Marc Connor
Full Count: A Pitching Coach’s Comeback
By Geoffrey Walter
    The seat Mark Connor holds is one that will make a baseball fan truly envious - he gets to see 162 games a year - both home and away - from inside the dugout, seated on the bench next to manager Ron Washington.  Just part of the job description for the pitching coach of the Texas Rangers.  With a record of  33 - 33 in the AL West as of Tuesday night, the rotation Connor has been responsible for improved its ERA by nearly two runs between April and May, and its bullpen by nearly four runs (6.91 to 2.88).  The Rangers fly into New York this weekend to begin a series against the Mets as part of the second round of inter-league play, but Connor says that Shea Stadium “does nothing for me,” and is undoubtedly looking forward to June 30 when they start a series against the Yankees, the team with which he spent 13 years.
Tell me about your pitching program with the Rangers, how do you develop arms in the Major Leagues today?  Some teams have veterans start and then have rookies relieve stretching them out, etc.
    In my capacity now as a Major League pitching coach I really don’t have anything to do with procurement of our pitchers.  Basically what I get here at the Major League level is what’s come up through our farm system or on trades or free agency, things like that.  I haven’t really had a whole lot to do with that over here as much as I did when I was with the Yankees and when I was with Arizona.
    The biggest difference for me in the past 25 or 30 years is that it just seems like - because of a lot of extenuating circumstances - but more so I think because the expansions that have gone on in the last 20, 25 years.  There’s more clubs, fewer pitchers, pitchers are getting rushed to the big leagues a little sooner than they were back in those years and as a result you’ve watered down the talent to a degree.  You hate to say that but before you took away just the last two expansion drafts, the last two expansions are clubs that came into existence - that’s four clubs (Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays).  That’s 48 pitchers that wouldn’t be in the big leagues today that are in the big leagues inside the last 15 years or so.
    Most of the players today, I’d say come out of high school now whereas probably 10 years ago, 15 years ago there were more players coming out of college.  The way scouting is today with the way bonuses have been set up now, a kid coming out of high school - that kid’s offered a half a million dollars or more is probably gonna take that money rather than go to college.  Plus they offer you all your college when you do decide to go which I think most guys don’t (take), so the clubs are saving that money to begin with.
I would have expected the clubs to target college players because they have an extra four years experience.
    It’s still happening - a lot of clubs are more college oriented than other clubs.  There’s clubs that are more high school oriented - they’d rather have those guys for those three or four years in college.  I think one big thing with taking a kid (after) college is usually if he’s going to break down he’s broken down in college; he’s been fixed in college and you get away from the injury factor.  And the kid has proven that he can throw 150 to 180 innings in a college season including going away and playing summer ball somewhere whereas the high school kid for the most part depending on what area of the country he comes from, he’s throwing anywhere 70 innings to 110 innings, he’s never had a work load put on him that the kids in college do.  As a result you see a lot of money and a year to three years later they’re having problems either (shoulder problems) or rotator cuff problems and you deal with it.
(Former Yankee) Sidney Ponson pitched a complete game against the Twins recently.  The pitch-count has become this be-all end all type of thing in baseball.  Sometimes your starters will only go five, six innings and the bullpen will pick up the rest.  Is that just something you live with now as a coach or is there any hope for guys who can pitch a longer or even a complete game?
    It’s a legitimate question.  When I started with the Yankees I didn’t even have a pitch count.  Nobody really kept track of pitches.  Its kind of evolved over the years I think with the money that’s been given to free agent pitchers and pitchers now that are arbitration eligible - you know a guy pitches three years in the big leagues and all of a sudden he’s making two million dollars and you’ve got a big investment in the guy and you’re kinda gonna err on the side of caution rather than the other way around.  For sure pitch counts - guys are much more cognizant of it.  Starters get to 100 pitches right now and I think its safe to say that most people around the Major Leagues are talking about getting their guys out of the game.
