The transition from player to coach is often a difficult one with numerous components factoring into a successful move from the playing field to the dugout and backfields.
For many, the passion and drive to perform on the field are still present, but the body sometimes breaks down and an eroding skillset often betrays the player. Becoming a good coach won’t happen until one is able to put their playing days in the rearview mirror. Washington Nationals’ Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations Doug Harris expounds, “That’s the biggest thing when you go into the hiring process. Has the player left playing the game on their own terms or does he think he can still play and that opportunity just doesn’t exist out there? It’s a careful line you walk because players end their careers on different notes.”
Pitching coach Paul Menhart was in that boat during the 2001 season for the independent Western League’s Solano Steelheads, “I knew I was going to be a coach in the final days I was pitching.” Besides working as a reliever, Menhart also served as the team’s pitching coach, “While I was doing both I got a bigger high out of the coaching aspect of it than actually pitching. I’m not saying that I lost my drive or anything, but I think I found my calling.”
Former catcher and designated hitter Matt LeCroy also saw the writing on the wall, “As I got older I knew with my body breaking down it was time for me to stop playing. I had Frank (Robinson) and Gardy (Ron Gardenhire) as managers and they pushed me to get into coaching. I started paying attention a little bit more to the coaching part of it at the end when I wasn’t playing and watching how they ran things.”
LeCroy, who is now the Nationals’ bullpen coach, is one of a number of former backstops the organization has hired during the last couple of seasons. Washington bench coach Randy Knorr and Gulf Coast League manager Michael Barrett are two other highly regarded coaches that gained experience while strapping on the tools of ignorance behind the plate. The Nationals look for a number of traits in a potential coach: knowledge of the game, a broad range of experiences, leadership qualities, and character are some that rank high for the organization and as Harris points out, “For whatever reason, catchers bring a broader knowledge of the game in some cases because they are in charge of running the field. For us, it has been a very good transition for some catchers.”
After playing 11 professional seasons, Menhart also points to diversity as a positive that has shaped who he became as a coach, “I played for nine organizations. So to say I have an eclectic philosophy on pitching is an understatement because I’ve taken bits and pieces from numerous individuals.”
No matter how much experience a player has though, there is always going to be a learning curve as he moves into coaching. During LeCroy’s first spring training as a manager in 2009, he found that out firsthand as he hit infield/outfield for his group. Despite a crisp and clean performance by his players, LeCroy wasn’t as lucky as infield coordinator Jeff Garber proceeded to tell him that he missed a couple of plays that needed to be done. LeCroy had a plan, “So, the next day I took a sheet out there and put it on the ground. I’d look at it before to make sure that I’d hit every ball that they wanted hit the way they wanted it hit. They all got a kick out of it.” As Harris points out, “You take things for granted but when you’re making that transition nothing’s too trivial.”
One aspect many players don’t anticipate is the necessary 180-degree change in their personal philosophy. “The biggest thing is as a player you’re responsible for preparing yourself each and every day to do your job in the framework of the ballclub. As a staff member it’s the complete opposite, you are responsible for preparing everybody else,” Harris explains, “You go from having to have a somewhat selfish attitude to a selfless mentality because as a coach, it’s all about the players.” Menhart states it simply, “I think a lot of coaches that go from playing right to coaching don’t realize the process and don’t have the patience. Understanding that the process is different for each individual has helped me get different guys from different backgrounds with different talent levels better.”
It’s a process that the Nationals are cognizant of and do what they can to ensure success by putting the new coach in the best possible situation. Harris explained that they try to balance new coaches with veteran managers and new managers with experienced support staff. Harris also added an additional caveat with new managers, “Early in the season we want a strong presence with our rovers just so there’s a sounding board there. We obviously let our manager run his squad but we just him to have a strong support system.”
Ultimately though the transition from playing to coaching and its success is determined by the passion and love the player brings to his new position. LeCroy knows how fortunate he is in his new role, “I’m just excited for the opportunity to stay in baseball.” Menhart also sounds like a man who has found his calling, “I really do love watching kids get better and the development side of this in the minors. I get tears when kids make their major league debut. That’s the reward for me.”
Mick Reinhard (@Mayflies) covers the Harrisburg Senators (Washington Nationals’ AA affiliate) as a contributing writer to PennLive / The Patriot-News and is a member of the IBWAA. Here at Banished to the Pen, Mick will post various interviews and stories that encapsulate the minor league experience along with profiles of prospects on their way to The Show.
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