The dismissal of Rick Down was clearly a decision made by Omar Minaya — affirmation of that fact came right from Willie Randolph’s lips. As such, Willie wasn’t too happy, since Down and Randolph go way back and are good friends.
However, sometimes good friends don’t make good coaches.
No one’s quite sure of Down’s contribution to the team, other than being Willie’s pal. His in-game interviews reminded me of a John Steinbeck character — like somebody’s eccentric uncle who chews on a corncob pipe and says things that make you think he may have a screw or two loose.
Such is the case with the majority of big league coaches — they’re often on the staff simply because they’re buddies with the manager, and hang around because of their “vast experience and baseball knowledge”. In truth, few have much if any impact on player performance. Think about it: if you made ten million dollars a year, would you pay much mind to the “wisdom” of some old hack making about 75 grand?
And then, there are the “impact” coaches, who most certainly affect players — and often are the center of controversey as a result. For every student that prospered under Charley Lau or Tom House, there are another dozen who claim their philosophy was detrimental to performance. The new breed of “super coaches” — guys like Rick Peterson and Rudy Jaramillo — seem to have found a zen-like balance, but even they have their detractors. For example, Peterson’s done wonders with Ollie Perez, but what about Victor Zambrano?
So it’s not so easy to be a Major League coach, and that’s why most are happy to simply blend into the background.
Now what about Rickey Henderson? Can the card-playing, third-person talking, name-forgetting, greatest leadoff batter in history help the Mets?
Henderson has already had a positive impact on the Mets — going all the back to 1999, when his .315 average and .423 OBP at the top of the lineup sparked the Mets to a 40-15 finish that pushed them into the postseason. And his work with Jose Reyes in the past two spring trainings has been nothing short of amazing. Yes, Reyes’ talent has much to do with his performance, but Rickey has to be given some of the credit for quadrupling his walk rate since 2005. And you have to think Reyes is implementing some of Rickey’s advice on his way to stealing a hundred bases this year.
One must expect that Rickey can have a similar impact on a few other young and talented speedsters — namely, Lastings Milledge and Carlos Gomez. Both are raw but seem the type to soak up any knowledge thrown their way. Would you rather they pick the brain of Rick Down or chew on the morsels supplied by Rickey Henderson? It’s quite interesting, in fact, that Rickey’s arrival coincides with that of Lastings. Perhaps he’ll be Milledge’s personal tutor, and maybe Milledge will still be a Met on August 1st after all?
It makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. Milledge was on his way to smoothing over the edges in his game before breaking his foot. Since returning from the injury, he’s been hot as a pistol in the minors, and the Mets sorely need some offense. Maybe part of Rickey’s presence is an attempt to accelerate Milledge’s development — an intense on-the-job earn while you learn experience. Rather than trade the future for an unwanted bat, why not attempt to make the future now by melding an offensive genius with the raw talent?
Of course, Rickey will be able to help others in addition to Lastings. As Omar stated in his press conference, the Mets need to work the pitcher more, and get into deep counts (gee that sounds awful familiar … oh that’s right, we’ve been pleading for exactly that here on MetsToday for two months!). Rickey was the king of the deep count, and can sprinkle his thoughts throughout the Mets lineup. He may not make a team-wide difference, but if he gets through to just one or two batters, it could significantly increase the team’s effectiveness when it comes to wearing out opposing pitchers. All it takes is an extra 3-4 pitches an inning to eliminate a starter earlier than usual.
As of now, the Mets have not announced a replacement for Rick Down. Let’s hope it stays that way, because putting the title of “hitting coach” on any one person will only limit the effectiveness of the entire staff. Let Rickey do his thing with the youngsters, and any veterans interested in improving their game. Let Howard Johnson work his magic with David Wright, and anyone else on the team, without ruffling anyone’s feathers. Have Sandy Alomar connect with certain hitters, not worried about offending someone’s philosophy. One personality doesn’t always work with 13-15 individuals, so why try to force a square peg into a round hole? The team-wide offensive approach and philosophy can be set forth by Willie Randolph, and the coaching staff as a whole will be responsible for executing that approach in every way possible.
It’s a team after all, isn’t it?