Willie James: FINDING MY WAY

When my stuff was being sold at auction, I was actually working for the Diamondbacks and at spring training by then. I think I was making about $25,000 then, and coaching their A-ball team in South Bend, Ind. They had first talked to me about coaching when I was out in Arizona going through the scout school with the Royals. I was learning how to be a scout, and I was actually pretty good at it if you were talking about picking out talented players. But I didnt know how to file the scouting reports. You were supposed to write about the player then put it in a limited number of lines: Tall righthander, three-quarter delivery and then at the end is he a Major League prospect, who he reminds you of, is he a fifth starter or a reliever – you would do all of that. The first time I was filing all those reports I would get them back marked up in yellow all over the page. What they would tell me is that you know your stuff, but you just cant write it. I mean, I was picking the right guys. So, were down there in that instructional league thing in the fall. I was in Tucson. At the time there werent too many teams, so you would see the same guys all the time because the teams would just play each other. I saw Andy Hasslers kid, Robin Younts kid, J.J. Hardy. He was No. 1 on my sheet. But Im watching a game one day, and this guy came up to me while I was standing there with my (radar) gun and everything. He says, Would you rather be on the inside of the fence or the outside of the fence? I tell him I would rather be on the inside, and he says they will give me a call in a couple of weeks. But you dont ever know if they will follow through. When I get back to Kansas City is when I was sitting there in my bathroom contemplating what else could go wrong in my life when they called. I went and met the guys, and I got the job. The really great thing at the time is when you signed the contract, you started to get paid. So, I was getting paid a little bit, which was really good because I was out of money. I had an inkling I was going to be at South Bend with their A-ball team. Steve Scarcone was the manager. Royal Clayton, Royce Claytons brother, was the pitching coach, and I was the hitting coach. The three of us got along like brothers. This time I was ready to be a coach – maybe because I knew I had to be ready, but I knew I had to put in the time. I had to show up early. The three of us just clicked from spring training on.

They had a book of hitting, how you were supposed to teach it. I put the book in a drawer and closed it. My philosophy was that if the hitters trusted me they would do what I asked them If they didnt trust me, you wouldnt get any results. I took Charley Laus method again. There were 12 teams in that league, and for five years in a row they had come in 12th in hitting. This year they were third, which made me feel really good. We were just two percentage points from the top. It was fun. They learned a few things from me about being aggressive as a hitter, going to the plate with a purpose, looking for zones, understanding pitch counts – which a lot of minor league coaches didnt teach when I was coming up. It was pretty cool to see kids who were confused and then to see them get it about hitting. Certain guys needed early work before the others. Others didnt need as much work, but everybody needed some work. I remembered from all the times I was embarrassed while I was in the minor leagues, that I learned you got better results if you would take them off to the side and talk with them and not embarrass them. We were in the playoffs that year, in 2001, and we made the finals. I think we were playing Kane County. We were all checked out of our apartments because the season was over, and we are all staying at a motel for the playoffs. We lose the first game, and the next morning 9/11 happens.

I wake up in the morning and turn the TV on, and I see the buildings on fire. I changed the channel and I go Damn, the same movie is on. That shows how out of it I was, thinking the same movie was on all the channels. Then, all of a sudden the plane goes, Boom! My phone starts ringing. Its all my hitters who live in New York and their people are in the buildings. They dont want to play. I mean, mentally, they are done. But we had to wait four or five days in that hotel before the games are finally cancelled. Within hours that place is cleared out. I was going to fly home, which of course wasnt happening. I rented a car and drove home to Kansas City. That was a pretty good year. I really had fun. The next winter they wanted me to go back to South Bend without Royal and without Scarcone. I balked at that because I felt like they were punishing me. So, I gave them my opinion, We worked good together. Why would you break that up? Eventually they decided to send all three of us to Lancaster (Calif.) in high A-ball. So, were there in Lancaster and Scar has a financial problem at home and he has to go back for a couple of days. The third day they called him and told him to stay there for the season. They brought in Billy Plummer to manage our team. We had a bunch of the same players as the year before, but Billy was completely different than Scar. He was doing more yelling at the kids. I had learned from being with them the year before that you cant yell at them. You cant coach them old school. If you want to get the best out of them you just have to talk to them. So, he is yelling and screaming. I remember Andy Green, a little second baseman. He had been with the AAA club and was sent back to the A club. So he is already angry, and here is Plummer just yelling at him because he didnt do something right. In the seventh inning, Greenie comes to me and says, Willie, if he yells at me one more time Im going to knock him out. Well, I get him cooled down and say, Just relax. Take it over to the side. I will talk to Plum for you, man. So, at the end of the game I go knock on the managers door and go, Plum, can we have a conversation.

Were in there filling out our reports at the end of the game, and Im saying, Plum, you cant yell at the kids like you are doing. He goes, IM NOT YELLING. Then Royal walks in, and Plum says,ROYAL, AM I YELLING? Royal goes, Yeah, you are. That was a whole different experience for me. Then, I dont know what happens the last month of the season because I got fired when I grabbed a kid by the neck afer he dropped the N word on me. Billy White, a lef-handed pitcher, just thought he could drop the N word whenever he wanted. This kid was from the South. He had been in South Bend the year before when I was coaching there, and we had no issues. He had been called up to Lancaster late in the season. When he first got to Lancaster, he walked right into the coaching room and turned on the television while were sitting there doing reports. Thats the first thing that kind of irritated me. Then a couple of days before this incident he had said something else. My wife and I were going through the separation talks, and I wasnt in the greatest frame of mind with all that stuff going on.

The third time we were playing a game and one of the coaches is really on the catcher from the other team. I mean were winning big, and hes yelling at the other teams catcher about being drafted in front of our catcher. I know that one of my hitters is going to get hit if keeps on yelling. So, Im talking to our coach and this kid jumped in and said, You think you know everything. Then one of our hitters got hit. I said to the kid, You know, you need to take yourself down to the other end of the bench and stay out of our conversation. A few nights later, were in extra innings and now our fourth outfielder is out there. There was this ball hit to right center, and I said, Man, I wish we had more speed. The next thing I know this kid is behind me and he says, Why are you always talking about black and white? I said, Look man, you need to go to the other end of the bench and leave me and Royal alone. He goes F— you, nigger. Thats when I went off on him I grabbed him and jammed him up against the wall and said: You dont frickinknow me. You dont just say that … By that time in the dugout they grabbed me. And I just got really quiet. That night, when Im at home, Ron Hassey, the head of their minor league operation, calls me and says, We gotta fire you. He said to think how it would be if it was your son and we had to explain it to his dad. I said, Thats where he learned this crap. If you ever let this guy make to the big leagues you will have a lawsuit on your hands because one of the players is going to kill him So, they fired me. I just went, you know, forget it. I dont want to coach any more. I was tired of organizations telling me what to do. I was tired of kids who dont respect their elders or ex-ball players. I just got tired of it. So, I started thinking about doing my own stuff. And probably nobody else would have hired me. My reputation was that I was confrontational. I was probably black-listed again, but I didnt want to do it any more anyway. I knew I wasnt coaching material, I just knew it. I couldnt take kids yelling at me and calling me that and dissing me. Maybe it would have worked if I had been in the big leagues. But in the minor leagues …

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