Perspective: Mills' return went beyond stats

Former Major Leaguer's comeback in Erie impressed players, coaches

(Erie SeaWolves)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | January 2, 2008 7:15 AM

Right-hander Alan Mills enjoyed a comeback season unlike any other I have ever seen in my 20 years of covering baseball.

Like a meteor shower in your own backyard, it was brilliant and unexpected and all-too-brief.

In his first 27 games with Detroit's Double-A Erie SeaWolves, Mills went 23-for-23 in save opportunities, posting a 1.65 ERA and limiting Eastern League hitters to a .154 average.

He finally got hit on Aug. 28, giving up four runs in two-thirds of an inning to "skyrocket" his final ERA to 2.79.

All this came at the age of 40 after having been away from the game since the end of 2001.

A fellow closer in the league mentioned that he thought of Mills when his pitching coach had been filling out a survey that asked for "the best" in every category in the league.

"How great would it be," he mused, "if Alan Mills was named the top relief prospect in this league?"

I witnessed first-hand the season he had when he should have been voted the best relief prospect in his league.

It was 1989 and I was the rookie beat writer for the Yankees' Prince William Cannons in the Class A Carolina League.

At the end of the first half, the team had the worst record in the league, and was mired in last place in the first-half North Division standings.

The team's biggest bugaboo was its pitching, which was in shambles. Great talent but no consistency and a bullpen that could not find a true closer (or, as we called it in those days, stopper).

That changed on June 24 when the Yankees brought up Alan Mills from their Class A Fort Lauderdale team.

He wasn't immediately welcomed as a savior, at least not to any Prince William fans who had known him in his previous two full-season stints with the Cannons in 1987-1988, when he'd combined to go 5-19 with a 5.07 ERA (2-11, 6.09 in 1987 and 3-8, 4.13 in 1988).

"In 1987 I had pitched so badly that I was probably one of the worst pitchers in the league," Mills recalled of his first few go-rounds in Virginia. "I was fortunate not to get released. ... and 1988 wasn't much better."

During the following offseason Mills knew he would have to do something drastic to continue his career so he built a mound in his backyard and hung up a tire to throw through several times a day.

"Before that I was more of a thrower," he said, "But pitching is much easier when you can locate and throw strikes."

In the second half of 1989, the Cannons went from worst to first, going on to win their first -- and only thus far -- Carolina League title (they're now the Potomac Nationals).

Much of the credit for that can go to Mills. Going 6-1 with an 0.91 ERA, he was not only the best pitcher on the team but he made everyone else better as they discovered their roles.

The Yankees responded by doing what was almost unheard of for them at the time. They brought Mills from Class A to the Majors to start 1990.

He posted a 4.10 ERA in 36 games with the Bronx Bombers in '90, en route to a 12-year Major League career in which he went 39-32 with a 4.12 ERA in 474 games.

He spent the bulk of his career with the Baltimore Orioles, to whom he was dealt in 1992, with a brief stint in Los Angeles. His best season came in 1992 when he was 10-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 35 games for the Orioles. His last regular-season appearance came with the Orioles in October 2001.

So when I saw that he had returned to the mound this past summer, I circled the date that Erie would come through Bowie in red pen and headed out to Prince Georges Stadium that afternoon.

One thing I knew about Alan was that although he is one of the most kind and thoughtful gentlemen I have ever met in my 20 years covering the game, he's not comfortable being in the "media spotlight" and generally respectfully declines to talk about himself on the record.

So when people there found out who I was there to see, I got a very definite, "yeah, good luck with that" look.

But when Alan peeked out and saw it was me, the slightly wary expression was replaced by the big welcoming smile I'd missed.

He explained to me he still wasn't talking on the record -- yet -- about the comeback attempt. He just wanted to see how everything worked out.

He was flying so far below the radar that even some of his family was still in the dark about what he was doing. His dad knew, of course, but his siblings all thought he was there as a coach.

"Well, what if they Google you to find out your stats? Won't they find out then?" I asked.

He gave me a slightly mischevious smile.

"Lisa, how many people Google a coach for his stats?"

