Column: Dodgers’ third base coach Chris Woodward is learning on the job
Even under the most perfect of conditions, Chris Woodward works one of the most confusing jobs in baseball.
He’s on the field, but he’s not. He wears a batting helmet, but he never goes to the plate. He is credited for runs he doesn’t score, blamed for outs he doesn’t make, and generally exists in a limbo where the line between success and failure can be drawn with one windmill sweep of the arm.
Woodward is the Dodgers new third base coach, a job difficult enough without this one small additional burden: He had never really done it.
That’s right, the Dodgers new third base coach is a guy who has never been a regular third base coach at any professional level. With the exception of few games last summer in Seattle, when he temporarily replaced an ailing colleague, he will open the season with as much experience standing by third base as the spectators watching him stand by third base.
Only a little bit?
The Dodgers have had two Hall of Famers coaching third base in Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda.
The Dodgers had the same man coaching third base for 16 consecutive years in Joe Amalfitano.
The Dodgers roster of third base coaches has included old-school legends Charlie Dressen, Bobby Bragan and Preston Gomez. It has featured the veteran baseball minds of Glenn Hoffman, Larry Bowa and Tim Wallach.
And now their third base coach will be a rookie?
Even Woodward admitted he was a tad surprised by the assignment.
“Um, a little bit, yeah, I’m not going to lie, obviously a little bit,’' he said.
You’re going to want to cheer for this guy. He’s pleasant, smart, a former utility infielder who is considered one of baseball’s top young infield coaches. He’s 39, retired only four years, and is already connecting with players who love his energy and work ethic. He has deep Southern California roots, a Covina guy, a Mt. San Antonio College guy, his grandmother has lived in the same Baldwin Park house forever.
Yeah, you’re going to want to cheer for this guy. But if anything goes wrong, you are going to want to scream at Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, and Zaidi for putting him in this position.
What are they thinking? Considering Woodward is the latest example of the innovative ways the Dodgers front office views the game, the question is, what are they not thinking?
“So much of that job is about preparation,” Zaidi said. “Even when you get to the crux of the matter, the decision to send a runner or not, most of that is about the circumstance.”
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Zaidi is not saying anybody can climb out of the stands and coach third base. He also believes in the importance of the position, witness last season when, in mid-August, the Dodgers suddenly replaced Lorenzo Bundy with Ron Roenicke, a former Milwaukee Brewers manager and Angels third base coach.
But he believes any smart baseball mind who studies the runners and knows the situations can pull it off without even some minor league practice. Just as Friedman and Zaidi have tried to build a roster with smart players who can handle a variety of roles, they’ve also tried to build a coaching staff with the same kind of versatile baseball minds.
“Yes, we would have liked to have a guy who has done it [coached third base] before, who has experience … but our No. 1 priority was to get good baseball guys, guys who worked hard and prepared and would be a loyal staff for our manager,” Zaidi said.
This led them to Woodward, who played parts of a dozen seasons for five major league teams, mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays. He had just finished a stint with the Seattle Mariners coaching infielders and first base last fall when the Dodgers parted ways with manager Don Mattingly and the front office was given its first chance to build a coaching staff in its image.
Woodward wasn’t even hired to be a third base coach, he was hired to coach the infielders, particularly schooling them to handle the constant shifting that the Dodgers now employ. It was a hole in one of these shifts, remember, that left third base uncovered in Game 5 of a National League division series against the New York Mets.
“We wanted him as our infield guy, we didn’t know where he would fit on the staff, whether at first or at third, that’s just the way it played out,” Zaidi said.
“I made it known to him that I’m comfortable with it, but it’s up to him,” Woodward said. “I understand a first-year manager might not be comfortable with putting a first-year third base coach out there.”
When presented with this exact question this week, Roberts just smiled the way he has been smiling all spring.
“It’s a challenge,” Roberts said. “We’ve talked about it, and it’s a challenge, but he’s excited about it, and I’ll support him, he’s a great worker, he’s a great teacher.”
But how will he do under the pressure of sending a runner home in the ninth inning of a tied score? Can all of his preparation actually prepare him for the nightly split-second decisions that could change a season?
“When the ball is moving, and things start to happen defensively, at that moment, at that time, the third base coach wins or lose more games than any other coach,” said Amalfitano, 82, who works as a special assistant for the San Francisco Giants. “Do you have to have experience? It would behoove you to have some experience.”
Amalfitano was such a fixture as a third base coach that the Giants used him in that role for a couple of innings in Friday night’s exhibition game with the Dodgers.
“The game gets really fast over there,” Amalfitano said. “You have to be the eyes of the players, but you also have to be in synch with the manager, and then your judgment comes into it, there’s just a whole lot going on.”
Charlie Finley, the infamous late owner of the Oakland Athletics, once told Amalfitano that a taxi driver could coach third base.
“I told him, ‘Fine, during the game, you sit in the stands with two buttons, red or green, and you hit the button when the runner comes around third,” Amalfitano said. “But you only get red or green. No yellow, OK? No yellow.”
A couple of seasons later, Finley realized the foolishness of his statement and, as an apology, he bought Amalfitano dinner.
Woodward realizes the enormity of his task. He spent time in the off-season working on positioning with Roenicke, who is again the Angels’ third base coach. He has picked the brain of former third base coaches throughout the organization. He has watched video of every arm in the league.
“I will do everything I can to get good at this,” he said. “I know there will be bumps in the road here and there, but I’m out there constantly trying to gain as much knowledge as I can.’'
Watching him will be a hopeful Dodgers front office that has adorned the field with yet another new creation.
“You’re only a first-time third base coach for one game, that’s how I see it,” Zaidi said chuckling, not requiring any windmill sweep to keep pushing that envelope.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke
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