After 17 years as a minor league player and manager, John Schneider knows what it takes to survive a long bus ride.
“Awww man, I could already write a book on the bus rides alone,” Schneider said with a laugh. “The key is to keep a phone charger right close to you, have some good music and have a very comfortable pillow you can hopefully stretch out on when you get to two and three in the morning. That’s part of the minor league grind, the bus rides are all part of it and you try to make them as fun as possible.”
If he maintains his current pace of a promotion per year, however, Schneider will be taking Major League plane rides by 2020. He has become a rising managerial star in the Toronto Blue Jays chain.
A 1998 Lawrence High graduate and member of the LHS Athletic Hall of Fame, the 38-year-old Schneider has taken over as the youngest manager in New Hampshire Fisher Cats history. The Fisher Cats play in the Double A Eastern League, meaning Schneider has moved up for the fourth straight season. It also gives him an opportunity for a homecoming of sorts, as the Trenton Thunder also play in the Eastern League. The Fisher Cats visit the Thunder April 9.
“It’s cool, for me personally it’s one step closer to the goal of being up in the big leagues,” Schneider said during a spring training phone interview from Florida. “When you get out of A ball the game is a little faster, you get guys that are a little bit older that have been around a little bit. The biggest thing is they’re really one step up away from the big leagues, they can get called up right from Double A. It will be fun for me. It’s gonna be a group I’ve been around the last couple years. Once you get to Double A it’s just kind of the realization you’re getting pretty close.”
It’s also pretty cool for his alma mater.
“It shows some of the great tradition we’ve had over the years at Lawrence,” LHS athletic director Greg Zenerovitz said. “It’s very exciting to see John moving up the ranks. This is exciting times for those who follow the history of Lawrence High School and Lawrence athletics. We look forward to watching him progress in his baseball endeavors. I met him at our Hall of Fame banquet and he was very personable. You could see how he can relate well to players.”
Ken Mason, who preceded Zenerovitz as AD, was closer to Schneider’s brother Kevin—also an LHS Hall of Famer—but knows all about John.
“I was at Hamilton when he played and I remember he played multiple positions,” Mason said. “You could see he was a tremendous leader and would make a tremendous manager.”
During his career, Schneider has worked with current and former MLB prospects such as Noah Syndergaard, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
In the past four years, Schneider’s career has accelerated after spending four of his first five seasons managing the Rookie League Gulf Coast Blue Jays. John managed Short-Season Class A Vancouver in 2015, Class A Lansing in 2016, Advanced Class A Dunedin in 2017 and now New Hampshire. All that’s left on the ladder is Triple A and the Big Show.
He has had five winning seasons and won two league champions, although it’s as much about development as results in the minors.
“The last handful of years has really kind of sped up the process,” Schneider said. “But there’s guys I work with that have been doing it for twice the amount of time I have. You understand you gotta pay your dues and you understand it’s gonna take a little bit of time. That’s why I took the opportunity when I did at 28, 29 years old.”
Schneider’s high school career included two trips to the state tournament under then-coach Jeff Vitale, who John said “was a baseball rat, he took a lot of pride in turning that program around and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
The University of Delaware then came calling. Schneider-red shirted as a freshman and, after two solid years was drafted by the Tigers in 2001. He opted to stay in school and was taken by Toronto in 2002. The catcher kicked around with five different teams from 2002-07. He got as high as Triple A Syracuse four different seasons but never hit above .200 at that level.
But he was drawing attention from the higher-ups as a strong leader and solid student of the game, which any good defensive catcher should be. Midway through his final season of playing in 2007, Schneider began to seriously contemplate life after baseball.
“Baseball is just really part of my DNA,” he said. “It’s something that I really love, and coaching is something I thought about.”
As luck would have it, Blues Jays Minor League Director Dick Scott was thinking about Schneider. Scott, once the Mets bench coach and now with the Marlins, viewed John as a managerial candidate and told him to start watching games as if he were managing.
