New GreenJackets manager continues to learn

Student of the game
Manager Lipso Nava started with Augusta as the hitting coach in '08.

Record crowds, winning baseball and the development of future World Series champions have highlighted recent years of minor league baseball at Lake Olmstead Stadium.

 

The past three summers of Augusta GreenJackets baseball has meant something else to first-year manager Lipso Nava.

"I was learning," he said. "That's what this game is about: thinking ahead and learning."

Nava has used his three years in Augusta as a training ground. He arrived in 2008 as a hitting coach in his first year within the San Francisco Giants organization and promptly assisted manager Andy Skeels and pitching coach Ross Grimsley into developing that year's most successful team in all of minor league baseball.

The 2008 GreenJackets went 93-50 and won the South Atlantic League championship. While prospects like Madison Bumgarner, Thomas Neal and Charlie Culberson used that season to develop on the field, Nava did the same in the dugout. When he was assigned back to Augusta the following year, he fell under the tutelage of Dave Machemer. The veteran manager of more than two decades has notched more than 1,400 career victories, and Nava took full advantage of their time together.

"From the start he was always asking questions," Machemer said. "He asked a lot of questions. He was always curious about how to run a ballclub. He's a student of the game."

Nava's persistence prompted Machemer to ask a question of his own.

"He asked me if I wanted to be a manager," Nava said. "He told me I was ready. After those years with Mac and being under his wing, that's when I started to understand more of the game."

Nava wasn't new to the sport. He started his pro career in the Seattle Mariners' organization in 1990 and played 16 seasons in the minor leagues, advancing as high as Triple-A before his time as an infielder came to an end in independent ball.

He tallied at least 100 hits in a season seven times and used that ability and plate experience to transition into a hitting coach. Machemer steered him down the path to becoming a manager.

"We developed a good relationship, and he kept asking questions," Machemer said. "Keep in mind, I'm not Casey Stengel here. I'm still learning, and I take suggestions on things. You never stop learning in this game."

Nava's Time

Machemer's GreenJackets posted the top record in the South Atlantic League's Southern Division in 2009 and 2010, and he was rewarded with a bump up to the Double-A level this year, where he's managing the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That left an opening in Augusta, and Giants vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans said Nava was the natural pick.

"The approach that he takes with our players has been extremely professional," Evans said. "He knows how to get the best out of the guys, and there's always an advantage to those years under Skeels and Mac. You want to put managers over your players that are going to challenge them and get the best out of them, and Lipso's got the leadership qualities every good manager needs."

Nava said he learned from Skeels and Machemer, but he hasn't mirrored either manager. Skeels, now leading the Advanced-A San Jose Giants, used focus and intensity as some of his primary managerial tools. Machemer was more laid back but still motivated players and thrilled fans with his lively antics and energetic arguments with umpires that often ended with a helmet spike and subsequent ejection.

Nava has yet to see his first ejection as a manager, though he will defend his players and argue a questionable call, if necessary. He does show emotion, but it's kept in check most of the time.

"That doesn't surprise me," Machemer said. "But he does have a temper, and he'll show it eventually."

The challenge of arguing a strike zone or a call at the plate aren't as difficult for Nava as others he faces off the field. He's a manager and mentor to the 25 men on the roster for a full season, which stretches over 140 games and almost six months. He's also a husband and father to his family in Venezuela.

Family trips to Augusta are rare. In-season visits home are out of the question.

"It's tough, demanding," he said. "I call every day, keep in touch as much as I can. I'm a family guy."

Patience is key

As Augusta's hitting coach, Nava was a valuable asset to the Giants many Latino prospects, who were still trying to transition from life in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to the United States.

The 42-year-old Venezuelan was once a young minor leaguer in a different country, and his empathy is something many other managers can't offer.

"He does have that experience," Evans said. "That's necessary, especially with a young team. Lipso has the patience it's going to take to help them get better."

Patience has been demanded of Nava since the season began. A young team -- the average age on the Opening Day roster was 21 -- and shaky starting pitching has gotten the team off to an 8-18 start. They'll open their second homestand of the year tonight against West Virginia.

The team produced just three wins in its first nine-game homestand. Nava had to motivate his team as it quickly packed for a nine-game road trip.

"He's always positive," third baseman Adam Duvall said. "That's a good thing. It's what we need. Our spirits were down, and he lifted us back up when we need it."

The Giants, like every other big league organization, value individual player development over wins and losses at the minor league level. It's Nava's job to make sure top prospects, including 18-year-old prospect Rafael Rodriguez, progress in their development.

"I will always be competitive, but the main goal here is to make the players better," Nava said. "I see that happening. They are understanding the game better."

Home again for a while

The GreenJackets start an eight-game homestand tonight at Lake Olmstead Stadium with a four-game series against the West Virginia Power. Former Greenbrier High School starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton is part of the Pirates' Single-A affiliate and could make a start on Saturday or Sunday.

Weekend promotions for the homestand include an appearance by former Saved by the Bell actor Dennis Haskins (Mr. Belding) on Teacher Appreciation Night on Friday and a postgame fireworks show after Saturday's Pink in the Park/Breast Cancer Awareness Night.

 

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