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The Coaches You Notice

You really don’t notice coaches in major league baseball until they are pointed out, which isn’t often. Maybe it’s for something benign, like they planted tomatoes in bullpen or exchange particularly sharp low-fives when batters work out walks. Maybe it’s for something pleasant, like how well his advice is being processed by a player on a streak. Usually it’s for when something is going awry. The team isn’t scoring. Fire the hitting coach. Another runner got thrown out at home. Replace the third base coach. The staff earned run average is the franchise’s worst since the year it was founded…and almost all the pitchers got hurt.

Say goodbye to Dan Warthen [1] in the last case, the same Dan Warthen who was the toast of the pitchnoscenti when he had the horses and the horses were healthy [2]. Warthen had been coaching Mets pitchers for nearly ten seasons. The last Met pitcher who hadn’t been coached exclusively by Dan Warthen as a Met was Pedro Feliciano, and he had to return briefly from lucrative exile in 2013 to make that claim. Warthen ushered generations of Mets pitchers into the majors, from Niese and Parnell in September of 2008 to Rhame and Callahan in September of 2017.

You saw more of Warthen than you saw of other coaches because the pitching coach is permitted to wander halfway across the diamond during games. Warthen probably did more of that type of wandering than any Mets pitching coach before him, visiting the mound to take pulses, dispense wisdom and maybe kill time while another of his pitchers warmed until fully heated in the bullpen. Rube Walker and Mel Stottlemyre were Mets pitching coaches longer, but they surely made fewer of those visits. They coached in different times from Warthen when it came to pitching.

Diamond Dan leaves his post on the Terry Collins Plan, having been “offered another role in the organization,” according to the organization itself. Terry, who was offered only the door until it occurred to somebody how bad that looked, is now a special assistant to the general manager. Dan seemed pretty special when his pitchers looked very special. After a season when his pitchers looked worse than ordinary [3], he gets a press release and a conditional euphemism.

In the same release that covered the respective statuses of Collins, Warthen and persistent soul collector [4] Ray Ramirez, the Mets announced three coaches — Dick Scott, Tom Goodwin and Ricky Bones — are welcome to take a hike (“given permission to speak to other teams, pending the selection of a new manager”), while three others are welcome to stick around. Kevin Long and Pat Roessler coached hitters who hit a lot better than the pitchers pitched. They stay. Long may even elevate; his launch angle vis-à-vis the managerial opening is to be determined. The Mets also said they will “retain” third base coach Glenn Sherlock, who we noticed getting runners thrown out at home now and again. The Mets were careful to note Sherlock has a contract for 2018, the subtext being, yeah, we noticed the runners getting thrown out, too.

We all form semi-informed opinions of whether the manager is a genius or incompetent. We’re mostly guessing when it comes to the coaches. When they are commented upon for nonspecific reasons, it is usually to laud them for being “baseball lifers,” the strange implication being that you could somehow change careers from, say, regional agricultural sales to major league coach on a whim. The baseball life they are pursuing doesn’t automatically transmit clues to their effectiveness. The Mets homered a lot in 2017? Were the long balls really Long balls or was it opposition pitching, atmospheric conditions and a few extra reps in the weight room making the Mets more powerful? Did everything Warthen recommend suddenly come with an expiration date or did the pitchers maybe do something wrong? There are probably highly specific if anonymously sourced answers to be had. Watching from the other side of the protective netting, it’s difficult to discern.

Without cavalierly making glib pronouncements regarding the livelihoods of others, perhaps it is time for a clean or at least cleaner slate. The Mets haven’t begun a season with a fresh manager and a fresh pitching coach since the dynamic duo of Art Howe and Vern Ruhle alighted in 2003. A year later, Rick Peterson broughthis hardwood floor philosophies [5] to Flushing from Oakland, reuniting with Howe. (Howe had played behind Ruhle in Houston; Art may not have won a lot of games for the Mets, but he apparently managed to maintain his relationships.) Peterson survived the GM transitions from Steve Phillips to Jim Duquette and Duquette to Omar Minaya, and remained ensconced when Minaya brought in Willie Randolph, but the Pacific Purge that swept out Willie nabbed Rick, too. His hardwood floor got torn up. Warthen’s Tuscany tile was installed and it stayed firmly in place for the length of Collins’s determined walk across it.

