February 26, 2024

New Astros manager Joe Espada is ready to write his next chapter

FULSHEAR, Texas — Joe Espada started writing in high school and hasn’t stopped since, documenting four decades of his dreams, defeats and deliberations. He chronicled love and loss, sacrifice and success, the pain of rejection paired with the thrill of prosperity. Espada has navigated a career with more almosts than absolutes, authoring a case study in persistence before reaching his pinnacle.

“He doesn’t express that much, especially when he’s sad. He never speaks back to anybody, never speaks back to me, but he writes his feelings down,” Joe’s mother, Miriam, said. “I do the same thing. I have a lot of journals and I write down my feelings when I don’t have anybody to talk to or I don’t want to express myself to anybody, so he does the same thing.”

Espada’s wife, Pam, purchases small journals for Joe to carry everywhere he goes — from his first coaching job with the Low A Greensboro Grasshoppers to, now, the peak of his profession. Dwelling on one thought from days full of them is difficult, so Joe continues to write, whether it’s one takeaway from a tense time or a pertinent passage he reads that piques his interest.

“It helps me turn the page on things, helps me put my thoughts together,” Espada said last month. “It helps me just to be grateful. There’s always moments throughout my day that I’m like, ‘Thank you,’ or things that I need to get better at. I like to write stuff down. It just helps me really to just turn the page.”

Paths to the top are never linear. Espada is a prime example. He turned more pages than most during a 26-year career in the sport he loves. The chapter Espada always wanted to author is set in a spot he never wanted to leave and a city his family can finally call home.

To most inside the sport, Espada managing the Houston Astros felt like a fait accompli. The man himself could not allow that certainty to creep in. Initial plans pegged Espada to manage Team Puerto Rico in last March’s World Baseball Classic. A power struggle atop the country’s baseball federation prevented it. Espada’s six-year tenure as Houston’s bench coach put him atop too many other managerial wish lists to count. Interviews ended with inflated optimism and opportunities felt like perfect fits.

“When I see that they gave the job to somebody else, believe me, I didn’t only get disappointed, but I used to get so angry because it would break his heart. And if it breaks his heart, it breaks my heart,” Miriam said.

“Then he told me, ‘Mommy, don’t worry, maybe that’s not what God wants for me. Maybe God wants me someplace else.’ He never gives up hope. He always said he was going to be a manager one day.”

Joe Espada speaks with José Abreu before Opening Day on March 30, 2023. (Kevin M. Cox / Associated Press)

Pam Espada measures her life as a series of “adventures,” perhaps the simplest way to tell two young girls they’re taking another road trip, moving to a new city or navigating all other chaos associated with being a baseball coach’s wife. Change is her only constant, even when organizing this 3,798-square-foot house she wasn’t sure the family would ever call a permanent home.

Atop a spiral staircase is the space Pam envisioned as a playroom. Her husband made it his man cave, changing her best-laid plans. Artifacts from the Espadas’ extensive adventures fill the walls. Autographed jerseys from Albert Pujols, Adrián Beltré, Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Ichiro, Bryce Harper, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge encircle the ceiling. Signed bats hang from four display cases. Correa’s 2021 Platinum Glove award sits between two of them, an ode to the superstar shortstop he helped to develop in Houston.

One wall features photographs of Alex Rodriguez rounding third base after his 3,000th hit and Mark Texiera doing the same after his 400th home run. Both men are high-fiving Espada, then the New York Yankees’ third-base coach.

Hanging on another wall is a lineup card from the night Derek Jeter’s No. 2 was retired at Yankee Stadium. The Astros crushed the Yankees, spoiling the celebration.

Espada joined Houston’s coaching staff one year later. He can now laugh at the ridiculousness of a Houston lineup that had Alex Bregman batting eighth. He’ll no doubt hit higher in Espada’s lineup, but is surrounded by a supporting cast that should ease Espada’s managerial transition. First-time skippers can often try to assert themselves or set a tone for their tenure. Espada will inherit a team not in need of that.

“We have a really good team,” Espada said. “Put them in a position to succeed and I could just kind of sit back and watch them perform. This is a team that performs. The more hands-off you are with this team, the better they play.”