    I think part of that too is the development of the bullpen has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years - you’ve got your seventh inning guy, you’ve got your eighth inning guy, you’ve got your ninth inning guy and you’re paying them big money.  If you’ve got a pitcher that’s gone six innings into the seventh inning, he’s gone 100, 105 pitches, you’ve got somewhat of a fatigued arm.  You’re gonna go to the guy with the fresh arm that’s coming in there and has to only get three people, four people out as opposed to staying out there with a guy that might be coming towards the end of his night.  I think there’s a lot of factors enter into it.  I go more by what the guy’s been through in that particular game - how many jams has he pitched in, how many stressful pitches has he pitched in.  The other night I had my starting pitcher out there and he had people on base every inning so after six innings, 102, 103 pitches it was time for him to go.  You’ve got another guy that’s out there who’s mowing down and having easy innings and is up to 110, 115 you conceivably can say ‘let’s let him finish this game,’ especially if he’s got somewhat of a lead.
In the bullpen you’re dealing with relievers, specialists, closers.  How much of a transition is it to being the full fledged pitching coach?
I came to the big leagues as a pitching coach - this is my 19th year - I think only four of them or maybe five of them have been as a bullpen coach.  I’ve been basically in the dugout my whole career.  The responsibility in helping the manager get through the ball game using the pitching staff - there’s a lot more that enters into that than sitting in the bullpen and answering the phone, getting guys up and getting them ready to go in the game.  (laughs) That was pretty nice sitting out there the years that I did that!
You pitched for Chaminade, then Manhattan College before heading to Minnesota in 1971.  Can I ask you about your arm injury in 1972 and form your perspective, an early retirement?
    Coming out of college I’d been a starting pitcher and when I got with the Twins I was put in the bullpen and it’s kind of along the same line we’ve been talking about here.  I went from pitching every fifth day, every sixth day to four or five times a week and the shoulder just blew out basically.  I kept taking shots and medication and things like that and I could pitch with it but it hurt.  I finally decided to get out of it.  I was married and we were living on Long Island at the time and I had a teaching position at Holy Trinity - I taught and coached there, and just decided that it was time, the time was right to settle down and get on with a different career.
    I went through a lot of things that way - fate is a strange thing.  I was signed, sealed, and delivered to go to Pensacola to become a fighter pilot and the coach at the University of Tennessee called me and asked if I wanted to come down there and be his pitching coach.  We were two or three days away from going in the Navy (laughs) we had everything packed up and we decided to take a shot at moving to Knoxville and start coaching in college.  That basically was my lead-in to professional baseball.  I just happened to hook on with the Yankee organization and brought me back to my roots basically for 13 or 14 years however long I was with that organization.
    I go back to Chaminade and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me growing up.  (laughs)  I could have gone some different directions but my mother made sure - I didn’t get into Chaminade, but she made sure I got in - went up there and begged the brothers to take me and they took me.  I still have a couple of great friends that I went to school with there - Bob McKillop who’s the basketball coach at Davidson; he was my best man at my wedding and I was his best man at his wedding, we still stay in touch.  Another good friend of mine, Brian Donaldson who runs a stock brokerage firm in Knoxville.  We were classmates, the three of us and still pretty tight.  Last year was our 40th reunion and it’s always in the summertime, I miss all those things.  Brian and Bobby tell me all about the things because they went back.  Bill O’Reilly was there he was in our class - the Fox News guy. But I never get back.  When I was with the Yankees I used to go over there and mess around at the school in the athletic department, take part in their golf tournament and give them stuff to auction off - autographed bats and balls and hats and jerseys, stuff like that.  But I really haven’t been back to the Island, I hate to say it but I haven’t been back there probably in 14, 15 years except for a quick trip out to see my godparents in Garden City.
You were with the Yankees through some of the lean years in that 18-year drought between ‘78 and ‘96.  How tough was that really?
    They were (tough).  At times we had a veteran pitching staff that was kinda getting older.  I had Tommy John and the Niekro brothers there, then one year, two years we went all with youth and that’s always a struggle as we’re trying to do here in Texas.  It just kind of never molded itself together until I left the organization and they got it turned around and Mariano Rivera came up through the system and Andy Pettitte, guys that were there in the Minor Leagues when I was there; really just put it all together.  Derek Jeter was drafted when I was there and (Jorge) Posada was in the organization and they just put it all together from a veterans standpoint, from a free-agent standpoint, building through their farm system - it’s always been a great organization.  I loved working there, it was tremendous to put on that uniform every day and walk into that dugout and onto that field - it’s always special to go back there now.