It’s hard to say whether a clean slate effectively clears the organization’s mind. Walker entered Shea with Gil Hodges in 1968; they led the Mets to the pinnacle of baseball a year later. Rube would coach pitchers under Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier and Joe Torre, clear through 1981. Stottlemyre arrived with Davey Johnson in 1984; two years later they and their charges were kings of the world. Mel kept at his job under the auspices of Bud Harrelson, Mike Cubbage, Jeff Torborg and the first four months of Dallas Green until being let go at the end of 1993. Their clean slates got filled good — and bad. The only other Mets pitching coaches besides Rube, Mel and Vern to come in at the outset of a new year with a new manager was Bill Monbouqette, who joined George Bamberger on his short-lived Queens adventure in 1982. If you want to, you can also count the first Mets manager and pitching coach combo, Casey Stengel and Red Ruffing. The slate couldn’t have been cleaner, even if it was destined for immediate sullying. Under Stengel’s managing and Ruffing’s coaching, the 1962 Mets’ ERA was 5.04, an unsightly figure not approached again…until 2017’s 5.01.

Stengel is in the Hall of Fame. So is Ruffing. So is George Weiss, who hired them both. None of them made it as far as they did for the results their pitchers generated in 1962. Casey said of one of his championship units in the Bronx, “I couldn’t have done it without the players.” Similar attribution could presumably be linked to the personnel that lost him 120 games.

***

On the same day the Mets made their provisional coaching announcements for 2018, it was reported that the last of the surviving 1962 Mets coaches had passed away [6] the day before. Solly Hemus, 94, died in Houston on Monday. Solly coached third for Casey. Cookie Lavagetto coached first. Solly. Cookie. Casey. Red. Two Reds, actually, when you include instructor Red Kress. Baseball lifers got much more colorful names back then. Yet from what I’ve gathered as a baseball lifer of my own ilk (a fan who likes to read), the coaches didn’t garner much attention in those days, either, certainly not when operating in the shadow of Stengel.

When you absorb Original Met recountings, most of which tend to contain ample wiggle room where exactitude is concerned, Cookie in June tells Casey not to bother arguing the ruling that Marv Throneberry didn’t touch second on a triple because he didn’t touch first, either, and the Mets lose as usual. When you lose yourself further in 1962 lore, Solly in August gets hot and bothered over what he considers a bad strike call, then gets ejected…which then gets Cookie into the third base coaching box…which eventually gets Marv (!) into the first base coaching box, from which he is beckoned to pinch-hit and deliver a walkoff homer, and the Mets win as unusual.

You get the feeling you wouldn’t know who Casey’s coaches were if it weren’t for Marv incorporating them into his legend. Nevertheless, they were baseball men/lifers in their own right. Weiss secured the services of Ruffing months before he signed Stengel to oversee all pitching in the Met system, and he contracted Lavagetto and Hemus as coaches in advance as well because —even though it’s impossible to imagine — George wasn’t absolutely sure he was going to convince Casey to manage the Mets. Lavagetto (the Senators/Twins) and Hemus (the Cardinals) had experience. One could run he show if the eventual ringmaster declined to get involved. Upon his reintroduction to the press in October 1961, Stengel went so far as to suggest either man could be managing by that time next year.

Casey, it turned out, wasn’t going anywhere, and he outlasted both of those lieutenants. Cookie, the old Dodger, would be traded for Wes Westrum, the old Giant, coach for coach, following the 1963 season. Wes was in San Francisco, which was close to Cookie’s home and where he preferred to be after suffering an illness. Lavagetto recovered and lived until 1990. Westrum lasted long enough as a Mets coach to succeed Stengel as manager in 1965. By then, Hemus had moved on, too, assisting Casey only through the Polo Grounds years, yet he would have a significant hand on what would soon develop at Shea Stadium.

In 1966, Hemus managed the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the Jacksonville Suns. In that capacity, he was the first man to manage, in professional baseball, a recently inked 21-year-old righthander named George Thomas Seaver.

One start was all it took for Hemus to understand who he was handling with care. “Tom Seaver,” he told reporters in Rochester after the relatively unknown Californian beat the Red Wings for his first pro win, “is the best pitching prospect the Mets have ever signed.” There was no doubt Solly recognized talent when he saw it. He also knew how to convey it (as preserved in John Devaney’s 1974 Seaver biography):

“Tom has a 35-year-old head on top of a 21-year-old arm. Usually we get a 35-year-old arm attached to a 21-year-old head.”

