FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He never wanted to play professional baseball before his 19-year big league career. He is the 59-year-old father of newborn twins. He is paid to analyze the mechanics of throwing a baseball yet does not like to discuss them.
Meet Bob McClure, the new Red Sox pitching coach.
Perhaps the best window into McClure's personality is contained within his book. It is not unprecedented for pitching coaches to become published authors. But it seems safe to suggest that the brief tome published by McClure and his close friend, Dave Downing, more than two decades ago is unlike any other ever penned by someone in his position.
The book, published through Vantage Press in 1991, is called “Rotting: The Craze of the 90’s.” It opens with a definition:
Rotting is doing nothing, while looking as if doing nothing, but no longer feeling guilty about it.
It is the art, science, or sport of getting parallel.
Rotting is a form of (guilt-free) relaxation.
How often have you felt like doing nothing? But in essence, to you, nothing is something! That nothing is what we call rotting.
The book, which was published while McClure was nearing the end of a 19-year career in which the left-hander did a little bit of everything, offers a hilarious and illustrated celebration of physical inactivity. The fact that McClure -- whose formidable skills in the venture earned him the title of “Dr. Rott” -- was a baseball player remains nearly invisible.
However, there is a meticulous detail and attention to the mechanics of plastered-to-the-couch inactivity, to the scientifically defined “degrees” and positions of rotting (the Face Rott, the Possum Rott, the Mummy Rott, the Siamese Rott, etc.). And so, while the book offers few thoughts on McClure’s approach to either pitching or coaching, it does speak to a creative mind that is detail-oriented, even if not necessarily a mind that would be identified as obviously belonging to that of a pitching coach.
The actual definition and art of rotting offers little window into who McClure is, and why the Red Sox hired him this offseason, a couple months after the Royals had fired him following six years as their pitching coach. After all, it’s been years since McClure has had the available down time to celebrate the craft.
(“I haven’t been able to do that in a long time. Those days are over,” he chuckled recently. “When I wrote it, I think most of the rotting was done. It was close to an end when we wrote it just because of [family obligations].”)
Yet the book attests to some of the traits that appealed to the Sox when they decided to hire McClure in December: A keen observational sense, a talent for communicating and relating to people, and sometimes unconventional ways of approaching issues that are nonetheless effective. Perhaps more significant than the idea of prevalent sloth in the book is the notion of a different sort of thinker, a badge that McClure appears to carry with some pride.
“When I told my mom that [McClure’s wife] Shirley was pregnant with twins, she said, ‘Are you crazy?’ and I said, ‘Mom, have I done anything conventional ever?’” said McClure, who at 59 became the father to twins this winter. “I’ve been a little unconventional in my career. Not that I was very good, but most guys who are good have a different thing about them.”
There is plenty that is different about McClure, whose baseball career happened despite the fact that he did not grow up envisioning a future in the sport. In high school, McClure fancied a future as a biologist, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a cancer researcher. His preferred sport was basketball, not baseball.
But he didn’t have the enthusiasm for his studies to continue his education past high school, nor did he have the love of baseball to accept the scholarship offers that he received. He passed on college and instead went to work.
The undertaking didn’t last long.
“I tell you what -- after getting up at 5:30 in the morning, driving into San Francisco, working at the phone company, working at Montgomery-Ward after that, after a few months of that, I said, ‘This is not good,’” recalled McClure. “I got back into baseball.”
McClure found his way to the game in a semipro league in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The league featured a high caliber of competition, including ex-professionals and others such as the brother of former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. McClure pitched well enough to gain a spot on the College of San Mateo, where he went 17-1 and was named a junior college All-American but still was not signed by the Dodgers after they selected him in the January phase of the 1973 draft.
Instead, he went to the Royals in the third round of that year’s June supplemental draft. McClure pitched in the Rookie Level Pioneer League in 1973 and with just 14 games of professional experience, he was tossed to the wolves in Triple-A for the 1974 season by John Schuerholz, the legendary executive who was then the Kansas City farm director.
“I once asked Schuerholz why did you move me so fast?” McClure recalled. “He said, ‘There were two reasons we moved you. One, you could throw your breaking ball for a strike behind in the count or at any time. The other, if it didn’t work out, we didn’t feel you had the type of personality where we didn’t feel it would hurt you mentally if you had to go backwards. We just felt you weren’t built that way. We felt it would be a learning experience for you. You would just go to Double-A, continue on and go.’”
