Rays pitching coach's best move came after 2007 season

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, watching Matt Garza warm up Wednesday, was arrested for DUI and resisting arrest on the final day of last season. His contriteness convinced the Rays to retain him, and this year, they had the second-best ERA in the American League.

Associated Press

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, watching Matt Garza warm up Wednesday, was arrested for DUI and resisting arrest on the final day of last season. His contriteness convinced the Rays to retain him, and this year, they had the second-best ERA in the American League.

BOSTON — Sitting outside the visitor's clubhouse at Fenway Park, Jim Hickey is explaining the importance of communication. The need for a pitching coach to relate to his guys and to build strong relationships.

At that moment, Matt Garza walks past and neither sees nor hears Hickey as he calls to the right-hander.

"You see," Hickey says grinning, "it's all about the rapport."

These days, the man can joke all he likes. You've earned that right when your team is a victory away from the American League pennant and you're looking like a professor leading a class of valedictorians.

Seriously, how many pitching coaches have had a better 12-month run?

Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson went from a combined 11-25 to 27-20 and cut their ERAs from the high 5.00s to the low 4.00s. Garza went from an underachiever in Minnesota to one of the more impressive young pitchers around. J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour went from unwanted to practically irreplaceable overnight.

And when Troy Percival's body gave out on him near midseason, Hickey and manager Joe Maddon kept running new bodies out for the ninth inning. The Rays ended up with six relievers saving two or more games.

Now nobody is suggesting Hickey is a guru in spikes. He had, obviously, a nice collection of arms at his disposal.

But when you consider the number of young pitchers in the rotation, when you consider the number of turnaround or career seasons, when you consider the way the bullpen went from laughable to laudable, then you must consider Hickey's job performance as a major part of what the Rays have accomplished.

Ask six people what Hickey has done well, and you may get six different answers. It's his preparation. Or his dialogues. Or his consistency. Or his game plans. Or his willingness to adjust.

If you ask me, it was his contrition.

A year ago at this time, Hickey was not even sure he was going to have a job.

He had been arrested and charged with DUI and resisting arrest on the final day of the regular season, and the Rays waited more than four weeks before announcing he would be given a one-year contract for 2008.

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said the key was the way Hickey handled it. He made no excuses. He did not minimize the seriousness of the situation, and he apologized immediately and publicly. Hickey was also proactive in terms of the consequences, enrolling in DUI school and completing 50 hours of community service before his case even came to court at the end of October.

"It wasn't that difficult of a decision for us after I had a conversation with him," Friedman said. "Initially, when we heard the news, it would have been easier to just move on without him.

"But … if we believe strongly that it's not the right move, we're not going to do something just to placate people. Because we believe, in the end, our decision will be validated."

Tampa Bay's faith in Hickey may have saved his career. He had been a successful pitching coach in Houston (reaching the playoffs in two of his three seasons) but was dismissed in 2006 after the Astros finished second in the National League in ERA.

"I had just been let go in Houston and then turn around a year later and put myself in a position where I could have been fired again," Hickey said. "It would have made it very, very difficult for me to get another shot. I mean, it's possible, but any owner is going to wonder why this guy got fired two years in a row.

"That's why I'm so grateful to the organization, and I let Andrew and Stu (Sternberg) and Matt (Silverman) know that I appreciated their faith in me."

Tampa Bay's reward has been obvious. Despite not having a single game started by a pitcher older than 26 and despite losing Percival for a good chunk of the season, the Rays were second in the AL in ERA.

It's not that Hickey has transformed any of the pitchers under his care. He's not teaching screwballs or sinkers or reinventing deliveries. It's more the preparation and the psychology of the job.

"He has a fresh energy about him every day," Maddon said. "It's a long season, but you never see him dragging. You never hear him b------- or moaning. And I really appreciate that about him."

What Hickey, 47, has done is create a family atmosphere among a dozen or more pitchers. With David Price learning to throw a changeup, Hickey has offered instruction but also encouraged him to seek help from James Shields and Howell. And now that Shields is getting outs with two-seam fastballs and cutters, he is hoping that success rubs off on the others.

"Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine are watching Shields and thinking, 'I can use that, too,' " Hickey said. "Then you'll see Edwin get a big strikeout on a cutter and everybody is on the top step of the dugout congratulating him."

Hickey's contract expired at the end of last season, and he had to wait until his court case was resolved at the end of October before the Rays offered him a new deal.

His contract is expiring again, but this time, the only delay in a new deal might be the World Series.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Rays pitching coach's best move came after 2007 season 10/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 7:03pm]

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