Seaver was on his way, for sure, though not without the occasional setback. Even 21-year-old arms attached to 35-year-old heads are still part and parcel of 21-year-old young men. In one start at the end of a string of bad ones, Hemus managed Seaver by giving him the opportunity to work out of trouble rather than rescue him. It was part of the toughening-up process that led Tom to the majors by Opening Day 1967 and toward the Hall of Fame career that lay ahead of him.

In the media call following the Mets’ comings-and-goings announcement, Sandy Alderson expressed discontent with how the Mets Triple-A players are being prepared for the big leagues and hinted a staff shakeup at that level is very likely. It’s another of those situations where we’re all experts from a 2,500-mile distance, but recalling the impact a minor league manager had on a hot prospect reminds us how important every step of the way can be in giving a player every legitimate chance to become a star.

By the time Seaver was promoted, Hemus was done with baseball on a fulltime basis, the Suns uniform being the last he’d wear for a living. Hence, if you go solely by occupation, Solly was a baseball lifer only for the first fifty-odd years of his life. He left the game for the oil business as Seaver was touching down in New York, though in a sense, once a baseball lifer, always a baseball lifer. The old coach remained active with the Baseball Assistance Team for many years. He attended the B.A.T. dinner in New York in 2010, regaling baseball history writer Nick Diunte with fond memories of the Mets’ beginnings [7] — Stengel was “one of the smartest managers in baseball,” Weiss “an excellent GM” — and expressing a bit of regret that he couldn’t continue to be a part of their immediate future.

“I would have liked to be a part of the ballclub that won the World Series in 1969,” Hemus told Diunte, “because that’s what I had in mind when they hired me. I thought that they would eventually win it and they did just that. It was a fine organization.”

Helping Seaver along the path to immortality probably qualifies has having been a pretty important part of it.

***

The first expansion team to reach the postseason faster than the Mets did was the Colorado Rockies, landing there in 1995, only their third year of existence. Their first manager…their Casey Stengel in a sense…was Don Baylor, an accomplished hitter and coach before taking the reins of the brand new team. Like just about every manager, Baylor led teams to losing records as well as winning ones, and was eventually replaced in Denver. He went back to coaching, stopping off at Shea for two years, serving as bench coach and hitting coach for Howe in 2003 and 2004 (Howe was Baylor’s aide in Colorado in ’95). When Howe was fired by the Mets, so was Baylor. It was off to Seattle from New York, and later other stops. Don Baylor was always in demand.

Baylor died this past August [8] at the too-soon age of 68. I hadn’t thought of him very often since he had been a Mets coach, and to be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten just about everything about his time in the uniform of my favorite team. I’d forgotten that he had to leave the Mets for a while in 2003 to be treated for the bone cancer that would take his life fourteen years later. I’d forgotten that he assumed Denny Walling’s hitting coach portfolio when Walling was blamed for the Mets’ woeful batting partway through 2004. The whole Howe administration was so dispiriting that I might not have committing much about its brain trust to memory in the first place.

Except for one fact I surely learned and continue to hold dearly: Don Baylor was a gentleman. I had planned to share this story in the wake of his passing, but never got around to it. As long as the subject is Mets coaches, this seems as good a moment as any to belatedly give Don his due.

It was during the offseason between 2003 and 2004. The Mets still had a Clubhouse Shop in the East Fifties in Manhattan, their “flagship,” which was very convenient to where my wife worked. One day, she noticed an event was taking place there. Two Mets players and one Met coach were signing autographs and greeting fans.

The coach was Don Baylor, not in uniform, but representing his and my team. Stephanie didn’t know who he was, but figured I would and that I would appreciate his signature on a small slice of cardboard emblazoned with the Mets’ latest marketing slogan, “Catch the Energy!” The players’ signatures, too. My emotional investment in the Mets was at a low ebb (I was still sore that Howe had replaced Bobby Valentine a year earlier), but it was a typically lovely gesture on my lovely wife’s part.

The trio didn’t draw much of a crowd, so she didn’t have much of a wait. Stephanie went up to the first player, who she reported didn’t exactly radiate energy in fulfilling his fan-friendliness obligations, and obtained his autograph for me. She did the same with the second player, who was a little more interactive and perfectly polite about the whole thing.

Then she got to Baylor. Baylor could not have been warmer. He inquired about her, her job, what all it entailed. He showed genuine interest in another human being, like somebody who wasn’t talking to her because somebody told him he had to. When their brief conversation was complete, he stood up, shook her hand and thanked her.

No, you don’t think much about the coaches. But whenever his name comes up, I’ll always think of what a class act Don Baylor was.