PEORIA, Ariz. – The best day of Rafael Chaves’ life began like it would be his worst.
On the verge of achieving his dream to reach the major leagues, he got up early on Oct. 27 after a night of restless sleep at his home in Isabela, Puerto Rico, and jumped onto the internet.
Bill Bavasi, the Seattle Mariners’ general manager, had told Chaves the previous day that the team had narrowed its search for a pitching coach down to two: Chaves from among the in-house candidates and one person from outside the organization.
“I got up at 6 o’clock in the morning and went online to see what the Seattle papers were saying,” Chaves said.
He couldn’t believe his eyes when the first story he read said the Mariners had narrowed their search to two: Mel Stottlemyre and Roger McDowell.
After 21 years in pro baseball, 12 as a minor league pitcher and the past nine climbing through the Mariners’ organization as a coach, the 37-year-old Chaves realized he wouldn’t become a major leaguer anytime soon.
He walked away from the computer and got ready to drive his 14-year-old daughter to school.
“It felt like someone had stuck a pin right through my heart,” Chaves said.
How could the Mariners fill him with so much hope by telling him he was one of two finalists, only to yank that out from under him? The drive to school, with his daughter at his side, began in quiet torture.
“Daddy, why are you so quiet?” Nicole Chaves asked.
“I told her that I wasn’t going to get the job that I wanted, that I wasn’t going to the big leagues,” he said.
He told her how badly he wanted that job, not only for himself, but because he wanted to make his family happy.
Then Nicole said something that made a terrible morning seem almost bearable.
“But Daddy, whoever gets the job, they have family too,” she said. “So their family will be happy.”
“That made me feel better,” he said.
Better, but not great.
Chaves returned home and started painting his living room, trying to seal himself from baseball but, in honesty, mentally preparing himself for another year in the minors.
Then the telephone rang.
“It’s for you,” said his wife, Ivelissse.
“Tell them I’m not here,” he said.
“No, it’s in English,” she said.
Chaves took the telephone and immediately recognized the voice on the other end, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove.
“It was Mike, but he sounded kind of down,” Chaves said.
“Chavey, I just wanted to call and let you know we’ve made a decision,” Hargrove told him, giving Chaves every indication that his next words would be either Mel Stottlemyre or Roger McDowell or some other name.
Then Hargrove, as he often does to mess with his friends, threw a major league curve.
“Chavey, I’d like to ask if you want to be our new pitching coach. We have chosen you,” Hargrove said.
Those words stunned Chaves.
“I told him, ‘I’d love to, but can I please sit down?’ ” he said.
He sat and he sobbed.
“I never cried harder than I did that day,” he said.
* n n
Chaves knew when he was 18 that nobody would give him a chance to reach the major leagues if he didn’t work hard to give himself a chance first.
He had signed with the San Diego Padres in 1986 out of high school but became the ultimate minor league journeyman. In 12 seasons, he pitched in the San Diego, Baltimore, Florida and Pittsburgh organizations, recording a 35-41 career record with 130 saves in 487 games.
Major league dreams tend to fade once a guy acquires the label of “career minor leaguer.” Before Chaves walked off the mound for the last time as a player, he knew he wanted to become a coach.
“I knew it as soon as the hitters told me I was not a very good pitcher,” he said. “I was honest with myself. I gave it everything I had, but I always knew I wanted to stay in the game the day that I stopped playing.”
He had been preparing for that next step almost from the day he left home to play pro ball as a teen-ager.
“One of my goals when I was a player was to make sure I could communicate in different languages,” he said. “I wanted to learn to speak the other language (English) and learn to write it, because I knew if I was not able to play, it would give me a chance to stay in the game.”
He had tried to continue his pitching career in the Mexican League in 1997 but quickly realized it wouldn’t get him anywhere. That fall, Chaves left the game.
“I told myself that my baseball career wasn’t going to end there,” Chaves said. “I went home and started to go to school. It was one of the hardest times I’d ever gone through in my life. I was in school. I had no job. I had a child and I was making no money whatsoever.”
The Mariners had an opening on the coaching staff of their rookie-level team in Peoria for the 1998 season and Omer Munoz, a scout in Venezuela who knew Chaves, mentioned his name to the Mariners.
Mike Goff, now the Mariners’ first-base coach who then was the organization’s minor league instruction coordinator, called and offered Chaves the job.
“He told me they were looking for a guy who wants to be in Peoria for at least three years before they would consider moving him up,” Chaves said.
Peoria is the lowest rung on the minor league ladder, and that team includes many non-English-speaking youngsters experiencing life away from home for the first time. Three years in the same job is a long time for a coach with aspirations.
“All I said was, ‘Please don’t consider me an interpreter. Give me a chance to teach,’ ” Chaves said.
That three-year job in Peoria lasted only one, and he earned a promotion to the short-season Class A Everett AquaSox in 1999. The climb has been steady from there.
His pitching staff at Class A Wisconsin finished with a 3.42 team earned run average in 2000; the Class A San Bernardino team recorded a franchise-record 12 shutouts in 2001; the Class AA San Antonio Missions won the Texas League championship both years Chaves was there, in 2002 and 2003; he led a promising young pitching staff in 2004 and 2005 at Class AAA Tacoma, steering heralded prospect Felix Hernandez toward the major leagues.
* n n
Many of the pitchers on the 2006 Mariners team – Hernandez, J.J. Putz, Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro, Julio Mateo, Matt Thornton, Rafael Soriano – pitched on Chaves’ teams in the minor leagues.
They got to know him as a no-nonsense instructor with a feel for the craft and a knack for communicating.
“He’s not going to settle for mediocrity,” Putz said. “You’d better come to work or you’re not going to be here. I don’t think it matters who it is, young players or veterans. He’s always been passionate, always in your face. He will tell you, ‘This is what I want and if you can’t do it, we’ll find somebody who can.’ “
Chaves already has the admiration of the young pitchers who’ve known him for years, and Putz believes the veterans with the Mariners will respond to him, too. From top to bottom, he said, this is a team that’s fed up with last-place finishes the past two seasons.
“I’m only here to give my best, and it’s up to you to take advantage of it,” Chaves said. “I don’t know it all, but if you think you know it all, then maybe you shouldn’t be here. There’s only one goal here. It’s W-I-N. The veteran guys are tired of not winning because what happened the last two years is not what they came here for.”
His message to the pitching staff the first week of spring training has focused on throwing pitches with confidence and throwing them for strikes. That’s hardly a new concept, but Chaves vows to preach it all season.
“A strike is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a quality strike,” he said. “People think that when you’re throwing your fastball, you’re aggressive. My way of thinking is that I want to be aggressive to a spot with whatever pitch I throw. I’m going to leave it up to you as a hitter to deal with what I give you. I’m going to challenge you with my best pitch and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a changeup or a fastball.”
Chaves learned his approach as an instructor and communicator from all the pitching coaches he had played and coached with over the years, but nobody was as special to him as the late Hub Kittle.
Kittle, one of the game’s true characters but also a wizard as a pitching instructor, was Chaves’ Winter League pitching coach in 1990 in Puerto Rico. The two reunited later in their careers after Kittle, who lived most of his life in Yakima, joined the Mariners organization as a minor league instructor.
“There were many others, but Hub was the smartest pitching coach I’ve ever met,” Chaves said. “He knew all aspects, the mental part of the game and the physical part of the game. He would not give you a chance to not do it right. If you worked with Hub, you’d better do it right because half-assed and so-so would not work.”
Kittle coached until he physically couldn’t do it anymore, and Chaves was shaken when he died at age 86 in 2004.
“He lived for pitching,” Chaves said. “I remember talking to him about a month before he died. He told me, ‘Kid, I cannot do baseball anymore, so I am ready to die. It’s time for me to go.’ I get emotional thinking about it because I loved that guy.”
* n n
The Mariners quickly began the process to hire a new pitching coach last October after popular Bryan Price decided he didn’t want to return.
The list of candidates that circulated in media reports included some with impressive credentials – Stottlemyre, McDowell and Mark Wiley, who was Hargrove’s pitching coach in Cleveland and Baltimore. Within the organization, there were current bullpen coach Jim Slaton, minor league pitching coordinator Pat Rice and Chaves.
While Hargrove and the club conducted interviews, Chaves waited for a call.
He read about the process on the internet, rarely seeing his name pop up among favorites for the job, and when his phone continued to stay silent, he thought the Mariners weren’t interested.
“It got to the point where my goal was to just get an interview,” he said. “I kept reading the newspapers and I kept seeing that everybody else had gotten an interview.”
In the final week before the Mariners made a decision, they asked Chaves to fly to Seattle.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that Chavey was a darkhorse coming in,” Hargrove said. “He was one of the last guys I interviewed.”
Still, Chaves knew that if he got an opportunity to sell himself, he might have a good chance to get the job.
“I did my homework, let’s put it that way,” he said. “My homework was as simple as it gets because I had all the inside scoops on all the guys I would be working with. I felt pretty comfortable.”
He impressed the Mariners with his knowledge of the pitching staff, his plan for the 2006 season and 19-year-old Hernandez, and his vision for helping Meche and Pineiro come back from poor seasons.
“The things he said just hit home,” Hargrove said. “I got to thinking about all the guys we’ve had who have done well under him, and the guys who were sent back to him who came back better. I remembered that all the pitchers we got last year from Triple-A were prepared to pitch in the big leagues. A lot of things started falling into place that made sense that really got me excited.”
Chaves went back to his home in Puerto Rico and waited for another call.
On Oct. 26, the day before the Mariners announced their decision, Bavasi told him he was among the final two.
Less than 24 hours later, his emotions having plummeted by reading an incorrect internet report that didn’t include his name, he became the Mariners’ new pitching coach.
After 21 years, Rafael Chaves had reached the major leagues.