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Springfield Cardinals' Jose Leger fulfilling dream, managing Dominican Winter League team

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In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman celebrates Scott Cooper’s birthday by recalling all the St. Louis-area natives who played third base for the Cardinals. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Sammy Hagar! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

While he grew up in the Dominican Republic, the thought of managing a baseball team in his home country’s winter league was not something that crossed Jose Leger's mind. 

Leger, the Class AA Springfield manager since 2021, hoped to one day play for a team in the Dominican Winter League. He grew up a fan of the Tigres del Licey and, like many passionate fans, recalls going to games and voicing his thoughts on what moves the managers should be making.

“I used to be the fan yelling and telling, 'Hey take this guy out of the game. Oh, come on. We need a pitching change,’ and stuff like that,” Leger said during an August interview in Springfield, Missouri. 

Starting Saturday, he’ll be the one making the decisions as he will manage Aguilas Cibaenas — one of the winningest teams in the Dominican Winter League, with 22 league championships.

“I'm guilty by association. But now I'm on the other side. I know how things work,” Leger said with a laugh.

Leger will go from coaching Cardinals top prospects such as Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn in Springfield to being the skipper to former big-leaguers such as Yoenis Cespedes, Melky Cabrera and former Cardinal Carlos Martinez in his home country.

The return of the trio of former All-Stars is not only an attempt at a comeback or one more chance to win in the Dominican Republic, Leger explained. It’s also about the environment.

“They're definitely doing it because of the passion they got for the game, for the fans, for the city,” Leger said. “They love playing; they love the atmosphere there. A lot of the imports that we get from other countries, whether they're Americans or they're from Mexico or Venezuela, whatever, they go there, they want to come back because they love the fire that is brought by the fans and all the energy and in the way those games and how loud it gets.”

The Dominican Winter League (Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana in Spanish, or LIDOM as it’s typically called) is composed of six teams with rosters made up of players ranging from current and former MLB player to minor-league players and other professional players from coming from various leagues and different countries.

Whichever team wins the LIDOM championship will represent the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series against championship teams from other prominent Latin American winter leagues including Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and Colombia. This year’s Caribbean Series will be hosted by Venezuela in February.

Because of that, Leger will go from prioritizing development to prioritizing winning.

“The teaching never stops. Even in the big leagues, you got to be able to teach and coach the players,” Leger said. “But when we talk about the Dominican, it's not as much as you would in the minor leagues or the Arizona Fall League. It's all about winning."

Along with managing former All-Stars, Leger will also be the successor to Felix Fermin, who managed the Aguilas to six Dominican Winter League championships — the most recent of which came in 2020-21 — and four Caribbean Series titles.

“Being able to fill into his (Fermin’s) shoes, it's going to be a challenge,” Leger said. “But at the same time it's a privilege. I'm going take it all and enjoy it day by day. ... It's just a great honor to be able to say that I'm replacing such a successful manager.”

Before Leger went from being a minor-leaguer in the Twins’ system to a manager for the Cardinals’ Class AA affiliate, he was drafted by the Leones del Escogido in 2006. He could not fulfill his dream of playing in the winter league that year because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. By 2008, Leger’s playing days were over as he had moved into a coaching role.

Since then, Leger has 14 years of coaching experience in the Dominican Republic along with 10 seasons of managing in the Mets and Cardinals minor-league systems. The Santo Domingo native was a third base coach for the Estrellas Orientales, a bench coach for the Leones under former Mets manager Luis Rojas and an interim manager for the Leones.

Alongside Rojas, who is a “close friend” of Leger, the Leones won the 2015-16 championship. It took playing a one-game semifinal playoff game against the Toros del Este and a near-sweep of the Tigres in the finals to get the job done.

“It was the sweetest experience I've had so far,” Leger said.

The comeback gave Leger his first Caribbean Series experience, although no travel was required because the Dominican Republic hosted that year.

“So I was disappointed like, 'Yeah, we won,' but I don't get to go to Mexico or Puerto Rico or even Panama," Leger said, laughing. "It was fun playing other countries."

Four years later, when Rojas became a quality control coach with the Mets in 2019, Leger became the Leones' interim manager. He once again found himself in a one-game semifinal playoff game against the Toros. The Leones lost that game, but it was one Leger mentioned as an experience that sticks in his mind.

Back in a managerial role, Leger has an opportunity to coach another winning ballclub. But more than anything, it's an opportunity he'll cherish.

“I never dreamed about managing,” Leger said. “Maybe when I started working in winter ball, I knew at some point I was probably going to be considered for the job. But now that I have it, it's a dream come true.”

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss the directions the Cardinals could go after yet another postseason flop.

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