Astros’ Mills draws on old-school lessons

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Brad Mills(notes) wears the stamp of Terry Francona, and proudly, from shaved head to cleated toe. Mills’ Houston Astros can only trust that one day they will resemble Francona’s Boston Red Sox half as much.

Mills, though, also draws from a deeper well as he embarks on his first season as a manager in the major leagues, earnestly raising the dead weight of the Astros one meticulously planned spring-training drill at a time. Thirty years ago, Mills broke in as a player, getting a June call-up to fill in for injured third baseman Larry Parrish of the Montreal Expos – at the time a veteran outfit hard on the heels of the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East standings.

New Astros manager Brad Mills is the team's fourth skipper since the middle of the 2004 season.
(Rob Carr/AP)

A 10-for-17 batting start by Mills didn’t matter when Parrish returned, and he found a seat in the dugout next to another reserve, Ken Macha. Later in the year, infielder Jerry Manuel joined them on the bench, and they spent nine innings a day memorizing every move made by their already legendary manager, Dick Williams.

Then they’d go to dinner or convene at the team hotel and dissect the game. Mills, Macha and Manuel were sharp guys, well aware they weren’t destined for speeches at Cooperstown, that their best opportunity to forge a long-lasting career was by becoming managers. The Dick Williams admiration society grew the next year when Francona, already Mills’ pal from their time at the University of Arizona, broke in with the Expos.

“Dick ran a game better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Mills said. “It was impressive to sit and watch him. He never was outmanaged. He was always thinking about things two or three innings down the road that other guys hadn’t noticed yet.”

Macha is manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. Manuel is manager of the New York Mets. Francona has won two World Series with the Red Sox, and did so with Mills as his bench coach. All were ecstatic last November when Mills, 53, was hired by the Astros.

Said Francona: “He is such a genuine guy, and he loves and respects the game. He deserves the job, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Said Manuel: “Millsy is very cerebral. He was a gamer-type player and a very astute guy in the dugout. As a manager, he ought to have a lot of success.”

Until the day Mills stepped to the podium at Minute Maid Park and donned his new cap, though, the Astros reminded him of his failures. After four years of bouncing between Triple-A and the Expos, he was shipped to the Astros organization in 1984. He never made the majors again, batting .229 in two Triple-A seasons and retiring in 1986 – a bum knee enabling him to avoid admitting he flat couldn’t hit anymore.

Mills’ most memorable at-bat came against the Astros on April 27, 1983, when he was Nolan Ryan’s 3,509th strikeout victim. That K lifted Ryan past Walter Johnson as the all-time strikeout king.

Maybe Mills’ third brush with the Astros will be a charm. More likely it will be a struggle, even for someone so persistently upbeat, so detail-obsessed, so seemingly ripe for the challenge. He becomes the fourth Astros manager since the middle of the 2004 season and inherits a team that finished fifth in the NL Central, 14 games under .500.

“This is exactly the kind of challenge you want,” he said. “Everybody is receptive; they want to succeed. It’s a mix of veterans and young guys, and everybody has a reason to do things the right way here.”

The right way for Mills is the Red Sox way, and he is bleeding those colors into his new club without mentioning the name of his former employer.

“No doubt I’m bringing a lot of things over from where I was,” he said. “I know that in my head without even looking at it on paper. I’ve shared those things. I had to make adjustments with pitchers bunting and baserunning and hitting and so on, but the basic framework is the same as what we’ve done the last six years.”

Mills walks around camp carrying a fungo bat, and he uses it, slapping ground balls at infielders and comebackers at pitchers during drills. He’ll pitch batting practice and he’ll grab the attention of a cluster of players to give a baserunning demonstration. Delegating is an acquired skill of a successful manager, but so far Mills often appears to be a delegation of one.

“I can maybe tell somebody how to do things but a lot of time it’s easier to show them,” he said. “I think it makes sense. I’m not trying to keep my finger on anybody. I have the utmost confidence in [coaches] Bobby Meacham and Dave Clark and Brad Arnsberg and Al Pedrique and Sean Berry, our whole staff up and down. We have an outstanding staff, But at the same time, there are certain little tweaks, and we want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

The players get it.

“He’s a hands-on guy, that’s for sure,” said veteran first baseman Lance Berkman(notes). “And that’s OK. He sees how he wants stuff done and he wants it done now. He’s a communicator, and that will go a long way around here.”

Mills was the conduit between Francona and Red Sox players. He was the go-to guy for gripes and concerns, and he responded with hugs, high-fives and, occasionally, harsh words. His preparation was unsurpassed; he’d memorize scouting reports, then whisper pertinent information to Francona during ballgames. The most memorable example came in Game 2 of the 2007 World Series, when he became the man who brought Matt Holliday(notes) close to tears.

Holliday was on first base with two out in the eighth and Todd Helton(notes) at the plate, with the Red Sox leading by one run. Mills recalled that the scouting report mentioned that although Holliday was slow he would attempt to steal in a key situation if he felt no one was paying attention. Mills gave a sign and Jonathan Papelbon(notes) wheeled and picked off Holliday, who indeed was leaning toward second.

Insights like that will win over Astros players more than Mills’ crisply organized drills or the impassioned introductory speech he delivered last week. Nobody will truly be sold until he has successfully navigated the team’s questionable bullpen through the late innings a few times and emerged with W’s.

The Astros have many issues. The starting rotation is thin behind Roy Oswalt(notes) and Wandy Rodriguez(notes). Two free-agent signings with histories of injuries – Matt Lindstrom(notes) and Brandon Lyons – are competing for the closing job. Mills will be counting on light-hitting rookie Tony Manzella at shortstop and is hopeful that 22-year-old rookie Jason Castro(notes) will seize the job at catcher. Berkman is coming off a down year. Second baseman Kaz Matsui might have little left.

It’s no surprise that Mills’ statistical page on baseball-reference.com is sponsored by a wisecracker who wrote: “General Mills and Minute Maid Park. First in cereal, first in juice and fifth in the NL Central.”

Yet none of that seems to worry Mills. He’s locked in on the next five minutes, not the next five months. He’s at a point where his bench-coach mentality serves him well. Full-blown managerial countenance, the perch on the top step of the dugout, the brisk walk to the mound to take the ball – all that will come in due course.

“I think about Dick Williams and I think about Terry,” he said. “I’ve been privileged. I think they gave me a good idea how to go about this job. I’m really exited.”

And with that, Mills headed back to the practice field, fungo dangling from his hand, another tweak in another spring drill on his mind.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Tuesday, Mar 2, 2010