You may not know John Shoemaker, but you’ve heard of the players he’s helped develop — Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Eric Karros, Matt Kemp, Cody Bellinger, and more. In 43 years, he’s helped 133 players within the Dodgers’ farm system get to the majors. He’s held almost every coaching position possible, across stints with Dodgers minor league affiliates in 11 different cities.
In short, there’s no Dodgers team in the last 30-plus years Shoemaker hasn’t influenced.
“He cares so much about this organization and it shows every day,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman says.
“He’s a special guy,” Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson adds. “He’s one of a kind.”
Shoemaker, at 62, will manage the Class-A Great Lakes Loons in 2019. Midland, Michigan, joins Vero Beach, San Antonio, St. Lucie, Yakima, Great Falls, Savannah, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Ogden among the places where Shoemaker has served as a minor league coach or manager.
Part teacher, part motivator, Shoemaker excels in nurturing talent wherever possible, whether coaching a blue-chip prospect — like Kershaw, whom Shoemaker managed in parts of 2007-08 in Double-A Jacksonville — or a 33rd-round draft pick, like Steve Cilladi.
Cilladi, now in his fifth season as a Dodgers bullpen coach, played under Shoemaker at Great Lakes in 2011. That season, he made just 29 plate appearances in 12 games, and yet Shoemaker noticed Cilladi’s hard work. After one game that season, Shoemaker gave Cilladi a game ball and lauded him in front of his teammates in the locker room.
“I still have the ball, he threw it to me after a game, saying I was a credit to the organization for my hard work and the way I carry myself and go about my business,” Cilladi says. “It has made such an impact on how I perceive things.
“There is a certain amount of natural respect for someone who has been in the organization as long as he’s been.”
If Shoemaker needed a reference for Cilladi, who became a minor league coach at age 25, he didn’t have to look far. Shoemaker was a 38th-round pick by the Dodgers in 1977, and was coaching in the minors by age 24.
Thirty-eight years later, Shoemaker is still coaching, still motivating. He’s the Dodgers’ captain of player development, an honor bestowed upon him by the organization in 2015 to recognize his longtime role in molding scores of players. Shoemaker has a simple directive for his pupils to be the best they can, no matter their pedigree, or their role, even if they’re unsure if anyone is paying attention.
“You have to feel the job you have is the most important one in the whole organization,” Shoemaker says. “But don’t just talk about it, do that job like it’s the most important job, then think how good our organization would be.”
Shoemaker played both baseball and basketball at Waverly High School in Ohio, and was drafted by the Giants in the 26th round in 1974. But with a basketball scholarship to Miami-Ohio in hand, he opted instead to go to college.
“If I would have gone to the Giants out of high school, I would have been out of pro baseball so fast. As my grandmother used to say, it would make your head swim,” Shoemaker says. “I wouldn’t have been ready for pro ball, knowing now what I do know. I made the right decision going to college, getting a chance to improve, get stronger, and learn more.”
Shoemaker continued to play baseball in college, and after his junior season, he was drafted again, this time by the Dodgers, and he played all over the infield in four years in the minors. He got on base quite well as a pro, hitting .282/.394/.314, but he also hit just one home run in 1,340 plate appearances. The writing was on the wall for his playing days, especially when the organization asked if he was interested in coaching.
“I wasn’t going to be promoted to Triple-A the next year, and coaching was something I wanted to get into,” Shoemaker says.
Shoemaker was only 24 when he was hired as the hitting coach in Class-A Vero Beach in 1981, just a shade older than several players on the team. Having such a young coach is one thing, but even having multiple coaches on a minor league team was novel four decades ago.
“I signed a contract in 1977 and when I went to Clinton, Iowa, we had a manager. We had a player/coach, and a pitching coordinator who came in once in a while,” Shoemaker says. “When I got to Lodi in 1978 we had a manager and a player/coach, but we didn’t have a pitching coach. So when I got into coaching that was something almost brand new for the organization.”
Shoemaker sometimes threw batting practice before games when he was a player, and though his first coaching assignment was technically as hitting coach, he was a jack of all trades.
“Stan Wasiak, the king of the minors, managed in Vero Beach, and I was with him in Vero Beach for six years. I got to do a lot of the things he couldn’t. He was a great baseball mind but he had slowed down quite a bit,” Shoemaker says. “So I got to coach first base, I got to throw batting practice, I got to hit a lot of fungoes. I had a good chance to learn at a young age.”
That Shoemaker became a coach wasn’t necessarily a surprise, though maybe the sport was.
“I am surprised he didn’t coach basketball, I really am,” says Randy Ayers, a former NBA coach who was Shoemaker’s teammate for four years at Miami.
As seniors, Shoemaker and Ayers helped Miami to an overtime win over defending champion Marquette in the first round of the 1978 NCAA tournament. Both Ayers and Shoemaker were drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1978, but neither played in the NBA.
“He’s a competitor,” Ayers says. “He had good size for a point guard. He’d be great in today’s game, he had great range as a shooter, a very confident shooter.”
Shoemaker was already in his second year in the Dodgers’ system in 1978, and after the minor league season he went to the Bulls’ tryout camp in September. Though he didn’t play in the NBA, not many people can boast having been drafted in both baseball and basketball. But boasting isn’t part of Shoemaker’s game.
