I still hadn’t met our hitting coach but I felt like I already knew him. I’d seen him play in the Majors. I’d heard a few stories about him, most of which centered around his prickly personality and his toughness. The word on the street was this was a guy other ballplayers didn’t even mess with. He hadn’t been in Binghamton, New York for the brief pre-season festivities because his wife had been giving birth. I was told he would be joining the team in time for the season opener in Akron, Ohio.
Canal Park in Akron was a short walk from the hotel but, since I was on my first road trip in my first year as the radio broadcaster for the Binghamton Mets, I didn’t know that, so I got on the team bus for the ride to the ballpark. That must be him, I thought, sitting in the third seat on the right. He looked like he didn’t want to be bothered, his goatee making his scowl look even more menacing. His enormous head looked like it was carved from a cinder block. Nevertheless, I was undeterred.
“Are you Dave Hollins?” I asked.
He looked up. I could feel his eyes piercing through my skin.
“Yes,” he said, not smiling.
“I’m Robert Ford, the radio guy.”
His gaze softened, but not nearly enough to make him seem welcoming or friendly.
“Nice to meet you.”
I took my seat across the aisle from one of the most feared players of his era.
Dave Hollins was best known as the heart and soul of the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies team that won the National League pennant with good pitching, a good lineup and even more grit. The ’93 Phillies weren’t the most talented team to win a pennant, but they were definitely one of the toughest. Up and down the roster were grinders, guys who worked themselves to the bone and were willing to do anything to win a baseball game. They were fearless, they didn’t back down and they didn’t give up.
A switch-hitting third baseman who hit .273 with 18 home runs and 93 RBIs and made the National League All-Star team in ’93, Hollins was the leader of the bunch. Hollins would do just about anything to beat you, but Hollins respected the game and expected everyone to play baseball the right way. If you didn’t, there would be consequences, whether you were his teammate or his opponent. John Kruk, his longtime teammate and friend, nicknamed him “Mikey.” Actually, that was Kruk’s nickname for Hollins’ alter ego; cross him and Mikey comes out with a vengeance that would make Mr. Hyde – or Dr. Jekyll – blanch (Hollins was also nicknamed “Head” because, well, he had a large noggin). Hollins’ playing career ended nearly two years prior to our first meeting, but it seemed pretty clear to me Mikey still lurked around the corner.
Akron was far from warm in early April, with highs only reaching the 40s. Even though the sun shined brightly, there seemed to be little warmth coming from it as I stood down the rightfield line while the Binghamton players stretched to ready themselves for batting practice prior to their second game of the year. All of a sudden, I felt more of that warmth disappear. I looked to my right and, to my surprise, Hollins was standing next to me. We hadn’t spoken since our initial meeting.
“A little cold today, ain’t it, Voice?”
Hollins asked me about my background; how long I’d been in broadcasting, where I went to school. He seemed genuinely interested in getting to know me better. To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. It was also the first time Hollins, or anyone else, called me “Voice”, which wound up being my nickname the rest of the season. Maybe this guy isn’t so menacing after all, I thought. Perhaps he’s just gotten a bad rap.
After splitting four games in Akron, the Binghamton Mets traveled east, to Erie, Pennsylvania, for a three-game series. Jerry Uht Park was a five-minute walk from Lake Erie, whose biting wind made Erie feel even colder than Akron. Even shutting the windowed gate in my radio booth and turning the heater to its highest setting didn’t stop my hands from getting numb.
Once the first game of the series concluded, I ventured to the visiting clubhouse beyond the left-centerfield fence to ask Binghamton manager Jack Lind, a veteran of brief stints as an infielder with the Milwaukee Brewers and Japan’s Tokyo Giants in the 1970s, a few questions. I took a seat in the cramped office Lind shared with his two coaches while I waited for him. Hollins entered, sporting the scowl that had already become familiar.
“What the *&^% are you doing sitting in our *&^%ing office and in my *&^%ing seat!?”
Hollins continued his expletive-filled rant about my backside occupying a seat in the office. At one point, he looked like he might even take a swipe at me. However, something told me he wasn’t serious. So, I looked the big-headed giant in the eye as he continued to berate me, a smirk spreading across my face.
After about 45 seconds of language that would’ve made a sailor blush, Hollins stopped abruptly and let out a deep, hearty laugh.
“Need to sit down, Dave?” I asked, still smirking.
“Nah, Voice. You’re good.”
He never yelled at me again, jokingly or otherwise.
Hollins was always willing to be interviewed for my radio pre-game show. He loved talking about the Binghamton hitters he worked with and about the teams he played on and the teammates he had. For someone who could be very businesslike and gruff, Hollins was an outstanding interview who offered fantastic baseball insights. He also kept track of the team’s record on days I interviewed him. Well, more accurately, he made me keep track of the team’s record on days I interviewed him (I think it was above .500 – at least that’s what I told him).
Not everyone grew to be as fond of Hollins as I was. Scott Lauber, the Binghamton Mets’ excellent beat writer for the Press & Sun-Bulletin, who would go onto cover the Philadelphia Phillies the next year for the Wilmington News Journal and, later, the Boston Red Sox for the Boston Herald, had a falling out with Hollins early that season and vowed not to interview him ever again. Brian Bannister, Binghamton’s best pitcher that year, was taping an interview with a broadcaster from another team when Hollins walked by and intentionally growled a few expletives within close range of the microphone, upsetting the broadcaster and almost ruining the interview (the broadcaster was able to edit out the blue language).
