(Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis talks on the mound with Doug Fister and Adam Moore during a September game against the Indians. Photo by Associated Press).
When Eric Wedge took over from Joel Skinner as Indians’ manager in 2003, he inherited the incumbent pitching coach, Mike Brown.
That lasted about one month into spring training. On March 19, just 12 days before the Indians’ season opener, Wedge changed pitching coaches. Brown was out, and Carl Willis, who had worked as Wedge’s pitching coach in both Double-A and Triple-A, was in. Willis had begun spring training that year as Triple-A pitching coach at Buffalo.
Brown told reporters, “Eric’s personality and mine just didn’t mesh. We were in the same book, we just weren’t on the same page.”
And Wedge said at the time, “It’s been something that I’ve been wrestling with and agonizing over. It’s something that I felt needed to happen. This comes back to me and it’s the fit that I want for me and my ballclub.”
Wedge and Willis would remain together throughout Wedge’s managerial tenure in Cleveland, which ended when the entire staff was fired at the end of the 2009 season. Wedge spent the 2010 season out of baseball, while Willis was hired to be the Mariners’ minor-league pitching coordinator. That job ended, however, on Aug. 9, when Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu was fired along with his bench coach, Ty Van Burkleo, and his pitching coach, Rick Adair. Willis came up from the minors to replace Adair, and finished the season as the pitching coach for interim manager Daren Brown.
Willis said he never saw the promotion coming in spring of 2003, just as he never saw this latest one in August coming.
“I can tell you when I joined the Mariners last November, coming off the year they had in 2009, no way I ever thought I would end up in Seattle any amount of time,” he said in a phone interview Monday from his North Carolina home. “I wanted to stay in the game and obviously help the minor-leaguers and maybe get a chance to get back to the majors. But I was assuming it would be somewhere else.”
Now, it appears almost certain that Willis, who turns 50 in December, will be reunited with Wedge, most likely remaining as pitching coach. More details should become clear Tuesday at Wedge’s introductory press conference.
As I related in this article for Tuesday’s Seattle Times, Willis was coy about his future in the phone call, but said he’d welcome a chance to be on Wedge’s staff.
“We have a close relationship,” he said. “I enjoyed the players in Seattle. It was a difficult year, and people look at 101 losses, but I truly believe with a couple of the right acquisitions, this club is not that far away from being able to contend.”
Here’s some more raving about Wedge from Willis in the article:
“He’s very, very energetic, very, very intense, and very passionate about baseball. You hear it said about all managers that they want to see things done the right way. Eric really tries to see that through, and it starts with the environment he tries to create and how we teach and instruct during spring training, and preparations for games and series. There’s just never a lack of preparation or thought in anything he does.
“In 2003, the Indians were at a very similar point, beginning the phases of a rebuilding situation. I don’t know that the Mariners aren’t a little further along right now. Certainly you can look at Ichiro and (Chone) Figgins at the top of the order; you can run out a Felix (Hernandez) on opening day. … I think a couple of additions and you can compete in a hurry.
“This isn’t something new for him. I think the process of coming back to compete for a division title (in Cleveland) went a little quicker than people expected.”
Here’s some Willis raving that wasn’t in the article: “It’s been well-documented, Eric is a tremendous communicator. He comes to the clubhouse, talks to players on a daily basis whether he has anything to say or not. He wants those guys to be comfortable. He understands they’re the guys that make things happen; they play the game. Players appreciate that. When there are issues in the clubhouse, he wants the veterans to take a leadership role and take care of things. If not, he’ll certainly step in, but he wants them to do it themselves.”
This also wasn’t in the article, but Willis said Wedge called him during the interview process to feel him out about the Seattle situation. Wedge was also up for jobs with the Blue Jays, Pirates, Cubs and Brewers.
“He has asked me a few things about the organization, the club, what I thought of the situation,” Willis said. “He had done his homework already. With all the jobs he’s interviewed for, certainly if you can talk to someone who has been there and has first-hand knowledge, it helps. However, we’ve talked very little since this was announced or came about.”
Willis elaborated a bit more on his seven weeks or so as Mariners’ pitching coach.
“The players were awesome,” he said. “Obviously, I worked for the most part with the pitchers. It was a difficult situation, difficult for the players, because it’s always tough to go through change, whether it’s the manager or a coach during the season. I felt the pitchers had a tremendous amount of respect for Rick (Adair). He certainly did a great job with them, but they welcomed me. I didn’t think I had to change very much, although I continued to make adjustments.
“I did enjoy my time. I’ve always loved the city of Seattle. When I was with the Indians, I tried several times to bring my wife out with me, but it never worked out. She came out with my two sons and really enjoyed it. The only thing I can say about Seattle, it’s about as far away from North Carolina as you can get.”
But it appears Willis will be spending a lot more time in the Northwest next year.
One other coaching name to keep in mind is Jeff Datz, who was on Wedge’s Indians’ staff, with stints as both third-base coach and bench coach. When Wedge and his coaches were fired, Datz moved last season to the Baltimore Orioles as manager Dave Trembley’s bench coach. Trembley was fired in mid-season, and though Datz remained as bench coach under interim manager Juan Samuel and also under Buck Showalter when he was hired as the Orioles full-time manager in early August, Showalter is expected to hire his own staff for next year.
Many believe that Showalter will turn to none other than Don Wakamatsu to be his bench coach, a position Wakamatsu held under Showalter in Texas. That could put Datz on the market, and it’s quite possible Wedge will want to find a spot on the Mariners’ coaching staff for him. I’m also interested to see what the club decides to do with Daren Brown, who has been a loyal soldier. I’d like to see him return to his job as Tacoma’s manager or perhaps get a spot on Wedge’s staff, where he could be an important liaison with the young players he nurtured in the minors (and majors, for that matter). I’d suspect Willis gave his old friend, Wedge, a good report on Brown.