Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
A lifelong love for baseball has taken Bruce Hines ’80 to the game’s highest level,
coaching in the major leagues, following in the footsteps of his father, Ben Hines ’58.
The thing they don’t tell you about following in your father’s footsteps is that not all the steps are forward.
Bruce Hines knows this all too well. His father, Ben, was head coach at La Verne from 1960-1980, guiding the baseball team to eight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles, five NAIA World Series appearances and a 1972 NAIA national championship. He then was hitting coach at Arizona State University for a couple of years before coaching in the Major Leagues with the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros. He was a member of the Dodgers’ 1988 World Series championship team.
The great ones make it look so easy.
Bruce Hines’ coaching career began in 1984, after playing baseball for his father at La Verne and then a brief minor league career as a player. He’s spent most of his time with the Angels organization in various capacities, from scout to minor league manager. He’s also coached in the Major Leagues, just like dad.
“It wasn’t a case of ‘I wanted to do what he did,’ ” Hines. “I always looked up to my father as a good person and a great dad. But growing up in my house, where my mother and father were both teachers – mom in public school, dad at the university – I always thought I’d be involved in some aspect of teaching, And coaching is a kind of teaching.”
But recently it was Bruce Hines, with 30 years of professional baseball under his belt, who was taught yet another lesson in the harsh realities of being a coach. With almost no warning, Hines was fired after one season as third base coach of the Seattle Mariners. This, after the Mariners improved to 85-77 in 2008, following a dismal 61-101 mark in 2007. To most people, it didn’t make sense. Weeks earlier, with the season quietly winding down, Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu sounded very appreciative of Hines’ contributions.
“The real mark of a coach’s legacy is the players he’s impacted on and off the field,” Wakamatsu said. “I would not be in the position I’m in now if it were not for the impact he had on me.”
Ah, but coaches are hired to be fired, the saying goes in sports.
“It was unfortunate the way things worked out with Seattle,” Hines said. “The scary part was being out there looking for a job when 80 to 90 percent of the jobs had been filled. That was a harrowing experience, one I wouldn’t wish for anyone.”
But before Hines had a chance to second-guess himself, the phone started ringing and he quickly had interviews with a handful of teams. The Dodgers made him an offer — just as they had to his dad once upon a time — and he accepted in early November.
A step forward.
“I’m as happy as can be,” Hines said. “Everybody should have a chance to work for the Dodgers. My dad had a good run with the Dodgers and I’m hoping to start mine.”
Hines will serve as Minor League Field Coordinator with the Dodgers, back down in the minors, trying to help young players move up to the next level. It’s a job he nearly perfected with the Angels a decade earlier. It’s coaching in one of its purest forms.
“Because of my familiarity with the position I have a lot of confidence in my ability to do the job,” Hines said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a daunting kind of job, but with a lot of hard work and perseverance, we developed a program with the Angels that was very successful. I’ve done it for a number of years, and the challenge is that you’re always working with new players who come in and you’re trying to get them to the next level.
“The only difference is that it’s a new organization and a new set of faces. It’s a uniform position, and I’m in uniform on a daily basis. I’ll be in charge of all aspects of instruction for all minor league teams in the organization.”
You don’t last 30 years in pro baseball — as Hines has — without doing your homework. One advantage he’s had has been a direct line to the teacher and his teachings.
“My dad has a great work ethic: ‘If you want to do something right, you gotta do it right the first time,” he said. “Another thing he taught me was baseball demands a lot of preparation. The difference between winning and losing is intense physical preparation.”
As third base coach for the Mariners, Hines kept copious records on all American League outfielders, so that when the game was on the line, he already knew who had the best and worst chances of either gunning down a runner or throwing the ball off the mark.
“I know every American League ballpark outfield, and I know who the good outfielders are,” he said. “But sometimes, decisions you make in a game don’t turn out the way you’d like, so what was really nice was I could call Dad and talk about what happened. He’d watch all the Mariners games on TV, and sometimes he’d see things I didn’t.”
Ben Hines said he’s very proud of his son and is always glad to talk baseball with him.
“He called me the other night about a decision not to send a runner on a fly ball to a left fielder who didn’t have a great arm,” Ben Hines said one day in August. “I told him, ‘Your job is to make a choice in a split-second. Sometimes you’re going to make the wrong decision. And if it happens, you just gotta go on and keep doing your best.’”
Radio play-by-play announcer Rick Rizzs, who has called Mariners games for 27 years, is in the unique position of seeing the father/son coaching duo in action: Ben in 1984, and Bruce, 25 years later.
“Both of them have great work ethic,” Rizzs said. “Ben, the hitting coach, had the ability to see something wrong and be able to fix it. Bruce is the same way. Both are able to take young guys and get the best out of them.”
One of Ben Hines’ favorite moments was when the Dodgers played the Angels in 1991, and father and son met at home plate before the game to exchange lineup cards. “That was so exciting,” he said.
Reflecting back on coaching his son at La Verne, Ben Hines said, “I think it was a lot harder on him than me. I’m sure he felt he had to be much better than the other guy to beat him for a starting job. I wouldn’t let favoritism get in the way, and he wasn’t a starter until his junior year.
“As a player, Bruce had a lot of drive. He had good intuition, and knew where the ball was going to be.
Bruce Hines agreed that playing for his father could, at times, be trying. When he heard teammates bad-mouthing his father in the locker room, he had to turn away and hide his annoyance. And during his sophomore year when another player beat him out for the job of the football team’s starting safety, he swallowed his disappointment.
“That was a tough time for me,” Bruce Hines said. “(Dad) didn’t talk to me about it, and I wasn’t happy about it, but that’s the way things go.”
Bruce Hines’ memories of La Verne extend past the goalposts and the outfield fence.
“I enjoyed my classes because class sizes were small,” he said. “That made it easy to develop personal relationships with teachers like (the late) Herb Hogan in the history department.”
And after classes, sharing a Warehouse Pizza with friends and roommates from Brandt Hall was always fun, he said. Working out in the weight room or playing pool at the Student Center were other good ways to relax.
“If I were going into the mists of reflection, I’d say La Verne had a great influence in shaping who I’ve become,” Bruce Hines said. “More than anything, I hope the kids who are going there now have half the enjoyment I did. I had a blast.”
Occasionally, Bruce Hines will cross paths with another La Verne product, as he did in Toronto, where he got to jaw with Blue Jays third base coach Nick Leyva, a 1975 La Verne alumnus who also learned baseball under Ben Hines.
“Every time we’d play, it felt like we were setting a record,” he said with a laugh. “Two third base coaches on opposing teams that both graduated from the same school.”
Now that the Dodgers have moved their Spring Training operations from Vero Beach, Fla., to Glendale, Ariz., it could be an easy transition for Hines, who lives in Mesa, Ariz. At least he’ll be home every night with his wife, Wendy, as he takes the next step in a long baseball career.
“The Dodgers do have their Spring Training in Arizona and that’s one advantage,” he said. “But whether the Dodgers had it there or in Florida or on Mars, when you’ve been in professional baseball for 30 years, at some point you should work for the Dodgers. Or for the Yankees. You know, these are organizations with storied histories and there’s a reason they’ve stayed at the top all these years.”
Call it a step up.