April 3, 2005
TUCSON - Gregg Olson still remembers the postgame strolls with Bob Melvin from Fenway Park to Baltimore’s team hotel 20 minutes away, when teammate Joe Price would light up a White Owl cigar and the three would walk and talk baseball.
The conversation might detour into current events, but the primary thread was always the little white ball that governed their lives.
"It was a long enough walk that everything was covered. Anything," Olson said. "It got to be a little habit. We’d go over the game. We’d go over what was going on. He was always very intelligent and very analytical."
Thrust into the closer’s role in Baltimore at age 22, Olson is not sure if he shook off any of catcher Melvin’s signs their first two years together.
"He was one of the guys who taught me to pitch," said Olson, still Baltimore’s career saves leader. "I put a lot of reliance on Bob."
The D-Backs, too, have chosen to put their faith in Melvin, a wiffle ball-playing Bay Area kid who grew into a College World Series participant at California, a confidant of major leaguers during a 10-year catching career and a sounding board for managers Phil Garner and Bob Brenly.
The lasting image from Melvin’s previous two years with the D-Backs is his rush from the dugout to hug Brenly after the winning run scored in the 2001 World Series.
The landscape has changed appreciably in Melvin’s second term with Arizona as the D-Backs attempt to dig out from a 51-victory 2004, but it is a challenge he welcomes and for which others believe he remains ideally suited.
"I knew he was bright," said D-Backs hitting coach Mike Aldrete, who competed against Melvin in Bay Area Babe Ruth games and then at Stanford before becoming his teammate in San Francisco from 1986-88. Aldrete was Melvin’s first-base coach in Seattle last year.
"For the most part, he was one of the few guys who didn’t necessarily need baseball to be successful. I thought he was going to reach the top in whatever it was he did, but it didn’t necessarily have to be baseball. I’m sure at some point he had an Epiphany and said, ‘You know what, I’m choosing baseball.’ "
Melvin, who has a copy of Bill James’ latest statistical analysis guide on his desk and a manager’s two-steps-ahead eye, does not recall a "eureka moment," but friends say his aptitude was evident at an early age.
"He really studied the game as a kid," said Tom Dunton, a former Stanford assistant coach whose association with Melvin goes back to wiffle ball games in the Dunton home in Menlo Park, Calif. "We had a big backyard, and there were games going on all the time."
Dunton coached Melvin in the local American Legion summer program, and Dunton’s son, Jim, and Melvin grew up as best friends, hitting 3-4 in summer Legion games, the days in which Melvin would win games with his hitting and then save them with an inning or two of fastball-slider relief.
"We’d bring him in and he’d finish the game as a the closer," said Dunton, whose son was the best man at Melvin’s wedding.
"The game came to him easily. He had a lot of questions. He had a real good feel for pitchers. He’d tell me ‘soand-so is getting by on fumes, we better make a move.’ He’s a sharp guy. Very analytical."
When Toronto made what seemed to be a premature pitching change in a 1991 game against Baltimore, failing to take advantage of a lefty-lefty matchup, Melvin asked Baltimore manager Jonnny Oates about the move.
"You watch the game," Oates told Melvin, "the right way. You are the type of guy who would be a big league manager."
Not that it happened right away. Melvin played with seven major league teams after being selected in the first round of the secondary phase of the 1981 draft, splitting time behind the plate with Brenly in their three seasons together with the Giants.
He had a two-homer game off Fernando Valenzuela in 1987, was the last player to homer off Orel Hershiser in 1988 (Hershiser later threw 59 scoreless innings and led the Dodgers to the World Series title) and had a fivehit game with the Orioles in 1991.
After taking a year off after his retirement in 1994, Melvin worked his way up as a scout, roving instructor and assistant general manager in the Milwaukee organization before returning to the dugout as manager Phil Garner’s bench coach with the Brewers in 1999.
Melvin got his first managerial experience in the Arizona Fall League that winter, rejoined Garner in Detroit in 2000 and was reunited with another pal, Brenly, when Brenly was named the DBacks manager in 2001.
"Bob was one of the toughest competitors I have ever been around," Melvin said of their days as teammates. "We’d go to the (batting) cage and throw to each other, play these hitting games, it was like it was the seventh game of the World Series."
After the two got to the World Series with Arizona, Melvin was a hot property. But two seasons after being hired to replace Lou Piniella in Seattle, he collided with the first axiom of his profession: managers are hired to be fired.
Seattle won 93 games in 2003, one more than the D-Backs had won in their World Series season, but did not make the playoffs. When veteran warriors such as Edgar Martinez and John Olerud aged seemingly overnight in 2004, new general manager Bill Bavasi remade the team.
"It was nice to inherit a winning team" in 2003, Melvin said. "Usually a firstyear manager, you are going to a place where all hell’s broken loose and there have been some struggles. Looking back on it, maybe we overachieved a little bit. The team was kind of on its last legs and trying to win one more time.
" . . . I harbor no ill feelings to those people there. They gave me my first opportunity, and I’ll always be thankful for that.
"But it worked out good because I am here. This is somewhere that when I left, I always hoped I could come back and do this job here."
Melvin never sold his home in Cave Creek and in the offseason rides his favorite mountain-bike courses with neighbors Bryan Price, his pitching coach in Seattle, and D-Backs bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock.
"Having two years of managing under your belt is going to make you feel like you are that much more prepared," Melvin said. "You do have some things you do feel you might do a little different, but it all has to do with the type of team you have."
Melvin wants to involve his bench players more, which can be difficult in the American League because there are not as many builtin pinch-hit opportunities. He savors a return to the National League.
"I don’t think there is a manager out there who will tell you the National League is not a lot more fun as far as the manager goes because there are a lot more things going on," Melvin said.
Melvin recalls sitting in the Detroit dugout with Garner in 2000, a year removed from their time in the NL with Milwaukee.
"We were playing an interleague game, and I remember him looking at me and saying, ‘Boy, I really miss this,’ " Melvin said.
Melvin missed it, too. And now he is back.