Is it true what they say about going from Triple-A to the Majors being the biggest leap?
It’s even more so now.  It used to be Single-A to Double-A back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.  1983 I was in Columbus, Triple-A, ‘84 I went to the big leagues.  Now it’s definitely the biggest leap between Triple-A and the big leagues; it really is.
Can you as a coach do anything to make that transition easier on your players?
The biggest thing I tell our kids is if you make good pitches, no matter what level you’re pitching at, you’re gonna get the hitters out most of the time.  Now at this level they’re gonna hit a good pitch every now and then whereas with Triple-A and Double-A if you command the baseball and you’re making quality pitches you’re gonna have a whole lot of success.  At this level every now and then they’re gonna bang a good pitch and you just have to be able to deal with it.  Kids come up here and all of a sudden there’s two extra decks on the stadium and they’re standing on the mound looking at a hitter that they’ve seen on TV and reading his baseball card so you can’t be intimidated.
    So much of it at the Major League level is the makeup of the player.  I’ll take guys with great makeup and lesser ability than a guy with more ability and less makeup then you’ll win all the time.  It’s hard to get that combination - having 25 guys on your club that have great makeup and have ability that transpires into being successful at this level.
What was the atmosphere of Billy Martin’s coaching staff?
    I was Billy’s pitching coach (laughs).  I loved working with Billy and being around Billy - he treated me like a son.  I was very young at the time - I was 35 when I was his pitching coach and he took me under his wing.  He was hard on coaches, hard on catchers, hard on pitchers, but Billy just had a blazing desire to win and he was going to do whatever it took to do that.  He could motivate people and get the most out of them.  I just had a tremendous amount of respect for Billy - I still stay in touch with his son who lives out here in Dallas.
    You just knew who was in charge, you knew he could manage the game, he wasn’t gonna make mistakes, when it got down to the end with a close game Billy wasn’t gonna get out managed and I think even the players that didn’t like Billy respected that in him; they knew he knew what was going on and he wasn’t gonna get out managed.
1984 you’re the Yankee pitching coach, Ron Guidry was on the roster.  1998-2000 you’re the pitching coach for Arizona.  Both Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are there too. What can you teach a Hall of Famer?
    You’d be surprised.  Most of the time most of those guys can self-coach themselves during the course of a ball game.  But there are some little things going on that you can help them with and there is a lot of insecurity up here at this level with some players and you come across that every now and then and it kinda surprises you.  But just from a mechanical standpoint, from an mental standpoint there’s always some little tinkering things to do with these guys.  And they’re regular people, they’re just like you and I, they have problems off the field, on the field, at home, stuff like that; nobody’s perfect.
    The two years that I had Randy in Arizona he won two Cy Youngs - both those years - and there were times during that season that he was just beside himself because he wasn’t winning ball games even though he was losing some of them one-nothing and two-to-one, and three-to-two.  He couldn’t accept failure; he could accept it but he couldn’t stand it I guess was the way to put it.
    Schilling was a completely different animal.  Curt is very introspective, very analytical, keeps computer data on all the hitters that he faces in baseball and how he pitches them and how he gets them out one way.  When I was with Toronto I actually got Roy Halladay hooked up with Schilling.  I think Roy is kinda on Curt’s program now as far as compiling all the data that he does on hitters.
What led you to go to Toronto?  If you had stayed through 2001 you would have gone to the World Series.
    You’re right.  At the end of 2000 we had been in the playoffs in 1999, we had just missed the playoffs in 2000 and they fired (manager) Buck Showalter in Arizona.  I was in New York with Buck and he brought me to Arizona with him and when they fired him they told me that they wanted me to stay and come back so I had a big decision to make, I had a couple of different offers on the table from other clubs and I just felt out of loyalty to Buck that I wouldn’t go back to Arizona.  And believe me, we both knew what we were leaving behind there, I mean that was a really talented ball club that was ready to blossom and it did.  I had another Buck - Buck Martinez, who became the manager in Toronto - that was a good friend and he asked me to come with him to Toronto and I just felt like it was the right thing to do at the time.
