More than just a side job

For a manager, bench coach is trusted confidant

A bench coach fulfills many duties for the manager, and Terry Francona (left) has a good one in longtime friend Brad Mills. A bench coach fulfills many duties for the manager, and Terry Francona (left) has a good one in longtime friend Brad Mills. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - First bench coach? Johnny Pesky said it could have been him.

When Ted Williams was named manager of the Washington Senators before the 1969 season, one of the first calls he placed was to Pesky.

"I was doing radio and TV for the Red Sox," the 88-year-old Pesky said. "A week earlier, I would have been with Ted. My wife Ruthie and her mother were in the kitchen when he called. He said, 'I need you. Can you come down?'

"I wanted to do it and break my contract. But the general manager of the station said it was too late. They had me reading football scores in the winter to work on my voice, and they had done all this PR stuff for me."

Williams instead hired a buddy, Joe Camacho, a former minor leaguer and grammar school principal who was on the staff of his baseball academy in Lakeville, Mass. There was little doubt, judging from this story Leigh Montville tells in his splendid biography of Williams, that Ted could have used the help.

This was early in spring training. "Camacho and [Nellie] Fox were in the infield discussing various options for third-base cutoff plays," Montville writes. "Each coach had an opinion. They went back and forth. Williams listened in on this for a couple of minutes, then said, '[Expletive] it, let's hit.' Hitting practice began."

First bench coach? Bill Francis, a researcher for the Hall of Fame, noted that in 1877, the Chicago Tribune reported that Joe Simmon was the "assistant manager" of the Rochester team, while Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, who never regained his health after being gassed during World War I, served as assistant manager to Hall of Famer John McGraw of the Giants from 1919-21.

The number of coaches used by big-league teams has evolved over the years. Base coaches often double up as infield, outfield, and base-running instructors. There is also the pitching coach, hitting coach, and bullpen coach, who often oversees the catchers, too. And now you have the bench coach, which usually can be divided among those whose decades of experience - often as former managers - make them invaluable, and those who are managers-in-training.

Joe Torre believes the first bench coach was longtime manager Don Zimmer, who for a decade sat Yoda-like next to Torre on the Yankees bench.

"It started with me and Zim," Torre said. "[Red] Schoendienst was the closest I had in St. Louis. He'd come up to me and remind me of something from time to time. When I sat with Zim, he sort of brought me along. I was a little bit more on the conservative side and he was more on the aggressive side. We met somewhere in the middle.

"You know what's great about a bench coach? The fact you can bounce stuff off somebody instead of laying in bed at night, second-guessing what you did."

You know what's great about a bench coach, Zimmer once told Esquire Magazine? Not much.

"I'm a bench coach," Zimmer told the magazine. "Thirty years ago, there was no such thing - you were a coach. Now they got a title for a bench coach, which is a joke. People say, 'What is the job of a bench coach?' I say, 'Very simple - I sit next to Torre on the bench. When he plays a hit-and-run that works, I say, 'Nice goin' Skipper,' and if it doesn't work, I go down to the other end of the bench, get a drink, and get out of his way. We only got one manager. I don't want no credit for doin' anything. I sit next to Joe like a bump on a log - that's the way I leave it."

First bench coach? Bob Schaefer, the former Red Sox director of player development who is Torre's new bench coach with the Dodgers, has been a bench coach for three teams - the Royals, Athletics, and now the Dodgers - and for six managers. The first time was in 1991, with John Wathan in Kansas City, before Zimmer and Torre hooked up.

"There's so much stuff a manager has to do now," said Schaefer, who had never met Torre but was recommended for the job by Don Mattingly and won over Torre when he mentioned that he had come up in the Cardinals' system and had been mentored by the legendary George Kissell. "He needs somebody else to do all that stuff."

Brad Mills is the Red Sox' bench coach. He was Terry Francona's first base coach with the Phillies, and was Frank Robinson's bench coach in Montreal before reuniting with Francona in Boston. Among other things, Mills organizes and runs spring training for the Sox manager.

"Managers don't coordinate spring training anymore," said Francona, who was bench coach for Jerry Narron in Texas (2002) and Ken Macha in Oakland ('03). "There is so much media, so many other things. You get pulled in so many ways today, you don't get to do a lot of coaching as manager. You'd better have good coaches, because what is being said to those players is important. If it's not right, it's on me. I'm the one who's responsible."

You want to know, Sox catcher Jason Varitek says, why Francona is such a good manager?

"As a manager, you're as good as the people you've surrounded yourself with, and he's surrounded himself with pretty doggone good coaches," Varitek said. "We got the best bench coach [Mills], the best catching coach [Gary Tuck], the best pitching coach [John Farrell]. He's been able to surround himself with very significant people, and that makes you a great manager right there."

Mills, who was Francona's college teammate at the University of Arizona, not only acts as the manager's touchstone, he keeps track of the minutest details that sometimes can mean the difference between winning and losing. That was never displayed more vividly than in Game 2 of the World Series, when Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who had never picked off a base-runner in the big leagues, nailed Matt Holliday of the Rockies in the eighth inning of a one-run game. Mills had anticipated that Rockies advance scouts who watched Angels base-runners take liberties on Papelbon in the AL Division Series would believe the Sox were vulnerable to a stolen base in that situation. Mills also had color-coded charts, culled from the work done by Sox scouts, that showed Holliday liked to run on the first pitch when there were two outs. Mills gave the sign from the Sox bench, Varitek relayed it to Papelbon, and Holliday had no chance, first baseman Kevin Youkilis slapping the tag.

First bench coach? We may never really know, but it's pretty obvious they're here to stay.

Francona supporters

Bench coach Brad Mills: He has been with Francona far longer than any member of the Sox staff, having fi rst met the Sox manager when they played and roomed together for Jerry Kindall at the University of Arizona. Mills, 51, also played with Francona on the Expos from 1981-83, and like Francona, had his career cut short by a severe knee injury.

Pitching coach John Farrell: Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says Farrell, 45, could hold any job in the game he wanted, including GM or manager. The Pirates took a run at him to manage last fall, but Farrell turned them down, almost certainly because he knows he'll get better offers.

Hitting coach Dave Magadan: Magadan, 42, hit just 42 home runs in 16 big-league seasons, but the lefthanded hitter batted .300 or better five times and had a career on-base percentage of .390, which dovetails perfectly with the Sox' approach at the plate.

Third base coach DeMarlo Hale: Former first baseman-outfi elder in the Sox minor league system, Hale, 46, interviewed for the Sox managing job before Francona was hired, having managed seven seasons in the Sox system after being hired by Bob Schaefer in 1992.

First base coach Luis Alicea: Former second baseman for 13 seasons, including the division-winning year of 1995 with the Sox, Alicea, 42, managed three seasons in the minors, two with the Lowell Spinners.

Bullpen coach Gary Tuck: Though he washed out quickly as a player, spending three years in the Expos system, Tuck, 53, has a quarter century of experience as minor league manager, coach, and catching instructor, and behind the scenes has had an energizing effect on the bullpen.

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