Mike Hargrove enjoying life guiding semi-pros in Kansas

Mike Hargrove has yet to hear one of his players call him “Grover,” Hargrove’s well-known nickname when he played and managed in the major leagues.

To the Liberal Bee Jays, it’s mostly “yes, sir” and “no, sir,” with an occasional “coach” sprinkled in, which is borderline permissible because these are college players drawing on the familiar when it comes to addressing the man in charge.

“That’s the only reason it’s tolerable, believe me,” Hargrove said. “It is a little bit like somebody scratching their nails on the blackboard. I used to have a sign in my office in Cleveland because a lot of the radio and TV people used to call me ‘coach.’ So I had a sign made up: ‘My name ain’t Coach.”’

Cleveland was where Hargrove began his major league managing career in July 1991 and helped the Indians end 40 years of being a laughingstock.

They won five American League Central titles and twice reached the World Series under Hargrove, who also managed Baltimore and Seattle.

He surprisingly resigned from the Mariners last season July 1, claiming the daily dedication he asked of his players was something he no longer could match, and he has returned to his baseball roots and the Jayhawk League to manage the semipro Bee Jays.

This is a trip back in time for Hargrove. He briefly played for the Bee Jays in 1972 before signing with the Texas Rangers. They drafted him in the 25th round out of Northwestern Oklahoma State and sent him to Geneva, N.Y., to begin his professional career. Two years later, he was the American League Rookie of the Year.

Hargrove, 58, and his wife, Sharon — they met in junior high and were married when he was 20 and she was 19 — are from Perryton, Texas, 40 miles to the south, where both still have family.

Proximity explains why they are in Liberal, along with their long-discussed desire to give back to people in places that had been influential.

“I figure there’s two ways to give back — money and time,” Hargrove said. “And time is a lot cheaper than money.”

Part of giving back for Hargrove, a former first baseman with a lifetime .290 average and .396 on-base percentage, has been helping several of his players make small adjustments in their hitting approach during early batting practice.

“It’s really satisfying to see the look of, it’s not pleasure, but the light kind of comes on for them,” Hargrove said. “They’re enthusiastic about it. It’s like, ‘Oh, gee, this makes a difference.’

“And that’s real satisfying. I don’t care what level you’re on — if you’re working with people with any talent at all and you can help them and you see that look come across their face …”

Hargrove is sitting in the Bee Jays dugout at Brent Gould Field on the campus of Seward County Community College. Finding Hargrove, who managed all or parts of 16 seasons in the majors after 12 as a player, in this hot, windswept outpost is like happening upon Claude Monet painting houses.

Hargrove said he’s still getting paid by the Mariners and isn’t receiving any money to manage the Bee Jays. Nonetheless, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy was incredulous when told last week Hargrove is managing collegiate players in the Jayhawk League.

Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper, who played with Hargrove in Cleveland, saw it differently.

“‘Grover’s a good guy,” Kuiper said. “And if good things come out of this for him, I think it’s fantastic because, clearly, a lot of good things are coming out of this for the kids that he’s managing.”

One of them is Eric Johnston, a left-handed-hitting outfielder from the University of Texas-San Antonio whom Hargrove said has “a really short, quick stroke” but was hurting his chances to hit by doing everything at the last second.

“It’s pretty amazing to know that I’m going to have a former big-league manager and I’m going to gain some really, really good experience from a guy that knows a lot about baseball,” Johnston said. “Hopefully, I can learn a lot and he can help me because he was a great hitter. So, hopefully, he can rub off on me a little bit and let me know what I need to work on, and, hopefully, make me a better player.”

Johnston is one of the rare Bee Jays with knowledge of Hargrove as anything other than a major league manager. That said, Johnston and his Bee Jays teammates were amused to learn Hargrove was nicknamed “The Human Rain Delay” for the deliberate mannerisms he repeated before each pitch.

For his part, Hargrove has tried to shift the focus from himself. He was welcomed back during pre-game ceremonies on opening night and told the Liberal fans, “This is not about me. This is about these players.”

Hargrove and his wife are living in the basement of a home owned by Bob Carlile, 71, a Liberal businessman, the Bee Jays general manager and an old friend who, last summer, planted the seed with Hargrove about managing the Bee Jays when the Hargroves came through Liberal on their way back to their Cleveland-area home.

With Sharon on an Alaskan cruise, Hargrove was by himself the night before the Bee Jays’ season began. He was watching “Deadliest Catch” on television but kept losing interest in it.

“I thought, ‘What in the world? This is a good program,”’ Hargrove said. “It was about 10:30, and I hadn’t eaten dinner and I thought I should be hungry. All of a sudden, I realized it wasn’t nerves, it was anticipation. The adrenaline was flowing, and that was a cool thing.”

So was Hargrove’s reaction recently when Richey Irvin batted with two out and the bases loaded in a close game. He fell behind 0-2, worked the count to 2-2 and doubled home three runs.

“Just the way that kid battled back and then got the hit, I’m sounding melodramatic, I guess, but I really just absolutely got goose bumps watching that happen,” Hargrove said.

Hargrove said he missed managing “a lot more than I thought I would” and would like at least one more opportunity to manage in the majors. He would relish a return to the World Series, where his Indians lost in six games to Atlanta in 1995 and in seven games to Florida in 1997.

If a managing job doesn’t materialize next season, Hargrove said it’s likely he’ll return to a major league organization as a special assistant.

For now, Hargrove’s sights are set on the National Baseball Congress tournament Aug. 1-15 in Wichita, Kan. Typically, the top two finishers in the Jayhawk League qualify.

Liberal has reached the NBC finals 11 times — second only to a team from Fairbanks, Alaska — and has won the championship four times, including in 2000, when Bee Jays made their most recent appearance.

The NBC tournament is a dot on the horizon now. Hargrove has a more pressing need. He’s waiting for the arrival of more pitchers to fill out his undermanned staff.

Currently, the Bee Jays are 3-5 overall and 1-4 in the Jayhawk League, not what their manager envisioned as the months rolled by and he came to some conclusions after his abrupt end to last season.

“I realized that I missed the game,” Hargrove said. “I realized I still wanted to do this. I hate the word ‘passion.’ I really cringe every time I hear that word.

“I think passion’s one of those words that everybody thinks everybody wants to hear. If you use the word ‘passion’ in your talk about your job, everybody kind of feels that’s the validating point that you do care about what you’re doing and you’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing. I hadn’t lost my enthusiasm for the job. I hadn’t lost my love for the game. I really hadn’t lost my passion for what I was doing.”

(Contact Jack Etkin of the Rocky Mountain News at etkinj(at)rockymountainnews.com.)

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