Martinez was dismissed in June 2002 and you resigned soon after.  The Blue Jays were around .500 but at the time they had just swept the Tigers.
    It was the same thing - they fired Buck and they fired (first base coach) Garth Iorg who’s one of my best friends who lives in Knoxville with me and the next day Cookie Rojas, who was our bench coach at the time, he and I both went upstairs and basically resigned, told them that we didn’t want to stay.  It was kinda tough because one of my other best friends became the manager there - Carlos Tosca - who was with us with the Yankees and also with Arizona.  But Buck was they guy who brought me over there and out of loyalty to him I just felt like it was time for me to leave Toronto.  And then Buck Showalter got the job in Texas so it all goes round and round! (laughs)
Is it difficult for you to see pitchers you coach go to the World Series, win the World Series, when you’ve never gotten there yourself either as coach or player?
    It’s the biggest black hole of my career.  You talk about your faith and stuff like that.  My wife and I have talked about it a lot and I’m kinda coming towards the end of this part of my life as far as being on the field.  I’ve thought about getting out of it and maybe doing something else in baseball.  I’ve had a great life, I’ve made a good living for my family - God took care of me that way, but I wish he had let me go to one World Series.  So it doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen unless we can get things on fire here this year.  But you can’t dwell on it and I look at all the great people that I’ve worked with and been around and gotten to know.  And the fact that I’ve put three children through college and law school, have a beautiful home in Tennessee and a great wife (of 36 years), my kids have never given us an ounce of trouble; it’s hard to complain. (laughs)
It’s always fun when a batter comes up against his old team.  You had Alex Rodriguez on the team, how are your pitchers going to throw to him, what’s the strategy?
    He was here our first year here.  There’s no one way to pitch to Alex, he’s a great hitter, probably one of the greatest hitters that’s ever played the game and if you try to pitch him one way you may get him out that one time but the next time up he’s gonna make adjustments.  You’re always adjusting to hitters especially as a starting pitcher where you gotta get a guy out three or four times a game.  A reliever comes in a game he’s basically gonna pitch to his strength - to the pitcher’s strength - but as a starting pitcher you’ve got to have at least two ways to get a guy out and mix him up a little bit otherwise he’s gonna get you.  Everyone’s trying to do it and Alex hits 50 home runs a year and drives in 140 runs so you try to minimize the damage with guys like that.
C.J. Wilson has the most saves on the team, is he your de-facto closer?
He’s not de-facto, he’s one of... I guess the most interesting people I’ve ever been around.  Last year when it got to the trading deadline there was a lot of talk about trading Eric Gagné, not trading Eric Gagné, and I kind of stepped up and told them that this kid was ready to become a Major League closer.  I thought he had all the tangibles, the intangibles.  He is in the development process but this kid watches film, he knows what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are, he’s a fun guy to work with.  You get these guys that come along every once in a while that you take a real liking to I guess is the word.  He’s a kid that I’m going to have fun watching when I’m sitting home in my recliner 10 years down the road and seeing the kind of career that he’s going to have.
It sounds like there’s a definite date that you’re going to retire.
    I signed a three-year contract three years ago and this is the third year of it.  It could be my call it could be the organization’s call, we’ve talked about the possibility of becoming a pitching consultant, advisor, whatever word it is you want to use, and it might be something that would give me the opportunity to be home more instead of being away for eight months, get home a week, two weeks a month, and go out two weeks a month and evaluate pitchers in the Minor Leagues or free agents or amateur pitchers.  I think that’s something that I’d really enjoy at this stage in my career and I think I’d be good at.  The travel gets you and I live in a hotel for eight months a year, basically what it boils down to.  I miss my home, I’ve got grandchildren now, I miss them.  But you never know - you win a World Series and one more!
The team lost seven straight early in the season then won seven straight series.  What’s your assessment so far?
