Here’s a snippet from Rick Down’s résumé:
Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken Jr., Carlos Delgado, Roberto Alomar, Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter, Eddie Murray, Adrian Beltre, Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Carlos Beltran …
“Great hitters,” he said, “make you a pretty good hitting coach.”
In that respect, then, Jose Trevino, Marcus Greene and Luke Tendler are doing it again. Even if it’s happening a world away from Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
Whether any of the young Spokane Indians currently tearing up the Northwest League ever do it in such storied ballyards will depend in part on the hitting practices they develop, alter or shed here. The man in charge of quality control for that department has counseled the best swingers in baseball – and probably didn’t see himself making eight-hour bus rides in the Northwest League at age 63.
No matter. A job’s a job.
“And my job,” said Down, “is to get rid of my job.”
Meaning he wants a player to “become his own best hitting coach,” not that he wants to be fired.
Although Rick Down has a considerable résumé in that regard, too. It goes with the territory.
His lifetime in baseball includes 14 seasons as a major league hitting coach for the Dodgers, Mets, Orioles, Red Sox and – on two different occasions – the Yankees.
Possibly you can see where this is going.
Like virtually everyone who put on Yankees pinstripes between 1973 and 2006, Down forged a combustible relationship with the late George Steinbrenner – the Boss, the benefactor, the blowhard and beloved “Seinfeld” caricature.
“I loved George,” Down insisted, “and he loved me. It didn’t prevent him from firing me twice.”
There’s nothing quite like the first time, however. The year was 1995, and while the Northwest was consumed with the Mariners’ roll to catch the Angels in the American League West, the Yankees won 11 of their last 12 to secure the wild card – bouncing the loser of the Seattle-California one-game playoff. This set off the appropriate revelry in the New York clubhouse, at least until Steinbrenner swept in, an event Down said Yankees staff always described by saying, “The eagle has landed.”
“If you don’t win the World Series,” the Boss told the staff, with some colorful embroidery, “you’re all out of here.”
You may recall that the Yankees took a 2-0 lead over the M’s in the ALDS, then lost three in a row. Steamed-up Stein’ eventually cooled off enough to let manager Buck Showalter keep his job – if he’d can Down and the staff. Showalter declined and started working on a deal with Arizona, and the story goes that Steinbrenner jetted to Buck’s Florida home to persuade him to return on his terms – even after hiring Joe Torre for the job.
And yet when Down interviewed to manage the expansion Tampa Bay Rays in 1997, Steinbrenner offered his endorsement to the local newspaper. But the Rays went with Larry Rothschild instead. Likewise, Down was a runner-up for managing jobs with the Angels, Blue Jays and Dodgers.
Such a background might suggest he’s overqualified for his summer gig, though mostly that just takes some explaining.
Down was a roving instructor with, yes, the Yankees in 2012 when a hip implant issue forced him off the road and into the hospital. An infection, surgery and recovery kept him down through 2013, and it didn’t look as if anyone had a job for him in 2014 until a late call from the Rangers.
“I’m fortunate to be here,” he said. “These kids are an empty glass and there’s no hole at the bottom. They want to listen.”
From Down, they’ll get a tapestry of maxims, metaphors and common sense meant to instill a “professional approach” to hitting. He can put a hitter’s swing on the rack, too, but he’s not doing much in the way of overhauls this summer, instead preaching the gospel of preparation (“it’s where your confidence comes from”) and of playing the game a pitch at a time.
With a little “Why not you?” mixed in.
“I used to tell Bernie Williams he was the worst ‘best center fielder’ I’d ever been around,” Down said. “But to him, the seventh game of the World Series was no different than the first pitch of BP. That’s how he prepared.
“And the guy who can deal with failure the best is the one who’s going to be the most successful.”
He has some experience with failure – a .255 hitter in the minors cut loose by the Expos after seven seasons, he had “no idea” how the batter’s box became his classroom. Not that it’s unusual in the trade – for every Mark McGwire tutoring MLB hitters, there’s a John Mallee. It was the Mariners who turned Down into a coach, sending him to their very first farm club in Bellingham in 1977.
“Dave Henderson hit a home run off Jim Bouton in Portland that cleared the light tower,” he remembered. “High school kid. You knew you had something special there.”
One of those guys who can make you a pretty good hitting coach.