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Donegal grad Mike Sarbaugh continues to be big part of Cleveland Indians' success

First pitch against the Minnesota Twins is still about three hours away, but Mike Sarbaugh is already out on the diamond at Cleveland’s Progressive Field hitting fungoes to utility infielder Erik Gonzalez. Deep in the shortstop hole, the Indians’ third base/infielders coach is putting Gonzalez through the paces.

“(The Indians) are a great organization to work for,” said Sarbaugh, a 1985 Donegal High School grad. “I just feel very fortunate to be in this position. I enjoy what I do, so it’s been a lot of fun.”

In nine seasons as a skipper in the Indians’ minor leagues, Sarbaugh compiled 697 career wins and led the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to back-to-back titles before earning a promotion to manager Terry Francona’s staff in 2013.

There, he coached first base for one year, then moved across the diamond to the third-base coach’s box, where he has waved home Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Francisco Lindor and others for the past five seasons.

“I feel more comfortable at third because I’d done it for so many years in the minor leagues,” said Sarbaugh, who now makes his home in Shillington. “Our first-base coach Sandy Alomar does a great job because he sees a lot over there and gives a lot of good information to our base stealers.”

Coaching success

Francona, then between managerial jobs with the Phillies and Red Sox, first met Sarbaugh in the early 2000s as a special assistant for Cleveland executives Mark Shapiro and general manager John Hart.

Francona described Sarbaugh as an “easy hire.”

“He’s a great kid. He’s an Indian,” said Francona, who won two World Series titles with Boston in 2004 and 2007 and led Cleveland to the Fall Classic in 2016. “He’s done a really good job. He’s a hard worker. He’s taken to the third-base coaching, where he hasn’t just been satisfied —he’s gotten better, he’s challenged himself.”

Given Sarbaugh’s success piloting the Indians’ minor-league teams, some might have thought he’d have been considered for a manager’s post by this time. But the Indians’ staff is stocked with potential candidates in Alomar and bench coach Brad Mills, in addition to Sarbaugh.

“It’ll be interesting. I probably need to bring his name up more,” Francona said. “I guess I hope he gets a chance to interview because I think that would be really good for him and then he can kinda see how it plays out.”

Sarbaugh understands all of it. He would certainly welcome a managerial opportunity, but, in the meantime, his focus remains on his current role.

“If things develop down the road, that’s great,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate in the game to have a lot of good things happen to me, so if there’s even an opportunity that would arise, that would be great. But I’m happy doing what I’m doing right now. In this game, there’s only 30 of those jobs around, so you understand.”

Utility role

After playing shortstop at Donegal under Al Brooks, Sarbaugh signed with the Toronto Blue Jays as an undrafted free agent out of Lamar University in 1989. He went on to play five of his six professional seasons in the Indians’ minor leagues, developing into a utility player.

“It helped to keep me playing,” Sarbaugh said.

But with guys like Jim Thome and Omar Vizquel in Cleveland at the time, he never quite reached the majors.

“Coming up through the mid-90’s in the Indians’ (system) wasn’t really the best time to be able to think about maybe getting a chance to get to the big leagues,” Sarbaugh laughed. “Not with that team they had.”

He believes that his time as a utility player also helped him in his coaching career, in that he could easily relate to the players. And many of the Indians’ current stars, including outfielders Brantley and Chisenhall, second baseman Jason Kipnis, pitchers Corey Kluber (two-time Cy Young Award winner), Josh Tomlin, Zach McAllister and others played for Sarbaugh in the minors.

“I had (Kluber) in Triple-A a couple years, and to see where he’s gotten to, it’s pretty incredible,” Sarbaugh said. “He’s worked so hard and he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s great to see.”

Kluber was one of the big reasons that Cleveland advanced to the World Series in 2016, where they eventually took the Chicago Cubs to Game 7 before suffering a 8-7 loss in 10 innings.

It was an experience Sarbaugh won’t forget any time soon.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “Even then to go to a Game 7 the way it happened, I couldn’t have written that script. Unfortunately, we didn’t win it, but if you’re a kid 13, 14 years old and thinking about being in that situation — other than being a player, to be a coach involved with that, that was pretty incredible.”