The Johnny Sain Travel Guide

Here’s a quote from Ball Four by Jim Bouton:

Every once in a while there’s a guy that doesn’t fit into the coaching mold, a man with an original idea or two who’s not afraid to express them, a guy who would like to have some influence on the club. I mean a guy like Johnny Sain. And what happens to him? He moves around a lot. He has to, because as soon as he asserts himself the manager wants to get rid of him, no matter how good a job he’s doing. (Ball Four by Jim Bouton, page 287.)

I thought of this as soon as I read that Brad Arnsberg had been fired by the Houston Astros.

It’s hard to get a gauge on Arsnberg because there are publicly differing opinions about him.

After he was fired by the Marlins in their 2003 purge, he was savaged by the club for his reaction to the firing. It wasn’t temperamental owner Jeffrey Loria who made negative statements about Arnsberg, but respected GM Larry Beinfest who accused the former pitching coach of being unprofessional and bordering on violent to the point where he wasn’t allowed into the stadium to pick up his belongings—Sun Journal Story, 5.12.2003.

It certainly didn’t help Arnsberg’s cause that the Marlins went on to win the World Series that year with new manager Jack McKeon replacing Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal replacing Arnsberg.

Moving on with the Blue Jays, Arsnberg was widely credited with the work of veterans Ted Lilly and A.J. Burnett, along with youngsters Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch; it’s not hard to look smart when working with Roy Halladay.

Arnsberg was basically pilfered by the Astros after the 2009 season. Star pitching coaches are generally in demand due to reputation and a prior record of success. Sometimes it works—as has been the case with Larry Rothschild and Rick Peterson; other times it hasn’t as was the case with Leo Mazzone.

It’s fleeting and based on results.

Or other factors.

The Astros pitched well last season. Brett Myers rejuvenated his career; J.A. Happ was solid after being acquired from the Phillies; Bud Norris has been good; Mark Melancon has blossomed.

Who knows what was going on inside the Astros organization and clubhouse? Did manager Brad Mills feel threatened by Arnsberg? Was there a falling out? Did they feel like doing something to try and wake up a struggling (and pretty poor) club.

“Philosophical differences” is a convenient excuse for a change and it’s of a similar vein to the “lack of communication” absurdity that’s often used when there’s no explicable reason.

I have no problem with a GM saying, “I wanted to make a change”. He doesn’t have to give a reason. He’s the boss.

But clubs don’t see it that way. They think they have to give something tangible to the media and “feeling like it” doesn’t cut it.

Years ago, when the Marlins had several pitchers on the disabled list with injuries to different parts of their bodies, I suggested that perhaps Arnsberg was the common denominator.

I’ve evolved from this view.

Very rare is it that a pitching coach will have training techniques that deviate from the norm so egregiously that pitchers will take part in them to begin with; and if they’re so unusual, it’s hard to see any manager allowing them to be utilized or the pitching coach to make it up to the big leagues.

It goes back to the Johnny Sain travel guide and the main tenet: don’t usurp the manager’s authority by disagreeing with him.

There are pitching coaches like this still floating around. Dick Pole has bounced from team-to-team, usually working for Dusty Baker. None other than Greg Maddux has said that it was Pole who taught him a great deal about the mechanics and mental aspects of pitching that Maddux used to forge a Hall of Fame career.

But Pole is as much-traveled as Sain was.

And Arnsberg is on the way to catching up to these men with their honorable, but short-lived reputations for accumulating frequent flyer miles and different mailing addresses.

Go along to get along or get fired for “philosophical differences” and “lack of communication”.

Some men are willing. Others aren’t. Those that aren’t tend to move around a lot and have extreme reputations. From the outside, this appears to be the case with Brad Arnsberg.

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