Saul savors moments on the field

Bluefield hitting coach spending his 49th season in pro ball

Jim Saul, who joined Bluefield in 2007, has spent 35 years as a manager and coach. (Earl Neikirk/Bristol Herald Courier)

By Tim Britton / MLB.com | July 10, 2008 6:00 AM

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. -- With his firm handshake, undeniable presence and booming voice, it's easy to imagine Jim Saul as a politician. He's effortless in talking with others and even speaks a little like Eisenhower: quickly but clearly, each syllable pronounced properly, if a little louder than the one before it.

But Jim Saul never went in for politics. No, Jim Saul is a baseball lifer if there ever was one. Now the hitting coach for the Bluefield Orioles, Saul is in his 49th season in professional baseball. The first 14 were spent in catching gear in the Minors, the last 35 as a manager and coach. Still, at 68, Saul has no thoughts of stopping anytime soon.

"I still enjoy it. I love working with kids and helping them get a little bit better," Saul said in that distinctive voice. "I just love the game because it's challenging, it keeps me young and alert and health-wise, I think it's good for me."

Saul's lifelong love affair with the game started the first time he entered a dugout, as the 9-year-old batboy in his hometown for the Appalachian League's Bristol Twins. It was the beginning of an odyssey that has lasted nearly 60 years and has carried him across the United States and around the world.

"You know what [baseball's] done for me: it's given me the opportunity to see the United States," Saul said. "I had the opportunity to go to Australia, Canada, Mexico -- just a lot of places that I would never have gone to if I hadn't been in the game. It's offered a lot of things to me."

One thing it never offered Saul was a career in the Major Leagues. During 14 Minor League seasons, he was close to The Show on a number of occasions. But he never got that ultimate promotion.

It was tough initially for Saul to hang up the catcher's mask without getting his shot in the bigs, but coaching helped salve any leftover wounds.

After retiring from the field in 1972, Saul moved straight to managing in 1973 with Salinas of the California League. One of his players that year was someone with whom he'd be reunited down the road: current Bluefield manager Orlando Gomez.

"It was fun because he let you play the game," Gomez said of his year under Saul. "When I came in [to Bluefield] and they told me Jimmy was the hitting coach, I was very happy because I knew Jimmy for so long and he's an outstanding teacher. It was an honor for me having a person like that next to me."

Before joining Bluefield in 2007, Saul spent 17 years with the Atlanta Braves organization. His term with Atlanta -- which included managing in the Gulf Coast, Midwest, Northwest and New York-Penn leagues -- coincided with the Braves' 14 consecutive division titles. Saul got a chance to develop many of the players who became stars in Atlanta, from Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez to Andruw Jones.

Since joining the Braves in 1989, Saul had spent all his time at Class A or lower, preferring to work with younger prospects.

"The teaching part of it is still the fundamentals on the field, and the individual part pretty well comes at its own pace," Saul said. "It's about being able to talk to the kids in a way they can understand without going over their head and keeping things as simple as possible. Baseball is really a simple game."

As much as Saul enjoys working with kids straight out of high school and college, he longs for another chance at the Major Leagues. He coached with the Cubs and Athletics for three seasons in the 1970s and still remembers his first day with the big club.

"I can remember walking into Wrigley Field the first time that I was a coach, I got down and kissed the threshold of the door at the clubhouse," he said with a smile, almost as if to ensure you believe him.

There were some other perks.

"When they pick up your bags and come to the airport and you get on a charter plane, that was a lot of fun," he joked, no doubt remembering the 18-hour bus rides he endured in the Texas League.

Saul's memory is second to none. He can rattle off the places he's been and the teams he's coached without a second thought. Oh, and that trip to Australia? The first thing to come to mind is, as usual, what happened on the field.

"We went to the finals that year and Sydney beat us in the ninth inning, 3-2," he said, an undercurrent of anger lingering in his voice. "But I enjoyed the people down there. It's a great country."

And what comes across most from Saul is the fondness he has for a sport that's sent him to Melbourne and Eugene and Albany and now back to his home state in Bluefield. He cherishes being home again, even getting to sleep in his own bed when the Orioles play on the road in the Appalachian League's West Division.

All that means he's not ready to hang it up for good.

"As long as they want me and as long as I feel good," he replied when asked how much longer he planned to coach. "If I get to the place and I'm not feeling good, then it's time to get out. But I enjoy it with the kids. I really do."

And having a friend like Gomez in the same dugout doesn't hurt.

"He loves to work, he loves the game and he's got great respect for the game," Gomez said of his hitting coach. "When you spend that many years in the game, you deserve the best. For me, he's the best."

Tim Britton is an associate 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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