VIERA, Fla. - Perhaps no role on a coaching staff is more misunderstood than that of the first base coach.
New Nationals first base coach Tony Tarasco knows this. He realizes fans see him point a runner toward second base on a sure-fire double down the line, or grab the batting gloves from a player who has just drawn a walk, and think he has the cushiest job on the diamond.
Tarasco, in his first season on Davey Johnson’s staff after seven seasons in Washington’s minor leagues as an outfield/baserunning coordinator and a hitting coach, has a much deeper list of responsibilities. He works with the team’s outfielders, dispenses baserunning pointers, scouts opponents’ pitchers and hitters for trends and tendencies, lends an ear to Nationals players and acts as one of Johnson’s liaisons inside the clubhouse.
“A lot of what I’m doing is preparation,” he says on a recent morning after touring the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse with a bat slung over his shoulder, working the room like a politician at a D.C. fundraiser. “I help the guys prepare, I help Davey’s team get ready to play.”
At 42, Tarasco is the youngest member of Johnson’s staff, joining in November when assignments were shuffled after third base coach Bo Porter took the managerial reins in Houston. Last year’s first base coach, Trent Jewett, moved across the diamond to the third base box, a role he performed from 2000-02 with the Pittsburgh Pirates and in somewhere north of 1,100 minor league games. That left a vacancy at first base and led to Tarasco’s promotion.
An eight-year major leaguer between 1993-2002, Tarasco made a career out of being a decent hitter and good fielder for the Braves, Expos, Reds and Mets. He never hit better than .273 in 1994 with Atlanta and his 1995 season in Montreal produced career highs in home runs (14), RBIs (40) and stolen bases (24). He wasn’t a flashy player, but Tarasco’s ability to do the little things, and to do them well, endeared him to his managers.
One of them was Johnson. The Orioles traded for him in March 1996, when the Expos were playing Baltimore in Fort Lauderdale. He went back to the Montreal clubhouse after the game and was told to pack his bags and walk to the home side, arriving shortly thereafter with a confused look on his face and his baseball belongings in an equipment bag. Tarasco hit .216 in two playoff seasons with the Orioles and gained notoriety for being the outfielder who had Derek Jeter’s fly ball snatched away from him by 12-year-old Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier during Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Check the video of that blown call and you’ll see Johnson and Tarasco arguing in vain with umpire Rich Garcia, Tarasco pointing at Maier and claiming he would have caught what was incorrectly ruled a home run.
History remembers that emotional outburst in old Yankee Stadium, but when Johnson needed to fill out his staff for 2013, he recalled a heady player whose attention to detail helped prepare him for play - just the kind of coach he wanted.
“I liked the way he went about his business, I liked the way he swung the bat, I liked his team approach,” Johnson said. “Anybody that works that hard (gets noticed). He was fundamentally sound, had a good approach. You remember stuff like that.”
Tarasco had never really given much thought to coaching until he was out of baseball. Back in 2005, a call from then-Nationals special assistant to the general manager Bob Boone changed his mind. Tarasco had been tutoring youth players near his Venice Beach, Calif., home when Boone tracked him down on the beach, offering him a job as a hitting coach with short-season Single-A Vermont in the New York-Penn League.
What made Boone think of Tarasco? Tarasco thinks it was a late-night conversation in the Cincinnati clubhouse in 1998, when Boone (then a special assistant with the Reds), his son Aaron Boone and Tarasco talked hitting until the wee hours after a game.
“(Bob Boone) remembered that, called me up, gave me an interview and gave me a chance again,” Tarasco recalls.
That began Tarasco’s seven-year odyssey through the Nationals minor leagues, where he taught players with untapped talent how to hit and was entrusted with the job of teaching 2010 top overall draft pick Bryce Harper, a catcher by trade, how to play the outfield at Single-A Hagerstown in 2011.
“I’m lucky to have a small part of that kid’s great career ahead of him,” Tarasco said. “I’m happy I’m just pointing him in the right direction. We were in a grind. His first year playing in the outfield, I basically scheduled my roving (coordinator duties) ... and basically followed him. It got to the point I told Doug (Harris, player development director) that I needed to go see somebody else. ‘He’s getting sick of me right now,’ I told Doug.”
Harper credits Tarasco with turning him into a good defensive outfielder, adept enough to play center field as a rookie and switch to left field for 2013. But the yeoman’s duty Tarasco performed didn’t go unnoticed - by Johnson, general manager Mike Rizzo or others in the organization. Hard work, of course, is something Tarasco is used to.
“I was fortunate that I played hard for Davey,” Tarasco said. “I played hard for Davey and we had a winning team. Also, there was a lot of hard work (in the Nats minor leagues). Rizzo and Doug Harris really recognized that I had a passion for it. They realized I had good eyes and without a couple of guys who were aware of diligent workers, I might have gone unnoticed.”
As a player coming up through the Braves system during their glory years in the 1990s, Tarasco was lucky enough to have connected with two of his coaches: Willie Stargell, the former Pirates slugger who was on Atlanta’s major league staff, and Grady Little, who managed him at three rungs in the Braves minors - Single-A Durham, Double-A Greenville and Triple-A Richmond.
“Willie had such a powerful way of delivering a message and getting you to do something in very little words,” Tarasco recalled. “He was with the Braves when I came up with the Braves. Grady Little was my manager with the Braves when I came up (through their organization) for three years. Grady was similar to Davey. He knew how to read players, knew what they needed. Just being around those two helped me so much. I was so grateful for some of the stuff Willie would pass to me. I would not have gotten to the big leagues had I not risen through the organization with those guys. I used to ask Willie all the time, ‘How can I pay you back for all the stuff you’ve given me?’ and he’d say, ‘Just make sure when you’re done you give it back.’ “
Still, Tarasco hadn’t really considered a career in coaching.
“You wonder,” he said. “You develop relationships with coaches and when you run into good coaches, it makes you think about it. Some coaches are bitter and mean, and when you run into those coaches, it makes you not want to (coach). But you’re so locked in on your game that you’re not thinking that far ahead.”
Now, serendipity has led Tarasco to a role he never really imagined - a key opportunity to help mold last year’s 98-win National League East champions into a team that can win a World Series. It’s a far cry from his early days with the Nats.
“I’ve seen this organization turn itself around,” he said. “The job Rizzo’s done and the job the scouting department has done with the players ... and the job (player development) has done to develop the players, I haven’t seen something like this since the early days of the Braves in the 1980s and early 90s.”
Tarasco is generally quiet and unassuming, a workaholic who lets his actions speak for him. And when Johnson called in November to offer him the job as first base coach, Tarasco admits that he probably didn’t sound overly enthused, even if he was.
“When he called me this winter to let me know, he asked me if I was happy,” Tarasco said, laughing at the memory. “He didn’t see me, but I was at the chiropractor and dancing in the parking lot. I waked outside from the chiropractor and I was walking around and dancing. He asked me if I was happy and I was trying to downplay it, but I was running circles in the parking lot. I don’t think he ever got to see the excitement in my face.”