Sam Donnellon: Manuel, pitchers embrace Dubee's tough love

Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee talks to new closer Jonathan Papelbon during spring training. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee talks to new closer Jonathan Papelbon during spring training. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Everyone, from front-office types to members of the media to the guy collecting towels, calls the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies by his first name. To some he’s Charlie and to others he’s Chuck, but no one around here uses Manuel when referring to the skipper.

The pitching coach? That’s another story. No one, from front-office types to members of the media to the guy collecting towels, calls Rich Dubee by his first name. Unless, said Cole Hamels, you need to jab him the way he likes to jab everyone else.

“Then it’s Rich,” Hamels says. “Ri-chaaard.

“I just like to remind him that’s his first name.”

Charlie and Dubee. They’re going on 8 years now, this baseball odd couple: A drawling Virginia country boy prone to telling long, wandering yarns, paired with a wisecracking New Englander whose straight-to-the-bone-marrow verbal jabs have at times put him at odds with some of his prized pupils.

Manuel is the feel-good uncle, the guy rubbing balloons against his head and sticking them to the wall, the guy who always makes you feel everything is going to turn out all right. Dubee is the no-nonsense father asking to see your homework, making sure it was done properly and to the best of your ability.

“At times in the past it was like, ‘He hates me,’” Kyle Kendrick was saying at his locker the other day. “Or, he doesn’t care. He wants me to do bad.’ But that was just something I had to fix about me. I was young. And I took it personally. We’re definitely good now.”

“He wants you to be accountable,” Hamels says. “He wants to see you succeed and when you're not doing well, he kind of takes it hard on himself. And then he’ll get on you too.”

Despite never hurling an inning of major league ball, Rich Dubee enjoys a status that few pitching coaches around the league have. With Manuel’s blessing, he runs the Phillies’ spring-training camp, a binder in his hands virtually at all times, reading charts, jotting notes, making sure the trains run on time.

When postpractice questions arise about a pitcher, particularly one about technique or progress, the manager almost always defers to “Dubee,” who — unless some administrative duty calls him away — is seated to his immediate left, reading glasses on the edge of his nose, poring over something.

Dubee doesn’t ask for this, certainly doesn’t enjoy it. Mostly, he wears the look of a man who would rather be somewhere else. As Manuel winds into a yarn about a hitting discussion he once had with — who else? — Ted Williams, Dubee drops his head and begins to work. He doesn’t dislike the media. He jabs them like anyone else around the team but typically in fun rather than angst. He’s just got work to do, that’s all, and only so many hours to do it.

“He’s up before everybody,” says longtime bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer. “He’s here first every day. Always the same. Gruff. Nasty. He beats the crap out of me. And he’s very good. He wins.”

There’s a smile on Billmeyer’s face. An acquired taste for some, most of the staff gets “Dubes” by now, even jabs back, which the coach genuinely enjoys.

“I think the jabbing is something you have to have as a pitching coach,” Roy Halladay says. “Because you can get your point across without it being critical. One of the great things about him is he can let you know what’s on his mind without it sounding like, ‘And you better fix it.’”

If there is an exception to this, it can be found in the often stormy relationship he once had with Kendrick. Still only 27, Kendrick’s early success with the Phillies after a quick and so-so minor league stint might have stunted his progress as a pitcher.

“He got to the big leagues so quick he thought that good was good enough,” Dubee says. “And you try to make the point to him that, ‘OK, you’re making $400,000. You’re making $800,000. That’s not good enough. You have a chance to make more than that. Why would you cut your family and yourself short of becoming a valuable big piece? Don’t just be a No. 5 starter. Be a No. 3 starter. Push that bar up.’

“For a while, there was complacency. Then one day last summer we got in a knock-down, drag-out. He thought I was picking on him. I told him I wasn’t picking on him, I was doing it because I wanted to see him have the best success he could possibly have. He finally accepted it.”

One reason was maturity. Another was that Halladay, who was 18-17 over his first four major league seasons, was in Kendrick’s ear as well.

“I was in the same situation when I was younger,” Halladay says. “I told him it’s not that he’s being picked on. It’s that he sees something there. And he’s trying to get it out.”

Kendrick finished last season with a 3.22 earned run average, the best of his career. He received a 2-year contract extension worth $7.5 million this spring.

“I probably needed that, looking back,” he says of Dube’s digs. “At the time I thought he didn’t like me, didn’t think I was a good pitcher. But sometimes that tough love is what you need.”

And need. And need. Hamels was a World Series MVP in 2008. By mid-2009, as Hamels struggled with control and confidence, Dubee jabbed and jabbed like he was Ray Leonard.

“Oh yeah, there was tough love,” Hamels said. “Get out of your own head, basically.”

Said Dubee: “I never pitched in the big leagues. I never had the opportunity. I want every one of our kids to have the opportunity. And sometimes — if anything I am at fault of, it’s that I do push hard. Because I never got there.”

Does it work? The evidence is overwhelming. Consider the success of J.A. Happ and Vance Worley, third-round draft picks who under Dubee blossomed into major league winners. Michael Stutes? Antonio Bastardo? J.C. Romero?

Remember Aaron Fultz? Geoff Geary? Each became valued and coveted pitchers under Dubee’s tutelage, then fizzled elsewhere.

“These guys had their best times in Philadelphia, in a small ballpark, in a tougher environment to pitch,” Billmeyer says. “They never pitched like that again. Think about that.”

Think about this, too: He added a changeup to the repertoire of a Cy Young Award winner when Halladay came here 2 years ago. Then, as Halladay struggled to find his cutter for several months last season, Dubee would repeatedly suggest that maybe his grip had changed ever-so-slightly. Finally, at his pitching coach’s suggestion, Halladay went out to his car where, in the glove compartment, he kept a ball that he had marked when his cutter was effective.

“Right away I knew my grip was off,” Doc says.

Problem solved.

“Dubee is such a student of the game,” Manuel says. “Over the years, I’ve developed so much trust in him. From the start, he’s always kind of had a feel for me, too.”

Says Dubee: “I don’t know if our personalities are that far apart, really.”

Maybe even within a few feet of each other. That’s often all that separates them in the dugout these days, in the meeting rooms — really, in the way they see the game.

Charlie and Dubee might not seem much alike. If we have learned nothing else, though, over the last eight seasons, it is that looks can be deceiving.

“He acts like he knows what I’m thinking,” says Manuel, “while I’m thinking it.”

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