A replica of Houston’s 2022 Commissioner’s Trophy sits on one end table, proof of concept for Espada’s vision. His predecessor, Dusty Baker, allowed players to govern themselves and didn’t meddle much in clubhouse affairs — commendable work sometimes overshadowed by the outcry over Baker’s division of playing time.

Espada may take some of Baker’s laid-back methods to blend with his own, but he is wary of describing his style in any specific way. He learned from such a litany of skippers, from Jack McKeon to Ozzie Guillen to A.J. Hinch to Joe Girardi, that he can pull from the vast experiences and discover what ideally works for him.

“There’s not like ‘Joe Espada’s style is going to be X.’ No, I think the team, the personnel kind of dictate what kind of team we are,” Espada said. 

First-year managers always encounter pitfalls. Espada acknowledged he’ll have to “roll with the punches” as they arrive. A coaching career spanning three franchises and more than 20 years conditioned him for it.

On the other end table is a photograph from when it began: a young Miami Marlins coach sandwiched by Hall of Famers Tony Pérez and Andre Dawson.

“When I see my kids running around in here I remember Eliana, how small she was when we were in Miami,” Joe says of his now 12-year-old daughter. “Then Vivi was born. And now I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”

Eliana and Viviana did get their playroom, albeit in a smaller space adjoining this baseball shrine. Whenever the Astros play, both girls leave their pink-splashed sanctuary, gather on the man cave’s couch and watch their father inch toward his lifelong goal.

They prefer to watch games here, where the walls tell the story of a man’s dream and a family’s evolution. They’ve made just one request for their father’s first season: for Espada to wear his full uniform more in the dugout. He will oblige.

“We tell our kids, ‘Do your best,’ or, ‘Follow your dreams,’ and sometimes people say that just because that’s what everybody says,” Joe said. “But in our house we really meant it because I’m a perfect example of that. I’ve been through a lot just to get to where I’m at now and I want my kids to see (that) daddy is a perfect example of what I’m trying to teach you how to build your work ethic.”

Miriam has saved everything, from first-grade report cards to dress clothes to those diaries full of her oldest son’s dreams. Love letters addressed to her or some of Joe’s first girlfriends are still stockpiled somewhere in his sister’s home where Miriam and her husband, Loly, now live.

When baseball became Joe’s obsession, he began to write about his goals. To work on his swing in Puerto Rico, Joe used a broomstick and bashed a tree in the family’s front yard. Seeds flew off and neighbors started to complain about trees sprouting in their yard. Sometimes, Espada’s two siblings saw him practicing his stance and swing after midnight.

Espada’s father shuffled him to and from ballparks and practices. To this day, Loly remains the first person Joe wants to see when he has good news. Miriam still has the video of Joe telling Loly that he would be the Marlins’ third base coach. Loly never misses a game, but is sometimes advised to not attend. He’s had a series of heart problems that culminated in 2022.

Joe’s sister, Rebecca, implored her brother to fly back to Puerto Rico for a day and see their father. While there, Loly suffered what his wife described as a serious heart attack. Miriam phoned 911 while Joe kept his father comfortable.

“I asked God to keep dad here for a longer time because I want dad to see me be a manager one day,” Joe said, according to his mother. “It all worked out.”

Miriam worked for more than 40 years at Baxter Healthcare and hoped her children would appreciate what such a grind can teach. She made Joe take a job corralling buggies in the parking lot of Pueblo, a chain grocery store in Puerto Rico. Joe obliged, even if it meant working shifts after playing doubleheaders during high school. Once his long days ended, Joe journaled about his experience.

“She told me later, ‘I’m sorry that I made you work at the grocery store,’” Joe said. “I said, ‘Mom, no, thank you for having me work those hours.’ She taught me a great lesson.”

Joe’s .442 lifetime batting average remains the highest of any player in University of Mobile history. He hit .468 in 1995 and .446 in 1996, both of which remain the two highest single-season batting averages in school history.

The Oakland A’s selected him in the second round of the 1996 draft, but Espada never made it past Triple A. He played for six separate organizations and took 857 total Triple-A plate appearances. Failing to make the major leagues doesn’t bother him. He battled some injuries and encountered stacked major-league infields he couldn’t crack, especially in Oakland.

