February 23, 2024

Troy Percival has only a vague idea of what a Chukar is, even after the former Angels closer was hired Thursday to manage 26 of them with the Idaho Falls team in the independent Pioneer League this season.

“I think it’s some kind of bird,” said Percival, who was famously on the mound for the final out of the Angels’ 2002 World Series-clinching Game 7 victory over the San Francisco Giants. “But that’s an ancillary deal to me. It could have been a bowling ball for a mascot. It didn’t matter.”

Idaho Falls Chukars team logo

Idaho Falls Chukars team logo

(Idaho Falls Chukars)

A Chukar, for the record, is a sandy-brown, red-billed game bird that lives in the high desert plains of western North America and is known to scamper up steep terrain with the agility and speed of a mountain goat, prompting hunters to nickname it the “devil bird” for the brutal chase it gives.

Percival, who ranks 13th on baseball’s all-time list with 358 saves, which he racked up during a 14-year career from 1995 to 2009, has no idea if the team he will assemble over the next few months to play a 95-game season beginning in mid-May will take on the characteristics of its mascot, but he will not be surprised if it does.

There is no age limit for participation in the 11-team Pioneer League, which has clubs in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah and a new team in Oakland this season, but most players are in their early-to-mid 20s, have completed their college careers and were not drafted. They are not in this for the money. Pay ranges from $1,200-1,800 a month.

“You get guys who love baseball,” said Percival, the head coach at UC Riverside from 2015 to 2020. “They didn’t get signed to affiliate ball, and they’re just hoping to catch on with somebody, so you’re gonna get a bunch of kids who are hungry, which is right up my alley.”

Percival, 54, said he loved his job coaching Division I baseball at Riverside but stepped down to spend more time with his son, Cole, who pitched three seasons (2021-2023) in the Dodgers and Angels organizations and is now a free agent.

Serving as an Angels guest instructor during spring training and fall instructional league in 2023 “gave me the bug to get back into coaching,” Percival said. His name came up when Matt Wise stepped down as Angels pitching coach after last season, but his former team did not contact him about the position.

So when Percival’s Lake Havasu fishing buddy, Bob Milacki, a former big league right-hander who has been the Idaho Falls pitching coach for two seasons, told him in November that the club was looking for a manager, Percival said he was interested.

Angels relief pitcher Troy Percival and catcher Bengie Molina celebrate the team’s 2002 World Series win over the Giants.

Angels relief pitcher Troy Percival and catcher Bengie Molina celebrate the team’s Game 7 World Series win over the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

Two months and several interviews later, Percival signed a one-year deal to manage the Chukars. His first order of business after Thursday’s video call announcing his hiring was to contact the college coaches he knows for player recommendations.

“Believe me, I understand what I’m getting into,” Percival said. “I know I’m going to a place where I have to scrape the barrel to find enough guys to play. I didn’t realize at first that I had to get my own players. I thought I was going to a team that was set. It adds a little extra dynamic to it.

“But I love managing, and I get the opportunity to do it without all the administrative stuff from the D-I level. I can focus more on coaching.”

And winning. Percival hasn’t ruled out the possibility of being a major league pitching coach, “but do I want to go through the Class-A ball, double-A ball, triple-A ball thing all over again?” he said. “Probably not.” The feisty former fireballer is more interested in what drove him most throughout his big league career: winning games.

“That’s what I like about independent ball as opposed to affiliate ball,” Percival said. “In the minor leagues, there’s no focus on learning how to win. It’s all development all the time. At this point in my life, I want to go out and win.

“When I got this opportunity, I was told it was my show, I get to pick my players and coach them the way I want to coach them and play the way I want to play, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. I’m not saying I don’t want to get back into affiliate ball at some point, but I want to see how much I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Managing in Idaho Falls will be something of a full-circle moment for Percival, who began his professional career about 280 miles to the west, as a catcher for Class-A Boise in 1990. A sixth-round pick of the Angels that year, Percival was moved to the mound in 1991 and reached the big leagues in 1995.

After serving one season as veteran closer Lee Smith’s setup man, Percival took over as the team’s ninth-inning specialist in 1996 and accumulated 316 of his saves with the Angels before closing his career with Detroit, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

“I loved my time in Boise — it was a great place to play with great fans — and knowing I get to go back to that league is going to be fun for me,” Percival said. “If I didn’t think this was going to be a positive experience, I wouldn’t do it.

“I’ve heard it’s a great ballpark [in Idaho Falls], and I’m familiar with the area, having owned a home about an hour away in Alpine, Wyoming. The only drawback is I’m back on a bus again for long rides, but it’s a 4½-month season, and I agreed to a one-year contract. There’s not a lot I can’t deal with for 4½ months.”

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