That’s exactly what McClure did, bouncing between the upper levels while launching an eventual 19-year big-league career in late-1975. He did a little of everything during his pitching career, opening his career as a reliever, converting to the rotation in 1982 for a Brewers team that reached the World Series, and then, after two and a half years in the Milwaukee rotation, going back to the bullpen where his roles over the years covered a vast expanse from long man to left-handed specialist.
Over the years, he learned to relate to just about every pitcher in every situation, all while accumulating an understanding of the craft of pitching that would offer the groundwork for him to begin a coaching career.
Yet that knowledge of mechanics manifests itself in somewhat unusual fashion. To whatever degree possible, McClure tries to avoid discussing mechanics with his pitchers.
“You might make sense to yourself, but you’ve got to make sense to them. You approach each individual different,” said McClure. “They have different attention spans. They have different ways of looking at things. Learning somebody -- how they work, how they think -- is first. The relationship is first.
“The trust comes with that, hopefully. As you’re doing that, you’re slowly starting to work on some mechanical parts with that,” he added. “But the concentration is really to throw everything out the window -- everything -- and look down there [at a catcher’s mitt]. How often can you hit that? How often can you follow the catcher, where he’s going? That’s where the focus should be.
“We can talk mechanics all you want, and you can confuse guys talking about mechanics, but you can go to a guy, never talk mechanics, and say, ‘Hit the glove. You’re going to do this until you can hit the glove.’ And without talking about mechanics, some guys can just do that. I almost don’t care how you do it -- just get it there.”
Quietly, McClure enjoyed success in developing a number of talented pitchers with the Royals. From afar, members of the Sox organization felt that his work with pitchers such as 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria, Kyle Farnsworth, Greg Holland, Aaron Crow and Bruce Chen (among others) had been under-appreciated.
Thus it was that the Sox were delighted when McClure proved willing to take on the job of pitching coach in December. He is charged with a tremendous responsibility -- chiefly, working with manager Bobby Valentine and the front office to find solutions to the back of the rotation among pitchers who have either never succeeded in such a role or who are years removed from their peaks.
Yet the initial returns are positive. Certainly, McClure's approach has found an enthusiastic reception with his new team.
“I really, really like his philosophy of pitching,” said Daniel Bard, who flew to visit McClure in January and to work on developing a windup. “He keeps it simple. He doesn’t talk mechanics unless he has to, and he’ll tell you that. Unless he sees something glaring, he’s not going to say anything. Guys throw different, and I’m going to let you throw. Have good direction, be athletic and compete. If you do those three things you’ll be pretty good.
“The one thing he will stress is direction with everybody. If you’re throwing too far across your body, it makes things complicated. That’s the one thing we’ve talked about. It’s helped me so far.”
McClure spends a significant amount of time examining what pitchers do with their legs and feet. He notes that most sports start with the feet -- golf swings, defense, hitting and any number of other competitive undertakings -- and, likewise, he believes that the ability to command a baseball and get it to do what a pitcher wants it to do starts with the direction that a pitcher takes from the mound towards home plate.
And so, for instance, when he saw Bard’s arm coming a bit farther across his body than would be optimal, McClure had the pitcher make a slight adjustment to the angle of his foot on the rubber. Problem solved.
He saw Felix Doubront putting stress on his elbow, the byproduct, McClure believed, of landing too hard on the heel of his right foot. Rather than talking with the pitcher about his arm action, McClure had Doubront warm up by pitching off the back of the mound; in pitching uphill, the left-hander learned to soften his landing leg when he got back on the rubber.
He could have told Doubront what he was doing wrong, but that was not his focus. Instead, he wanted him to engage in an exercise that would allow him to identify and feel the right mechanics for a delivery, emphasizing muscle memory rather than the ability to synthesize verbal instructions and channel them into mechanical fixes.
It is all part of the approach for a man who, the day he was hired for the job, explained (in an interview on WEEI) that his pitching philosophy could be distilled to a four-word directive: “Kick ass and win.”
That may seem at odds with the commitment to lethargy seen in McClure’s book (though it should be noted that McClure and Downing outlined a system of competitive rotting while also suggesting that rotters should be physically fit). Yet ultimately, it is an accurate synopsis of what McClure is trying to accomplish.
For while McClure might take unusual approaches to problem-solving, his goals are anything but. In his post-rotting career, McClure is a hard worker who feels at ease and at home when working with pitchers to perfect their crafts.
“I don’t think real competitors are ever satisfied. That’s what it looks like here,” said McClure. “I know this – [the Red Sox pitchers] all came down early, and they’re on a mission. That’s what I’m dealing with. … It’s very enjoyable, and it’s really what I’m basically used to when I was in Kansas City. Guys come early and bust their ass. It’s what I expect.”