That year, the Binghamton Mets had plenty of talent but, for a variety of reasons, struggled to win games. The more the losses mounted, the more frustrated Hollins became. At the end of June, Hollins finally reached his breaking point. After a tough loss in New Britain, Connecticut, Hollins waited until Lind, our pitching coach, our trainer, our strength coach and I got off the bus (minor league baseball coaches and support staff always sit in the front of the bus and usually exit first) before Mikey stepped in the aisle and prevented any of the players from leaving. After asking our bus driver to depart and close the door, Hollins lit into the team. He told them settling for losing was unacceptable and giving maximum effort was expected, no matter what. Lind wasn’t happy to have his authority usurped and told Hollins as much later that night. They barely spoke to each other the rest of the year.
Binghamton was two games under .500 when Hollins made his speech. They were 15 games under in mid August, when Binghamton shortstop Corey Ragsdale was awarded first base during the first game of a doubleheader in Portland, Maine. The Portland Sea Dogs were in first place, 11 ½ games ahead of Binghamton, and on their way to a division title. Portland was leading 7-5 in the top of the sixth inning when Ragsdale appeared to be hit by a pitch on his left hand, causing him to drop the bat, jump around and shake his hand in agony. Portland manager Todd Claus came out to argue with the home plate umpire that Ragsdale wasn’t hit by the pitch but, rather, that the ball glanced off the knob of the bat. Despite Claus’ protest, the call stood.
When play resumed, I noticed Hollins, who was coaching first base, kept turning his head over his left shoulder. He appeared to be talking to someone in the Portland dugout, which was on the first base side. I learned later he was jawing with Fernando Arroyo, Portland’s pitching coach. All of a sudden, Mikey threw his baseball cap to the ground and raced into Portland’s dugout and punched Arroyo. He might’ve done more if Russ Morman, Portland’s 6’5” mountain of a hitting coach, hadn’t wrestled him away. Morman broke his hand in the exchange.
Along with being ejected from the game, Hollins was suspended indefinitely and forced to leave the team. The suspension wound up lasting about a week, with Hollins undergoing counseling before he could return. Hollins seemed upbeat when he reentered Binghamton’s clubhouse, likely happy he was back with his team. Hollins didn’t volunteer information about his suspension, but no one asked him about it, either. Lauber, Binghamton’s beat writer, hadn’t spoken to him all season, and that wasn’t going to change now. So, the majority of the coverage of Hollins’ suspension was as seen through the eyes of others. I decided I needed to at least try to get Hollins to talk to me and to get his side of the story.
A few days after his return, I spotted Hollins walking through Binghamton’s empty clubhouse several hours before game time. I asked him if he wanted to do an interview with me. He asked me to meet him in the dugout in five minutes. Five minutes later, he was sitting next to me on the dugout bench.
“Dave,” I said, “we have to talk about this.”
“I know, Voice, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. I want to get my side of the story out there.”
Hollins told me he thought Portland was showing Binghamton up that night. They were in first place, Binghamton was going nowhere, Hollins explained and, by arguing the hit-by-pitch call, he felt Portland was rubbing Binghamton’s noses in it. That led to the heated conversation with Portland’s bench in general, and their pitching coach in particular, which led to the fisticuffs. Hollins reiterated several times he knew what he did was wrong and he was sorry he put his team in such a compromising position, but he wanted people to know he didn’t just fly off the handle; there were reasons for his actions.
“I’m glad you’re telling me this, Dave,” I said. “Now, just repeat that when I start recording.”
Hollins agreed, leading to one of the most heartfelt interviews I’ve ever done, or ever will do. After we finished, he thanked me for the opportunity to tell his side, an opportunity few others had given him to that point. I was honored Hollins trusted me enough to serve as his messenger. Without even realizing it, I spent the entire summer building a bond with someone who didn’t build bonds with very many.
During spring training this past March in Arizona, I ran into Lind who, two years after managing in Binghamton, became a scout for the Houston Astros. Lind told me he and Hollins had “kissed and made up” several months prior, ending their lengthy detente. Lind also told me something I’d always suspected: Corey Ragsdale faked being hit by that pitch in Portland that helped lead to Hollins’ hijinks.
If he ever reads this, Hollins won’t be happy I called him “Hollins”; he hated to be referred to only by his last name. “Dave” was acceptable. So was “Holly”. But, not “Hollins”. Of course, Hollins was a Luddite and proud of it; once, when I handed him a piece of paper with the URL to an online article a reporter he met had written about him, he crumpled the paper into a little ball and asked me to print the article out for him instead. So, if Hollins does read this, I’m pretty sure it will be a hard copy.
After his year in Binghamton, Hollins got into scouting as well, with the Baltimore Orioles. He now scouts for the Philadelphia Phillies. I’ve seen him sporadically since our summer together, and I don’t get the sense Hollins wants to return to coaching. He was an excellent hitting coach, good enough, I believe, to one day serve in that role at the Major League level. However, coaching involves being satisfied with doing your job well even when your team’s win-loss record isn’t stellar. After all, coaches can only instruct. It’s up to the players to come through. Because of the competitor he is, I don’t think Hollins would ever be satisfied with being a coach for a losing team, regardless of the circumstances. Scouting, where you’re detached from winning and losing, is probably a better fit for him…and for Mikey.Follow @raford3