Paul Menhart was sick of having blood on his hands.
He was delivering glass all over Georgia, and sometimes that glass broke, and so he would get home in the evenings, spent, and look at the cuts covering his fingers. It was December 2005. He hadn’t played baseball for four years, since throwing his last pitch for the Solano Steelheads, and wasn’t sure what to do next. But Menhart didn’t want to lift another window pane. He didn’t want to climb into that big truck, snap in the lock bars, rumble down some highway while collecting an hourly wage.
He didn’t like life after baseball, not even a little bit, and there was only one fix. He had to get back in. Then one day the phone rang. And then it rang again.
Menhart has trouble remembering every detail of how he went from lost to pitching coach for the Washington Nationals. The last step was public. He replaced Derek Lilliquist in May, after Lilliquist was fired, and took over an experienced rotation and spiraling bullpen. The expectations were high then. They only have heightened with the Nationals in the thick of a pennant race.
But the promotion is only a tiny part of what got him here. Sit with the 50-year-old long enough, let his memory jog, and it all rushes back — the partying that shortened his playing days, the summer spent landscaping, the glass, the cramped classrooms, the two job offers in one day, the 13 years spent in the Nationals’ minor league system, climbing to the moment that everything changed.
He was walking his dog, Gracie, an Australian shepherd-Husky mix, when he received a phone call from Doug Harris this spring. The Nationals’ assistant general manager told Menhart he was getting moved up to the big leagues. He had spent parts of years there as a player, achieving that dream in the mid-1990s, but never stuck. That crossed his mind right away, the unfulfillment, and it still does all the time.
“I want to be here much longer than I was as a player,” Menhart said, shades pushed onto his forehead, leaning back in the dugout before another summer game. “I want this to be my last job.”
The first person to take a chance on Menhart was Jack Leggett, way back in 1987, after watching a grainy video clip in his office.
This was before Menhart was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays, before he made 41 appearances for three different teams, before he left the sport, came back, left the sport, then came back again.
Leggett was looking at a skinny high school pitcher from Mystic, Conn., on a TV screen. He was the head coach at Western Carolina University. A tight recruiting budget limited travel. But Leggett liked the snap of Menhart’s curveball, the promise of velocity, the way he could repeat his delivery at 18 years old. So he signed Menhart without ever seeing him in person.
“I had a feeling with Paul,” Leggett said. “Sometimes you just go with your gut.”
Menhart rewarded him with three standout seasons, becoming the staff’s ace and often bickering with teammates along the way. He always had a joke. He would come to practice and tell hitters there was no way they could hit him. Leggett was drawn to Menhart’s personality, how sure he was, how he never met a spot he didn’t want the ball in. Todd Raleigh was, too, and that mattered years down the line.
Raleigh was Menhart’s roommate and catcher, and he closely followed Menhart’s career once he left college. Menhart went at it for a decade, never found a permanent spot in the majors and ended up with the Steelheads of the independent Western Baseball League in 2001. He started as a player-pitching coach. Then the Steelheads fired their manager midseason and bumped Menhart into the role. He only liked it enough for one year. He was a whole country away from his wife, Bitsy, and tired of feeding quarters into pay phones. It took a few weeks the next spring for him to quit and head back to Georgia.
He spent the next year golfing, spending time with his kids, landscaping whenever his friend needed a hand. Then Bitsy told him to go back to school, just like that, even if that meant leaving again. He contacted Raleigh, now the Western Carolina head coach, to see whether there was room on his staff. Raleigh couldn’t pay Menhart or guarantee him a future, but he did have players for him to teach and a basement for him to sleep in. Menhart could come straight to the field after class.
They had a deal.
“I knew he should have been a coach,” Raleigh said. “He had this ability to level with anyone, no matter who it was, and get people to feel good about themselves. And it helped that he knew what he was talking about.”
After three years back at Western, Menhart had a degree and some pitching coach experience. But Raleigh’s job offer wasn’t worth enough for the whole family to move. That sent him back to Georgia again and onto the road hauling glass. He left that job after a month and took another at a local middle school, teaching health, CPR and sex education to seventh-grade boys, breaking up fights during off periods.
He hated it, maybe more than any other job. Then his phone rang late in January 2006. It was Raleigh. He set him up to coach at Western Carolina full time and be an athletic director for a school down the street. He was ready to take it, Bitsy was on board, then the phone rang again just hours later. This time it was Andy Dunn, another college roommate, who worked for the Nationals. Now the decision was even easier.
Menhart walked right to his principal’s office the next morning and told him he was finished. The principal told Menhart he couldn’t leave until one of his classes was observed by the administration. He hadn’t even been there long enough to get evaluated.
“I can’t wait for that,” Menhart remembers saying. “I have to be at spring training in three days.”
The Nationals built Menhart up for his current job, testing him at every level, taking more than a decade to see what he can handle. That meant three years as a low-Class A pitching coach, three years in advanced-Class A, two years in Class AA and, finally, a year with the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs in 2014. Then came four full seasons as the minor league pitching coordinator, bouncing to all of Washington’s affiliates, arriving wherever a young player needed advice.
And when it came time to replace Lilliquist in May, with the rotation underachieving and the bullpen on life support, Harris came up with simple logic. Harris oversees the Nationals’ system and has grown close with Menhart through their constant work together. He told General Manager Mike Rizzo that, while Menhart was a great coordinator and valuable in the role, he makes an even better pitching coach.
Harris pointed to Menhart’s season with the Harrisburg Senators in 2013. Their .242 team average was the worst in the Eastern League, but their 3.43 ERA was the best by a good margin. They fed the Nationals with pitchers all season. And they still made it all the way to the finals.
“We’ve had so many young pitchers influenced by Paul over the years,” Harris said. “He’s at his best when working one-on-one and looking for the small ways to improve.”
In the past few months, in what has been a challenge and a chance, Menhart has searched for those edges with Washington’s staff. He helped Erick Fedde find the right arm slot for his curveball. He noticed higher spin rates for Sean Doolittle’s slider, a secondary pitch the closer rarely uses, and suggested specific situations to throw it in. He tweaked Joe Ross’s mechanics, getting him to stay closed through his delivery, and the recent results are 11⅓ scoreless innings across two starts.
Pitchers mention Menhart often when discussing work between outings. What he gets out of the Nationals’ three new relievers — Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías — will show how quickly he can spot minor adjustments for veterans. What he gets out of the young depth starters — Ross, Fedde and Austin Voth — will be critical to Washington’s playoff hopes. And his rotation, down ace Max Scherzer for at least another start, has a tall task against the surging New York Mets this weekend. Menhart has Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez lined up. That’s as far as he can see right now.
Rizzo, when asked about Menhart’s future, did not commit to him being the pitching coach beyond this season. Menhart knows he needs to give the front office every reason to retain him. So he will keep showing up early, keep taking his daily walk around the warning track to zone in, keep leafing through major league scouting reports until he is told to do something else.
He has been trying to move up his entire coaching career. Now he just wants to stay.
“Maybe I should go do some work for a change,” Menhart said, smiling and self-deprecating as always, at Oracle Park in San Francisco this week. He pushed himself off the bench and skipped up the dugout steps, onto the field, to where he never thought he’d be. “I don’t really have any time to waste.”