Mustangs manager, pitching coach fired
By MIKE SCHERTING / Of The Gazette Staff
With 15 games remaining to make up a 5 1/2-game deficit in order to make the Pioneer League playoffs, the Billings Mustangs have a new manager and pitching coach.
The parent club Cincinnati Reds on Friday announced they had fired Mustangs manager Joe Kruzel and pitching coach Pete Magre, the same day the club began a six-game homestand at Cobb Field. The team had Thursday off after returning from a seven-game road trip to Casper, Wyo., and Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Terry Reynolds, the Reds director of player development, was in Billings Friday but offered nothing specific on the two firings.
“There’s not a whole lot to say other than we just felt the club needed a change in direction,” Reynolds said as the Mustangs began their workout in preparation of Friday’s game against the Missoula Osprey. “With the off day (Thursday), the timing just seemed like if we were going to do it that was the time to do it. “Both Joe and Pete worked hard and gave their heart and soul to this club all summer, but we just thought at this time we wanted to get a fresh start going into the last couple weeks and move forward.”
Kruzel, who joined the Reds organization last season as a hitting coach in the rookie Gulf Coast League, said that Reynolds wasn’t more specific when the two talked about the Mustangs manager’s fate.
“This is not a dead end, this is just a road block,” Kruzel said from his home state of Ohio. “I’m not the first person who’s ever been let go. This is the nature of professional baseball.”
Kruzel went on to say that he appreciated his time with the Reds.
“I want to thank the Cincinnati Reds organization for giving me the opportunity over the last two years,” he said. “I truly enjoyed my experience in the Reds organization and I wish the people in the organization and the players in the organization nothing but the best of luck. I’ll be following them and cheering for them.”
The Mustangs finished the first half of the Pioneer League season 20-17 and in third place in the Northern Division. They went into Friday’s game 11-12 in the second half, trailing the Great Falls White Sox by 5 1/2 games for the second-half playoff spot. The Mustangs haven’t missed the playoffs since 2000.
“It’s a big gap, but 5 1/2 games can be made up in a quick time sometimes, especially in these types of leagues where you never know what’s going to happen,” Reynolds said, who added that he didn’t think the Mustangs were underachieving because of Kruzel or Magre.
“It was nothing that either one did or didn’t do particularly that I could point a finger at,” Reynolds said. “It was just a feeling I had that we needed to make that change.”
Freddie Benavides, the Reds infield coordinator, becomes the Mustangs manager on an interim basis. Benavides was supposed to take over for the rest of the season, but Reynolds said Benavides has a family commitment that will take the manager away for good on Labor Day weekend. Reynolds said he was unsure who would take over for Benavides.
Mack Jenkins, the Reds pitching coordinator, takes over as the Mustangs pitching coach. He’ll be in Billings for the remainder of the Pioneer League season. Jenkins pitched for the Mustangs in 1987 and he was the Mustangs pitching coach in 1990-91.
Overall, the Mustangs were 31-29 under Kruzel, who was in his first season as a professional manager. The Mustangs pitching staff ranked fifth in the eight-team league with a 4.75 team ERA.
“It was one (of those decisions) that I’m just going to turn the page on and wish Joe and Pete good things ahead because they’re both good guys,” Reynolds said.
Kruzel’s parting words included thanks for the Mustangs fans.
“I want to thank them immensely for the way they came out and supported the team, supported my staff and the way they appreciated the way the kids played,” he said. “The kids didn’t always hit the ball, catch the ball or throw the ball for a strike, but the fans really supported the efforts that the kids gave. And I want to thank the player for their hard work. The time that I had to spend with them I truly enjoyed it.”