By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 26, 2007
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 25 -- There is no time to stand still, so Randy St. Claire doesn't. He is watching Chris Booker in a bullpen at the Washington Nationals' minor league complex here. He is gone. He appears in another bullpen, a gopher popping up from a hole in the prairie. He has a small, brown folder tucked in the back of his baseball pants. He pulls it out. He unfolds a piece of paper. He checks his stopwatch. The folder is back in his pants. He is gone. Another pitcher to see. Another pitch to evaluate.
Of all the players and coaches and executives attending the spring training camps littered across this state, there is perhaps no one with a more daunting task than St. Claire, the Nationals' pitching coach. He is the man who must somehow make the 36 healthy pitchers into a major league staff. He has a reputation as a fix-it man -- a mechanic adept at both complete rebuilding of an engine or a mere tuneup -- which he was re-signed for this season even before the club hired Manager Manny Acta.
But St. Claire's first and foremost assessment as a coach came more than a decade ago: Himself.
"I had to be a self-evaluator," St. Claire said last week. "I had to know: 'You know what? You can't do this anymore. Your skills are deteriorating. What do you do now?' "
St. Claire was in his mid-30s, coming to the tail end of a career that annually hung by a thread. If the team he was with kept 12 pitchers, he would be on the squad. If it kept 11, he was in the minors. He began playing professionally in Calgary, Alberta, in 1979, then last took the mound at that very same site 16 years later, "the year I said: 'You know what? I'm done.' " He never once spent an entire season in the big leagues. He pitched for the Atlanta Braves in a mop-up role in the 1991 World Series. He played for five different teams in the majors, nine more in the minors.
And toward the end of that odyssey, he started to think about what might come next. He started to watch the other team, watch opposing pitchers' deliveries. "I started to think like a coach," he said.
St. Claire's first coaching job was in Stockton, Calif., Class A ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. But daughters Monique and Chantal were still at home in Lake George, N.Y., with his wife, Liz. He was making $25,000 a year. He couldn't afford to have his family visit during the summer. Again, the self-evaluation. His father, Ebba, was a big league catcher for parts of four seasons in the early 1950s. When Ebba's career was over, he went home and sold insurance. Randy?
"If I had to go work construction," he said, "I'd go work construction."
Alas, he found a job on the East Coast, coaching pitchers for Montreal's Class A team in Fayetteville, N.C. He reached the majors in 2003 with the Expos. And, in a way, he did construction work with pitchers. He taught reliever Hector Carrasco a change-up that saved his career. He put right-hander John Patterson back together when Patterson no longer felt like himself. And on the fields here now, with so many decisions to make about so many pitchers, his gaze doesn't miss a thing.
"Randy cares," is how Acta puts it, and that much is apparent not only in the way he works, but in how much he works. "You ask him to do anything," lefty Mike O'Connor said, "he'll do it. Whatever you want, whenever. We have days off, he'd want me to come in and throw. A lot of coaches wouldn't take that time. He'll be there early, late, whenever."
Frequently, what pitchers need is to undo what has been done to them before. Take reliever Ryan Wagner. After Cincinnati took him in the first round of the 2003 draft, the Reds decided to alter his somewhat sidearm delivery, bringing him over the top. The results were disastrous. Wagner had a 6.11 ERA with the Reds in 2005, a 6.34 ERA in Class AAA during the first half of 2006. Then came a trade to Washington, and work with St. Claire.
"He basically got me right back to where I needed to be, and did it extremely quickly," said Wagner, who posted a 4.70 ERA with the Nationals. "He was able to say, 'We can fix that.' I went from not being able to get anyone out in the minors to getting people out in the big leagues."
Wagner's story fits with St. Claire's belief about how to work with pitchers. He has a few tenets that apply to nearly everybody -- keep your front side closed, make a stride straight to the plate. But all else comes from one thought: "Every single person is an individual."
"The way I think of it is this: You've been throwing a ball for 25, 26 years," St. Claire said. "And if I try to tell you to throw a ball differently, first, I'm going to be [ticked] off, and you're going to be [ticked] off, because you're not going to be any good, and we're not going to get what we want."
Considering what the Nationals are attempting to do -- assemble a rotation from baseball's scrap heap -- there is every chance St. Claire and his pitchers won't get precisely what they want. But there are moments -- even here, even in February -- when his hardened face is graced with a broad smile.
Sunday, St. Claire grabbed the arm of Emiliano Fruto, a young reliever, and pulled him off the mound. He drew a line with his foot, an indication of where he wanted Fruto to land on his follow-through. The next pitch, Fruto unleashed a fastball. He planted his left foot right on St. Claire's mark. The pitch popped into the catcher's mitt.
"See?" St. Claire said. "See? Bam! That was very, very nice."
And then he was off, another pitch to watch, another pitcher to teach.