Rookie manager Mills brings spark to Astros
Brad Mills bounces around the practice fields at the Houston
Astros’ spring training complex, always in the middle of the
The 53-year-old rookie manager smacks grounders to his
infielders on one field, throws batting practice on another, offers
advice to pitchers fielding bunts on another.
Even when he’s not working with his players, Mills is often
taking practice swings at the air with a black fungo bat, like he’s
ready to step into the batter’s box again himself.
“Here we go, guys, let’s go!” Mills barked from the infield
grass as his players started running bases during a recent
Mills, Boston’s bench coach over the previous six seasons,
emerged from a group of more recognizable names to succeed Cecil
Cooper as Houston’s manager last October. The Astros initially
offered the job to Manny Acta, but he turned them down to become
Mills won over the Astros’ brass with his energy and enthusiasm,
traits the team seemed to lose in the last months of Cooper’s
two-plus seasons. The often-sullen Cooper was fired with 13 games
to go in 2009, and Houston limped to a 74-88 record.
A week into spring training, Mills seemed to have already
transformed the mood in the clubhouse, infusing a positive outlook
and establishing personal connections with his players.
“You have be an idiot not to recognize the fact that guys are a
little more upbeat,” infielder Geoff Blum said. “As far as
personality of the leadership, it’s definitely changed. Things were
a little more somber last year, and then you have Brad Mills come
in, who’s energetic, intense and well-organized.
“He definitely gives off a little bit of a different vibe, and
I think the guys are looking forward to having that kind of a
structure around here.”
Mills has dedicated his life to baseball, though he played only
four seasons in the majors (1980-83) before a right knee injury
ended his playing career. He hit .256 with one home run and 12 RBIs
in 106 games with Montreal. His biggest claim to fame as a player
may be that he was Nolan Ryan’s 3,509th strikeout victim, the one
that made Ryan baseball’s all-time leader.
Mills managed 10 seasons in the minor leagues before becoming
Terry Francona’s first base coach in Philadelphia in 1997. The two
played together in college and again with the Expos.
Current Astros’ general manager Ed Wade became the Phillies’ GM
when Francona and Mills were there, and he fired Francona in 2000.
The Red Sox hired Francona as their manager in 2004 and Mills
joined the staff as the bench coach.
Boston won the World Series in 2004 and ’07, with Mills gladly
doing much of the behind-the-scenes work in support of his manager.
He organized spring training, compiled scouting reports and
displayed a knack for communicating with players.
“He knows how he feels about players,” Francona said. “He’s
organized, he’ll be a good guy for whatever circumstances they’re
in. Millsie will communicate with those young guys, he’ll treat the
veterans with respect. He got an opportunity probably way too late,
for whatever reasons. But, he’ll do a great job.”
The Astros interviewed 10 candidates in their search for
Cooper’s successor, several with previous big league managing
experience. Francona gave Mills a glowing recommendation that made
big impressions with Wade and team owner Drayton McLane.
“In some respects, it’s easy to say he’s a ‘Terry clone,’ but I
think he’s his own man,” Wade said. “I think he brings certain
plusses and attributes that Terry brings to the job, but he brings
it with his own personality.
“There’s not a more engaging manager in baseball than Terry,
and a guy that wears his emotion and love for his players on his
sleeve more than Terry does. I think Mills brings a lot of that,
but with his own approach.”
One of Mills’ top priorities during the offseason was to call
every player on the roster to introduce himself and lay the
groundwork for what he sees as a key to this season: maintaining an
open line of communication with his players.
“It opens the door for them to give themselves a chance to be
the best player that they can be,” Mills said, “that they don’t
have to keep worrying about what’s going on behind closed doors or
behind their back, or whatever. Hopefully, they feel a freedom to
become the player they’re capable of (becoming).”
But that doesn’t mean Mills is here to coddle them. He gave a
rousing speech before the team’s first full-squad workout, one that
McLane called the best he’s heard from a manager in 18 years as
“He’s a take-charge kind of guy,” McLane said. “He really
said that he’s going to provide the leadership that’s
Center fielder Michael Bourn, who led the NL with 61 steals in
2009, gets the sense that Mills will become more demanding once he
establishes himself in the clubhouse. Bourn says the Astros, who
are not expected to contend in the NL Central this season, need
that kind of a leader.
“He’s pretty intense, and I’ve never not liked an intense
coach,” Bourn said. “You need somebody like that sometimes to get
you going. You might be mad at the time, but you have to look at it
from the other side, he’s getting on you like he’s mad at the
world, he’s mad at you because he thinks you can do better. I don’t
have a problem with that.”
At spring training, though, Mills is relaxed and quick with a
smile for every autograph seeker who approaches him. This is the
job he’s always wanted, so he’s trying to savor it as much as he
“It’s always fun to me,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be
involved in this game for a long time, I’ve enjoyed it for a long
time. Each day, whether I’m the manager, whether I’m one of the
coaches, I want it to be a good day and I want to be able to show
that to the people I’m around. And now, this year, since I am the
manager, show it to the players.”