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

action.

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

workout.

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

Cleveland’s manager.

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

Astros owner.

“He’s a take-charge kind of guy,” McLane said. “He really

said that he’s going to provide the leadership that’s

necessary.”

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

can.

“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.”