New Nationals bench coach Chip Hale knew Manager Dave Martinez the way all longtime baseball people know one another, enough to say hello, to talk baseball on the field before a game, to exchange pleasantries and maybe a laugh or two. But those are threadbare bonds compared to the one that must exist between a manager and his bench coach — particularly a rookie manager on a veteran team and a veteran bench coach brought in to help him navigate his first season.
General Manager Mike Rizzo had identified Hale, a former Diamondbacks manager with whom he worked in the early 2000s, as a candidate but wanted Martinez to be comfortable with everyone on his staff. Rizzo liked Hale’s edge, plus the fact that he had managed about a decade’s worth of games in the minors and two years in the majors. But managers often like to keep their closest confidant as bench coach — as Joe Maddon did in Tampa and Chicago with Martinez. So Martinez and Hale met for breakfast in Phoenix.
“Sometimes it’s hard to verbalize, but just sitting with him, you get a really good feeling,” Hale said. “We said to each other, why not us? This is an opportunity for a group of guys who’s ready to win and take the next step. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
Hale, who had been set to return to the Athletics as their third base coach after interviewing for the Phillies’ managerial job, officially became the Nationals’ bench coach soon after.
“It’s just a great opportunity to get with an organization that I think is one of the top in baseball. It’s very difficult to leave places you’re comfortable in, and Oakland is definitely one I’m comfortable in,” said Hale, who had been with the A’s from 2012-14 and again since 2017. ” . . . but when Davey got the job, I think Riz was trying to put together a staff that had experience at different spots. The managing part of it, doing that a few years in Arizona, should help me a lot.”
Bench coach duties generally include writing out the lineup card, keeping track of available players, and picking up general odds and ends for the manager. But the less tangible, more important role of a bench coach is as a clubhouse confidant. A good bench coach serves as a sort of fun uncle, a good listener who will hear out players’ personal problems and not scamper to report them. He is, simultaneously, a liaison to the manager and a safe space away from him.
“It’s really having an ear in the clubhouse. I think Davey’s really good with the players. He’s going to be really good with the communication aspect of it, but he’s got so much on his plate with media, with dealing with front office, with ownership, that I have to really be his ears in the clubhouse and just let everybody know what’s going on and keep those lines of communication open,” Hale said. ” . . . probably the most important to running a team and making a team successful is getting the guys to play for you and making them understand that you have their back all the time.”
Martinez and Hale, like the rest of the coaching staff (with the exception of third base coach Bobby Henley), will be newcomers to a largely veteran clubhouse filled with shared history. They will need to ingratiate themselves with players who have had four managers since 2013, and watched the last one leave despite a 97-win season and one-run loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. In other words, they will have to earn the respect of a clubhouse that will not be quick to give it, one shouldered with the unenviable burden of fighting off determined demons they can only vanquish in early October — a burden that renders anything achieved before then nearly meaningless.
Hale is familiar with some of the key players in that clubhouse. He managed Max Scherzer in the Arizona Fall League and knew him from his Diamondbacks days.
“I know of his intensity,” Hale said. “And his really unbelievable mind for baseball.”
Hale also worked with Daniel Murphy while serving as the Mets’ third base coach in 2009 — another brilliant baseball mind, Hale said.
“You don’t find those type of guys in baseball that have such a mind for the game and care for it and respect for it,” Hale said. “I was blessed to have those guys in Arizona with Paul Goldschmidt and guys like A.J. Pollock. You don’t find those guys a lot, so it’s neat to get back with them.”
When people would ask Hale about the best teams the A’s faced last year, he said he thought it was the Astros and Nationals, hands down.
“But I think one thing people forget in baseball is when the playoffs roll around, once the wild card game is done, you’re going to get the four best teams in each league,” Hale said. “If you match up like they did this year with the Cubs in a five-game series, it’s tough. That’s where they’ve kind of had their issues. It’s not like you’re playing the 10th- or eighth-place team in the league. You’re playing good teams. It’s not as easy as it looks on paper.”
Hale said he felt like he and Martinez were “a good match.” Rizzo likes Hale’s fire, thinks he brings an urgency and edge to Martinez’s coaching staff that certainly won’t hurt in a generally reserved, veteran clubhouse. Hale admits his wife often suggested he not get quite so “fired up” about his teams over the years, and that as a manager, he was able to keep a straight face more often than not. As a bench coach, he doesn’t have to — though he doesn’t have the authority he did as a manager, either. Though he interviewed for the Phillies’ vacancy and has managed more than a thousand more professional games than Martinez, he doesn’t seem to mind assuming a supplementary role.
“It’s one of those things that ego-wise isn’t a big deal for me,” Hale said. ” . . . To slide in as the bench coach, it’s a pleasure for me to help a guy like Dave who’s really earned this opportunity. That’s something we’re seeing in this game: You’re seeing managers get jobs and maybe not have the pedigree that Davey Martinez does. For me it’s a pleasure — it’s an honor — to help him in whatever way he needs.”