    I think that everybody kinda questioned our offense in the beginning of the year.  I think our offense is gonna be fine, I think we’re leading baseball in home runs.  We’ve got some real prolific hitters in our lineup and a lot of them are young.  Our defense has gotten a whole lot better in the last month or so.  Our starting pitching has been kinda Jeckyl and Hydish you know?  I think we went close to 40 innings in row without giving up an earned run and then you go a week in a row where we don’t even pitch a good game.
    We lost Kevin Millwood two-and-a-half weeks ago to a little bit of a quad strain and he’s gonna make his return, I think that will bolster our rotation as we go forward here.  We’ve got two young kids that have a total of about seven starts between them in our rotation right now and we have (Vincente) Padilla and Ponson who are the other two veterans.  You kinda gotta hope that the three veterans hold their weight and one of the two young kids pitches well enough to win more than he loses and the other guy is .500 and that’s how you win championships.  We may be a piece away in our bullpen but it’s just a question of being consistent and not having runs where you lose seven in a row or you lose eight out of 10; we’ve been real consistent the last seven or eight series.
You’re actually one of the few teams to see both Shea and Yankee Stadiums in their final year.  Is it always fun coming back to NY?
    There’s two or three cities that I really enjoy going to and New York is one of them obviously.  I love going to Yankee Stadium; Shea Stadium doesn’t do anything for me.  I have family and friends there that I get to see every now and then.  Going back to New York especially since it’s the last year of the Stadium is gonna be kind of emotional for me because I always enjoy it.  I go out by myself to Monument Park and walk around and talk to all the ghosts out there that I knew (laughs) coming through the organization some great people that are no longer with us, but I definitely look forward to it.  That’s my only thing about not being on the field next year is not getting to go to the new Yankee Stadium but I don’t know if I want to.  I think it’s a catch-22 there.  I understand the need for the new ballpark but to tear down the old one just seems like it’s a mortal sin! (laughs)
I take it that you probably grew up a Yankee fan...
    I grew up a Dodger fan actually.  My dad actually played in the Yankee organization for quite a while but my mother was a big Dodger fan.  It wasn’t that we lived in Brooklyn because we moved to the Island before I knew what was going on.  We moved to Westbury in 1955.  I kinda just took off after her with the Dodgers, the Kofaxes and the Drysdales and Duke Snider and all those people so that was my team there for quite a while and of course I followed the Mets a little bit.  But my first game was when I was young was in Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds and then Yankee Stadium.  I guess I was like six or seven because they moved in ‘58.
Broke both you and your mom’s heart?
    Oh yeah! (laughs)  They broke a lot of people’s hearts that grew up Dodger fans!  Some of them still think that that was the worst thing that ever happened.
Do you have memories of any specific Dodgers?
    Not really.  I became a big Mickey Mantle fan, a Yogi Berra fan after the Dodgers moved and it was initially such a big thrill for me to be around those guys with the Yankees in spring trainings and I was actually Yogi’s pitching coach in ‘84 and ‘85 - he managed the Yankees.  I got to hang out with all those guys; it was quite an experience.
Some of you may be aware that I did an interview with legendary Yankee first baseman Bill “Moose” Skowron, but here’s another that I completed for one of my local papers with current Texas Rangers pitching coach Marc Connor, who was also a graduate of my high school.
I had tickets to the entire series against Texas at The Stadium this year, but could only go to two games.  After missing Marc the first night (when I called him, he had already left and was on the bus), I was able to meet up with him outside the Press entrance after the third game (which the Yankees won 18 -7 by the way!).
Two of my own pictures are here - you can probably tell which ones - the one of C.J. Wilson on the Yankee Stadium mound, and the one of Connor walking by the retired numbers in Monument Park, oh, and the one with yours truly with the man himself!
*UPDATE* Aug. 3, 2008:  Hi folks, I just thought that I’d put an update here since I was watching the Yankee game and heard that Marc was released from the Rangers.  I’m really sad about it, considering he was so nice to me and I had such a great time interviewing him.  The funny thing is that while the Rangers’ website reflects the coaching changes, Connor’s biography is still up.