By J.P. Antonacci
Canadian Baseball Network
The television cameras usually only focus on Toronto Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale if manager John Gibbons has been ejected from the game, as the skipper was for the fourth time this season on July 27 against Oakland. Hale took over as bench boss while Gibbons watched the rest of the game from the dressing room.
The transition is seamless because Hale approaches each game as if he were the manager.
“Just in case the manager gets kicked out of the game or there’s a period of time where he may leave, you have to get in the habit that you’re preparing like the manager,” Hale told Canadian Baseball Network during a preseason interview at the Blue Jays spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla.
“But it’s quietly, it’s behind the scenes. Because you’re not the manager,” he continued.
“The manager has his thoughts and game plans, and as a bench coach you start to learn about how the manager you’re working under goes about managing, and the things that he likes to do. So you try to help prepare players for (their) role, because you understand how that manager manages.”
Hale got his start as a major league coach with Texas under Buck Showalter in 2002, handling first base and working with Rangers outfielders for four seasons. He later won praise as a third base coach with the Boston Red Sox, becoming Terry Francona’s bench coach in 2010.
After Hale reunited with Showalter as third base coach in Baltimore, making the playoffs in 2012, the Blue Jays came calling, bringing in the Chicago native as bench coach for the 2013 season.
In Toronto, the under-the-radar assistant is tasked with controlling the running game, working with pitchers and catchers, and approaching in-game situations from a different angle to make sure nothing is overlooked.
“We communicate. There’s a pregame conversation that we usually have. It’s not a scripted conversation, but it’s a conversation that just happens naturally,” Hale said of his rapport with Gibbons. “It’s just working together, it really is.”
Gibbons said having Hale at his side has proven to be invaluable.
“He’s tremendous. Really, it’s like a second manager. I bounce a lot of things off him before the game, during the game, after the game,” the manager said.
“He’s always watching things, and I think he watches things a little differently than I might. I’m really locked in on what we might do offensively or thinking about bullpen moves, things like that, where he’s kind of viewing everything. He’ll drop some things on me, remind me of things.”
The commissioner’s office is on a mission to speed up the pace of the average Major League Baseball game. But to Gibbons’ mind, the game moves pretty fast already.
“The farther you get away from the field, the slower it gets. Especially at the major league level. I discovered that when I first started managing,” he said. “It’s a faster game up here.”
A good bench coach can help slow the game down for the manager.
“Not only me, but the other coaches, too,” Hale said. “There’s a lot going on in the game. You see movement in the (opposing) dugout, possibly someone quietly went to the bat rack and got a bat. So, okay, that could be a pinch-hit five (batters) down. If they’re playing the shift a little stronger than they have, maybe they’re going to pitch this guy a different way. It’s just little things.”
Hale learned to look for those little things over nine seasons as a minor league manager.
Immediately after his playing career ended in 1988 – he hit his ceiling at double-A after five years in the minors – he became an instructor at the Bucky Dent baseball school in Boca Raton, Fla. Four years later, he broke into coaching with the New Britain Red Sox, winning the Midwest League manager of the year award in 1995 after taking the Michigan Battle Cats to the league finals.
A trio of leading baseball publications named Hale minor league manager of the year for his work with the double-A Trenton Thunder in 1999. He also earned Eastern League manager of the year honours that season, and was tabbed to manage the double-A all-star game and coach for Team U.S.A. at the Futures Game at Fenway Park.
That success propelled Hale to the triple-A coaching ranks in the Rangers organization, and he was promoted to Arlington in 2002, beginning his MLB career.
“He’s super well-versed in baseball. There’s nobody that’s had the experiences that he’s had,” Blue Jays first base coach Tim Leiper said of his fellow coach.
“He’s done everything. He’s been on World Series teams. He’s been on teams that had a late-season collapse. He’s been on a team that won more one-run games than any team in the history of baseball. He’s worked for such a diversity of managers. DeMarlo knows everything. Because of his experience, you ask him a question, he’s on it.”
As for dealing with the players, Leiper said Hale brings “complete stability” to the Blue Jays clubhouse.
“His way with the players … I can’t say enough good about him,” Leiper said. “This guy’s really like the glue here – he keeps it all together. He’s one of the best baseball people I’ve ever been around.”
Gibbons appreciates that Hale will quietly deal with any issues that crop up among the rank and file before they reach the manager’s office.
“He’s got a good feel of the clubhouse, and the players all love him,” Gibbons said. “There might be some fires he puts out that I don’t have to mess with. They all have great respect for him and he keeps me attuned with what’s going on out there.”
Hale downplays his role as mediator between Blue Jays players and the manager.
“At this level – I hate to use this term – but we’re all grown men,” he said. “You get some guys who are emotional, some who are laid back, and some who have that different personality. You have to understand the player to be a coach.”
Knowing when to deliver a kind word or a kick in the rear is something Hale learned in the minors, where coaches have a different focus.
“In the minor leagues, some of your decisions are development-driven,” he said. “In the major leagues, it’s more winning-driven. That’s a big difference.”
He explained that minor league managers put players in tough situations where they need to make a specific pitch or approach an at-bat a certain way. They may fail, which hurts the team in that moment, but the lesson will help the player get better in the long run.
In the major leagues, on the other hand, the focus is on scratching out every advantage to win that day’s game. That’s why positions like bench coach exist in the first place.
“At the major league level, it’s so demanding that you need these (extra) coaches,” Hale said. “We’re in the coaches room, it’s a constant conversation. I’m just the one, as bench coach, that’s near the manager more.”
The next professional challenge for Hale, who recently turned 56, would be managing a major league club. He has interviewed for the top job with a half-dozen teams, including Toronto in 2010 before the Blue Jays hired John Farrell.
“If it happens, it happens. I haven’t closed the door,” Hale said.
“One, there has to be an opening. And two, that organization has the right to put together a list that they feel meets their criteria of what they want their next manager to be. That’s not my choice.”
That said, Hale remains confident that should the opportunity to manage present itself, he’ll be ready.
“I’ve been around some good people in this game,” he said. “The interview process has been very interesting, and, I think, a growth for me. Do I think I can? Yes. I think I can manage a major league club. But, you know, circumstance and situation play a big part of it.”
In the meantime, he focuses on helping his team find ways to win.
“This game is very interesting. There’s no time clock – not like soccer, basketball, football, when you see that time clock and sometimes that clock stirs you on with urgency,” Hale said.
“With baseball – have you ever felt momentum in a game? How do you stop it, and how do you keep it going if you’ve got it? See, that’s one thing that’s interesting to me. You can feel it coming on, and that momentum can change. So how do you stop it and get it back on your side?”
Finding an answer to that fundamental question is the challenge Hale strives to meet game in and game out.
“It’s not just hit the ball over the fence,” he said. “You win in a lot of other phases of the game.”