By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 28 -- After Washington's final game of the season Sunday afternoon, the most experienced man in the organization walked out of the clubhouse for the last time, no longer with a job. Pat Corrales -- like four other Washington Nationals coaches -- had been informed that morning, before an 8-3 loss against Philadelphia -- that his contract wouldn't be renewed. Corrales understood. He owed the last 50 years of his life to professional baseball. It was his purchase on perspective.
He spoke in measured tones. The team, for the final time, was still "we." We lost 102 games, worst in baseball. We took our beating. "We did some good things and a lot of bad things," he said.
In conjunction with the defeat at Citizens Bank Park, which concluded a series sweep and guarantees Washington the No. 1 pick in the June 2009 draft, the Nationals took the first step to separate a long, bitter season from what lies ahead. The team decided not to renew the contracts of five coaches and two additional team employees. Manager Manny Acta lost his first base coach, Jerry Morales; his hitting coach, Lenny Harris; his bench coach, Corrales, and two of his most loyal lieutenants, third base coach Tim Tolman and bullpen coach Rick Aponte. Both had immeasurable influence in Acta's own development: Aponte scouted Acta and helped him sign his first professional contract. Tolman managed the 1991 Class A Burlington team in Acta's last year as a player.
Thus, a season that Acta termed "poor" and "tough" was also punctuated by pain. General Manager Jim Bowden explained the decision -- only pitching coach Randy St. Claire was retained -- with bottom-line objectivity: "There are a lot of changes that we need to make to get to where we want to get to," he said, "and you know, we're going to start on 2009 tomorrow morning."
For Acta, though, the emotion was excruciating. He compared the dismissals with some of the most painful moments of his life. Before their final game, the coaches were the ones cheering up Acta.
"It's about human beings," he said. "And, you know, every one of them lost their jobs."
Each had been with the organization for the last two years, and few had a clue about what will come next. Tolman planned to head home and scan through his Rolodex. Harris, often criticized for his work with a team that batted .251 this year, thought this experience could be a steppingstone for something down the line. Corrales, though, wasn't so sure. He needed to talk things over with his wife, Donna. Still slowed by knee surgery last January, he's been walking with either a limp or a cane. This year, his 31st as either a big league manager or coach, Corrales, 67, guided the team's catchers. He spoke with a sage's hushed wisdom. His lessons, like his conclusions about the 2008 season, were succinct and true.
Corrales saw a lot of mistakes this year. He also noticed plenty of young talent. "The good ones," Corrales said, "are going to learn from their mistakes. The ones that don't grasp something from their mistakes, they're not going to go forward."
And with that, Corrales, wearing a beige sweater and brown pants, pressed crisp, shuffled out of the clubhouse and toward the team bus. Old separated from new.
Still in the clubhouse was Luke Montz, Washington's 25-year-old catcher who'd spent the day keeping a careful eye on his first big league mentor. Montz, like the other players, heard rumors about the dismissals just as the game was starting. So during the game, Montz kept glancing at Corrales. There he was, sitting in the corner of the dugout, up on a chair. "I think he was just a little quieter than usual," Montz said.
Montz wasn't sure what to make of the emotion; after all, how was he to know that Corrales knew how to handle this? On July 18, 1983, Corrales was fired as manager by the Phillies. Montz was 11 days old.
When Montz was promoted to the big leagues in September for the first time, Corrales fortified his confidence. One day in Florida, unsure of how he was calling a game, Montz went to Corrales for reassurance. Corrales just served up one of his chestnuts. "Look at the scoreboard," he said.
Through five, the Marlins had no hits. The point, as Montz later interpreted it: "Just believe in yourself."
On Sunday, Montz hit his first major league home run -- the lone Washington bright spot in a game where Odalis Pérez allowed four runs -- three earned -- in 3 2/3 innings and exited with flu-like symptoms. Corrales and Montz talked just a few times. After a Pérez wild pitch, Corrales quizzed Montz about blocking balls in the dirt. After the third-inning home run, Corrales approached Montz, shook his hand and said, "Congratulations." And after the game, it was Montz's turn. He found his departing coach in the clubhouse and said, "Thank you."