Roger McDowell went to the mound 721 times as a major league reliever, saving 159 games. So he knows what pressure is all about. But even McDowell was a little overwhelmed with the pressure of starting his first day as Leo Mazzone’s replacement as the Atlanta Braves’ pitching coach.
"I feel pressure every day I come to the ballpark," McDowell said after watching nineteen pitchers throw for the first time this year. “I know, obviously, it’s on a bigger scale now. But I feel pressured that I’m in control of a pitching staff. I’m the guy that’s supposed to get them better. In saying that, yeah, I feel pressure. Obviously with the success that Leo had here is pretty much second to none, but I anticipate that we’ll continue that success.”
And that positive feeling was prevalent all throughout the first day of the Braves’ Early Throwing Program. Yes, that’s what it’s called. Forget about ‘Camp Roger’ or 'Camp Rog’ or any other clever name. McDowell wants to keep it simple for a very specific reason.
"Well, I don’t think that I’ve warranted anything to have it be called ‘Camp Roger,’” McDowell explained. “This is just the time we get together. I know for the past fifteen years it’s been called ‘Camp Leo,’ and rightfully so because of the success that he had. I’m coming into a new situation, and the pitchers are going to be getting used to me as much as I will be getting used to them. For me, it’s the Braves’ Early Throwing Program, and we’ll go from there.”
This was a much more mature Roger McDowell than the one we used to watch pitching for the Mets, Phillies, and Dodgers. As a player, he was setting teammates’ shoes on fire and other gags, and while no one can rule out some prank at some point this season, it was obvious this is a man determined and serious about a very important task at hand.
"I’ve kind of grown up,” McDowell said with a smile. “I guess my maturity level…now I’m a coach. I still enjoy it. This is the best office in the world for me – being on the field and having the camaraderie knowing that the players and the coaching staff and Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and Frank Wren and Dayton Moore – it’s a very nice place to be. I still enjoy the game just as much as when I played, but the way it comes out is in a different way.”
But it’s still a very loose personality that relaxed the Braves’ pitchers on his very first day. The veteran Mazzone ran a very tight ship, and was stern in his approach. The difference in the two coaches is obvious, and the players admitted it was somewhat refreshing.
"I think he’s great,” Tim Hudson said of his new coach. “I think Roger’s awesome. His personality is going to blend in great with the team, with the young guys. Everybody knows him as a pretty easy-going, practical-joker type of guy when he was a player. I think it’s good to have some guys like that on your staff to help lighten things up. Obviously, the credentials are there. He played a lot of years in the big leagues and he has a lot of knowledge. He’s ready to get going, and it’s going to be good to get to know him.”
"I think it’ll be a little more fun in the bullpen area when we’re working out and throwing bullpens,” Hudson continued. “I think he’s a guy that is going to be able to loosen up with us and have some fun. You won’t be so much walking on eggshells down there. Just trying to learn how to pitch, get better, and have fun while you’re doing it. That’s what it’s all about.”
"I think it’s just new,” said Kyle Davies. “It’s not like it’s a better thing or a good thing, but I think it’s just someone we can maybe relate to a little bit better, being a younger guy. Leo was great. We worked on some stuff, but I think Roger’s going to be just as good.”
One of the characteristics that impressed General Manager John Schuerholz and Manager Bobby Cox in McDowell’s interview back in November was his ability to communicate well with pitchers. McDowell knows it will be important for him as the new guy to let his pitchers know how he can help them.
"I know from my standpoint as a coach my job is to relate to every pitcher that is under me,” McDowell explained. “I pretty much have to find a way to express, if we’re having struggles as a staff or if it’s just an individual, how I get through to that player. Obviously, the young man for the Dominican Republic is going to have a different way to be approached from the young man from Iowa. So that becomes my job as far as how I get to know a player, their likes and dislikes, and how I talk to them so that they understand. I may be able to say something one way to John Smoltz and Kyle Davies may not be able to understand it in the same context, not only from the standpoint of the word, but just the experience as well.”
McDowell didn’t put any pressure on his pitchers on this first day. His goal was to simply get a firsthand look at the players that will compete for the twelve spots on his pitching staff, and he hopes the pitchers will simply be themselves during this eleven-day session.
