Bench time long overdue for Rays' Evers

Published May 18, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Chances are, you won't even notice.

The game will look the same, the noise will sound familiar. The lineup will be similar and, yes, there is a good chance the Devil Rays will lose.

All will be as it should be, except for one seat in the first-base dugout. From there, the substitute manager will sit silently and anticipate the start of tonight's game at Tropicana Field.

The clock will tell him how long he has to wait.

His heart will remind him it has been 30 years.

This night is for Bill Evers. Not that he would ever make such a proclamation. Nor is anyone in the clubhouse likely to say it out loud.

But some things are just plain true, whether someone is pointing them out or not. And, on this night, there is not a better story to be told.

With Joe Maddon attending the law school graduation of girlfriend Jaye Sousoures in Fullerton, Calif., this weekend, Evers goes from bench coach to temporary manager for two games.

It is a designation that means nothing, and everything. Baseball's history books will still record the results under Maddon's name, and not more than a handful of people will even be aware of the difference.

Yet none of that matters. Not for a family that moved 31 times in 10 years chasing various minor-league assignments. Not for a man who has managed 2,587 games from the lowest levels of the minors to Triple A. Not for friends who ran out of ways of preaching patience because they had nothing else to offer.

"He's as good a soldier as there is in baseball," said Mets scout Bill Livesey, who recruited Evers to be his catcher at Eckerd College in the early 1970s. "He was what everyone wanted in the minor leagues: a guy who would put the development of the kids ahead of his own needs.

"It's wonderful to see someone like that finally get what he deserves."

If we're talking about just desserts, Evers still has plenty more that should be coming his way. Or wouldn't you think a guy who has won five minor-league championships warranted his break a little sooner?

Since his four-year playing career fell apart in Triple A in 1979, Evers has managed minor-league teams for the Cubs, Giants, Yankees and Rays. He has gone from the Midwest League to the Texas to the Pacific Coast to the South Atlantic to the Eastern to the International to the Gulf Coast to the Florida State, and back again. All in all, he spent 30 years as player and coach in the minors without ever getting the promotion everyone agreed he deserved.

He was making around $50,000 a year and managing phenoms who had already been handed million-dollar bonuses.

"I'm sure there were times he thought he might get his break. But I'll tell you this: He never whined or moaned about it," senior baseball adviser Don Zimmer said. "All he's done is bust his a-- his whole life.

"When I heard about this, I was acting like a little kid. That's how happy I was for him."

He'd had close calls with the Rays before. Hired to manage the first Rays minor-league team in 1996, Evers was bypassed for the major-league staff in 1998. And again in 2001. And 2003.

When Maddon was hired in November, there was no reason to believe it would be different this time. Their paths may have previously crossed, but there was no natural bond between a guy who had been in the Angels organization for 31 years and Evers.

Maddon could have chosen anyone to be his bench coach. And yet he wanted Evers. When the phone call came, when Evers told his wife Patty, she cried.

"You want to know what it means?" Zimmer said. "That ought to tell you."

It wouldn't be the last emotional moment the couple shared before Bill's major-league coaching career would actually get started.

During annual physicals early in spring training, Evers had an unusual reading on a blood test. Just to be safe, team physician Michael Reilly suggested he have a colonoscopy.

The procedure had just begun when the doctor took one look at the video and immediately turned off the screen. There was a large mass in Evers' colon. There would be no discussion. Within hours, he was in surgery where doctors removed a fist-sized tumor.

There were traces of cancer, but they were confined within the tumor. Chemotherapy, thankfully, would not be necessary.

Evers would, however, spend a week in the hospital. And that meant missing the first opening day of his major-league career with the Rays in Baltimore.

"That was hard. It was very hard not being there," Evers says quietly. "I came home from the hospital and had about 15 or 20 messages waiting. I sat down in my bedroom and started listening, and the first one was from (Orioles hitting coach) Lee Elia. He said he knew how hard it must have been for me after waiting 30 years, and that he missed me.

"I just broke down, listening to that. I had to walk out of the room. It took a couple of hours before I could listen to the rest of the messages."

Evers, 52, at least made it back in time for the home opener a week later. His parents flew down from New York for the game. His brothers, too. Evers had spent time with the major-league club in previous Septembers after minor-league seasons, but it had never been quite like this.

These days, as he walks through the clubhouse, the greetings are usually the same. From Aubrey Huff to Carl Crawford to Joey Gathright, they all call him Skip. As in Skipper. It is a term of endearment for a man who is no longer their minor-league manager, but whose imprint has remained on them.

Tonight, he is managing again. Maddon has left him no instructions. He will not call from California to offer suggestions. For the next two days, the ballclub is in Evers' hands. His dream is, too.

Good luck, Skip.