But last week, while enjoying the holidays with his kids, he shared his story, reflecting on his reasons for leaving, his reasons for coming back and his plans for 2008.

During Spring Training of 2002, with two of his three children still babies, he made the decision to walk away from the game to be with his family.

What he didn't expect was to go through a divorce shortly thereafter. It took awhile for him to, in his own words, "regroup," and he didn't want to venture too far from his home and kids in Lakeland, Fla.

During that time, Mills coached local amateur baseball teams, staying in shape and keeping his 90-mph fastball, slider and changeup sharp.

There were a few times he looked into returning to the game with teams that had local Spring Training camps. He came close to signing with the Cleveland Indians, and went to Spring Training in 2004 for several weeks with Tampa Bay, but in both cases their farm teams were too far from home so he walked away.

Over time, though, he and his ex-wife worked through the situation to the point that by last spring, Mills felt he was ready to give it one last try.

"I knew the window of opportunity was closing," he said, "And our ability to communicate allowed it to take place without any conflict of interest when it came to our kids."

Through a network of local baseball friends and former players, the word spread to Dan Lunetta, Detroit's director of Minor League operations, that Mills still "had it." He arranged for Mills to throw for pitching coordinator Jon Matlack and player development director Glenn Ezell and, after a few months, Mills was headed to Erie, Pa.

He joined, in early June, a club that was just 30-25, somewhere in the middle of the Eastern League pack.

He joined a pitching staff that featured several of the Tigers' top young prospects. For that matter, even his manager, Matt Walbeck (who has since left the organization to become Texas' third base coach) was younger than Mills at 37.

Mills did not set any particular goals for himself, no deadline that said "Detroit or bust." All he wanted was the chance to see what he could do after more than half a decade away from the game he still missed.

"After being out so long, I really didn't know what to expect, or even if I'd be able to endure the rigorous demands of a season," he said. "I just went with the intention of trying to be available every day. I couldn't have imagined pitching the way I did."

By September, Mills had helped lead the team to an 81-59 record, first place in their division, and a spot in the Eastern League playoffs. If he was disappointed not to be called up to Detroit in September, he hid it well.

"They were in the race and were having issues in the bullpen with injuries and what not," he said. "So once a certain amount of time passed by I figured it wouldn't happen."

Ezell already had some strong thoughts about where he wanted to see Mills down the line -- as a member of the Tigers' player development field staff -- and his performance, both on and off the field, simply reinforced them.

"He is absolutely a consummate professional," Ezell said, "The players had the utmost respect for him."

Ezell's impressions were confirmed when he went to see his Tigers prospects play in the Arizona Fall League. While there, he was chatting with Matt Rankin, the trainer for Triple-A Toledo, who was serving as the trainer for the Peoria Saguaros.

"He asked me, 'Who is this Alan Mills guy that all the pitchers were talking about?' Because everybody who came up from Erie to Toledo had nothing but high praise for him," Ezell recalled. "That to me is the ultimate compliment. Even after numerous years in the Majors, here he was in Double-A, still working to get better, and the young players saw that and appreciated it."

Mills met with Ezell and Matlack this fall and was offered the position of pitching coach at West Michigan, the two-time defending champions of the Class A Midwest League. Among the pitchers expected to be in his charge could be teenage right-hander Rick Porcello, the Tigers' top draft pick in 2007 and a young man widely regarded as the top high school pitcher available in that draft.

But just because he's no longer pitching doesn't mean he's lost his competitive spirit.

"I hope that I never lose the feeling of wanting to play, because it allows you to maintain a certain energy level and passion," he said. "But there comes a time when you have to let go of playing."

Meanwhile, instead of throwing a ball through a tire in his backyard this offseason, he's reading as many books and watching as many videos about teaching pitching as he can, while trying to reflect on everything he learned over the years from a variety of great coaches that have included A.J. Sager, Dick Bosman and Ray Miller.

But maybe one of the best lessons he could pass along to his charges this summer, came from one Alan Mills circa 1987-1988.

"When you get to the Majors and become established, sometimes you can forget about the past," he said. "I try not to forget about the rough years I had, because I had talent but wasn't seasoned enough to really know what I needed to do with it to be successful."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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