“We need Don more than you do.”
So said Jon Daniels, a year into his job and casting an eye toward the 2007 teardown season, to Pat Gillick, the 25-year GM whose well-stocked Phillies were about to embark on a five-year playoff run. Gillick, who had Don Welke with him for 21 of those seasons, let Welke decide whether to make it 22, or to return to the Rangers, with whom he’d spent 2005 before joining the Phillies in 2006.
We know what Welke decided then, and given that history, it can hardly be a surprise that A.J. Preller, whose 13 years (with the exception of that 2006 season) in scouting have been with Welke, first with the Dodgers and then in Texas, would make the same suggestion to Daniels that Daniels had made to Gillick, or that Daniels, like Gillick, would pay things forward and let Welke decide.
Or that Welke would choose the bigger challenge, and the chance to continue to work with Preller, whom he described to Scott Miller (Fox Sports San Diego) last week as the “brightest young guy I’ve ever seen in my 47 years of scouting,” the prodigy who convinced Daniels to bring the mentor over from Los Angeles shortly after he’d arrived to join his college roommate himself.
There’s really no surprise here, other than the exception Daniels clearly made to what everyone is reporting as a two-year freeze on Preller’s ability to hire anyone employed in that time by the Rangers — until you think about the above, and that’s when you realize that the surprise would have been if Daniels had treated Don Welke differently from how Gillick did eight years ago, with unmitigated respect for the revered baseball lifer and what he wanted to do with his career at this point.
And with that, “Coach” was named on Tuesday as the San Diego Padres’ Vice President of Scouting Operations.
I’ll miss the scouting stories and the excessively red Louisville-issue blazer and that laugh and his description of the batting practice sound off certain bats as “not normal” and the million-dollar bills and, man, seriously, those scouting stories.
And the sartorial flair, the aptitude for harsh outfits, about which Thad Levine once told Richard Durrett: “It’s cutting edge. He’s not encumbered by what’s current, hip, or what fits.”
I read all those accounts of Coach and Preller, back when the latter was getting his full-time start in the game 11 years ago, hitting Jerry’s Famous Deli or Pantry Café in Los Angeles and talking baseball until 5 in the morning, and I’m just as unsuspicious of the truth of those stories as I am completely envious.
I’ve spent one-thousandth of the time around Coach that Preller has, and I still feel like I’ve learned more about baseball — about ability and about makeup and chemistry and the drive to compete and about building something — from him than just about everyone else I’ve run across, combined.
With Coach, you could learn plenty about “who” — he had his fingerprints all over key trade acquisitions (Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz) and impact free agent signings (Adrian Beltre and very nearly Zack Greinke) and certain draft picks (Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross) and international kids (Yu Darvish and Martin Perez and Jurickson Profar and Jorge Alfaro) — but if you listened intently enough, it was impossible not to absorb tons about “why.”
A bunch of us made a father-son trip to Surprise in March, and we ran into Coach on his golf cart, seconds after Shin-Soo Choo had leaned over for a 10-minute talk with him and after Nomar Mazara had swooped in to give him a hug and after any number of uniformed instructors and trainers and scouts in floppy hats and chinos had leaned in for a quick handshake. Seeing Max, Coach probably made some instant reference to something they’d talked about three years earlier, and then he met four of Max’s friends, after which, this:
Preston, what’s the best thing about Jake’s game?
Max, what does Dominic do well?
Landry, is Max telling the truth?
Photo: John Payne
There’s really no reason that should seem unusually cool to you, but the whole idea idea of Coach making those boys think about the game and about a level someone else plays it at that’s worth shooting for and subtly encouraging them to appreciate and respect the game rather than trash-talk their own place in it — in the smallest moment — resonated with me and four other Dads.
The story about Coach looking over the Braves official’s scorecard and asking who the catcher was, when he really just wanted to steal a glance at the name of that lanky pitcher throwing the easy gas (“Feliz”), and the Hamilton stories and the John Olerud stories and the Jim Abbott stories and the Durrett stories he told us a week ago (“his sister-in-law wouldn’t give me any dirt on the guy . . . not one usable tidbit . . . I mean c’mon!!”) and the story about Coach holding a baseball in one hand and a football in the other and simply asking Jordan Akins, “Which one?” — and looking not so much for the verbal response but the conviction behind it — those will always resonate, too.
Texas in one hand, and San Diego in the other.
And then, weeks away from his 72nd birthday, the convicted decision to chase the challenge and to follow the man who has been like a son to him, and not in some hackneyed sense of the word.
When Texas traded for Hamilton, one of the things that had Coach pounding his fist on the table for him was a sense that the 26-year-old “had something to prove.” It was a recurring theme, as the Rangers noted that Beltre and Mike Napoli and Joe Nathan, among other veterans brought in to boost the roster, had never won a title. It would stand to reason that they were hungry. Had something to prove.
Does Coach have something to prove? Not really. But he’ll never not be hungry to build a winner, and though the ring narrowly eluded him in Texas (he has two, from the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays), the challenge is greater in San Diego. It’s certainly not the prevailing reason he’s moving on, but surely that hunger factored in.
Would Darvish or Beltre or Hamilton or Perez be here if Don Welke hadn’t been? Most of us will never know that. But his influence was felt all over this organization in what has been its absolute heyday, from the standpoint of talent inventory and acquisition geography and hardware, and just as losing A.J. Preller isn’t a good thing even if the franchise remains extremely healthy without him, seeing Coach move on to another club to do his thing, with all the relationships he’s built around the game and all the wisdom and judgment and ability to evaluate he shares, is certainly not something that, in and of itself, makes you stronger.
Players moving on is how the world of pro sports works.
Deserving young executives changing organizations to find opportunity happens all the time.
But when a wise old scout leaves — and make no mistake, the scout’s “beisbol solamente” life is the most itinerant life imaginable to begin with — I suppose it shouldn’t shake you, but this one’s different for me. This one’s personal.
Sure, this will be Coach’s eighth organization in his nearly 50 years in the game. But Texas is who he spent more time with than any other aside from one (Toronto, which he joined as an expansion club) and, more importantly as far as I’m concerned, it’s my team he’s leaving.
I feel like I learned a whole lot about baseball just being around Coach a little bit the last 10 years, and then I think about all the scouts and baseball operations folks in Texas who were around him nearly every single day, and it’s for that reason that I’m confident that the Rangers will be fine in his absence. His legacy includes dozens of players, from Kentucky to Japan, and Colombia to Mission Viejo, but it also includes the talent evaluators and advisors and coaches and, to be sure, a President & General Manager who brought him to Texas in the first place (and the second).
Ask anyone in the Rangers front office to identify the word that, when it comes out of Don Welke’s mouth in discussing a kid to draft or a free agent to chase or a veteran to trade for at just the right time, makes everyone stop down, and they will all agree: The word is “special.”
Yu Darvish. Adrian Beltre. Josh Hamilton. Martin Perez.
Don Welke, too. Maybe it’s true that today, as opposed to eight years ago, they need Don more than we do, and I’m happy for him that he’ll get to keep working with Preller and that he’ll get to try and help redefine a franchise that hasn’t seen 162+ since 2006 and that hasn’t won a playoff series of any type since 1998. I’m confident that he’ll help San Diego do special things once again.
And I’m thankful for the nine seasons he spent in Texas, and the times in that span that I was fortunate enough for our paths to cross, every one of which deepened my appreciation of the game and my passion for it, not to mention my respect for the people who so uniquely help make it what it is, especially those who you’d realize in short order are special, and not normal.