FORT MYERS, Fla. — When the baseball turned against them, which wasn’t wholly unexpected because it turns against everyone here and there, that’s when Jerry Narron would turn his head toward Ron Roenicke, and Roenicke would know what Narron was about to say.
He’d want to hear it anyway. Almost needed to hear it.
Roenicke was manager of the Milwaukee Brewers for four seasons and 25 games starting in 2011. Narron was his bench coach for every inch of 684 games. They’d lived this thing from every angle for so long — as prospects and players and released players and coaches and managers (and, one day, as fired managers) — they bore all the same riches and scars.
They believed in the same God and believed there was one way to play the game and believed those religions were not entirely separate. They also believed in each other.
So this isn’t to say they assumed the worst. They actually assumed much better than that. They’d also surrendered to the inevitabilities of dumb luck and flesh-and-blood fragility and all the reasons anyone shows up to find out how it’s all going to end.
The worst would come, however, as is its dark habit. The ball would skitter into some dark corner of the ballpark and the other guys’ third-base coach would be sending runner after runner, and the pitching matchup they’d plotted for all night would end up in a gap somewhere, and they themselves would make decisions that splattered their faces with gunpowder, and that’s when Roenicke would catch the movement in the corner of his eye, Narron lining him up.
“You know,” Narron would say, and in the pause Roenicke’s grin would flower, “there’s a hidden blessing in this somewhere.”
Then they’d turn back to the field, back to their lives, and wait to see what that might be.
In the half-decade since, Roenicke had been a third-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels and then bench coach for the Boston Red Sox when the inevitabilities of dumb luck and flesh-and-blood fragilities took out the manager for the Red Sox, along with, as it happened, the league MVP type in right field and a couple pretty good pitchers and who knows what else.
He became interim manager for the Red Sox on Feb. 11, one day after Mookie Betts and David Price were traded to L.A. and one day before pitchers and catchers took the field in Fort Myers. Eleven days later, he hired Narron, partly because it would be good to have a familiar spirit beside him, mostly because Narron is a quite capable bench coach (Narron left the Arizona Diamondbacks in the fall) and, given the events of the previous weeks (along with a looming investigation into illegal sign stealing), they’d all need to be reminded of hidden blessings.
Someone has to say it out loud.
‘It’s not ideal’
They were born in 1956, Roenicke in Southern California, Narron in the coastal plains of North Carolina. They were raised on baseball. They had eight-year major league careers. They had managed all or parts of five big-league seasons — Roenicke in Milwaukee and Narron in Texas and Cincinnati. Narron is a bit taller, a bit thicker, while Roenicke is more angular, so it’s difficult to gauge whether his windbreaker is a size too big or his body is a size too small.
They met over a late breakfast on a Saturday after the 2010 season, brought together at a downtown Milwaukee hotel by then-Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Roenicke, hired as manager, had been thinking about a different candidate (Don Wakamatsu) for his bench coach and Narron had been offered a different job, working beside Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh. The breakfast was fine. The conversation was easy. To both men, however, the pairing seemed unlikely. The next day, a Sunday, Narron’s phone rang in Goldsboro. It was Melvin. Narron did not answer.
“I knew Doug was probably going to want an answer,” Narron recalled, “and I didn’t want to give him an answer.”
An hour later, Roenicke called. Narron picked up.
“You know, he mentioned to me about not only my baseball knowledge and experience but my faith, and he’d like to have me on the staff,” Narron said. “That pulled at my heart strings and my baseball strings. I called Clint and told him I was going to Milwaukee.”
The Brewers won 96 games and the NL Central title in 2011. The next four seasons did not go as well. The manager and bench coach returned to the coaching pool, took good jobs with competitive franchises, crept up on their mid-60s, and one late winter’s day about a month ago Narron’s phone rang again.
Roenicke had been promoted in Boston and he needed a bench coach. In Boston. In what could be a transitional year or two. In front of fans who had just said goodbye to their Mookie. For a guy — chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom — in his first year on the job. Roenicke needed someone who’d say that thing out loud again. The two guys who would be out in front during games, one on the top step and the other at his shoulder, and have hardly missed a pitch in four decades, and have seen about everything at least twice, and wouldn’t scare no matter what.
