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Kevin Schnepf, Published September 18 2010

Schnepf: F-M loves a winner, and Simunic is just that

Let’s flash back 15 years – when Brett Favre was a 26-year-old quarterback leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl, when a 20-year-old Kevin Garnett finished his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, when a 13-year-old Joe Mauer was tearing it up on the junior high football and baseball fields and when the movie “Fargo” hit the theaters.

Oofda. It was in Fargo back in 1995 when there was an unassuming meeting at Hooters – one that would alter the future of minor league baseball in the Upper Midwest.

Bruce Thom, president of the upstart Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, was having lunch with Doug Simunic and Jeff Bittiger – the manager and pitcher for the established Northern League baseball team from Winnipeg. Little did they know, so the story goes, that some people from Winnipeg were sitting at a nearby table – overhearing the plans for Simunic to become the RedHawks’ first mananger.

“The next thing we knew, it was all over the papers in Winnipeg,” Thom recalled.

The next thing we knew – 15 years later – is that Simunic is still the manager of the FM RedHawks. The next thing we knew Friday night at Newman Outdoor Field is that Simunic and his RedHawks won a fifth Northern League championship with their 3-0 win over the Kansas City T-Bones.

In addition to the 2,488 fans who braved the chilly, wet weather, sports writer Paul Wiecek of the Winnipeg Free Press was sitting in the press box. Why?

“Fargo is doing something right here and the folks in Winnipeg are getting frustrated,” Wiecek said.

That’s because the last time Winnipeg won a Northern League title was in 1994 – when Simunic was the manager.

Since he left Winnipeg in 1995, Simunic has built a resume major league managers would die for. In his 18 seasons managing in the Northern League (he started in 1993 with the Rochester Aces), Simunic has built a 979-614 regular-season record. That’s a winning percentage of 61 percent. In his 15 seasons in Fargo, he has built a 851-505 regular-season record. That’s a winning percentage of 63 percent.

To put that in perspective, only three major league managers have won more than 60 percent of their games (Joe McCarthy, Jim Mutrie and Charlie Comiskey). Current major league managers Bobby Cox, Ron Gardenhire, Charlie Manuel and Mike Scioscia have won about 55 percent of their games.

“Those are numbers nobody will ever touch,” said RedHawks general manager Josh Buchholz. “Those are impressive. You don’t get those numbers by doing it half-heartedly and not having a passion for what you’re doing. He’s put his heart and soul into this franchise.”

And Simunic is going to continue doing that for at least the next couple of years. Friday afternoon, Thom and Simunic came to an agreement to extend his contract through 2012.

“As long as they give me a contract, I will be here,” Simunic said.

It’s a contract that makes him the top-paid manager in the Northern League, according to Thom – who would not reveal how much Simunic is making.

“He makes a nice living. It’s not as much as Craig Bohl, but he makes a nice living,” said Thom, referring to the North Dakota State football coach whose maximum take is $300,000 a year.

Simunic has been making this living for 15 years – busing all over the Upper Midwest with the RedHawks for four summer months. Next week, he’ll head back to his home in Charleston, West Va., where his wife Stefanie earns the bread during the offseason teaching and his 13-year-old daughter Allasyn attends school.

During these 15 years, Stefanie and Allasyn come to Fargo for a month or so during the summer. But they’ve never seen the RedHawks win a championship – not in 1998, not in 2003, not in 2006, not in 2009 and not last night.

“Fargo has become a second home for me … it’s the little gem of the Upper Midwest,” Simunic said. “Fifteen years goes by fast. I suppose if you were doing a stretch in prison, it would go a lot slower.”

It’s been anything but a prison sentence for Simunic.

He prides himself in mixing and matching rookies and veterans and as he puts it, “putting a good product on the field and providing good entertainment for the people.”

With all his connections – including Bittiger who as an Oakland A’s scout based in Pennsylvania is still a consultant for the RedHawks – Simunic has consistently put a good product on the field. Only once has he had a team with less than 50 wins. Only once has he missed the Northern League playoffs. Just as importantly to Simunic, the RedHawks have won eight regular-season championships.

He has also seen more than 50 RedHawks players sign major league contracts.

Carlo Cota, the third-year second baseman for the RedHawks, explained why Simunic is so successful.

“He let’s the players play,” Cota said. “He’s got us believing that we are in control, but in reality, we all know ultimately he is the one who is in control.”

And sometimes out of control. Just in the last three seasons, he has been ejected from 10 games – including the infamous YouTube replay of the punch he threw at Winnipeg hitting coach Tom Vaeth last season.

That, according to those who know Simunic, is just the way he is.

“He’s got a manager physique,” Cota said, referring to Simunic’s 6-foot-1, 300-pound frame that once produced an impressive score of 69 at The Meadows golf course in Moorhead. “He’s got that look of a confident manager. Everybody wants to beat Fargo and Doug knows that. He lets us know that and we’ve all adapted to that philosophy.”

“He likes taking heat off the team,” Buchholz said. “If the fans in Winnipeg are yelling at him, he’s fine with that because they’re not yelling at his players.”

Winnipeg fans, starving for a Northern League championship, are only hoping they could be cheering for someone like Simunic – like they were 16 years ago.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at

(701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com.

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com