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A good spot to learn
Several successful managers have something in common: They've spent time coaching at third.
By The Wall Street Journal
Published October 14, 2006
Some of the hottest managers in baseball have one thing in common: They spent significant time coaching third base.
Second-year manager Willie Randolph, who has led the New York Mets to their first division title in 18 years and a berth in this week's National League Championship Series, coached third for the Yankees for a decade. Last year's World Series-winning manager, Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox, came directly from coaching at third for the Florida Marlins. Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, another member of this largely unsung fraternity, says that other than the players, "third-base coaches are the most important people on the field."
Third-base coaches have two main responsibilities in games: relaying signs to the players and directing traffic on the bases, including the decision of when to send a runner home. In the postseason, when runs come at a premium, how skillfully they execute these duties can mean the difference between winning and elimination.
Last week, during a crucial division-series game against the Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers third-base coach Rich Donnelly found himself in the middle of a nightmare: Two of his runners were thrown out at home on the same play. While the players involved were partly at fault for the debacle, it happened on Donnelly's watch. The incident has since been replayed hundreds of times on TV and many fans believe it was the turning point in the series, which the Dodgers lost in three games. "It's frustrating," Donnelly says. "Your job is not to get in the way of a rally."
Given the pressure and the split-second decision-making involved, the job attracts a certain personality type. Among current postseason teams, Ron Washington of the Oakland A's is typical of this type-A species. He's a wiry man with a rat-a-tat speaking style, a penchant for chomping on toothpicks at all hours and an obsession with shining his shoes. On the field, players say he delivers the signs so fast they've had to tell him to slow down. When Washington waves a runner home, the windmills he makes with his right arm can force his feet off the ground. "He gets pretty amped," says A's third-baseman Eric Chavez.
Coaching third has always been a stop on the way to the top job. Though third-base coaches tend to make less than pitching coaches, hitting coaches and bench coaches (their salaries range from $150,000 to $250,000), they've seen their lot improve in recent years. Now that more teams are looking for high-energy managers who are closer to the players and comfortable talking to the media, the job has become a quicker route to the top. Last week the Marlins hired Fredi Gonzalez, the third-base coach for Atlanta, as their manager.
Much of the credit goes to Guillen of the White Sox, who won the 2005 World Series in just his second season as the team's manager. Before that, he'd coached third for the 2003 Marlins, who also won the World Series. Guillen's relative youth (he's 42 years old) and his aggressive, in-your-face style is unusual for a manager but common for a third-base coach. "You get used to the pressure coaching third," says Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. "The really good ones can manage from third like they're in the dugout."
By all accounts, the best third-base coaches have two assets: a quick mind and an uncanny feel for the rhythms of baseball. In a single play, a coach may have to keep track of the signs, the number of outs, the arm strength of the outfielders, the wind conditions, the quality of a runner's reaction to the hit, the batter on deck and even the spin of the ball off the bat.
When there's more than one runner on base, the difficulty grows. And when 40,000 people start screaming, a coach has to be able to communicate without words. "In a big game, you're not going to be able to hear anything," says infielder Julio Franco of the Mets. "I concentrate on their hands."