"No, I don’t think and hopefully they don’t think they have to make any sort of impression,” McDowell said. “It’s important for them to be the pitcher that they are. The man they should try to impress is Bobby Cox. In saying that, it’s my job to get them ready so that Bobby Cox can make a decision.”
McDowell continued, “It’s just nice to be able to get outside and be able to see pitchers throw for pretty much the first time and get an idea of their deliveries, their mechanics, and obviously being the first day it’s tough to get a read, but at least you can get started and get some ideas. (After) watching film over the whole winter, it was nice to see them in person on a one-to-one basis.”
Even though he’s been the pitching coach for three months, this first day on the job was special for Roger McDowell. It’s not only his first job as a big league pitching coach, but the enormity of taking over a staff with so much history seemed to hit him after concluding his first day wearing a Braves’ cap.
"It’s total excitement,” he said. “It’s a totally different excitement than when I was hired. At that time, it was more a feeling of, ‘wow, this is really big.’ And today it was like, ‘wow, this is really, really big.’ So the feeling is indescribable. It’s nice to be in an environment I’m comfortable in, and that’s here at the baseball field. It’s going to be a nice and enjoyable fun season.”
The first day of the Braves’ Early Throwing Program included a lot of introductions. McDowell had spoken to almost all of the pitchers over the phone at some point this winter, but today was the first day to actually meet them in person. Plus, there were a number of new pitchers meeting the returning Braves’ players.
"I’m used to knowing everybody, but you come in and it’s all new faces,” said Lance Cormier, acquired from the Diamondbacks in December in the Johnny Estrada trade. “You recognize some guys, but they don’t really know you. But I’m kind of a quiet guy, so I just sit there and every once in a while offer up a handshake.”
"It was nice walking into that clubhouse,” said Brad Baker, signed as a six-year free agent from the Padres. “It’s a beautiful atmosphere, and I’m just happy to be here.”
One person thrilled to put on the Braves’ uniform for the first time was Jeff Bennett, signed a few weeks ago after being let go by the Brewers. Bennett grew up in Tennessee a huge Braves’ fan, and realized a dream today.
"It feels like I thought it was going to feel,” Bennett admitted. “It’s incredible being in this stadium as a Brave. You know I’ve been in here as a Brewer, but it’s just incredible putting on a Braves’ hat today and seeing that logo on your shirt. I feel real good. It was my first time off the mound, and I felt great.”
Cormier, Baker, and Bennett are three of the sixteen pitchers that will battle for the seven spots in the Atlanta bullpen this spring.
Right-hander Tim Hudson announced he would, in fact, not participate in the World Baseball Classic next month. He had been asked by Manager Buck Martinez and originally accepted, but upon second thought believed it was best to remain in camp with the Braves this spring.
"There were just more reasons for me not to play,” Hudson said. “We have a new pitching coach coming in, and it would be tough taking two or three weeks off away from our new coach when I’d like to get to know him and allow him to get to know me. The main reason was I want to be here for my team and for my teammates and to be strong going into the year. You’ve just got to be smart. Your heart wants to play. You want to get out there and represent your country and have the experience, but at the same time you’ve just got to be smart.”
Projected number three starter John Thomson said he was feeling no effects from his injured finger, which kept him out for over two months last season. With Mike Hampton out for this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery, the Braves are counting on Thomson to fill that role behind Smoltz and Hudson.
"It’s not affecting me at all,” Thomson said. “When I came back last year, it was kind of in the back of my head, wondering if it was going to hurt again. But the last few starts I had and then after that last game in Houston, I felt like it was no big deal and I was ready to go. I’m probably on the same pace as I was last year at this time. It’s just like I would do any other year. Just get ready and go about what I need to do."
Reliever Blaine Boyer, who injured his shoulder the last week of the regular season in 2005, threw from about 75 feet in an early morning bullpen session. Boyer has rehabbed his arm all winter, but the Braves are still taking it slow with him. Boyer said he feels great and expects to be back at 100% during the month of March. The Braves hope Boyer will be an integral part of their bullpen this season.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.