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Bisons, Blue Jays and Instructors' Role in Winning a Title





Frank Menechino sat down on a bench across from Tim Raines.

“How do I steal third?” Menechino, a former A's infielder, said excitedly. “Seriously, Tim, how do I steal third?”

It took Raines a minute to figure whether the Scranton coach was pulling his leg. Seconds later, the long-time big league outfielder was standing up near the batting cages pretending to get a lead off second. Menechino was standing next to him, crouching over in a base-stealing stance and waiving his hands around. After a minute of chatter, the little RailRiders' coach held his hands together at his chest and spun around on one foot then said, “then, they've got you.”

This is how two ballplayers-turned-coaches spent a rained-out Thursday in Buffalo.

Raines is a roving instructor for the Toronto Blue Jays. His gig is to travel from farm club to farm club in the Blue Jays' system and work with prospects on...you'll never guess....base running and fielding.

Of course, it isn't easy to jump from farm club to farm club, spend four or five days with 20-somethings and expect them to listen. Unless you're Tim Raines, that is.

The former Expos, White Sox, Yankees, A's, Orioles and Marlins outfielder stole 808 bases during his 23-year career and was only caught 146 times. He won the World Series with the 1996 Yankees and as a first base coach for the White Sox in 2005. Raines is also considered Hall of Fame worthy by many in the sabermetric community because of his defensive contributions, ability to get on base and high percentage of base-stealing success.

“This time around I haven't had much of an opportunity to do my job,” Raines said, laughing about the Bisons' third rainout in a row. “We've pretty much been talking about a lot of stuff.”

Raines traveled to Buffalo from his Arizona home to work with the Buffalo Bisons' young outfielders – a group which includes two of their top prospects Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra. He'd never been to Buffalo before, but the snow-rain mix reminded him of his days in Montreal.

In Buffalo, baseball has a different feel this year. The Bisons and Blue Jays are in the first year of their affiliation and fans are hoping for more on-field success and more exciting prospects than they received during the last four years with the New York Mets. During that time, the Bisons' highest finish was third in their division and they ended up in last place twice.

So far, the Jays have been accommodating and involved. The weather – well, just involved.

To be clear, every team has roving instructors. Some teams have ones who are there as an Old Boys Club way to give ex-ballplayers gigs. Some are there to make a difference. When the sun does come out, Raines plans on being a difference maker. If he didn't, he says, he would have stayed home or continued managing Indy ball's Newark Bears.

But what does he actually do?

I'm making sure my guys are positioned where they are supposed to be,” Raines said. “It's how they react to balls, getting good jumps, taking good routes to the ball. Also focusing on getting good jumps on the basepaths and takeoffs and, you know, a little bit of everything.”

Sal Fasano is slightly less famous than Tim Raines. OK, he's a lot less famous than Tim Raines. But Fasano played 427 games in the major leagues and 844 more in the minors. He is also a roving instructor for the Jays – and is also in the tunnel underneath Coca Cola Field waiting out the rain.

Unlike Raines, Fasano made a bazillion trips to Buffalo and Rochester over his career in Triple-A. He was a master at handling pitchers, calling pitches, framing, throwing and leading. Had he been a master of hitting (a career .221 hitter in the Bigs), Fasano might have been more famous.

Former SI writer Jeff Pearlman once wrote of Fasano, “When I think of Sal Fasano, however, I think of greatness. Not of Ted Williams or Willy Mays greatness, but of a uniquely excellent human being who, were class and decency the most valued standards of a career, would be the easiest Hall of Fame inductee of all time.”

The tall ex-catcher, who is most well known for his Fu Manchu mustache inspired by the movie Slap Shot, admits to having had a long baseball career because of his savvy for the position rather than raw skill. His gig, as you can imagine, is to pass along that knowledge to Toronto's core of young catchers.

“I have to learn each player first because I don't want to teach them how I caught,” Fasano said. “Catching is so unique and individualized. Different body types are going to catch different ways. There's certain principles that are applied, but for the most part I have to see how their mechanics are working, see how their posture is, see how their flexibility is and then develop a style.”