Midway through spring training in 2008, he was offered a position of working exclusively with the catchers in the Gulf Coast League, while also working a bit with the hitters.
nowing how long one has to pay their dues to reach the top, Schneider figured his playing career has about stalled, so why not get started coaching as soon as possible.
“My decision was to either get a jump start on something I knew I wanted to do,or try to hang on to something that was really hard for me physically to continue to do,” he said. “I took the offer, and now here I am. I could have knocked around and played another two or three more years and started the coaching process at 31 or 32. But part of my thought process was that this is something I wanted to do, and I really wanted to get a head start on it. You look up and say, ‘I’m 38 years old, I’m in Double A’ and it’s kind of right where I’m shooting for.”
After his one season as an instructor, Schneider took over the GCL Blue Jays at the ripe old age of 29 in 2009 and guided them to a 30-28 record. Considering he was less than 10 years older than most of the players, John made his youth work for him.
“It was something I took a lot of pride in, knowing I had just been in the players’ shoes two years before, he said. “Being around younger kids helped. These are kids right out of high school and college, in their first year of pro ball, and I’m just trying to be as relatable as possible. It’s something I still really try to do now, years later.
“You never lose sight of how hard playing is and what these guys are going through. I just try to really be there for them, through the bad times over the course of a long season. When I was 29, it was a little easier to say, ‘Hey I’ve been there,’ than it is now. But I’d really like to try to keep that (attitude) close to me as the years go on.”
‘At the end of the day I’m coaching and managing professional baseball. It’s a pretty good gig.’
One thing Schneider will not do is play the role of tough guy. Some managers, as they get older, feel the need to be an authority figure. Schneider merely allows the respect he has garnered to work for him.
“It’s a fine line,” he said. “I’m never gonna be the guy that’s the drill sergeant, saying this is way you have to do it. I think just being around this organization for as long as I have kind of gives me a little credibility with the players and the staff around me. But I’m never the guy that’s yelling and screaming, saying ‘Look at me, I’m in charge.’ It’s really about the players and you just go from there.”
As Schneider noted, he certainly is a staple in the Blue Jays organization, having spent his entire career with Toronto. That’s nearly impossible in this day and age, and Schneider does not take it for granted.
“It’s awesome, man,” he said. “Being around for a few different front office turnovers, I’ve been very fortunate, and I can’t say enough good things. They’ve really given me an opportunity to do something I love. At the end of the day I’m coaching and managing professional baseball. It’s a pretty good gig. I’m very fortunate, very humble to have 17 years as player and coach with one organization. It really means a lot to me.”
During his career, Schneider has worked with current and former MLB prospects such as Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
There was a time, though, that he needed something to revitalize his spirits, and he got exactly that in 2012. It was his fourth year of managing and he was still with the GCL Blue Jays (after spending the previous season with Vancouver) and wondering about his future. He then met Jess Vera, who worked for the Blue Jays minor league office. The two had more in common than they ever realized and soon got married. They now live in Clearwater with their 1-year-old son, Gunner.
“We’re trying to make that sound like a cool baseball name—Gunner Schneider,” Schneider said with a laugh. “It’s a baseball family. She played softball in college, and played catcher as well. She knows the game. I can vent to her and talk baseball when the game’s over. Right place, right time. All those years knocking around in rookie ball thinking ‘Where am I going with this coaching gig?’ and then you meet your future wife and mother of your child. It was pretty cool.”
It gets even cooler on April 9, when the Fisher Cats come to Trenton for a three-game series with their Eastern League rivals, the Thunder. It will be Schneider’s first trip home as a manager.
“My older brother still lives in Lawrenceville with his wife and three girls,” Schneider said. “My parents live right in Pennington. I have a bunch of family that still lives in the area, I’m gonna have quite the pass list when we’re in Trenton.”
They better see him while they can, because at the pace he has set over the past four years, Schneider may quickly be on that upward elevator again.