In the baseball world there are a lot of support personnel that have a big impact on a team's success or failure.
The manager takes the credit or blame as the case warrants, but he knows deep in his heart that without his assistant coaches, trainers and the clubhouse staff he'd be hard pressed to put a cohesive unit on the field night in and night out.
So let's explore just one of the Syracuse Chiefs' coaches who helps mold the future Toronto Blue Jays.
Daily challenges are what make this coach get up and greet the dawn of each new day. From firing fastballs to Hall of Fame players like George Brett, Carl Yastrzemski or Carlton Fisk to shaping future Cy Young winners the challenge, competition and love of the game were and remain his driving force.
He has been a member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization for the past 12 years and is now in his third stint with the Chiefs...meet Pitching Coach Rick Langford.
In his days as a player, Langford was known as a fast-working finesse pitcher and an excellent fielder. He broke in with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1976 and then spent the next ten seasons with the Oakland A's. Currently his days are spent nurturing the young arms entrusted to him by the Blue Jays.
His love of the game started at a very early age just outside Richmond, Virginia.
"My hero as a silly young kid growing up was Mickey Mantle," Langford said. "The Yankees were on television all the time growing up in Virginia because Richmond was the Yankees farm team at the time" (just before it moved to Syracuse).
Langford's right arm propelled him to the big leagues, but he would have been just as comfortable in the field.
"I loved to hit, run, slide and catch fly balls," Langford said of his early days playing the game. "I always wanted to be a centerfielder like Mickey was. Many years later, in 1980 when Billy Martin became the manager of the A's, Martin and Mantle were great friends and thanks to the relationship I had with Martin I was able to get a chance to meet Mickey Mantle and spend some time with him and it was a real special time for me."
In 1977, his first season with the A's, Langford tied for the American League lead with 19 losses, but Martin arrived in Oakland in 1980 and Langford became one of his skipper's workhorses.
"The first couple of years weren't pretty," Langford said of his playing days. "We were learning on the job so to speak."
However, Langford won a career-high 19 games during the 1980 campaign and tossed an American League-best 290 innings. Langford also led the league in complete games that year, finishing 28 of his 33 starts, including an AL record 22 in a row.
"It was my biggest year," Langford said of the 1980 season. "It was great season for me personally. I'll never forget that year and enjoyed it very much."
to end his record-setting streak, Langford was pulled with two outs in the ninth inning of the 23rd game. "Martin came out to the mound and said, 'I think it's time'," Langford remembered. "I told him I thought it was as well."
To put that feat somewhat in perspective: the last Major League pitcher to throw as many as 10 complete games in a single season was Randy Johnson, who threw 12 complete games in 1999 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The last pitcher to complete 20 complete games in a single season was Fernando Valenzuela, who did so for the Dodgers in 1986. Last year Aaron Harang of the Cincinnati Reds led the National League with six complete games, while C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians also tallied six complete games to pace the AL.
Baseball will not soon forget what Langford and the rest of the A's staff accomplished that year.
"That record probably will never be equaled," Langford said of his streak, "because the nature of the game has changed so much. The specialty pitcher was just starting to happen back then so the managers would let the starters go a little deeper in the game. We had a staff that Martin felt comfortable with and as a staff finished 94 games that year (1980) - another American League record. I'm not sure it will ever happen again because the game is so specialized now."
In 1981 Langford again led the AL in complete games with 18 and won the clincher in the AL Western Division playoffs.
"It was my most memorable game," Langford reminisced. "That year we won the American League West and I had the third game against the Kansas City Royals. I was able to hold them off through eight innings and came out with the lead. We went on to win that game and the series and it was a thrill to be part of that."
|DID YOU KNOW?|
| Rick Langford holds the American League record for consecutive fielding opportunities by a pitcher without committing an error. His first Major League error (10/2/80) broke a streak of 230 consecutive chances accepted.
After leading the A's in innings pitched and complete games for four straight years, Langford developed elbow trouble during the 1983 season and many, but not Langford, blamed Martin for having overworked his starters. Langford struggled to come back through the last four years of a six-year contract and pitched in his final big league game in 1986.
"When my time was up I went home for one year," Langford anguished as he looked back. "I enjoyed the off season, but I still missed the game. In 1988 Billy Martin became the manager of the Yankees and when I saw that I called Billy, because we were very close. I told him that I wasn't sure if I was finished and that I would like to play at least one more year. He didn't have room (on the Yankees' staff) so I signed a minor league deal and pitched for Columbus that year. I enjoyed it very much. I pitched okay but just didn't get the call up. After that year I was ready to put the gear away."
Incidentally, Langford compiled a 9-6 record with a 3.13 ERA in his one season for the Clippers.
Langford spent the next six years enjoying time with his wife Terrie, an art teacher near their home in Florida, and their two children.
