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Rico Brogna’s fascination with technology extended deep enough that he left baseball two years ago uncertain if he would find a return path.
But Brogna, a Watertown, Conn., native and fan favorite during his tenure playing first base for the Mets from 1994-96, also realized his best chance at advancement in the game, whether working in the dugout or front office, was perhaps predicated upon immersing himself in that technology.
After applying to graduate programs in computer science at “tough schools” and failing to gain acceptance because of his limited background in the subject area, Brogna turned toward a master’s degree in cybersecurity at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He began taking online courses while coaching and scouting in the Phillies’ minor league system in 2018 and when his contract expired — with his course-load toughening — decided to take a break from baseball.
It was his first time away from sports, whether playing, coaching or scouting, since childhood. His extensive post-playing résumé included stints coaching football at the high school and collegiate level (he was a volunteer assistant at Wesleyan for one season), high school basketball and college baseball. In professional baseball, he served in various roles for the Diamondbacks, Rays, Angels and Phillies.
Last week, the 50-year-old Brogna was named manager of the Athletics’ Single-A team in Stockton, Calif. His master’s degree complete, Brogna was hired by the organization as a minor league coach last winter but didn’t get beyond two weeks of spring training due to the pandemic and his season’s cancelation. Brogna is ready to put his new weaponry to work.
“The coursework taught me basically how to answer questions better, especially in this new world of baseball tech, there’s a lot of questions, especially if you’re just an ex-player, coach, front-office person,” Brogna said. “I had a lot of questions. I asked the right questions, and it really gave me the answers.
“Some of it is what not to use. I can talk the language with the coders, I can discuss it, analytics and big data, but a lot of it is how to eliminate the noise and focus on the signal. That is the way I look at it: I’ve got this big lake of tech, but it’s not all for me, it might not be all for my team — it certainly isn’t all for us — so how do you really filter out the noise? I didn’t really want a team to say, ‘You don’t know tech, we can’t hire you.’ That’s part of it.”
Brogna’s introduction to analytics and technology came with the Angels, who moved him from scouting into the dugout in 2014 as one of MLB’s first quality-control coaches. The position has become standard in recent years, with teams implementing the coach to serve as a liaison between the front office and clubhouse to distill analytical information. Luis Rojas filled the role for the Mets in 2019, a year before he was hired as the team’s manager.
“I was fascinated by it because I had done pro scouting, and I knew the pro scouting language, in how to evaluate players and use stats, so it wasn’t foreign,” Brogna said. “When I went in, I could talk to [manager] Mike Scioscia and the coaches and players, as a former player and new techie guy, kind of put it all together. It was so new to them that I didn’t want to be too out there, I wanted to be practical, like an ex-player would be.”
Brogna became enthralled with the technology and was soon considering how to further his education. His cybersecurity coursework included learning from instructors with experience working for the CIA, NSA, DOJ and various military branches.
“I wanted to continue learning about computers, and I didn’t ever think I was leaving baseball for good,” Brogna said. “I kind of always thought this would be a way to learn about computers to utilize it in the game. If I can’t use it in the game, I am fascinated by just my interests, and I love it just personally.”
Brogna said he’s thankful for the opportunity he’s received with the Athletics to manage at Single-A. His big-picture goal is a return to a major league dugout, something he tasted in his role with the Angels after a nine-year playing career with the Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Braves.
It’s a career that was somewhat compromised by a rare form of spinal arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, for which Brogna still takes medication just to perform daily tasks.
“I’m new with Oakland, but I am learning a lot,” Brogna said. “When I look at our stuff, there’s a lot of analytics that I understand. I am fortunate. If I didn’t study and learn it, it would be like looking at Latin, but I do understand it and how we use it.”
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