“I always hoped that he would play Major League Baseball and every time that I read his letters, my heart broke knowing that he was so disappointed that wouldn’t happen,” Miriam said. “When he told me he was going to stop playing baseball, I was heartbroken because his dream was to play baseball and be in the major leagues.”

Pam had sworn off being a stay-at-home mom, but a stark reality began to reveal itself. She is a pharmacist who became the family’s breadwinner while Joe began his journey through coaching — first for four years as a minor-league instructor in the Marlins’ organization and three more as the third base coach.

Pam worked 14-hour days behind a CVS counter well into her second pregnancy, during which Joe served as a special assistant to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Joe’s looming promotion to major-league third base coach put Pam at a career crossroads and the family at an inflection point.

Pam’s sister, Lisa, understood the struggle. She met and married an up-and-coming baseball coach of her own — Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, the first manager Joe worked for in the minor leagues. Baseball never felt front and center to Pam, who viewed games more as social gatherings than full-time work. After hearing her sister’s predicament, Lisa altered her reality.

“You’re quitting your job and moving to New York,” Lisa told her.

“And I’m like, ‘OK!,’” Pam said.

“I’ve always told the girls, from that moment, I was like, ‘We’re going on an adventure.’”

Joe Espada poses with his wife Pam (left) and daughters Viviana and Eliana. (Photo courtesy of Houston Astros)

Pam sacrificing her career for the sake of her husband’s “showed the strength of our family,” Joe said, but didn’t come without struggle. Travel and an interminable season are obvious, but few realize that major-league coaches aren’t compensated commensurate with the billion-dollar industry they work in.

“We were grinding,” Joe said. “We were winning, but we were grinding as a family. Instead of two incomes, now there’s one. She took care of the girls, she took them to school while I did what I loved doing, and it just made us stronger as a family.”

Their youngest daughter, Viviana, was four weeks old during the move. Eliana was 3 1/2. Neither parent wanted to send their oldest daughter to an unfamiliar high school or remove her from one she loved, so they reached a conclusion: Wherever the family lived during Viviana’s eighth-grade year would be its permanent home, regardless of what team Joe worked for.

He interviewed for at least seven other managerial openings during his six-year stint as Houston’s bench coach. Rejection toughened Espada, but still tested his family’s resolve. Two years ago, Joe and Pam stopped discussing specific scenarios around their daughters, who started to mature, understand this rite of winter and wonder aloud, “So are we moving?”

“Some years were more painful than the others, teams kind of like dragging you along,” Pam said. “I kind of just gave it up to, ‘What’s meant to be is meant to be and what’s supposed to happen.’”

Viviana will start eighth grade in August, five months into her father’s first managerial tenure.

Joe is a voracious reader who can fill a book’s margins with his musings or notes. He’s currently trying to finish Ryan Holiday’s “Stillness Is the Key,” which attempts “to show why slowing down is the secret weapon for those charging ahead,” according to Penguin Random House.

Holiday has become one of Espada’s most-read authors, but a favorite is still clear. Nicholas Sparks’ books are a staple of so many Espada family vacations. Sparks has published 23 novels and Joe estimates he’s read “almost all of them,” earning some teasing from friends who know him well.

“They’re chill. They’re love stories. They’re in North Carolina, on his boat,” Espada said. “It’s a love story. I’m with my wife (on vacation), the woman I love. I just go through those books and I knock them out of the way. People are like, ‘That’s so cheesy,’ but it helps me disconnect from baseball.”

Sparks may be the soundtrack of winter, but now the biggest spring of Espada’s life looms. Expectations are enormous for the team he now leads. The franchise is nearing a crossroads, but owner Jim Crane’s demands aren’t dwindling. Fielding a championship contender is Crane’s foremost objective, one Espada must now oversee.

Espada believes the circuitous path he traveled has prepared him for a job he always desired but wondered if he would ever attain. After it did, the entire family gathered for Thanksgiving. Joe found his old journals stashed away and started to read.

“I love reading them because it reminds me of the kid that grew up having a dream and worked really hard,” Espada said. “Now I’m here.”

(Top photo of Joe Espada: Kevin M. Cox / Associated Press)