For a decade, his was the worst job in baseball.
So why does Jim Hickey look like the luckiest man on the field?
Watch Hickey move. He bounds around like a man trying to squeeze 70 seconds worth of work into every minute, like a preacher who is trying frantically to mention all of the commandments before the picnic starts.
One minute, Hickey is on the mound throwing batting practice. The next, he is in rightfield with his arm curled around whichever pitcher he has reached first. It is the aimless flight of a baseball coach, and it is easy not to notice. Until you pay attention to the grin.
Every moment seems golden for Hickey. His starters are young and talented, and his relievers are weathered and wise. Scott Kazmir is closing in on his rhythm. Edwin Jackson looks mentally tougher. Andy Sonnanstine looks more mature. Matt Garza looks more comfortable. James Shields is, well, James Shields. Throw in the bullpen, throw in the rising stars in the minor leagues, and there has never been a better time to be the Rays pitching coach.
Lucky man, Hickey, to have this kind of talent.
Lucky man, Hickey, to have this kind of job.
He could have lost it all. In the days following Hickey's arrest on charges of DUI and resisting arrest in October, the popular thing for the Rays front office would have been to fire him. No one would have said a word in his defense. Not even Hickey.
"I realize how fortunate I am," Hickey, 47, said. "I made a horrible mistake. The easy thing (for those in charge of the organization) to do would have been to dismiss me, to say they were moving in another direction. They deserve a lot of credit because they took the tougher road."
Who knows how close the Rays were to replacing Hickey in those four weeks when he was uncertain of his future? Who knows where he might have landed? All that is clear is that when a man has flirted with throwing away something precious, he tends to appreciate that he has it still. Understand, then, how gratifying these days have been for Hickey.
Whoever thought of praising a Rays pitching coach? For that matter, who even knew who had the job? In a seven-year span, from 2001-07, the Rays had six of them. If Hickey had been fired, it would have been seven in eight years.
For most of that time, the job was hopeless. It was an impossible knot to undo, a job of trying to convince a forgettable string of pitchers they could get out an unforgettable lineup of hitters from the AL East. It was like being a drill sergeant for the Light Brigade; no matter what you said, defeat was inevitable.
So why did the Rays keep Hickey? Perhaps they thought the constant turnover was bad for their young pitchers. Perhaps they thought of Hickey as a good guy who did a stupid thing. And perhaps they had some inkling of what was to come.
This year, the turnaround of Hickey's staff has been dazzling. Through Friday's game, the starters had given up 46 fewer earned runs than at the same point last year. The relief pitchers had given up 30 fewer. Walks are down. Opposing home runs are down. Victories are up.
Consider this: The Rays have given up two runs or fewer 18 times this season. At this point last year, that number was four.
It is not an easy job, pitching coach. It is handling young players and veterans, left-handers and righties, flamethrowers and dart tossers. It is breaking down opposing hitters, building up confidences and balancing workloads. It is being a different coach for Troy Percival than for Jackson. It is knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it.
"I don't want to use the word 'psychiatrist' because it says something might be wrong with the guys," Hickey said. "Psychologist, maybe. You have to find a way to motivate each individual guy. The most important thing is to have the trust of the players. The moment you start to have half-truths or sugarcoat things, the trust can erode every day."
So far, it is working. Credit the pitchers. Credit the front office. Credit the defense. And, yeah, credit Hickey. As Percival says, "He's the perfect guy for our situation." Which, of course, beats people talking about his imperfections.
He knows, okay? The best thing about Hickey is that he seems fully aware of how deadly, how dangerous driving under the influence is. Praising Hickey's accomplishments doesn't excuse that.
At its core, however, pitching is about overcoming mistakes. It's about second chances and tough situations and changing perceptions. Sometimes, it's about working your way out of trouble. Hickey can tell you about all of that.
Yep, he's fortunate that he's still here.
On the other hand, keeping him around shows the Rays have some good fortune of their own.