The children, now grown, show the Langford's did all right. Their daughter Jamie is an elementary school teacher and their son Travis is an Air Force lieutenant, currently deployed in Iraq flying JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System) aircraft.
"He was a young man that wanted to serve his country," the proud father said of his son. "I support him very much in that role."
We don't have any grandchildren but would like some, that's the next big thing that will happen to us some day.
Prior to the 1995 season, six years after he thought he had kissed baseball goodbye, the bug was still there, and then a phone call came that would pave his path to this day.
"I received a call from Jeff Burrows," Langford said. Burrows, a former teammate was starting up an Independent League club out on the west coast and asked Langford to help out with the fledgling organization. "He asked for me to help out and I did," Langford said. "I really enjoyed myself and the following year I interviewed with Toronto and have been with the Blue Jays organization for the past 12 years."
Considering his playing resume, the Jays' decision to make Langford the pitching coach at Knoxville for the 1996 season should have been a no-brainer.
"He's outstanding as a pitching coach," Chiefs manager Doug Davis said. "He has the background. He's got the experience. The level of competition he performed at when he was playing and his longevity are why he's a pitching coach the guys look up to and respect."
"There have been a lot of great guys that have come through in the 12 years I've been with the organization," said Langford, who tries to convey to his prodigies what worked for him during his playing days. "We (pitching coaches at all levels) were all part of it. They learned a little bit from everyone that they have had. I don't think it was any one coach that can take too much credit. They all have had talent and great character. We just want to make sure that they get their conditioning, stretching and doing all the programs correctly. Then we'll tweak pitches and work on their delivery. These guys have the athletic ability to figure it out because they're competitors."
"I've been blessed to be around a bunch of very good players," Langford said of his former students, a list that includes Cy Young winners Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter.
In his 12 years of coaching Langford has worked at the single-A, double-A, and triple-A levels, but prefers working in triple-A.
"I enjoy the triple-A level," Langford said of working close with the Major League club. "You're trying to get guys ready and help them when they need it due to an injury or if things aren't going well for them to help try and figure things out. This is a unique level here at triple-A. There are changes every day or two, where the team changes or the situation changes and you have to be aware of it all. It's quite enjoyable, the competition is great and its always fun when we send a guy up to Toronto and see him do well."
"This is the best scenario to be at the triple-A level," said Davis of where Langford's skills are best utilized. "Rick gets a product that has all the instruction and is able to put the finishing touches getting the guys ready for the big leagues. He also helps them with the mental part of the game as well. What he offers is very well suited to this level."
When his current pupils ask what kind of a pitcher he was, what does Langford tell them?
"Basically that I was more of a control pitcher," Langford said. "I wasn't a power pitcher, but rather someone who commanded the ball fairly well, and worked both sides of the plate. I liked to pitch inside, because that helped me to locate down and away more effectively. That's one thing I've coached the last 12 years - if a starter can establish the inside over the course of six or seven innings, the bullpen doesn't have to. They don't have to set guys up as much; they can just come in and hunt outs."
"You can talk to Rick," Chiefs reliever Ryan Houston said. "He won't change a lot of stuff unless you want to change. He's one of the best pitching coaches I've had."
"I'm always impressed with the people that the Blue Jays have on staff, who we work for...the players we get," Langford said. The Blue Jays are a class act and great to work with. The players are willing to try different things, but if you sit down and listen to some of the things that are on their mind you establish a relationship where they can trust you enough to listen to what you have to say."
"Not all things work," Langford said of passing along lessons he learned as a player to today's pitchers. "They're willing to try. I think that there have been a lot of great guys that came through here (Syracuse), some great arms that they (Toronto) brought us to work with. If you don't have the talent it's hard to get anything done. The Blue Jays bring in the talent and these guys have done an exceptionally nice job."
"He's been around the game for such a long time that he definitely knows what he's talking about," Chiefs pitcher Jamie Vermilyea said. "He gets you prepared for when you do get to Toronto so you know what you're doing and can kind of ease into it. He imparts some words of wisdom on you."
When he's not constructing the Blue Jays pitching staff of the future, Langford, the son of a contractor, is also quite the carpenter.
"I love to build things," Langford said. "I build mostly decks, cabinets and a lot of finish work. My dad was a contractor and I would go to work with him where I picked up the love to work with my hands. I have acquired a vast array of tools over the years. I recently installed about 1,800 sq., ft., of hardwood floor in our Florida home."
So what's in Langford's future besides the romantic walks on the beach he loves to take with Terrie during the off season?
"I want to build a small home in the North Carolina mountains," Langford said. "I have purchased some property there, so were in the throws of working on the plans of what we want to build and eventually, possibly in the next year or two, hopefully we'll build that."
Langford once was described as a poor man's Catfish Hunter whose body gave way before his desire. That desire still burns bright and potential Major League pitchers that are entrusted into his care are sure to benefit from his knowledge and love of the game.