The role of bench coach has become increasingly important in MLB over the past three decades, but what bench coaches do is usually hidden from public view. In fact, bench coaches do much more than coach players on the bench.
Brad Mills, bench coach for the Cleveland Indians, previously held the same role for the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. In part because of his close relationship with Cleveland manager Terry Francona, having known Francona for four decades since they played baseball together in college at the University of Arizona, Mills has been able to be particularly effective as Cleveland’s bench coach.
Sporting News spoke with Mills to get insight into the many things, often out of sight, that bench coaches do in today’s game to help a team succeed.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Sporting News: The role of bench coaches has grown substantially in recent years. When you came to the major leagues as a player in 1980, teams generally didn’t have them. How important is a bench coach in today’s game?
Brad Mills: First of all, the role of any bench coach changes with the manager. In general, there’s not really a defined role for being a bench coach, as there would be for a hitting coach or an infield coach. The role of a bench coach is going to involve whatever helps a manager most.
A bench coach can take things off of the manager’s plate so that the manager doesn’t have to worry about as much. That could include helping with work during the day, from making the schedules out to keeping track of what time the busses are. Some of it is organizational, and it is also helpful to have strong computer skills. As a bench coach, you interact with so many people. You work with everyone from the groundskeepers to the traveling secretary, and you might even make sure the field is ready for early work.
Some managers want the bench coach to run spring training, as I do for Terry. That usually means that during the winter, the bench coach would put together a spring training schedule for the 45 days or so that you’re going to have in spring training. Again, the role kind of changes depending on the manager and what is necessary.
SN: You played college baseball with Terry Francona, played with him with the Montreal Expos, coached first base for him with the Philadelphia Phillies, and served as his bench coach with the Boston Red Sox before joining him in Cleveland. How has your close relationship with Francona affected your role as bench coach in Cleveland?
BM: The thing that makes everything smoother is the relationship that I have with Terry. I’ve been around him for so many years. I understand, first and foremost, how he wants this ballclub to be taken care of.
He’s concerned with the message that is given to the players, and he can tell me to talk to a player about something when, for instance, he has to talk to the press. Even when Terry might not be able to be there in person, he knows that the message I will convey to that player is exactly what he would have conveyed.
Later on, Terry might say to me, ‘How did it go with so-and-so’? And I will take him through our discussion. It doesn’t mean it’s always perfect. Sometimes, Terry will tell me, ‘Well, we need to tighten that up a little bit,’ which means he was concerned about some aspect of the discussion with the player. Each day, when we get to the ballpark, I sit down and I talk with Terry about the lineup for that night, and I put together the schedule for that day. Before each game, I’ll print out the lineups, among other things. He knows that if I have any questions, I’ll come talk to him.
SN: How do you and Francona interact during a game, and what happens when you disagree about a particular strategic move?
BM: During the game, the manager-bench coach relationship is so important. Sometimes, you know a person well enough that when you say something to them, they know exactly where you’re coming from. That’s true with Terry and me. Many times, I’ve made the comment that Terry and I have a three-hour conversation during the game.
At the same time, I also understand that Terry has the last word, and, ultimately, whatever is decided is going to be his decision. He knows that we can go back and forth and that I don’t take offense to him disagreeing with me.
It really is a conversation. We talk about the game, we talk about players, we talk about what we’re doing tomorrow. We talk about how the guy has thrown against us last time, we talk about how they’re performing. I’m standing next to Terry all game long, and it’s a constant conversation. Sometimes, he says, ‘Go get this guy on the bench ready’ or ‘Go talk to this guy’ when a player comes in after the inning to see how his leg is feeling. It’s just a constant conversation, where you try and get little things figured out. It takes a full three hours.
There are so many things that go on during a ballgame relating to bunt defenses, first and third defenses, holding runner sequences. Sometimes you talk about positioning with a position coach. You talk about hitters’ swings, you talk about how pitchers are throwing or about how a particular pitcher has thrown against this hitter. On any particular night, it might be the same topic as the night before but a completely different situation. With Terry, I know that he’s already thinking in advance. So if I ask him about a situation, I can assume he’s already thought about it and gone through it.
