Alan Mills eager to manage again

Alan Mills is ready to manage again.

The former Orioles reliever didn’t leave baseball. It sort of left him.

Hurricane Dorian washed away the end of the Gulf Coast League’s regular season and playoffs in 2019, making the Orioles owners of the best record at 38-15 and Mills the choice as Manager of the Year. The minors were canceled last summer due to COVID-19.

Mills stayed home in Lakeland, Fla., with no offer to serve as an instructor at the alternate camp site in Bowie or in the fall instructional league. He just waited until a short-season affiliate could get him back to his full-time role.

The GCL no longer exists in name. The Orioles now compete in the Complex League and field two entries managed by Mills and Kevin Bradshaw.

Mills hadn’t managed at any level before 2019, spending two seasons as Orioles bullpen coach after working a combined five years as pitching coach in Aberdeen, Delmarva and Bowie.

Adapting to change - no, thriving in it - probably allowed Mills to more easily navigate the insanity of 2020.

Alan-Mills-throwing-orange-sidebar.jpg“The only thing I could compare it to was the year (1994) we went on strike near the end of the season and never came back,” Mills said last week in a phone conversation. “It was weird, you know? Kind of uncharted waters. For me, based on everything that happened, not just in baseball but all around the world, just trying to survive it, I guess, was the No. 1 priority. So many people lost their lives during the pandemic, and still even today.

“It was just a strange year. Coming from 2019, I don’t think anybody could really foresee what was going to take place in 2020. I guess it gave you some insight on what’s really important in life. Things that we may hold dear, but aren’t really that important.”

Mills stayed healthy while in one of the country’s pandemic hot spots.

“I just social distanced away from pretty much everyone,” he said. “I saw my kids on the way home. I saw them Christmas, I’d see there here and there, but I kept my distance because they don’t live with me. They live with their mom. So I did what the people said and tried to stay as safe as possible.

“My daughter got it and she recovered and she’s doing fine, but I really didn’t do too much to put myself out there. I’m getting a little more comfortable now, but when it first started and through the summer I was a homebody. Going to the store when I needed to and that was it.”

The Orioles had to adjust their spring training setup this year, going with a smaller crew at the Twin Lakes camp. The organizational social distancing for Mills has been at an extreme since he left the GCL, with him tracking the alternate camp work and news from his residence.

“Everyone got their assignments, and that’s usually the way it works,” he said. “People get assigned for this and that, and it just so happened I wasn’t one of those guys. I don’t think it was anything personal. Things just worked out that way. Just baseball, the nature of the game.”

It can be harsh in other ways.

Post the best record in the GCL and earn accolades. Report to spring training, excited again about an instructor role in camp and a second season of managing, and watch the world shut down. Drive home and stay there.

“You play golf? I used to play golf and I don’t anymore because I wasn’t good at it, but to me baseball and golf have parallels,” he said.

“You can play one hole, par the hole and it’s like, ‘Man, every shot I took was right where I wanted. Everything worked out perfect.’ And then the next hole is like you’ve never played golf before. At least, that was my experience with golf. Baseball is the same way. You can have a week and just be lights out, and then one outing, the next week kind of snowballs and you try to keep it to a minimum.

“What happened in 2019, I said it to anybody I talked to, I didn’t play one inning. I didn’t throw one pitch, I didn’t take one at-bat. The players did it. They were a great, great group of kids and I had a great staff working with me and it was just a great experience. I really enjoyed it. Looked forward to the new staff I had in 2020, look forward to the new staff I have in 2021. You’ve just got to roll with it in baseball. It’s a marathon, so you kind of get used to that mindset. You never get so connected, because it can change in a minute. It can go the opposite way in a short amount of time.

“I look forward to this year and try to keep everything in perspective. When I get the call to go to camp, just go to camp and try to enjoy it, enjoy being on the field. I miss being on the field, I miss being out here, seeing baseball. I want to see a guy hit a triple, I want to see a guy stretch out a single and try to make it a double and I want to see a guy throw somebody out at the plate or somebody trying to go first to third. Go big fly and do a bat flip. I miss that stuff. You get used to seeing that stuff.”

Watching on television last summer didn’t really satisfy the craving.

“When you’re there and it’s in person, it’s more of a gratifying feeling because you’re involved with it. That’s the part I miss,” he said. “And last year in the clubhouse, last year in the dugout, the teaching aspect of the game, I didn’t get a chance to do that, so I miss that.”

A new year requires an adjustment to having a second Orioles affiliate in his league.

Small potatoes compared to everything else that’s happened.

“I worked with Bradshaw in 2019 because they (IronBirds) were there during extended spring training, so you kind of get a feel for what it may be like because you have two teams during that period,” Mills said. “I don’t know with COVID if one team’s going to be at Ed Smith and one team’s going to be at Twin Lakes. Nothing has really been said concrete about that. But I’ve done it, I just haven’t done it all summer. Usually in the summer they go north and then the complex is ours. That’ll be the only difference this year is instead of having extended spring ending, that same process will go throughout the summer.

“This is brand new. I don’t know how it’s going to play out, if it’s going to be any different than it would be. In extended spring you’ll have two games sometimes going on at the same time. One team’s playing and another team’s playing on another field, so it may be just the same as extended, but I don’t know how it’s going to be set up and how they’re going to do it. So it’s going to be new, but maybe it will be just like it always has been in extended. I’m not sure.”

The emphasis on and dedication to analytics and the abundance of technology and data available to teams have given Mills a new-look staff. Christian Frias and Collin Woody are the Complex League fundamentals coaches. Adam Schuck will be the development coach.

Titles and responsibilities that were late arrivals to the organization.

“Honestly, it will be all foreign to me,” Mills said. “In 2020 I went to spring training and I was there maybe 10 days, 12 days, and then it got shut down, so because we didn’t have a season, I can’t really get a gauge on what all of that will look like and entail during a season, because I didn’t go to the alternative site and I didn’t go to instructional league, so I have no idea what it’s going to be like.

“I know it should be different, and I do believe the more information you have, the better. When you can inform the players and give them feedback and information, it helps. Hopefully it will work out. Analytics is a must. You need it. I also believe that baseball has a gap between the two sides that has to be bridged. I think sometimes people from my era, they look at analytics as, ‘OK, that’s garbage, it’s not needed, that’s not baseball,’ but it is. It’s a huge part of the game and it’s not going anywhere.

“I also believe that a lot of people on the analytical side, they think, ‘That guy’s old school, he can’t get this, he doesn’t see it this way, and those guys need to be out of here, they’re in the way.’ I think when you start looking at what’s best for the players, because that’s the ultimate goal is to give the player every opportunity to realize their potential, that bridge has to be gapped because you need the analytical stuff because it’s information, it’s technology, it’s data. But you also - and this is just my opinion, it doesn’t mean that I’m right - you also need people that have actually been on the field that can relate to what a player is actually experiencing. You need both.

“But I don’t think the two sides see it that way, which is unfortunate because in the end it’s the player that’s going to lose, not the analytical side, not the coaching side. It’s going to be the player, and if you can give the player the best of both worlds, you have every opportunity for that player to maximize his talents.”

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