PORT CHARLOTTE — Jim Hickey was going to be a salesman.
Cars? Real estate? Insurance?
"I don't know, probably more like paper," he said. "Maybe computers. I could sell something."
Hickey was 27, released twice and back at Double A again, and the last man on the staff at that, with the end of his seven-year minor-league pitching career — which apparently peaked a few seasons before with a brief Triple-A stint — imminent.
He got the question over lunch with on a 1989 late summer day: Would he consider going into coaching?
Absolutely … not, Hickey said: "I had no intention whatsoever of becoming a coach. I'd already gotten my degree (in marketing), I thought I was going to go out into the business world and make my mark and make a living."
But as the end of the season approached, Hickey realized he wasn't ready to switch to the suit-and-tie uniform of the real world. A decision to try coaching for two years in the Astros' minor-league system became four, then six, eight and eventually a life.
Those same salesman skills turned out to be quite useful.
Hickey knows plenty about the mechanical aspects of pitching. He is well-versed in fundamentals and technical issues. Has a good sense of game-planning and strategy.
But in talking to his pitchers and his bosses and his backers, the key to Hickey's success as the Rays' pitching coach isn't as much what he has to say as how he says it.
"I think that Jim's greatest single strength is how he can connect with his pitchers," said Gerry Hunsicker, who gave Hickey his first big-league job and helped him get hired by the Rays. "His pitchers believe in him; they know he has their back. He doesn't try to force things down their throat. He sees everyone individually and he puts together a plan. …
"I marvel at him being able to connect to everyone from the raw rookies to guys like Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte. He seems to have the ability to win them all over regardless of their stature."
Rays manager Joe Maddon calls Hickey "the Pied Piper" for the way, sometimes creatively, he gets his pitchers — young and old, good and bad, English speaking and not — to follow him. But he also lauds Hickey for being willing to call them out, mixing a directness and a caustic sense of humor, and holding them accountable when necessary.
"The way he communicates the message to his pitchers makes him as good as he is," Maddon said.
For most of their six seasons under Hickey, 51, the Rays have been awfully good, including the American League's lowest staff ERA (3.74) over the past five, with three trips to the playoffs.
Hickey acknowledges how obviously "fortunate" he is to work with the quality of arms the Rays routinely assemble. But executive vice president Andrew Friedman says Hickey deserves "a lot of credit" for that success, lauding his overall work ethic, extensive prep for each series, ability to quickly identify mechanical flaws, and interpreting complex statistical and video data into useful info.
And best of all …
"His ability to communicate and relate to our players," Friedman said.
"He's personable, he's easy to talk to about anything," said Rays ace and reigning AL Cy Young winner David Price. "I talk to him all the time, even in the off season, at least once a week I'll call him or text him. … He's quick-witted, he's fun to talk to, he's open. He's one of my favorite people to talk to. He's someone I want to be around."
The son of a former Navy boxer (who once fought Joe Louis) and the fourth James Joseph in the family, Hickey grew up on the South Side of Chicago dreaming, like so many, of getting to the big leagues.
And though he couldn't make it as a pitcher — "I wasn't good enough, period," he admits — then why not as a coach?
It took some time, and some talking, with a dose of failure and betrayal.
The first problem was that his boss at the time in Houston, Hunsicker, was adamant that his coaches needed to have the credibility of playing in the majors. But when "it seemed like every young pitcher we brought to the big leagues gave Jim a fair amount of credit," Hunsicker, who is now a senior adviser with the Dodgers, reassessed his philosophy.
So while making a mid 2004 managerial change, Hunsicker gave Hickey, who had been coaching 14 years by then, seven at Triple A, his first shot.
Hickey overcame that supposed credibility gap to work, and work well, with big names such as Clemens, Pettitte and Roy Oswalt and helped the Astros reach the 2005 World Series. But when Astros owner Drayton McLane, who had already run off Hunsicker, decided after 2006 to make more changes, Hickey was not rehired.
Hunsicker was with the Rays then, and after hearing Hickey was available, he let all of 10 minutes pass before calling and saying they would have a job for him in their minor-league system. Hickey wanted to stay in the majors, of course, and interviewed with the Reds, but when Jerry Narron chose Dick Pole, Hickey agreed to take the Rays' Triple-A job.
What nobody knew was that Rays major-league pitching coach Mike Butcher was about to bail on the team and Maddon after one season to go back to the Angels. A couple of conversations with Maddon and Friedman (neither of whom played in the majors, either), and Hickey was back in the big leagues with the Rays.
"God bless Mike Butcher," Hickey said. "I tell him that all the time."
Hickey has had mostly younger pitchers with the Rays, finding the challenge of working with them "more gratifying" than with the polished veterans he had in Houston, highlighted by the obvious development of the 27-year-old Price.
Plus, the Rays' kiddie corps keeps him young, hip culturally, even in shape.
And they keep him selling.
"I think communicating is probably the biggest part of the job," Hickey said. "It's not where your foot lands and where your arm needs to be and how you hold a curveball or a changeup. …
"It's more about building relationships, having guys trust and believe in what you're saying. Trust is the big thing. Because as soon as they don't trust you, you're done."