SN: As a bench coach, how do you balance supporting the manager and also advocating for a particular move?
BM: One of the keys is that you never want the manager to feel threatened about anything. I have total confidence and trust in Terry, of what he’s doing. And he has the confidence that I have total trust in what he’s doing.
There’s no way that you want the manager to feel threatened at all or to feel that the bench coach doesn’t have his back, so to speak. If Terry doesn’t agree with one of my suggestions, I am totally fine with that. Once he makes a decision, then at that moment, my mind switches to what he wants and how he wants it to be done. That’s how I pose it to the players and to the other coaches, and that’s my mindset going forward. If we disagree, he’s the boss, and I adopt his position. My mindset shifts to doing everyone 100 percent. Not 80 percent. Not 75 percent. Not half and half. It’s 100 percent the way he wants it done. That’s the way it’s going to be.
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SN: You were a bench coach before you were a manager with the Houston Astros from 2010 to 2012, and you were a bench coach after you were a manager. How did being a manager change your outlook as a bench coach?
BM: There’s no doubt that the experience of being a manager has helped. I think the biggest thing I can reflect on now is where I’m in a situation where the manager might be wrong, but he’s right, if you understand what I mean. You are doing it his way because you have flipped your mindset totally and 100 percent to what the manager says being the way we are going to do it.
Every now and then, I’ll say to Terry, ‘You surprised me there.’ And his head will snap, and he will say ‘What do you mean?’ And I’ll say, ‘In that situation, I totally expected you to think that we’d need to play this guy over here or I thought you would say it’s OK to swing there,’ or whatever. He will ask, ‘Why did you think that?’ and then we’ll kind of run through it. We will go back and forth quite a bit.
To be honest, because we have been together for so long, those times right now are much more infrequent than they used to be. At the same time, at the end of that conversation, or at the end of the day, so to speak, I am 100 percent behind Terry in any choice that he’s going to make.
SN: Having worked so closely with Francona, what do you believe makes him so successful as a manager?
BM: I have only been a bench coach for one other manager, and that’s Frank Robinson. I thought Frank did an absolutely outstanding job, no doubt. But putting our friendship and our relationship aside, Terry is one of best game managers that I’ve ever been around and seen. Now, when you’re in the dugout with somebody, you know exactly what goes behind every decision. I’m not in the other dugout so I don’t know what goes behind every thought or every move the opposing manager makes. But I do know this, that Terry does a great job of looking two and three innings down the road. He learned a lot of that from Dick Williams. We both played for Dick in the major leagues with the Montreal Expos, and Dick was one of the best at staying ahead of everything.
SN: How do Francona and Williams compare in their approaches to managing?
BM: Terry and Dick Williams were different, there’s no doubt about it, but baseball-wise, their thinking was probably fairly close. Terry’s education in this game goes back to when he was 6 years old. He grew up in a major league clubhouse and on Major League Baseball spring training fields. That experience which Terry had his entire life has undeniably formed and shaped how he handles most situations.
SN: In your role as bench coach, how important is it for you to interact with the players?
BM: The game is the players. I say it flippantly, but I mean it wholeheartedly. It is so important to be able to forge relationships with the players, realizing that we ultimately have their best interests in mind as we move forward. We need each one of them to fit into their role and take pride and ownership of that. And once they know that, they know how we care for them. We want them to do their best.
SN: Given how complicated baseball has become, can a team survive without a bench coach today? In other words, is a bench coach essential to help managers handle the many responsibilities which they face in today’s game?
BM: The game survived before, it can survive without a bench coach now. We see it all the time, when a manager or a bench coach can’t be at a game because of bereavement leave or having to attend a graduation, for instance. In those cases, you play three or four games without the manager-bench coach dynamic. But it’s definitely nice to have someone there who has a relationship that you can share and talk about things with in the dugout. One of my most important jobs is just to be there to talk with Terry. Could baseball today survive without bench coaches? Yeah. Is it better with them? There’s no doubt it is.