty of debate about finding ways to improve and grow the game. Strikeouts are way up, and less balls are being put into play than ever. Analytics, and an emphasis on launch angles and exit velocity, have become all the rage. The result, unfortunately, is an alarming lack of offence at times, especially with most big-league bullpens filled with flame-throwers who can touch 100 m.p.h.
Whether it’s banning the shift in MLB (Forney isn’t a fan of such a move) or pitch clocks (Forney approves), the idea is to try to bring more action and excitement to a sport that desperately needs to appeal to a younger demographic.
"If they can find a way to speed up the pace of play a little bit, I think that’s a great idea and will help," he said. "But I think (dull, low-scoring games) is a passing fad. It’s going to get back to old-school baseball and you’ll get people more excited about guys that put the ball in play."
You won’t find a ton of analytics being used in independent leagues such as the American Association, although Goldeyes broadcaster Steve Schuster is a big advocate who has brought that element to the organization. Still, Forney is more of an "eye test" guy, one who relies on his vast experience.
There’s an extra spring in his step these days, with the first "normal" season in three years now on tap. That means 50 home games in one of the nicest minor-league parks you’ll find in North America, and the other 50 spread out over 11 different U.S. markets.
"I think everybody’s excited to be back here in Winnipeg. Twenty-six years for me. I see kids now, I remember when they were bat boys, they’ll come say ‘Hi’ to me in the dugout and they’re 35 years old now and they have kids," Forney said with a hearty laugh. "It’s a family environment. It’s a great place. We got a great ballpark, we got a great city, we got a great fan-base."
Time will tell if the group of two dozen players he’s assembled can make some magic between now and September, but one thing is certain — Forney will do everything possible to make it happen.
In fact, it’s what keeps him coming back for more.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.