2019 Tony Gwynn Award: Keith Lieppman
Through much of the 1970s, the rumor circulated through the press and in the clubhouse that Keith Lieppman would be the next man called up to Oakland, to fill in for an injured player or to finally get his shot.
Three times equipment manager Steve Vucinich prepared the gaudy uniforms with LIEPPMAN written boldly across the back.
That call never came. And Lieppman wound up spending nearly five decades in the minor leagues, helping others find their way to the major leagues. Innovative, creative and caring, Lieppman spent 28 years as the Athletics’ farm director, trying to find every possible method to help his young charges reach their highest potential.
He has been an integral part of building contending A’s teams from the 1980s to the current crop that has won 97 games and an American League wild card in consecutive seasons. In total, Oakland reached the playoffs in 10 seasons since Lieppman was entrenched as farm director.
For his contributions in helping others achieve, Lieppman has been named the winner of the Tony Gwynn Award, which is a lifetime achievement award presented annually by Baseball America for the greatest contributions to the game.
“It’s really crazy is what it is,” Lieppman said, as he considered the concept of such an honor. “I never actually thought I would be at this stage where I would receive something like this. I never imagined I would receive an award like this. It hasn’t all sunk in yet.”
At the age of 70, Lieppman retired as farm director at the end of the 2019 season, handing over the duties to Ed Sprague Jr. Lieppman will move into an advisory role, which will probably lead to more time working individually with players.
He rooted for the A’s as a child in Kansas City during the 1960s, then signed with the Oakland Athletics in 1971 after finishing college at Kansas. He has remained with the organization since, as a player, coach, minor league manager and eventually farm director when he replaced Karl Kuehl.
“Keith Lieppman is going to go down as one of the greatest farm directors who has ever held that position,” A’s executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane said. “I would be hard pressed to find somebody who has had such a long and lasting influence.
“In the past, a farm director was viewed as sort of a drill sergeant position. (Lieppman) brought a human touch to a difficult position. I have never had a player or an agent complain to me about Keith Lieppman in 30 years. He’s just such a consistent person.”
His compassion is what so stood out to those around him. Lieppman treated others fairly and with respect.
“It’s his caring for people that makes him such a great leader,” A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson said. “He always wanted to get better, and he always wanted to help other people get better. His main thing was, ‘How can I help you?’ He always treated everyone well. He treated the grounds crew as if they were Billy Beane. That’s really special. He relayed that to us (the coaching staff).”
Lieppman’s life has been a collection of lessons learned and lessons taught. He grew up in Kansas City, with his parents Joe and Jeen regularly taking him to A’s games, where he could watch the lackluster local team play against the greats of the American League. He developed into a top-level high school athlete and moved on to Kansas, where he played both baseball and football, the latter under Pepper Rodgers. He learned a big lesson in his sophomore year.
Lieppman was a backup defensive halfback. When the starter was injured, Rodgers came to him and grabbed him by the face mask.
“He said, ‘Get in there—and whatever you do, don’t get beat deep.’ Then he shook me,” Lieppman recalled. He followed directions and gave the receiver a 10-yard cushion.
When the team gathered to watch the game film, Rodgers began his commentary.
“He completely crushed me,” Lieppman said. “He didn’t tell the rest of the team about not getting beat deep. He replayed the whole thing and made fun of me. It was the first time I’d ever been embarrassed in public. At the time, I was pretty angry.”
It was a lesson he would take with him through his coaching years. He returned to the football field his junior year, as a defensive back and squib kicker, then decided to give up football as a senior In 1970 to concentrate on baseball. But Rodgers talked him into returning strictly as a punter. He was so effective that he received invitations to try out for two NFL teams, the Eagles and Cowboys, but instead decided to focus his future on baseball, where he excelled. He earned a spot on the Big Eight all-conference team.
The A’s selected him with their second-round pick in the secondary phase of the 1971 January draft. Future all-star second baseman (and major league manager) Phil Garner was Oakland’s top pick in that long-ago version of the draft. Lieppman then spent nine seasons climbing through the farm system. He was actually released for two weeks in 1977 before the A’s called and invited him to go to Double-A Chattanooga. He was drafted as a shortstop but, at 6-foot-3, that would not be his position as a pro. He wound up playing both third base and first base in the minors, while also filling in where needed.
Through the late ’70s, Lieppman was always the subject of expectations in Oakland. He was predicted to be the next player called up on numerous occasions. He was a high average hitter, but he lacked the home run power to make him a big-time prospect as a corner infielder. When it came to a final decision, someone else always got the call.
“Something always seemed to circumvent my going to the big leagues,” Lieppman said. “I was always excited. My goal was to get there. I just kept grinding. I thought there would be a shot.”
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The hard-working lefthander moved into the High-A rotation and showed improved stuff and strike-throwing ability.
He played through the 1979 season, then the A’s offered him another job: manager at high Class A Modesto. He would manage at all levels before taking over for Kuehl, who became a special advisor, in 1992.
In retrospect, this may have been the perfect education for a farm director. Lieppman learned all the frustrations that go with trying to make it to the big leagues.
“I think that helped me understand how to talk to players,” Lieppman said, “to help them understand there are times you go up—and sometimes you don’t get the opportunity. I try to help them be mentally tough and keep on an even keel.
“I certainly understood the role of veteran players who were trying to make their way, and how difficult this game is to play. People talk about being in the right place at the right time, and it’s really true. Sometimes it’s luck; sometimes it’s achievement.”
Those are skills understood by those around him. “I think he has such compassion and empathy for everyone who works around him,” A’s general manager David Forst said. “He’s able to work well and relate to coaches, managers and players. He genuinely cares about everybody. He has a big heart. No one doubts that he cared about you and your family.”
Something Lieppman learned from his mentors Kuehl and pioneering sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman was to be an eternal student. He has embraced the newer developments in the field with analytics and analysis, then passed them on.
“He has an overall passion for teaching,” A’s special advisor Grady Fuson said. “I don’t mean just players, but staff. His intellect, his interests were used to make people better. He became obsessed with leadership training.”
Lieppman had all staff members read a book during the offseason, then give presentations on selected sections during spring training. The books included those by Kuehl and Dorfman, as well as books from the likes of John Wooden on leadership in other sports. He watched motivational speaker Zig Ziglar to translate his lessons into baseball.
In an era when most farm directors spend much of their time on office work, Lieppman has remained constantly on the field, working with coaches and players to make them better.
“We’ll look over and see that Keith has pulled somebody off the field and is working with them individually,” Fuson said. “We call it ‘Liepp’s tips.’ ”
All this provides a mighty body of work for a leader who has touched the life of so many players.
“Keith was able to establish sustainable excellence, along with integrity that was the hallmark of his tenure,” A’s director of player personnel Billy Owens said. “Creativity and innovation were always at the forefront. Honesty and direct communication stayed as key ingredients to Keith’s success and reputation over the years. It’s fair to say that he has left an indelible legacy in our organization that will be impossible to duplicate.”
“I’ve been around a lot of influential people who have helped me to frame the person that I want to be,” Fuson said. “Nobody has impacted my life more than Keith Lieppman. No one.”
And that will be Lieppman’s legacy: he did not just help those around them become better coaches or players, he helped them become better people.