Simmons testing Brewers catchers
Cerebral former backstop still imparting wisdom to players
PHOENIX -- Every day for two years in the early 1980s, the Brewers' starting catcher would sit with his backup to talk baseball. Ted Simmons often presented a test for young Ned Yost, which is why Yost had to smile earlier this spring when the Brewers' current catcher walked into the manager's office with a puzzled look on his face.
Simmons, now 58 and joining the coaching ranks after nearly 20 years out of uniform, had presented catcher Jason Kendall with a puzzle: Say you have a baserunner in a rundown and you run him back to the base, only there's another baserunner already occupying it. One of the runners is out, but Simmons told Kendall there is a way to get a double play out of the scenario.
Then Simmons turned around and walked away.
Now, Kendall is no rookie. He is a 12-year veteran of the big leagues who has caught 1,625 games. But he went straight to Yost and confessed, "I don't have any idea."
Eventually, Kendall got it: You talk him off.
"Teddy said, 'That's right. You talk him off,'" said Yost, the former backup who is entering his sixth season as Milwaukee's skipper. "You tag them both, this guy steps off and you tell [the other] guy, 'Hey, you're out! You're out! You're out!' As soon as he steps off, you got him.
"Teddy said he did that three times in his career. It can be done. Kendall never dreamed of that. He never thought of it. It's just little things like that that can make you a better player."
The Brewers believe their new bench coach can do a lot of little things to bolster a franchise trying to make the postseason for the first time since Simmons was behind the plate.
They lured him away from a rewarding gig as a special assistant to Padres general manager Kevin Towers, talked him into donning a uniform for the first time since he played the final game of a Major League career in 1988 that many say should have landed Simmons in the Hall of Fame. Since then, Simmons had done it all; he was the St. Louis farm director, the Pittsburgh general manager before health issues forced him to step aside, a scout and assistant to the GM with Cleveland and then a vice president of baseball operations and a scout for San Diego from 2002-07.
Brewers amateur scouting director Jack Zduriencik, who served in the same capacity under Simmons in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, when that team made Kendall a first-round Draft pick, was the first to bring up Simmons' name for the Brewers' coaching staff. Brewers GM Doug Melvin called Towers and received permission to talk with Simmons.
Simmons' first question was, "What in the world could he want from me?" His second question was, "Is Ned on board?"
Yost was, and Simmons heard so firsthand in a telephone conversation. So was Dale Sveum, who had moved from third base coach to bench coach for 2007 and agreed to go back to third base to clear room on the staff for Simmons.
"After I talked to Ned, I thought, 'That could work,'" Simmons said.
It worked because Simmons knew Milwaukee, and he knew Yost. That relationship goes back to Spring Training in 1981, two months after the Brewers had swung the most significant trade in franchise history. From the Cardinals, GM Harry Dalton had acquired Simmons, who was well established as one of the game's best catchers, and a pair of right-handers who would win the next two American League Cy Young Awards: Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich.
At the time, Yost was a talented, but somewhat brash, 25-year-old who did not think much about the intricacies of the game.
"First day of Spring Training, he came over to me and said, 'I want to see you tomorrow morning at 7 o'clock.'" Yost remembered. "I went straight to my locker and looked through [it], because I thought somebody put his glove in my locker and he thought I stole it, and he was going to beat me up or something."
Nope. So Yost reported as ordered.
"He was sitting at his locker like he did every day," Yost said. "He was sitting there in his jock strap and a T-shirt, smoking a cigarette. He told me, 'I've had people throughout my career that have taken the time to teach me this game. And it's my turn to turn around and do it for you.'
"I didn't know him or his reputation. Look, I just knew how to get to the clubhouse and that was it. I didn't know how to play the game, I didn't know anything. I was a kid who had a little bit of talent and a lot of desire, but I didn't pay attention. ...
"But he had something for me every day for the next two years," Yost said. "Every day. And we would talk at length, for hours. At first I was like, 'What's with this guy?' But I was expected to pay attention and to learn and to retain. If he caught me screwing around during the game, he would scream at me."
Simmons kept at it.
"At first he didn't have the answers," Simmons said. "He was thinking about hunting and fishing. Those were his happy places.
"He wasn't getting any playing time, so he was sitting around thinking about going out to get that trophy elk when the season is over. Go catch that 10-pound bass. Those were the things he loved."
|"I'm not a gumball machine. You don't stick a quarter in me and I start spitting out information. Think, ask me a question and let's talk about it."|
|-- Ted Simmons on dispensing advice to people|
"You have to know him because, like me, he has a lot of passion for what he's doing," Yost said. "He's done a lot of thinking about this game and he's not just going to turn around and do all the work and give it to you. He wants you to do a little work, too."
'Not a gumball machine'
In other words, don't expect Simmons to track you down. He wants you to come to him.
"I've heard him say, 'I'm not a gumball machine. You don't stick a quarter in me and I start spitting out information. Think, ask me a question and let's talk about it,'" Yost said.
"These kids heard about me I guess," Simmons said. "They want to know stuff, and I always, always, when asked specific things, am willing to convey what I know. And, if I ask them a question and they can't get it, they can go to their pals and figure it out. In that way, all 25 guys can get involved. It permeates."
Simmons learned his lessons from legendary Cardinals instructor George Kissell. Simmons was St. Louis' first-round Draft pick in 1967 who, like Yost, never thought much of fundamentals.
Kissell quickly knocked Simmons down to size. It was June 1968, and Kissell had all of the Cardinals' rookie leaguers in a room. He drew up a play on the blackboard and began to instruct the group on fundamental cutoffs and relays.
"I know some of you may or may not know where everybody goes on this play," Simmons remembers Kissell saying. "But you don't need to worry about it, because I'm sure Mr. Simmons is going to tell us perfectly how to do this.
"I was 17 years old, as the so-called, 'No. 1.'" Simmons said. "I was expected to know how to analyze that cutoff and relay, and it might as well have been Greek. George knew that. He embarrassed me in front of everyone for my own good, and by doing that, he told all the rest of them that, 'This guy may have gotten all the money, but he doesn't know any more than any of your guys.' It was a way to put them at ease, and put me in a place where I was motivated.
"He was the most profound fundamentalist I've ever met," Simmons said. "He's the one who made me learn how to 'think out' how this game is really designed."
Now it's the current players' turn.
|Simmons' first question was, "What in the world could he want from me?" His second question was, "Is Ned on board?"|
His turn again
Back on the bench, Simmons once again has the opportunity to pass along his lessons. But it's a learning experience for him, too.
"It's totally new, and therefore totally stimulating," Simmons said. "Being around Ned and all of his energy is kind of rejuvenating. When you watch as many games as I have, particularly in the last 12 years as a scout, it gets a little repetitive. When you're on a field ... there's lots going on again. Where else does a person my age get to go back and be a teenager again?"
Can it be intimidating after being away for so long?
"It's a little bit like being invited to a party and you don't know the host," Simmons said. "You go, you expect to have a nice time and you expect the people to be good and social and fun. But you have a little anxiety because you don't know what to expect."
"But the ice is breaking," he said.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.