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By Ryan Gilbert
Bobby Malek began seriously considering retirement as a seven-year veteran of the minor leagues in 2008. A fourth round draft pick by the New York Mets six years earlier, the native of Livonia, Michigan made it as high as the Norfolk Tides (AAA) in 2006, but now found himself playing in Jacksonville for the AA affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A 26 year-old at the time, it was Malek's third professional organization in the past two years.
Although the Dodgers originally told him he would report to AAA, Malek was moved to AA just before the start of the season. Initially intrigued at the thought of more playing time, his hopes were quickly quelled when he learned he joined a roster full of prospects. Within two months of play, Malek became mentally ready to retire after spending more time on the team bus than on the baseball diamond. The Dodgers then called once again, this time to tell him that they needed to clear a roster space for former major league infielder, Mark Bellhorn.
At that point, Malek saw it fit to hang 'em up. Almost right away, he received numerous offers to play for independent teams, including where he played in 2007 -- the Bridgeport Bluefish. But the Michigan State graduate wanted to stay away from baseball for the time being and searched for a full-time, “real-world” job instead.
"I didn't think too hard about coaching,” Bobby said. “Since I had my degree, I thought I'd get a job in the business world.”
However, after going on one interview for an office supplies salesman position, Malek realized that this career route wasn't for him. But he still did not consider coaching an option at the time.
Baseball was, however, thrust back into the equation after Malek paid a visit to Paul Taglieri, the General Manager of the St. Lucie Mets (A). Having played for Taglieri -- or “Tags” as Bobby referred to him as -- in three separate stints, Malek scheduled the visit only with the intention of checking-in with an old friend. He was totally unaware that this visit would set him up with a new career in baseball.
Once Taglieri learned that Bobby was looking for a job, he offered to hire him on as a player-coach for the St. Lucie team. But since Malek had already made up his mind that his playing days were over, Taglieri found him a job coaching in the Gulf Coast League instead.
"I was ready to move on from playing and start a new career so this opportunity coaching [the GCL Mets] was even better,” Bobby said.
After spending the rest of the 2008 season on the GCL Mets’ coaching staff, Malek served as a coach for the Kingsport Mets (R) in 2009 and 2010. Despite originally being hesitant to coach, Malek quickly learned that it was better than any job selling office supplies.
“Aside from being outside all the time and not having to wear a suit to work, I get to give back by relaying all the teachings and messages I picked up from really good people,” Bobby said.
Malek picked up his coaching style from all the extra time he put into preparation as a player. “Because I didn't have the most success on the field, I had to spend a lot of time in the cages and in doing so, I learned a lot from my instructors. Now I'm able to pass it on to my players,” Bobby said.
While playing in the minors, Malek was coached by several former big leaguers, including: Gary Carter, Howard Johnson, Tim Teufel, Ken Oberkfell, Juan Samuel, Lamar Johnson, Mickey Brantley, Dave Hollins, Tommy John, and John Valentin. Despite not making it to the show, Malek shows great empathy with his players since his memories of being a minor league ballplayer are still fresh in his mind.
“I’ve taken everything I liked from my former coaches and made it my own in helping my players reach the big leagues. Although I don't have that 15-year playing career, I have youth and energy and I can relate to these guys a little bit since I'm not too far removed from my playing days. I understand the grind and what these guys are going through. Hopefully the information sticks with them as much as it's stuck with me,” Bobby said.
Now serving as the hitting coach for the Brooklyn Cyclones, Malek gets to work alongside two men that have had very note-worthy major league careers -- one as a player and one as a coach. A 15-year Major League veteran, Cyclones pitching coach Frank Viola was a Cy Young Award winner, a World Series Champion, and a World Series MVP. Cyclones manager, Rich Donnelly was also a World Series champion, having served on Jim Leyland’s 1997 Florida Marlins coaching staff.
“It’s just great to bounce ideas off of Frank and Rich. My area doesn’t affect Frank’s area as much, but there’s still communication. We’ll sit down and he’ll talk about the other team’s pitchers and I’ll talk about the other team’s hitters to help us draw up scouting reports for our players. Obviously Rich and I talk about our hitters too. It’s always great to get an extra set of eyes,” Bobby said.
Regardless of being the youngest on the Cyclones coaching staff by twenty-one years, the 30 year-old Malek has developed an outstanding chemistry with Coach Donnelly and Coach Viola.
“Our staff works really well together on one goal: developing the most players for the New York Mets. If the players do well, it looks good upon us, but it's really not about us -- it's about the players. We are a staff and we have to be on the same page. Everyone is open to each other’s ideas and it’s all starting to come together,” Bobby said.
Although Brooklyn was 8.5 games out of first place on July 13th, the team won 23 of their next 37 games and was just 3.5 games out of first place and 1.0 game behind in the Wild Card lead as of August 24th. After averaging just four runs a game through the first 25 games, Malek’s hitters now rank in the top five in the New York-Penn League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, doubles, home runs, total bases, RBI, and walks.
Having already moved up two levels in his three-year coaching career, Malek is a certainly a worthy candidate for another promotion. However, the thought of climbing up the ladder does not consume him.
“I'm not as concerned with moving up as much as when I was a player,” Bobby said, “I was just so anxious to move up the ladder then that I never really saw the bigger picture. I see the bigger picture now. If you live in the moment and become enthralled with getting these kids better, you move up as a byproduct of what they do. The process is in place, if I work my butt off and do what I'm capable of doing, then I think somebody will definitely take notice and move me up.”
After grinding in the minors for seven years, Malek believes he has acquired a second chance to make it to the majors by becoming a coach.
“I took one journey as a player,” Bobby said, “I went a long way, longer than most ballplayers go. I went to AAA and had some good experiences. I feel like I’ve just started over again. I’m on a different track and I’m just trying to work my way up – hopefully this time I can break through a little higher than when I did as a player…The sky is the limit.”