“I’ve talked to him about [basketball] a lot,” Friedman says. “Typical Shoe, he plays it down.”
“I was lucky,” Shoemaker says with a smile. “The [Bulls] started off [2-13] that next year and they were talking about how poor their guard play was, and I thought wow, maybe I could have won one game.”
Coaching is in Shoemaker’s blood. He counts his father, a former baseball and basketball coach at Waverly High, as his biggest mentor.
“Ever since I was able to remember anything about life, I had a ball in my hand and I was at a game,” Shoemaker says. “He gave me just as many tips as anybody else in my whole life.”
“John’s all about his family,” Ayers says. “His dad would drive 6-8 hours, then turn around and make the drive home. He made it to a lot of games. That’s the type of family he’s from, that’s the type of support he got. It didn’t surprise me that John was that kind of person as well, very dedicated, very supportive as a teammate.”
That support earned Shoemaker the team captaincy in basketball at Miami, and he wears another “C” on his baseball jersey these days, a patch to honor his tenure and role within the Dodgers organization. “I was shocked,” he recalls about getting named captain of player development.
“It signifies the impact and the longevity that he’s had,” Friedman says. “It’s something for us to acknowledge that, reward that, and to have players who are new to the organization to see how important he is to what we do.”
“What does the ‘C’ mean? It just means I’m on the team,” Shoemaker says. “It’s something to be proud of. It’s why I’ve stayed in baseball this long with the Dodgers. I feel like I’m a good team member.”
In 2015, Shoemaker also won the Mike Coolbagh Award, given annually by Minor League Baseball to the coach “who has shown outstanding baseball work ethic, knowledge of the game, and skill in mentoring young players on the field.”
Twenty-nine of Shoemaker’s 39 seasons as a minor league coach have been at the Class-A level or lower. He molds players when they are essentially brand new pros.
“So much of the teaching part of the finer points of the game are done at the earlier stages of their career,” Friedman says. “To have Shoe reaching these guys pretty quickly upon entering professional baseball will help their development path.”
Gavin Lux was a first-round pick in 2016, and debuted as a pro for Shoemaker in the Arizona League. He was playing rookie-level baseball, with nobody in attendance but scouts, family members, and maybe some organization personnel who happened to be around. The league is baseball’s fourth grade play, providing plenty of teachable moments for players before they hit the big stage.
“We lost in an extra-inning game, in like the 13th inning, and it was 11 o’clock. At that point all of us are tired and we just want to go home and go to sleep,” Lux says. “Shoe was pretty mad because he said during the whole game we weren’t hustling out to our positions, and during warmups we weren’t doing it the right way. He made us stay after, and we practiced running out to our positions and throwing in our warmups for about a half hour, 45 minutes.“
When I ask Shoemaker whether he remembers this game from three years ago, Shoemaker cuts me off and replies, “Of course I do,” with a laugh.
“I pride myself in players playing hard and getting on and off the field. I do not like to see a player in the dugout waiting and waiting and waiting,” he says. “I like to see guys playing like they should. You make three outs, you run off the field. We bat and make three outs, we get out on the field and get ready to go.
“Not like it’s a high school level, but they should have some sense of professionalism. Run out to your position. I remember some of those days. I figure at that age, in their first season of pro ball, if they don’t learn how they’re supposed to act or how they’re supposed to play, they’ve wasted a whole year.”
The lesson stuck with Lux, too. “Now I make sure I always bust my ass going out to my position,” he says.
“If you broke the rules, he’d let you know,” Cilladi adds. “From a teaching standpoint he was very, very good at seeing some of the things throughout the game that maybe the young guys didn’t see, and pointed those things out in a positive, productive way.”
Adaptability has helped Shoemaker last four decades in baseball. He has embraced modern analysis — “Batting average and earned run average aren’t as important as it used to be and it’s not as important to us as it is to fans,” he says — but also doles out wisdom that can only come with more than 40 years of experience.
Cilladi remembers a speech that Shoemaker gave with Great Lakes in 2011.
“He said there’s a period in time in an eagle’s life when it has to make a very difficult decision. What happens over the lifespan of an eagle is the feathers grow so thick and the beak rounds over to where it can’t fly and it can’t eat,” Cilladi says. “It has a choice to make. It can either die, because it can’t fly and can’t eat, or what it does is it picks away at the beak that’s bent over and chips away at it, then it can pluck off its feathers and then lives on. Be like the eagle, and live on. Basically it was, ‘Hey, don’t give up.’
“We kept playing ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ postgame, and it uplifted us.”
Shoemaker still hasn’t given up hope of one day reaching the majors, though he says he would only accept such a role with the Dodgers.
“I felt a while ago that there was a dim light, still,” Shoemaker says. “Now as I’m getting more years in baseball, the light is getting dimmer. But I still see the light there.”
Whether he’s in the majors, Shoemaker is a necessary stop for players in the Dodgers’ system, the ultimate organizational sage who has found a way to make a difference at every possible turn, by keeping things simple.
“I feel like no job is too small, as long as you feel like you’re valued,” Shoemaker says.
There aren’t many in the Dodgers’ organization more valued than John Shoemaker.