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Arnsberg gets back to the basics

by Mike Berardino
April 17, 2004

DUNEDIN, Fla.--There's still a hint of an early morning breeze as an elderly couple on bicycles make their way through the Blue Jays' minor league complex.

"Beautiful day," the man tells his wife. "Who's over on Diamond 1?"

If only he knew, the man might pedal a little faster.

The tall fellow there in the middle of a group of kid pitchers? Black jersey. Number 38 on his broad back?

That would be a good man putting his shattered career back together.

"This game is supposed to be fun, boys," Brad Arnsberg says in his unmistakable rasp. "Relax and enjoy yourselves out there. Let your stuff work for you."

Fifteen eager faces gather round the new pitching coach for Triple-A Syracuse, soaking up every bit of knowledge he's willing to share. Which, of course, is every last drop.

"I've seen the best in the world," Arnsberg tells them, the words tumbling out rapid fire. "I'm talking about guys like [Edgardo] Alfonzo and (Jim) Edmonds."

Fifteen dreamers nod in unison. They stand in rapt attention.

"Take that persona out there, boys," the former Marlins pitching coach says. "You give up a bomb, you get your ass back up on that mound and stand tall."

A little more than 10 months ago, Arnsberg got knocked out of the box in a way he'd never experienced before. His May 10 firing, along with that of Marlins manager Jeff Torborg, made national headlines.

A.J. Burnett had required reconstructive elbow surgery less than two weeks earlier, and the pundits were blaming his handlers for that. Josh Beckett had just landed on the disabled list with elbow problems of his own, and that turned out to be the last straw.

"I knew we were gone after that," Arnsberg says.

Word quickly spread that Arnsberg hadn't just been fired. He had gone out with guns blazing after a late-night shouting match at his apartment with Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest.

"Borderline violent," Beinfest called him the next day.

A Friend In Need

It was the sort of phrase that had "blackball" written all over it. Back home in Texas, Arnsberg waited and wondered along with his wife, Shelley, and their sons, Kyle and Kaden.

"It was a pretty big deal when it happened," says Blue Jays pitching prospect David Bush, who was in the Florida State League at the time. "You hear about that stuff."

Arnsberg turned 40, the season ended and he was still without a job. For a while it looked like the Padres would hire him at Triple-A Portland, close to his boyhood home, but an expected opening evaporated.

Finally, about five months after his dismissal, Blue Jays farm director Dick Scott let his old friend know there was a job waiting. Nothing was announced until all 30 clubs had their big league pitching coaches in place, but the lifeline had been extended.

"I just think it's going to benefit our pitchers to have somebody that's been in the big leagues, especially recently," says Scott, who played three seasons with Arnsberg in the Yankees organization back in the mid-'80s. "I think he's got a very good knack of reading pitchers and also has excellent communication skills."

Scott didn't even ask his old friend about the circumstances of his firing.

"I know what we're getting," Scott says. "That doesn't concern me at all. That's old history as far as I'm concerned."

Back in the minors for the first time in five years, Arnsberg hasn't just been handed a blank canvas with the Jays. He is being entrusted with some of their finest young arms.

Bush, Dustin McGowan and Jason Arnold are just a few of the highly touted pitchers who will attend finishing school at Camp Arnie. If there is any apprehension on their part, it has yet to surface.

"Even with all the stuff that came down last year, most of the players still said good things about him," Bush says. "They were upset with the fact he was let go. The fact he got hired this quickly afterward speaks to the fact he knows what he's doing."

Too Painful To Watch

Indeed, Arnsberg remains close with a number of Marlins pitchers. Burnett has called him several times already this spring to ask him questions about his comeback from Tommy John surgery, which Arnsberg himself had a decade and a half ago.

When it came time to divvy up postseason bonuses, Marlins players voted Arnberg a quarter share, or about $50,000 after taxes. After Beckett's clinching victory in Game Six of the World Series, one of the first calls made from the raucous clubhouse was to Arnsberg's cell phone.

He still hasn't seen the game, having gone out to dinner with Shelley and some friends that night. In fact, Arnsberg didn't watch a single one of the Marlins' 17 postseason games last year.

Too painful, he says.

"It's been a great ego boost to join an organization like this," he says. "Everything about it is run in a professional manner. You know how sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward? Well, I took about three steps back in Florida."

Now he's back up on that mound, standing tall.

Mike Berardino is national baseball writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He can be reached at mberardino@sun-sentinel.com.

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