A baseball manager retires again, knowing it rarely sticks

Two questions stumped J.D. Droddy, baseball’s leading Renaissance man.

Which of his distinct careers — Air Force officer, lawyer, educator, playwright, theatrical producer, composer and baseball boss — has he enjoyed the most? “I never know how to answer that,” he said.

And what’s next after he retires from baseball? “Depends on your definition of retiring,” he said.

For Droddy, a 73-year-old grandfather, that generally means moving on to something else.

Every baseball lifer has a story to tell, and while Droddy is not actually the former, he has quite a few of the latter. Droddy spent 20 years in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel at age 42 to attend Harvard Law School. When he soured on the law, Droddy shifted to education, and then to college administration, retiring from that at 58. Relocating to New Mexico, he immersed himself in musical theater, writing and producing plays for a local theater company.

A decade later, in 2013, an unusual set of circumstances led to his first baseball managing job — at age 69. Last year, Droddy and his Tucson Saguaros won the Pecos League, a gritty independent circuit in the Southwest. In a life well lived, that seemed the perfect time to step away again.

“His bucket list has got to be pretty outrageous at this point,” said St. Paul Saints pitcher Benji Waite, who played for Droddy in 2013 with the Triggers of Trinidad, Colorado. “What’s left? He’s done everything. And he’s excelled at all these things. He hasn’t just sampled it.”

Title in hand, Droddy planned to go home to Colorado Springs, to Judy, his wife of 34 years, and their beloved dog, Milly. But then the Pecos League commissioner, Andrew Dunn, asked Droddy to take over the league’s team in Salina, Kansas, a franchise lent to the larger, better-funded American Association to replace a club that folded. Droddy took it on because he loves teaching and relished another chance to mentor players young enough to be his grandchildren. He agreed to manage only until Aug. 1 because of family commitments.

It was a rough season. Salina, a travel team, plays only a handful of home games. Undermanned and underfinanced, the Stockade were 10-58 when Droddy stepped down as planned. In the visiting manager’s office at CHS Field before a recent game with the Saints, Droddy remained upbeat.

“Some people show their grandchildren; I’ve got to show you Milly,” said Droddy, pulling out his smartphone to flip through photos of his cheerful 8-year-old mixed-breed hound. “She’s a daddy’s girl. When I come, she jumps on me. I have to let her do it for a few minutes because I can’t get her off me. She loves kisses.”

Though Droddy took a nontraditional path to baseball, his law background is not unusual. A handful of major league managers have held law degrees, among them Tony La Russa, who has a degree from Florida State. But few actually practiced as lawyers, as Droddy did, or gave up lengthy military careers to do it.

Jesse Daryl Droddy (he pronounces the middle name as one syllable, like Carl) grew up in a small town in East Texas and joined the Air Force out of college. After leaving the service, he went to law school intending to be a small-town prosecutor, graduating cum laude from Harvard Law in 1989, in the same class as the former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.

He changed course, however, when his Harvard credentials opened doors at large firms. One well-paying job in Portland, Oregon, led to another in Louisville, Kentucky. Those, he said, were mistakes.

“I hated every minute of it,” he said. “I just didn’t enjoy the practice of law. I couldn’t figure out in some cases who disgusted me more: the other attorneys or my clients.”

He added: “Two or three times in my life I’ve accepted a job because of the money. All three times, I regretted it. I will never take another job because of what it pays.”

A one-year sabbatical appointment to a law school faculty in Oregon attracted Droddy to teaching. He earned a master’s and a doctorate in political science at the University of Kentucky, then taught undergraduate law classes at Western Kentucky University.

His career in administration — as the provost at Vermilion Community College in Ely, Minnesota — lasted only two years. “That’s another one I took for money and regretted it,” he said.

With J.D. unhappy and with Judy urging him to retire, the Droddys moved to Alamogordo, New Mexico, an Air Force town. Amateur musical theater piqued J.D.'s interest, so he tried that. He also wrote a ballet.

“Once he gets an idea, he goes,” said Lynette Wedig, a frequent collaborator with Droddy on Alamogordo Music Theater productions.

Then baseball found him.

In 2011, when the Pecos League started in New Mexico, the Droddys served as a host family for three players from the White Sands Pupfish. The Pupfish’s coach, Justin Lowery, liked Droddy, and when Lowery was hired to manage the league’s team in Trinidad the next season, he brought Droddy along as his assistant.

Lowery did not last the year. Droddy filled in for four games, then took over permanently in 2013. Managers in the independent leagues juggle multiple tasks, from procuring players to booking buses. But Droddy’s calm manner and diligent preparation made up for his lack of baseball acumen.

“J.D. is a professional organizer,” said Dunn, the league’s commissioner. “He’s probably aggravating to them, because he’s looking at a bus schedule in August when we’re playing in May, making sure everything is complete.”

Last season, Dunn asked Droddy to run an expansion team in Tucson. The chance to manage at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium, where he had watched spring training games for years, proved irresistible. The Saguaros won a league-record 51 games and the championship.

“I loved playing in Kino,” Droddy said. “My biggest recruiting tool for pitchers is, this is where Randy Johnson killed the bird.” Johnson, the Hall of Famer, famously smote a bird in flight with a spring training pitch in 2001.

Recruiting proved much tougher in Salina. Because the American Association covers Salina’s travel expenses, players sleep two to a room on the road, compared with four in the Pecos League. But the association does not help with payroll, and Droddy says his players thus earn about half the league minimum of $800 a month. By July, Droddy said, he had given up on finding players who might improve the team.

Now that he is gone, that is someone else’s job. What’s next for Droddy? An amateur astronomer, Droddy plans to be in Wyoming on Monday to experience the solar eclipse. Beyond that, he is not sure.

He has written another ballet, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline,” that has yet to be produced because, he said, he wrote too many male parts — a rookie mistake. There may be more music in his future. Or perhaps a career to be named later.

“Next week, I might think of something,” he said. “And if I do, I might go try it. My mind wanders.”

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