Like Raines, Fasano is in his first year working as a roving instructor with the Jays. He was a manager with Toronto's Single-A club the Lancing Lugnuts in 2009, then at Double-A New Hampshire in 2010 and 2011. The instructor position allows the 41-year-old to spend more time raising his family in Chicago.

In Buffalo, he isn't exactly working with newbies. Both Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas have spent time in the majors. Thole is 26 and Nickeas 29. But Fasano says catching is a lot like goaltending. You'll see players make large strides in their mid-20s as opposed to the other positions, who are usually established by their early 20s.

Fasano talks catching like music teachers talk songs. He talks about nuances that fans, media or heck even most players even catch on to. For example, he analyzes a backstop's ability to frame a pitch in order to get calls from umpires on the corners.

“It's the thing I talk to guys about more than anything else,” he said. “If you think about it, everybody always wants a catcher who can throw and that can block, but if you take 140 pitchers per game roughly, you're going to receive over 100 of them. That percentage is more important than, say, if you block maybe eight to 10 balls per game. At the upper levels, you might block three. How many times are you going to throw a guy out? Maybe once per game? So I prioritize it to the thing we do the most.”

Teaching a catcher how to frame a pitch might be comparable to teaching a piano player to play Bach. The long-time catcher says he teaches catchers to quietly pull the ball back in toward their body rather than snatching at it violently. “Treat it like a bullseye,” he said, showing the motion with his gigantic hands.

“It's a long process,” Fasano said. “It takes me months to teach the catchers how to do it the way that the umpires like it.

“Catching is diffucult because you are physically taxed and mentally taxed, so it's different than infield, outfield or even pitching. You are thinking every minute of every game, thinking two-to-three pitches ahead so it takes a certain kind of player to catch.”

Learning to properly call pitches usually comes later in a catcher's development. Fasano will probably work on that with guys like Thole and Nickeas who are closer to the majors.

Then there's the intangibles, which might be more important than framing, throwing or even pitch calling. Part of an instructor's job is to help the team determine which players have leadership and intelligence fit for The Show.

We talk about leadership a lot in our organization,” Fasano said. “You don't need a Dick Butkus all the time. Sometimes you just need a cerebral guy who can get his point across. It's hard being a catcher because you have to be a little bit of a father figure, a little bit of a psychologist and sometimes a just pitcher's buddy.”

The Jays finished eighth in MLB in stolen bases last season. Jose Reyes' presence gives them a chance to be even higher this year. The league has begun emphasizing stolen bases again and Toronto, as seems to be the case lately, is ahead of the game.

“This is an organization that is starting to rely more on speed,” Raines said. “They are starting to draft guys that can run. The pitching is so much better now that teams aren't sitting back and waiting for the 3-run home run. When you get into those 1-run games, you don't want to have to completely rely on a guy hitting the ball out of the ballpark.”

Raines said he'll often talk to Fasano about runners for perspective. Like a robber asking the cop how to hijack a car.

The ex-Expo gets a kick out of working with Gose – the Jays' top prospect. In Triple-A, the outfielder stole 34 bases last season and swiped 70 the year before in Double-A. The 22-year-old outfielder has the potential play every day in the majors and hit at the top of the lineup.

“Guys with speed are my type of guys,” Raines said with a grin. “Any time a guy can steal 40 bases, that's my type of guy.

“He just needs to make more contact at the plate. It's not that he's not a good hitter, but needs to be able to hit the ball in play and utilize his speed.”

In his first 10 games as a Bison, Gose is 11-for-38 with two stolen bases and two times caught.

Raines will work with Gose to prevent him from getting caught again. And that's what roving instructors do for a franchise. They tweak. They suggest. They observe. They scout.

It takes a town to raise a child and baseball's kind of the same way. It takes coaches, instructors, teammates, agents, parents and mentors to raise a prospect into a major leaguer.

And If the Bisons make the playoffs or the Jays win the World Series, you'll never hear Raines or Fasano in a highlight video or being talked about on MLB Network. But players like Gose will know and their management will know.

They'll know that sometimes you can learn a lot by sitting around on a rainy day.


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