Will Jim Palmer Laugh at the theories of a 32-year-old rookie pitching coach called "Rabbit," all of whose notions were gleaned in bush-league briar patches from Pawtucket to Dubuque?
Ray (The Rabbit) Miller, the Baltimore Orioles' new pitching coach and the youngest coach of any kind in the majors, certainly hopes so.
Laughter is his companion, luck his trademark and the knowledge of failure his hidden secret.
"There ain't a left-hander in the world who can run a straight line. It's the gravitational pull on the axis of the earth that gets 'em," says the ex-right-handed pitcher.
When Miller's pitchers run wind sprints, he either lines his lefties up on the slope of a hill to balance their gravitational field, or else puts them all on the right-hand side.
"If you don't," he says, "they'll wipe out your whole line."
The Takoma park (Md.) native isn't likely to crack under the pressure of replacing George Bamberger, that Professor of Pitch who groomed 18 Oriole 20-game winners in the last decade.
Since graduating from Suitland High, Miller has taken all of baseball's advanced degrees in hard knocks, surviving with a wink, a droll tale and perseverance.
"A spitball pitcher has to learn to laugh at the world," said Miller, who tossed some damp ones in 10 checkered minor-league years. "As hard as it's all been. I never doubted I'd make it to the bigs . . . somehow."
It has taken Miller 15 winding years from Salinas to Reno to Wichita to Mexico. But just as the more gifted members of the pitching class of '63 are getting shouldered off the big league they train the Rabbit is hopping aboard. Probably for a long ride.
"I have no sympathy for kids who gripe about making $500 a month in the minors," said Miller. "I made less."
When the 6-foot-3. 205-pounder wasn't pitching for such offseason teams as Federal Storage or Buffalo Sand and Gravel, was was working as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, a street sweeper in Portland, a shipping clerk, a rent-a-cop, a house painter or an electrician.
"I learned that it's better to get shocked on the back of your hand than the palm," says Miller, "and I saved enough money so my wife and I have just built our dream house. I'm proud that I did it before I got to the majors."
On the wall of their New Athens, Ohio, home is a letter of congratulations on their wedding from J. Edgar Hoover.
"That gets some double takes," said Miller. "I met my wife when she worked for the FBI. I tell people she was investigating me."
The O's started investigating Miller when he was just a retread AAA relief pitcher in 1971! They saw the person, not the pitcher.
"Ray's the life-of-the-party type, lights up a room when he walks in," said an Oriole front-office veteran. "But he also seems more mature, more organized, maybe even more wiser, than other players his age."
At 28, Miller was manager, pitching coach and reliever for a Venezuelan winter league team that included several major leaguers.
"I'd visit the pitcher on the mound, send myself to the bullpen, warm myself up, visit the pitcher again, replace him with myself, pitch, visit with myself, signal to warm up a lefty 'cause I was in trouble, call a coach out to calm me down, give the ball to the new pitcher and send myself to the showers.
"Then the other guy would get shelled worse than I did and I'd have to explain afterward why I couldn't pitch, coach or manage."
That Venezuelan winter also brought the most traumatic moment of Miller's professional life, one that convinced him to give up his illusions of pitching in the majors and to become a coach.
On new Year's day 1974, Miller learned that a close friend and relief-pitching competitor, Mark Weems, had drowned.
For three days Miller and two teammates. Don Hood and Bobby Bailor, searched the South American beach for the body, so it could be sent back to Weems' family in the U.S. for burial.
ON the fourth day only Miller was still searching. "During those days I analyzed everthing in my life," says Miller, "how I was away from my wife year round, chasing this fantasy of pitching in the majors.
"When I finally found what was left of Mark, washed up in a cove on the fourth day, I said to myself, 'This isn't a dream world I live in. It's a lot more real than I thought." Maybe I just grew up."
From that Miller feels his fortunes began to shift. Before, he had been called Rabbit because he was bouncy, unable to stay in one spot for long.
"I hit an inside the park home run one day that bounced off about 16 corners after three fielders collided, and an hour-and-a-half later I was called 'safe' at the plate. A newspaper called 'Rapid' Miller, but my teammates said, 'You're not Rapid, you're a restless Rabbit."
Slowly the nickname's meaning changed. "As soom as I stopped pitching, it seemed like luck always followed me."
If a manager got sick and Miller was called In, "I'd tell 'em. 'Hi, guys. I'm managing today,' and they'd score 12 runs."
For four years as the O's minor league pitching coach, Miller bounced through the bushes as trouble-shooter, soother of bruised egos and teller of hard truths.
"Everywhere I went, the team was losing or a pitcher was in trouble. They were ready to break out, anyway. But I'd come in, loosen things up, they start winning and I'd get the credit."
Credit is something Miller is adept at avoiding.
"A pitching coach only suggests," he says. "You try to simplify the game, take the load off the pitcher, tell him he doesn't have to strike everybody out.
"There's nothing the can go through that I don't understand. I did everything wrong and I had to figure it out for myself. I overthrew for five seasons. Failure can be a key to understanding."
Miller likes making his job seem transparent:
I am a pitcher's eye when he is on the mound and can't see himself.
I'mthe in-between guy in an organization. When a pitcher doesn't understand what's happening to his career, and he needs somebody to be honest with him, I'm there.
"I explain The Oriole Way. We've drafted a lot of guys with soft hands, strong arms and quick feet. Just let the other team hit the ball to our defense and relax."
Most important, however, Miller encourages. "Some people need to be kicked," he said. "But everybody needs to be patted . . . I wish I had run into myself when I was 18."
If Miller isn't a manager by age 40, many eyebrows will rise. Already this month, Texas and Baltimore struggled over him.
Miller was at the annual Federal Storage alumni banquet, telling his old buddies about signing as Ranger pitching coach, when Bamberger was named Milwaukee manager.
"Give us the Rabbit back, please," the Orioles pleaded to Texas. "He's the one who has groomed all our young pitchers - Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor. Who else can replace Bamberger?
Miller anguished over his allegiances: his word to help Billy Hunter in Texas vs. his seven years with the Orioles (the only team that ever took an interest in me").
"Those were the hardest three days of my life," said Miller. "I didn't want to lose anyone's respect. It's not a good idea for someone who's never spent a day in the majors to have two teams mad at him. There I was in the middle."
Given a free choice by Texas, Miller sped back to Baltimore. The Orioles are laughing already. If anybaody can keep those crazy southpaws running in a straight line, it's the Rabbit.