During my time in the military, I could always tell how good a unit was by watching the interaction between the commanding officer and the non-commissioned officers (sergeants and the like) under their command. Good units had tight communication and a well-defined road ahead. Officers dictated their intent and the non-commissioned officers trained and molded the troops to fulfill the vision of their leaders. Less quality units lacked either that overarching guidance or had a commander who suffered from either being too distant, too buried in paperwork, or too full of his own ego to be approachable.
Although football often draws the most war-like comparisons, there are a few baseball-military comparisons that can be made. One could liken Spring Training to a sort of Basic Training, where the basic skills are learned or brushed up on and new recruits learn the philosophy of the organization, although there is hardly the level of intensity in spring baseball that there is in a place like Fort Bragg or Camp LeJune. One could also make the leap that daily batting practice is similar to the daily physical training, where members exercise and work out before the duty day.
My favorite baseball-military analogy however is comparing baseball coaching staffs to military units. Like military units, there is one commanding officer – the manager. Underneath him is a team of coaches whose sole objective is to ensure players have the capability to fulfill his strategy. They are essential in bringing out the best in a roster’s manpower. A baseball team, like a military unit, is only as strong as its weakest link, and coaches are there to ensure that weakest link is ready to support whatever weight is placed on it.
(Ok, I know no coach can turn terrible players into all-stars. There is a level of responsibility for the front office to bring in capable talent. But no team can win on talent alone. Managers make decisions throughout the season that rely on the roles and responsibilities of coaches.)
Coaches fall into two categories: strategic and tactical. Strategic coaches – batting and pitching coaches – ensure players know how to perform the tasks required by the manager. They are masters of the specifics, helping refine players’ techniques, such as bunting, baserunning, pick-off moves, etc, to make them better equipped to help the team win. They are very similar to lower level non-commissioned officers who help soldiers with marksmanship, map reading, and their specific job functions. While they may make suggestions during a game, a majority of their work comes between games in the preparation phase.
For the Rays, these positions are filled by Derek Shelton (Batting Coach) and Jim Hickey (Pitching Coach). Both return to the Rays after filling the same positions in 2010. Hickey has been with the staff nearly as long as Joe Maddon, and is regarded as one of the premier pitching coaches in the league. Shelton, on the other hand, was criticized heavily throughout his first year as hitting coach. Perhaps the additions of veteran hitters Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon can help, as they may provide well-regarded peer-to-peer counseling.
The Rays also have an additional hand in the form of Assistant Pitching Coach Stan Boroski. According to the MLB coaching rosters, most teams do not have assistant pitching coaches. When hired prior to 2010, Boroski took the place of current Rays commentator Brian Anderson. According to the Rays website, Boroski assists with pre-game warm-ups, developing a game plan for the pitchers. After the preparations are complete, he then watches the game in the press box.
Unlike strategic coaches, who work mostly before the game, tactical coaches do most of their work during the game. Tactical coaches include bench coaches and base coaches whose primary function is to advise the manager or the players of decisions that can impact the outcome of a game. There is a lot of dispute over the value of a good tactical coach, but there is a reason most personnel fill one of these positions before taking a managerial role. They are among the most trusted of confidants on the staff and usually directly influence a manager’s outlook.
Tactical coaches are most like the senior non-commissioned officers in a military unit staff who oversee the training, the morale, and the wellbeing of the troops of their unit. They are the personnel who tell an officer if the men can march another mile or if they need food or water. They deal in the immediate and their job is to take care of troops as well as to see that they are put in positions to succeed. Especially if it means waving in the winning run or suggesting which pinch hitter to use.
The Rays bench coach positions in 2011 are filled by George Hendrick and Tom Foley, at first and third, respectively. Both are stalwarts of the coaching staff, with Hendrick having filled the position since 2005 and Foley since 2001. They prove the theory that while a bad coach should be replaced, a good tactical coach is invaluable.
Also invaluable are the Rays are the men on the bench, Dave Martinez and Don Zimmer. Martinez fills the position of bench coach – or in military parlance, Team Executive Officer – and Zimmer fills the role of Senior Baseball Advisor. Although there was concern neither would be with the Rays after 2010 (Martinez was a candidate for the Blue Jays manager position and Zimmer is nearly 80 years old), both are at Joe Maddon’s side yet again. It is interesting that Maddon, one of the most open-minded of baseball managers, is flanked by both one of the youngest assistants in the game and the oldest.
Whereas most teams only list the above coaching positions, the Rays also list two special assistants who should both have a major impact on the team in 2011. Joining the Rays this year is Rocco Baldelli as special assistant in Scouting and Player Development and Dave Eiland, who will be a Special assistant in scouting draft candidates, evaluating minor-league prospects, and offering advice on potential acquisitions.
While we are all familiar with Baldelli’s background, the newcomer Eiland gives the Rays an new unprecedented advantage. For the last three years, Eiland served as pitching coach of the New York Yankees. And with the Yankees only making one major pitching acquisition this offseason, signing former Ray Rafael Soriano, the Rays now possess a source that knows everything there is to know about the capabilities of one of their biggest rivals. There is no doubt Eiland’s knowledge of the enemy will help both Joe Maddon and the Rays hitters prepare against the Yankees hurlers. I’m sure he has already visited the Rays’ top secret labs, met with their Sabermetric Keebler elves, looked over the Rays scouting reports of Yankees pitchers, and provided intelligence that will prove key on the field of battle.
Ironically, Eiland was replaced by name familiar to the Rays’ faithful, former manager Larry Rothschild. Having been removed from the organization nearly 10 years ago, however, there is probably little Rothschild can bring to the Yankees in regards to intelligence on the Rays.
Finally, wrapping up Joe Maddon’s support corps are the bullpen hands of Bobby Ramos (Bullpen Coach) and Scott Cursi (Bullpen Catcher). With his famous off-kilter personality, Ramos is comparable to an old cagey sergeant who is in charge of the mess or the supply tent – maybe like Corporal Klinger in MASH. Cursi, on the other hand, is one of the most unlikely veterans on the staff – a man with little professional baseball experience coming into the position, but who has made himself invaluable since 2000 with his steady service.
Of course, as an aside if he makes the team, the internet’s favorite Rays reliever Dirk Hayhurst fits the mold of Anthony Swofford, John Crawford, or Tim O’Brien – military members who wrote of tales from the front lines. Could The Bullpen Gospels follow the trail of Jarhead be made into a movie?
Where ever they came from or whatever their backstory, there is no doubt Joe Maddon relies on his squad of coaches more than most. Together, they provide some of the best tactical and strategic advice of any group in the business. While they might not get the headlines or the fame or the glory, the cohesion and teamwork of the Rays coaching staff is an essential part in the war for the AL East.