MILWAUKEE – In his right hand he totes around a satchel bulging with baseballs. Over his left shoulder he slings a bat with a glove latched on the end, looking like baseball's version of a hobo with his bindle. Roger McDowell, a man trying to replace a legend, hauls them to the Atlanta Braves dugout.
"I carry the ball bag out," he says. "That is pretty much all I do."
It's about 5 p.m., and the rest of the Braves are watching "Tommy Boy" on a big screen in their clubhouse at Miller Park. McDowell, who took over as Braves pitching coach when Leo Mazzone bolted for Baltimore, has already done a smidgen more than bring out the batting-practice balls. Between studying video, organizing bullpen sessions, consulting with his pitchers who have struggled and heartening the ones who look good, he has played psychologist and friend and enforcer and mechanics expert in the span of a couple hours.
None of which matters much when Tim Hudson blows a two-run lead and the Braves lose, and then Jorge Sosa fritters away a lead the next day and Atlanta gets swept by Milwaukee for the first time in the Brewers' 37-year history. Not when the Braves could drop to 9-13 if they lose Friday to Pedro Martinez. That would be their worst start since 1990, which happens to be the last time they didn't make the playoffs, and which also happens to be the year Mazzone arrived in the big leagues.
The debate about pitching coaches will always be of the chicken-and-egg variety, and Mazzone is first in the coop. He coached some great pitchers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz) and gets an enormous amount of credit for them that, perhaps, he doesn't deserve. He coached some mediocre pitchers who were excellent under his purvey (Jaret Wright, Jorge Sosa, Russ Ortiz) for whom he probably doesn't get enough due. He coached some good pitchers who stunk with him (Jason Marquis, Odalis Perez, Dan Kolb) for whom he doesn't catch nearly enough flak.
In other words: You'll never hear about a great pitching coach whose pitchers didn't win, and the Braves had 10 ERA titles with Mazzone and have 14 consecutive NL East titles.
McDowell has coached at Triple-A. That is the breadth of his experience. And it's why a chorus of questions accompanied his hire. Roger McDowell? The reliever? The master of the hot foot? The Second Spitter on "Seinfeld"?
"I felt bad," McDowell says. "I got the opportunity. Other guys didn't."
How bad, exactly?
"I am glad it was me."
When Mazzone left in October, Braves general manager John Schuerholz generated a list of more than 20 names. McDowell's was second. After talking with him, the Braves didn't bother contacting anyone else.
McDowell struck the perfect balance in the Braves' minds. He won Game 7 of the 1986 World Series with the Mets and saved 159 others over a 12-year career. He was more personable and less self-promoting than Mazzone. He was, in many ways, the anti-Leo.
"Totally different," Smoltz says. "Leo and the time and the eras have changed. The reputation of us being a pitching-rich ballclub has faded, and the last few years, we weren't as much so as the statistics showed."
McDowell had changed, too. He turned 45 in December, and there's plenty of gray in his hair. His days of podiatric pyromania are past.
"I've got to wear knee braces when I shag BP," McDowell says glumly. "You get old – older – and you can't do the things you used to be able to do."
So he coaches.
Cognizant of Mazzone's looming air, McDowell called each of his pitchers almost immediately upon his hiring. They spoke a few times before the early February throwing program, where 19 of the 24 candidates for a roster spot showed up in Atlanta for their first schooling.
"Everybody's got different thoughts," Braves manager Bobby Cox says. "There are no philosophies, really. Make pitches and get hitters out."
If only it were that simple. The Braves' 4.80 ERA ranks toward the bottom of the National League. Even though it's 21 games into the season, McDowell is a sitting duck.
So, in moments like these, he relaxes and thinks about how his mentors would handle it. He pictures Mel Stottlemyre, his first pitching coach, and Dave Duncan, deemed the brains behind great pitching staffs in Oakland and St. Louis.
And he asks himself, what would Leo do? Yeah, McDowell may have replaced Mazzone, but he still respects him. He has deviated from some of Mazzone's golden rules – the Braves are no longer required to throw two bullpen sessions between starts – but he still preaches pounding the strike zone low and away while cultivating his own wisdom.
"Golfers don't play other golfers. They play the course," McDowell says. "As pitchers, we're up against that other guy, yeah, but we're playing the course of nine hitters. Each is a different hole."
McDowell understands the need to distinguish. He is not Mazzone. He is a pitching coach, one learning something every day about his pitchers or his team or himself. That, in reality, is pretty much all he does. For now, it's plenty.
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