As Third Base Coach, Washington Nationals' Pat Listach Seeks Invisibility
Monday, March 30, 2009
JUPITER, Fla., March 29 -- Standing a few feet beyond the foul line, Pat Listach reviewed the situation, trying to do the right thing, and trying to remain anonymous. At moments like this -- runners on first and second, two outs -- Listach faced a strange set of imbalanced consequences. Within seconds, Listach, the Washington Nationals' new third base coach, would make a decision. The right call would win him nothing. The wrong call would cause a stadium to witness the overwhelming foolishness of Pat Listach.
"My goal for the season is to go unnoticed," Listach said. "If you notice me, I'm not doing my job."
Listach scanned the variables; he does that before every pitch. Josh Willingham stood on second -- decent speed, hard runner. Willie Harris was batting. The Nationals led 5-3 in the sixth. A devilish wind blew in from right field. All game, gusts had turned home runs into outs and outs into bloops. The Houston Astros, in this Saturday game, had Reggie Abercrombie in right field; Listach remembered Abercrombie's arm from last year, when Listach managed the Class AAA Iowa Cubs and Abercrombie played for Class AAA Round Rock.
On baseball's scouting scale, where "80" represents the maximum numerical ranking, Abercrombie had a "70" arm. Plus, he was positioned several steps in, to account for the wind. On a hit, he'd have a good chance to gun down somebody scoring from second. That said, Listach views himself as an aggressive decision-maker, especially when his team has a lead. "I'll be as aggressive as they come," Listach said.
Those who coach third base inherit responsibility for the quick-twitch decisions that can flip close games into wins or losses. There are few, if any, statistics to measure a third base coach's effectiveness. Mostly, they prove they are good only by proving over time that they are not bad.
"A team could score 990 runs in a year, and nobody cares about those runners that scored. As soon as somebody gets thrown out at the plate, then your name comes up," said Manager Manny Acta, who coached third with the New York Mets and Montreal Expos. "You have to have a closer's mentality when you're coaching third base. It's a really tough job. It's like a 10th player on the field, coaching third base. There is a lot of responsibility, and it is tough. Guys really need to be prepared. Guys really need to do their homework."
"And at times," he said, "it's unfair."
Especially in the most passionate baseball markets, third base coaches can become vilified household names. After making a few questionable decisions in the 2004 American League Championship Series, Boston third base coach Dave Sveum was booed during the subsequent World Series pregame introductions. Some third base coaches have been fired for aggression. Some have been fired for passivity.
When Washington fired much of Acta's coaching staff at the end of the 2008 season, then-general manager Jim Bowden sought a replacement for Tim Tolman who had experience coaching third. Listach had done it. It was part of his job description in the Cubs organization, where he had managed since 2006. Chicago Manager Lou Piniella viewed Listach as one of the game's rising managerial stars, but didn't have room for him on his staff. He spoke to Bowden.
Bowden called Listach.
Listach, a player from 1992 (when he was AL rookie of the year) to 1997, re-entered the big leagues for his second career.
Some day, Listach wants to manage. "I'd love to have the opportunity to do it if the situation came," he said. "If you look at it, there are only 30 jobs around. Thirty teams in baseball, and there are only 30 first base coaches, 30 third base coaches, and I'm honored to be one of those right now. If the situation arises in the future -- I've got a lot of respect for Manny and [Nationals bench coach] Jim Riggleman, and I'm envious of them. They've managed at the highest level, and that's a great honor."
For now, of course, Listach must make his name mostly by preserving his obscurity. As such, he has started studying a book of scouting reports on National League outfielders' arms, especially those they'll be seeing in the season's first two series. He also has a few guidelines. When trailing, don't make stupid mistakes; don't bet on 75 percent odds. With two outs, be more aggressive; test the outfielder, and force him to make a perfect throw. Also: Sometimes, be willing to break your own rules.
On Saturday, with Willingham on second, Harris stroked a ball to right -- a line drive hit. Willingham got a good jump.
"With two outs, I would say 95 percent of the time I'm going to send him," Listach said. "I told all the players, 'Expect me to score you; make me stop you.' I'll read it. You're scoring until I stop you."
As Willingham was rounding third, Listach threw up a stop sign. Willingham halted. Abercrombie threw home -- a strike.
"It's a good thing I held him up," Listach said. "He would have been out by 20 feet."