Mills puts spotlight on players, not himself
First-year manager hopes to have focus on talent on field
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The advice has always been the same, no matter if Brad Mills was picking oranges in the groves of central California as a child or trying to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball. Mills' father would tell him to be himself and everything would be all right.
Mills carried that advice with him throughout his four-year playing career with the Montreal Expos, a career that was cut short by a knee injury, and into his post-playing career as a successful Minor League manager. On the eve of opening his first camp as manager of the Astros, Mills doesn't plan on changing.
"I just want to do whatever I can to help the players in this organization be as successful as possible, and that's where the focus is," Mills said.
In other words, Mills doesn't want any of the attention to be on himself. He wants to take his father's advice, go about his business and see where it takes him. Mills, who was hired Oct. 27, appears to have the qualities to be a success big league manager: he's personable, organized, experienced and a good communicator.
"It always come down to talent on the field, but that said, leadership plays a big part in it," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I really do think the skill set Brad brings to the job is such that it should be a great experience for everybody."
How Mills, 53, wound up managing the Astros is a story about perseverance and chasing the dream. He grew up in humble surroundings in a small town near Visalia, Calif., and helped his father manage the orange groves in between playing sports. He was good enough at baseball to get a scholarship to the University of Arizona, where he was an All-American and played in the College World Series.
The Expos drafted the third baseman in the 17th round of the 1979 First-Year Player Draft and he was in the Majors a year later, hitting .300 in 21 games. At 23 years old, he had finally arrived. But Mills went on to hit .256 in only 106 games before his big league career was cut short by injury in '83. He had only 168 Major League at-bats.
Mills bumped around the Minors for three years -- including one half-season with the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in Tucson, Ariz., in 1984 -- before beginning his managerial career in '87. He managed in the Cubs ('87-92), Rockies ('93-96) and Dodgers (2002) organizations, serving as Terry Francona's first-base coach with the Phillies from '97-00.
The relationships Mills made while with the Phillies proved to be vital. Francona, his college roommate, hired him in 2004 to be bench coach with the Red Sox. And nearly six years later, Wade, his general manager in Philadelphia, tabbed him to lead the Astros.
"He's a guy passionate about his job and enjoys communicating with players," Wade said. "He enjoys talking about the game. He has great attention to detail and wants to be thorough in his approach, and he has a plan. He's had a couple of months now for people to familiarize themselves with him and vice versa, and now he gets his opportunity to implement a plan and hopefully lead to a successful conclusion."
Mills' communication skills were as important to his hiring as his experience. Players want to know where they stand, even after they reach the Majors. They look for guidance, encouragement and even criticism -- things they didn't always get from Cecil Cooper, who was let go as manager in September.
"It's human nature that if you're comfortable in your work environment, you're more productive," Wade said. "I don't mean there aren't demands placed upon you or you're not held accountable, but I do think the work environment, whether it's a baseball player or working in an office or factory, plays into your level of productivity.
"It's about talent on the field, and by and large, the most talented teams win. But the margin between a championship-caliber club and also-ran is sometimes very thin. How big a difference a manager makes strategically, how big a difference he makes from the standpoint of environment, you can't quantify."
Wade believes he has given Mills the right tools to succeed. The Astros lost 88 games last year and said goodbye to one of their best offensive players in Miguel Tejada and a premier closer in Jose Valverde. They've made additions to cover those losses, but Wade knows good managers don't always have success right away.
Wade has said repeatedly that relieving Francona of his duties in Philadelphia was the biggest mistake of his career. Francona went onto to win two World Series in Boston.
"Terry Francona didn't become an appreciably better manager between his Philadelphia and Boston experience," Wade said. "The players got better. Terry's an outstanding communicator and leader, and the players trusted him and they knew he had their back. He's loyal to the organization ...
"Millsie is from the same core personality. He's the same guy who was the first-base coach in Philadelphia when I let Terry go. That core individual who was first-base coach brings everything to the table to be a successful manager in Houston. Talent or circumstances dictate whether you're viewed as a success or failure."
The only thing Mills can do now is be himself.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.