“It’s a big job,” Roenicke said. “I realized what the issues were going to be this year. A lot of people said, ‘Nah, it’s going to be a tough job, it’s not going to be a fun job.’ I didn’t really look at it that way. I looked at it like, ‘OK, I know all these things are going to go on, but how’s the best way for the Boston Red Sox to not only get through this but have the best chance to win?”
Narron, who speaks with a lively Carolina dialect and with thicker timbre than you’d expect, said, “It’s not ideal.”
He said it with a growling laugh, as if that were about the best part about the gig, as if the sorting of players and skills and hope and dedication and details and community and trust and three-batter minimums is what makes the showing up worthwhile. As if this right here were the hidden blessing all along.
A bond built on the top step
There had to be a reason, after all, that Alex Cora had to be fired and Ron Roenicke had to be standing there, and then that Roenicke lobbied for the job as hard as he did, believing he was the right man for it as completely as he did. And then that Narron had to have rejected a two-year offer to stay in Arizona in a different role, one he wouldn’t like as much, so he was sitting at home thinking of teaching U.S. history up at the high school or something. And then that Chaim Bloom, a next-generation baseball man, and at a time when managers skew younger, had to believe in a pair of 60-somethings in a time of crisis.
It had to make sense to someone somewhere, how all that falls apart and then into place again, how the game had to circle back to maybe make good on some of those dark habits it has.
“I don’t think you can find anyone in baseball who has a bad word to say about either one of them,” Bloom said, “which is a good place to start. … Then it struck me they bring out a lot of the same positive qualities in each other.”
Said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who played every one of those five seasons in Milwaukee and for six teams in four seasons since: “In terms of running a team, they are the best combination that I’ve seen.”
You have your friends, your good friends and your foxhole guys, the last of which rate fight above friendship but can do without neither.
“He’s really good,” Roenicke said of Narron. “When I was in the National League, just navigating through a game, making moves and stuff, he’s smarter than I am. I thought I was pretty good at it, but he would tell me stuff and I would go, ‘I didn’t even think about that.’ So that’s the biggest thing.
“There’s no ego. None. If you watch during the game it’s kind of funny, because, you know, we’re older now, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, Jerry, go get somebody loose.’ Vroom! He’s sprinting across the dugout! You know? He’s like, ‘Whatever I can do to help.’ It’s huge.”
Actually, Narron said, it’s deeper still.
“We both, I think, love the game, love to see the game played correctly, love people, to be around people with character and integrity,” he said. “We have all those things in common. But we both like the details of the game. We don’t just want to look at the entire thing. A lot of people go to a game and they just follow the ball. I think Ron and I, one similarity we have, when a play happens we look at something besides the ball.
“People will go in and look at a great painting. And they’ll look at the painting. I don’t know a lot about painting. I can see a beautiful painting. I can see it, but I don’t know a lot about the brushstrokes. I think Ron and I like to see the brushstrokes of baseball. We have that in common.”
Roenicke plays golf and fishes and makes furniture. Narron gave up golf and fishing when his children were born. He had mentored young men and women in his community, he reads about historical figures and just finished a book called, “Chase the Lion: If Your Dream Doesn’t Scare You, It’s Too Small.”
“It’s about never being too old to fulfill your dreams,” Narron said. “And what you’re doing can help other people fulfill their dreams. I kinda like it. And if there’s a difficulty, run to it. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t run away from it. So,” and here he spread his arms, “I’m running to this.”
For the two of them, for the Red Sox, for all of Boston, there is so much out there, waiting. Every inch of 162 games and who knows what else. It is best, then, that Roenicke and Narron come with something like the gravity of all those years, some of them spent together. The depth of who they are. They come not for the next job or a hollow promise of glory or for generational wealth.
“Whether I’m here for only one year, it doesn’t matter,” Roenicke said. “It doesn’t matter. I know this year. What is needed this year. And I think this is what’s needed. And I also think Jerry is a piece in that to help these guys. We’ve been through junk.”
It’s not just the pretty paintings. Junk has brushstrokes, too. The right eye, the right time of day, the right lighting, then it comes alive. The blessings were there all along.
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