Former Cubs catcher starting new chapter as manager of Kane County Cougars

In 2009, the Cubs called up onetime first-round pick Tyler Colvin from the minor leagues. One of the first people Colvin credited for helping him climb the ladder was a journeyman catcher who had never been drafted.

That catcher was Blake Lalli.

Today, the 34-year-old Lalli is preparing for a new adventure as manager of the Kane County Cougars, the Arizona Diamondbacks' affiliate in the Class A Midwest League.

As an “organization guy” in the minor leagues, Lalli knew his role: Play when called on, help mentor the young players and maybe get an invite to big-league spring training.

Lalli checked all the boxes and then some, which helped pave the way for an eventual career as a coach or manager.

“I always had an interest in it,” Lalli said. “Even a long time ago, when I was in college and when I started pro ball, I always kind of had it that one day I wanted to do that. Obviously, when you're playing you're focused on having a good playing career. It's in the back of your mind, but I've always thought that I would coach one day when I was done.”

The Cubs signed Lalli as a nondrafted free agent in May 2006, about a month before they made Colvin their first-round draft pick.

Lalli methodically worked his way up the system, getting an invite to spring training in 2010 and again in 2012.

The call to the big leagues from Class AAA Iowa finally came in May of 2012.

“I was at Panera Bread in Des Moines,” Lalli said. “I was with (teammate) Ty Wright, who is a coach in the Cubs system now. I was with him and his dad, and we were getting breakfast. My manager, Dave Bialas, called and said I was going up. It was a big rush because I had to get there by the game that day. It was already like 11 o'clock in the morning, so it was a big rush out.”

It also was a big rush emotionally, but Lalli had faith that he would make it someday.

“People will probably think I'm crazy for saying it but I did think it would happen,” he said. “That was just kind of my mindset and how I approached it and my work ethic. I know looking it and now being on this side of it, I realized that people probably thought I was crazy for thinking that, but I really did think I had a shot.

“I was very fortunate to make it to the big leagues with the Cubs, and that was obviously a dream come true, and then to be able to do it two more times, with Milwaukee and Atlanta, was incredible.”

Lalli played in 6 games for the Cubs in 2012 before he was traded that season to the Oakland organization for catcher Anthony Recker. In 2013, Lalli got into 16 games for the Milwaukee Brewers. He appeared in 10 games for the Atlanta Braves in 2016. After being released by the Braves last year, he joined the Diamondbacks organization, and it was time to write the next chapter in his baseball career.

“When I got released, I just started thinking about what the next step was,” he said. “Do I want to keep playing? Is that an option? I just decided it was time to start coaching. I wanted to manage.”

For most of Lalli's time in the Cubs system, Oneri Fleita was the director of player development. Fleita wasn't shocked to hear of Lalli's new job.

“It doesn't surprise me in the least,” he said. “He was a converted catcher, and he had all the qualities. As you know, a lot of the good managers in the game were catchers. He had the leadership qualities. He had the personality. I don't think he ever met a stranger.”

The challenge for all minor-league managers to is balance the desire to win games with the need to develop players.

“I'm very fortunate to be with the Diamondbacks and to work under Mike Bell, who is the player-development guy,” Lalli said. “Winning is very important to him. Obviously the No. 1 goal is player development. Everyone knows that. Hopefully, in managing, the relationships I can create with the players and the work that we can do every day together can help develop. I feel that if they develop, we can hopefully win some games along the way.”

It was a long road to the majors for Lalli as a player. Although he's just starting his minor-league managerial career, he says he has eyes on the prize of a big-league coaching or managerial career.

“Absolutely, I have those aspirations,” he said. “It's kind of like as a player, I feel like, being undrafted, I took care of my business. I worked hard. I did all those things. I got rewarded for them and got to the big leagues. So I feel like, on this end, it's about the player again and focusing on player development and getting the player better. I feel that focusing on all those things and focusing on the player first will maybe help me reach the same goal that I had as a player.”

• Twitter: @BruceMiles2112

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