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PAWTUCKET – Earlier this week, Kevin Boles and Ron Johnson met for lunch at the Old Canteen – a restaurant located on Providence’s historic Federal Hill that made for an interesting backdrop for the two baseball lifers.
The Old Canteen was one of Johnson’s favorite spots when he managed the Pawtucket Red Sox for five seasons (2005-09). Even though the 58-year-old current skipper of the Norfolk Tides is dedicated to keeping slim and trim these days – Johnson proudly proclaimed that he’s dropped 61 pounds from his former 300-plus pound frame – he was not about to pass up the opportunity to drop by an old haunt.
Having the chance to talk shop and swap war stories of minor-league adventures with Boles, the current PawSox manager, was a treat for Johnson on several levels. Roughly two decades ago, Johnson had an important lunch meeting with John Boles, Kevin’s father – a meeting that helped tremendously in putting him on the coaching path.
The gregarious and affable man who among friends goes by “R.J.” called it quits on his professional playing career following the 1985 season, which he spent entirely in Triple A. He played 20 games for Nashville and 54 games for Buffalo. The manager of that Buffalo squad was none other than John Boles.
John Boles hooked on with the Kansas City Royals organization in 1986. After one season as the Triple-A manager, he was elevated to director of player development. Meanwhile, Johnson was living in Fort Myers, Fla. working at a carpet store and itching to reconnect with a sport that he had spent his entire life in.
“I left a message on John’s machine saying that if there’s a chance, I would love to get back at any level,” Johnson recalled while sitting in the visiting manager’s office inside McCoy this week.
“The next day, he calls me back.”
As it turned out, Johnson’s timing was perfect. The Royals had the need for a hitting coach for their Gulf Coast League affiliate. And from the “too good to be true” department, the club was based right there in Fort Myers.
“John said, ‘I’m going to be in Fort Myers tomorrow. Let’s have lunch,’” Johnson says. “The hitting coach quit and he said, ‘If you want to start, you start tomorrow.’”
With that opportunity as his launching pad, it didn’t take long for Johnson to work his way into a manager’s office, and that’s where he’s remained for the majority of the summers since then – this marks the 21st season that Johnson has spent at the helm of a minor-league operation.
“He’s a great man. I love him to death,” Johnson gushed when informed that John Boles visited Rhode Island earlier this season.
Baseball is steeped in so much tradition that it’s almost common for these connections to be made across several generations – be it fathers and sons or ballplayers and/or coaches from different eras.
Knowing what his father did for him, Johnson didn’t hesitate to reach out to Kevin Boles when the pair served under the same organizational umbrella. Boles joined the Red Sox in 2008 as the manager of Single-A Greenville while Johnson was in his fourth season in Pawtucket’s dugout.
As the two climbed the ladder with the Red Sox – Johnson joined Boston in a first-base coaching capacity in 2010 with Boles kicking off his three-year managerial reign in Double-A Portland in 2011 – the bonds only became stronger. When Boles spent time in big-league camp during spring training, Johnson would make it a point to connect over dinner.
“R.J. always took the time because he remembered me as a kid and would always ask how my father was doing,” the younger Boles said. “We’ve always known each other, but when he was with the Red Sox, we got close. He’s helped me out a lot in my career.”
Johnson remembers when Kevin Boles was “yea big,” with his hand measuring off no more than a half-foot atop his desk. Now they’re both managing in the same league with Boles occupying the same post that Johnson once held.
“It’s funny. When I’m watching Kevin, it’s like I’m looking at John,” Johnson proclaimed.
Boles calls it an honor to sit in the same McCoy office and run the same clubhouse that Johnson was once entrusted to oversee.
“It’s amazing, it really is. It’s not so much sitting in this office, but remembering the experiences I had with R.J. as a kid. Now to be across the field from him, it’s terrific,” said Kevin Boles, appreciation etched in his tone. “He’s a great example of what you want to be.”
When Pawtucket visited Norfolk earlier this month, Johnson went over to the visitors’ side. The fact that he sacrificed a few minutes out of his busy schedule was not lost on Boles, someone in the midst of his first Triple-A rodeo.
“He’s been in this league and he’s done this, so to get his point of view and to draw from that … he took the time to come over and we laughed it up,” Boles said. “That’s important to both of us. He’s a great resource.”
If Kevin Boles had to list his baseball role models, he would begin with his dad John, who managed the Florida Marlins for parts of four seasons over two separate stints.
Next up would undoubtedly be Johnson, a person Boles has gone to great lengths to try and pattern his managerial style after, particularly when dealing with Triple-A personalities.
“I think the open door policy … RJ is big on open relationships. He’s a very vocal presence and excited to come to the yard. He has energy every single day,” Boles said. “To make sure you have that passion and to do it as long as he has, he’s example of somebody where guys feel comfortable going to, but also tough when you have to be. That goes with knowing your audience and sending the right message. The careers of these players are short so you need to follow up.
“What he did for the Red Sox as far as developing players … he’s upbeat and ready to go,” Boles continued. “The way he goes about his business and the attention to detail – I can’t say enough good things about R.J. It’s an honor to know him.”
Without the aid of a crystal ball, Johnson forecasts big things for Kevin Boles, the kind that would have baseball types proclaiming, “he’s a chip off the old block.”
“He’s got a chance to manage in the big leagues, I think,” said Johnson without a shred of hesitation in his voice.
If such a day ever comes to fruition for Kevin Boles, rest assured that his mind will unquestionably reach back to the pieces of advice and tidbits Johnson provided along the way. Call it baseball’s version of payback in a game where you’ll never forget where you came from or how you got your start.
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