From replacing Johnny Bench to installing a sprinkler system, Da -

From replacing Johnny Bench to installing a sprinkler system, Dann Bilardello has seen baseball from all angles

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JUPITER, Fla. – Cardinal minor league manager Dann Bilardello says he owes his major league career to a brown recluse spider. 

Sheer, undisputed talent cannot always explain the conspiracy of caprice that lands some players in the major leagues. Players are blocked, injured, overlooked or forgotten. Sometimes, it takes a salutary disaster to remove those obstacles.

For Bilardello, it may well have been a brown recluse spider.

“I was in Double A for the Dodgers in San Antonio in 1982 and I wasn’t playing,” he remembers. “In fact, it looked like the Dodgers didn’t even want me (despite being a first-round pick four years earlier). Terry Collins was managing at a lower level and he said I could come over and be a DH. The Dodgers had approached me about coaching. But I thought I could at least make the Double A team.”

Enter the spider.

“The guy who was catching ahead of me was bitten by a brown recluse spider on his arm and couldn’t play anymore. My first game I had (four extra base hits) and caught the rest of the year. The next year I was a Rule 5 pick-up by the Cincinnati Reds and went right to the majors. Johnny Bench was my back-up (for Bench’s final season).”

Johnny Bench was my back up. You don’t hear that too often.

Read: Road to the majors is never smooth even for Cardinal minor league co-pitcher of the year

In between minor league workouts at the Cards’ spring training facility in Jupiter, Bilardello remembered some of his early spring training camps.

“When I was purchased by the Kansas City Royals from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1988, I took my family early to report to spring training in Baseball City (the Royals Florida spring training site).  I ended up helping them install the sprinkler system on the field. I told (all-star outfielder) Willie Wilson that if he wanted to know where the sprinkler heads were out there, I could tell him.”

Bilardello has seen his share of spring training sites. A first-round pick (seventh overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bilardello was in the Dodgers, Pirates, Royals, Reds, Padres, Expos and Mets organizations in his 8-year career. Now 56 and manager of the Card’s Double A Springfield team, he conducts spring training drills at the Cardinals minor league camp with remarkable energy and enthusiasm. His varied background provides young players with a kind of seasoning they will need to survive in a business in which 96 percent of drafted players never see a moment in the majors.

“My first spring training in 1979, we took the Dodger plane to Vero Beach. I said at the time I felt like an ant among elephants. Here’s Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Don Sutton, Dusty Baker and Bill Russell all on the flight. I thought, ‘Wow.’ They all had cars waiting for them at the airport.”

He said the current Cardinals camp is set up a lot like that first Dodger camp with veterans and minor leaguers intermingled and veterans returning to camp to help instruct. “Del Crandall and Johnny Roseboro were guest catching instructors and Roy Campanella was there too.  Sandy Koufax was in camp I remember.”

Read: Presence of Cardinal greats at camp a constant reminder of Redbird tradition

Despite a career that coincided with some of baseball’s greatest players, Bilardello said he does not miss the game. “What I miss is the locker room, the bus trips, the dugout, the camaraderie. When I was out of baseball, I didn’t want to even watch a game. It brought back too many memories.”

After coaching in several organizations, Bilardello joined the Cardinals several years ago. The long, recursive drills, the hours in the hot sun, the endless repetition are part of the preparation, Bilardello knows. He attacks each day with energy and enthusiasm and players respond to his old school instruction. Outwardly, he’s got the hard bark of a South side of Chicago kind of guy. But watch him around young players and a different coach emerges, a guy who genuinely likes his players - an uncle who slips you $5 when no one is looking. Players respond to his bark and appreciate his gentle humor. Now that he’s back in baseball, Bilardello wants to give the benefit of his experience to the players – and something else.

“I know this sounds corny, but I really believe we are here to help make them a better people as well as develop them as baseball players. Sports teaches you a lot about life and handling success and failure. It also teaches you discipline. But only about 5 percent of these guys will ever make it to the majors. The rest will have to decide what they are going to do with their lives. If we can teach them to prepare for life outside of the game, if we can make them better people, that’s what we need to do.”

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