By Christopher Smith
---- — Daniel Nava was elated when he received word last offseason that longtime minor league coach Victor Rodriguez had been named Boston Red Sox assistant hitting coach.
“I sent him a text,” said Nava, Boston’s left fielder. “He’s one of the favorite coaches I’ve ever had.”
If you know Rodriguez’s story, you also would have been just as excited as Nava.
Even Crash Davis would have to bow to Rodriguez, who is the definition of a career minor leaguer.
The 52-year-old played 1,759 minor league games and logged 6,985 minor league plate appearances over 19 seasons. He also spent from 1995 until this season working in a number of different capacities as a minor league coach and coordinator in the Red Sox system.
He no longer is a minor leaguer though. He’s a World Series champ.
Like Rodriguez, all the Red Sox coaches have terrific stories.
Manager John Farrell’s staff is one of the best in baseball. All the coaches are selfless. They all are about their players. They worked tirelessly — behind the scenes — this year Sox team World Series champions.
The staff also communicated tremendously well with one another and with their players — and that was lacking among previous manager Bobby Valentine’s staff.
Three underdog tales
You have to feel proud for Rodriguez who finally received a major league job this year after he spent so long in the minors and received just 28 major league plate appearances, going 12 for 28 (.429 average) with five doubles.
“When you’re in baseball, the goal is always as a player to play in the major leagues and as a coach to get a coaching job in the major leagues,” Rodriguez said. “So it’s a pleasure to be here and see what the guys are doing.”
Want another great story?
The 49-year-old Arnie Beyeler’s journey to the majors began in 1986 as the second baseman for the rookie level Bristol Tigers.
Twenty-seven years later — with jobs along the way as a player, scout, minor league coach and manager with his first managerial experience coming with the Lowell Spinners in 2000 — Beyeler finally arrived in the big leagues in 2013 as first base coach of the Boston Red Sox.
Beyeler was just a .254 career minor league hitter.
“They told me I’m not allowed to complain anymore because I’m in the big leagues,” Beyeler said smiling before a game at Fenway Park earlier this year. “All of it goes into the opportunities and the people I’ve met and things I’ve learned along the way to give me an opportunity and a chance to be up here.”
Meanwhile, bullpen coach Dana LeVangie — a Whitman native — is another former player who made his first major league staff this year.
LeVangie, 44, played 351 minor league games over six seasons and batted just .196. He has been in the Red Sox organization for 22 years. Besides his six years as a player, he added another 16 seasons working in numerous capacities, including as a pro scout, major league advance scout and Red Sox bullpen catcher from 1997-2004.
Then there is third base coach Brian Butterfield whose passion for baseball is off the charts.
Butterfield, 55, played 397 minor league games, batting .249. After his playing career ended in 1983, he started as a roving infield instructor in the Yankees system and finally made it to the majors in 1994 with the Yankees as a first base coach.
Butterfield’s father Jack grew up in Westboro, Mass., where his own father sometimes tapped him on the shoulder with his cane on school days and told him they were instead going to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play. They hitchhiked to Fenway.
Jack Butterfield went on to coach baseball and football at the University of Maine, and he raised Brian as huge a Red Sox fan. Brian always dreamed of playing for the Boston Red Sox.
“This is the second best thing,” Butterfield said about his job as Red Sox’ third base coach.
Butterfield is loved by Red Sox players, especially the infielders who he works with tirelessly to improve their defense.
Hitting coach Greg Colbrunn, unlike most other Red Sox coaches, did have success as a big leaguer, batting .289 in 992 major league games over 13 seasons.
Colbrunn said Rodriguez is a huge help as his assistant because Rodriguez worked with several Red Sox hitters previously in the minors.
“It’s been a great relationship since day one,” Colbrunn said. “I handle more the video, the scouting reports. He’s in the cage (with the players) during the game and before the games.”
The recent trend in baseball is for teams to have two hitting coaches.
“You look back at it, the amount of hours we put in and the amount of hitting that goes on over the course of a day has increased since I was playing,” Colbrunn said. “So to have two coaches and have someone available when these players need it, is extremely important. It’s worked out great.”
Colbrunn and Rodriguez worked together to produce baseball’s top offense during the regular season. The Red Sox led all big league teams with 853 runs.
Rodriguez said about the way he and Colbrunn work together, “I think it was just a matter of understanding and really being on the same page. If we’ve got two cages, we both work (with hitters). If it’s one cage, I mostly do a lot of the cage work. He does a lot of videos while I take care of the physical part of the game. But at the end, we’re all on the same page. It’s all about the players.”
Pitching coach Juan Nieves — who posted a 4.71 ERA in 94 major league outings, including 81 starts and pitched one no-hitter — did an incredible job helping to turn around the Red Sox pitching staff.
Red Sox hurlers posted a postseason-best 2.59 ERA.
During the regular season, Boston’s 3.79 staff ERA was the club’s best since 2002 (3.75) and down from 4.70 in 2012. Red Sox hurlers recorded a club record 1,294 strikeouts and 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings.
It all has to do with communication. Many considered when Farrell — a successful pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007-10 — was hired as manager, he’d turn the rotation around.
Yes, Farrell worked closely with Nieves and the pitchers, but Farrell made it clear to his pitchers from the first day there was a chain of command. He told them to speak to Nieves first and never bypass Nieves and go straight to him.
“He uses positive reinforcement in such a good way that it makes you feel really, really good about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it,” Red Sox hurler Clay Buchholz said earlier this year.
An example of that positive reinforcement came during spring training when Buchholz hurt his hamstring.
“When everything was (starting) to go good and I was supposed to throw off the mound, he shot me a text like, ‘Hey Buck, I’m thinking about you. I can’t wait to get into that bullpen tomorrow,’” Buchholz recalled. “He makes you feel good about what you’re doing and what’s going on. And John’s the same way. Everybody knows he’s got our backs. If something goes on we know he’s going to be the first person that’s going to protect us and that brings the team close together.”
Last but not least is Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, 48, who might not return to Boston next year. He is considered a top managerial candidate and Theo Epstein is interested in Lovullo managing the Cubs.
Lovullo is a big part of that communication that was established early on this season.
The .224 hitter in 837 major league plate appearances certainly paid his dues as a minor league manger. He managed nine seasons in the Indians and Red Sox organizations before joining his first major league staff in 2011 as Farrell’s first base coach with the Toronto Blue Jays.
He returned to Boston with Farrell and loved every minute of this 2013 season.
“We’re a behind-the-scenes group that really puts a program together and lets these guys understand what they have to follow,” Lovullo said. “They deserve the credit for kind of gravitating to what we were talking about. As far as the staff itself, we are a very, very close group. I’m sorry to see the season end the way it is right now because that means I don’t get to see guys. But we won the last game and that’s all that matters.”
Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB