UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Paul Menhart will be telling the story for the rest of his life, the story that begins on the first of May, with a walk down the block with Gracie, his 8-year-old Australian shepherd/husky mix.
“This will be our last walk for a while, Gracie,” he told her, explaining the way a dog dad does that he was about to leave for Florida for a month or so to work with the Washington Nationals’ minor league prospects. And then his phone rang. His supervisor, Doug Harris, told him to turn around, and change his flight, go to Philadelphia instead. Menhart was to be the new Nationals pitching coach — in the major leagues.
“I said, ‘Don’t you be messing with me right now, Doug,’ ” Menhart says, “but I used a little more colorful language. He said, ‘No, I’m serious as a heart attack. Go tell Bitsy.’ ”
Menhart walked his dog home. “He walked in the house,” his wife, Bitsy, says, “and he was crying. So I said, ‘Is it something with the dog? Is it the kids? Is someone hurt?’ He said, ‘I’m the big-league pitching coach.’ … What? He had to repeat it like three times for me.”
No use pretending. We all know the happy ending to which this story is heading. But this is the middle of January, the dead of winter, and no better time to gather by the fireside and savor all the details of the kind of tale that only seems to happen in baseball, that makes winter so interminable for those who love it.
So Paul Menhart, 50, who learned the rudiments of pitching long ago in southeastern Connecticut, under the guidance of Ed Harvey at Fitch High and Jim O’Neill with New London’s American Legion team, whose own major league pitching career was shortened by arm miseries, was going back to the big leagues at last.
Why shouldn’t there be tears? The 22 years since Paul threw his final pitch for the Padres had included a job delivering plate glass that often broke and cut up his hands; going back to Western Carolina University, where he and Bitsy had first met, to earn his degree; a brief time teaching middle school and coaching in college. The family settled outside Savannah, Ga., where the Nationals, who hired him as a minor league coach in 2006, first assigned him. His father, Bob, had recently died.
“He said, ‘I just wish my dad was here,’” Bitsy says, “and I said, ‘So do I. But he is here, and this is what he wanted for you.’”
Menhart said his goodbyes to Bitsy, who teaches kindergarten in Savannah, his kids and Gracie and went to Philadelphia, where the Nationals were languishing far under .500. Their longtime franchise player, Bryce Harper, was gone; their pitchers underachieving; their relievers had the worst ERA in the league; their lineup compromised by injuries, manager Dave Martinez on the hot seat. At a time when many organizations are looking for younger, tech-savvy pitching gurus, the Nationals called on a traditional instructor, a longtime minor leaguer who embraced analytics, but understood the value of relationships, to replace Derek Lilliquist.
“The very first meeting, I said I wasn’t coming in there to try to change the world,” Menhart says, surrounded by family at Mohegan Sun, where he returned last week for the World Baseball Coaches Convention. “‘But the one thing I can promise you guys, I will be available for you, for whatever you need. I won’t miss any stretches, any bullpen sessions, scouting report meetings. This is what we’re going to be about. We’re going to have structure.’ And they loved it.”
Menhart — you could look it up, ole Casey Stengel would say — is the only pitcher in Blue Jays history to throw a one-hitter and lose; the hit was a homer to Harold Baines, and his counterpart, Mike Mussina, pitched a shutout for Baltimore in 1995. Today, Menhart says he might have had a longer career, avoided some of the elbow and shoulder miseries that limited him to three years, 164⅔ innings and a 5.62 ERA, if he had worked harder, made better decisions. Once he started coaching, he found his niche in the game, eventually as minor league pitching coordinator. He worked with Stephen Strasburg from the time the Nats drafted him No. 1 in 2010, had been around spring training and often asked Max Scherzer to come talk to the minor leaguers, or brought his kids over to big league camp to watch how hard the veteran stars work.
“I believe in building relationships with each and every guy and not put them all in a box,” Menhart says. “I want to make sure each guy knows I care about him and who he is and what he’s good at, and we’ll figure it out together. It’s a partnership.”
After he got to Washington on May 3, the losing continued. The beat-up Nationals were swept in Milwaukee.
“We got our butts handed to us pretty good,” Menhart says, “and we had a team meeting. Davey (Martinez) let everybody know he wasn’t giving up. And what happened was, (veteran infielder) Howie Kendrick stood up and said he’s been on a lot of real good teams that didn’t live up to the expectations, but this team was different. We’re going to be fine.”
That became the motto, even after the Nationals bottomed out at 19-31 after a loss to the Mets on May 23. It took five weeks just to claw back to .500. All summer, Menhart’s family would text and ask what was wrong, and Menhart would text back, “We’re going to be fine.”
Meanwhile, Menhart tweaked Erick Fedde’s arm slot and improved his curveball, suggested Sean Doolittle use his high-spin slider more often, tinkered with Joe Ross’s delivery. Washington’s team ERA before Menhart was 4.69, afterward, 4.19.
The Nationals picked up some bullpen help in July, went 19-7 in August, 17-11 in September to clinch a wild card spot with 93 wins. “We just had so much fun,” Menhart says. “It was the most fun dugout I’ve ever been a part of. Stephen Strasburg is dancing after hitting a home run? Nobody every would’ve thought that.”
Then they came from behind to win the wild card game, came from behind to beat the Dodgers in the Division Series, swept the Cardinals in the NLCS. They were facing the end in Game 6 of the World Series in Houston when Strasburg gave up two runs in the first inning. Jonathan Tosches, advance scout, saw something and alerted Menhart.
“Stephen had a tough time during the year against the Diamondbacks,” Menhart says. “They had something on him. As a pitcher, there is no worse feeling than thinking that the other team knows what you’re throwing. It consumes your brain. Jon told me he was doing what he was doing against the Diamondbacks. Do I tell him now? Because he had an easy inning in the second. I said, ‘They know what’s coming. I’ve got to tell him,’ and he was very receptive. ‘All right, I’ll do whatever it takes.’ ”
Menhart suggested Strasburg shake his glove to hide his grip, and Houston didn’t score again. Washington won Games 6 and 7, clinching D.C.’s first Series title since 1924. Postseason ERA: 3.47. Bitsy got time off from school, and their three children were all in Houston for the celebration. Those pictures can join the one Menhart has back home with a finger aloft after his other notable one-hitter, the 6-0 win over Southington in the 1987 Class LL final at Muzzy Field.
“It’s so much a part of me,” Menhart says. “Ed Harvey at Fitch, Jim O’Neill, coaching the Legion team, I can’t say enough about them, building the foundation for my life.”
In D.C., the backstories of the 2019 Nationals will live forever; they know about Gracie, the Australian shepherd/husky mix, the good times and the bad, the tears, the tweaks and the suggestion that Stephen Strasburg butterfly his glove in Game 6 — all the parts of the tale that took a Connecticut guy, Paul Menhart, from obscure minor league coach to the top of the baseball world.
Their Bucky Dent. Their Bloody Sock. It can happen … in baseball.
“You can’t just force it,” Menhart says. “It has to happen naturally. And it happened naturally last year.”