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Mills Family Asks:
Does Father Know Best?


Ryan Mills
Photo: Rodger Wood

By Alan Schwarz

They call it the M-word. The term coerces a smile out of each of them, a smile offered to the pitching gods in hopes that somehow, some way, appeasing them can turn this terrible mess around.

The M-word is mechanics. Dick and Ryan Mills used to talk about mechanics all the time. A former major league pitcher, Dick would spend hour upon hour instructing his son on the perfect chin-over-belt, the optimal hand break, the flawless foot drag. And as Ryan soaked it all in, he soared up the prospect charts. He first became one of the most talented high school pitchers in the United States and then, after three years at Arizona State, was rated by some scouts as the top lefthanded pitching prospect in the 1998 draft.

Dick counseled thousands of strangers, too. Capitalizing on Ryan’s success, he started a business, All About Pitching Inc., that produced and sold videos, books and Internet instruction to young amateurs and their fathers throughout the country and abroad. The enterprise and its bustling Website, pitching.com, are now the Mills family’s primary source of income, providing advice primarily on mechanics to more than 10,000 customers.

But Dick and Ryan Mills don’t talk about mechanics anymore. Since Ryan began his professional career with the Twins, he has all but disintegrated, becoming a mélange of mechanics whose head has spun more than his curveballs. Devotees of his father would show up at Ryan’s minor league starts, even videotape him, and wonder why he was getting pounded. He has gone a ghastly 8-28, 6.27 in three professional seasons and is on the disabled list after surgery for bone chips in his elbow.

He was the kid with the pitching-guru father. He was the kid in those videos. What happened?

"It’s been a frustrating three years," Ryan says. "I’ve had a lot of people trying to give me some advice, put their two cents in on how to fix it. I was trying to take everything in, and it was too much. I tried to do too much. I complicated things, instead of making it simple and just having fun."

No one gave more advice than his father. But after years of sharing every bit of insight he had with Ryan–not to mention the Twins–Dick Mills is doing his best to bite his tongue and not discuss his opinions. The two have talked about possibly working together again this offseason, though Dick Mills’ marketing to his son has changed. The teacher has learned more than the student.

"It’s time for me to stay away," Dick said during spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., while visiting Ryan. "It’s not my job anymore. I want to be his dad, not his coach."

Kids devoted to basketball are called gym rats. Baseball has field rats. Ryan Mills was a lab rat. Growing up in Scottsdale, Ariz., he was the star pupil of the budding Dick Mills school of pitching. There were so many drills, Ryan remembers, that placing a number on them is almost impossible. "Probably 4 million," he says. Ask him to describe even one routine, though–just one–and he grows quite fidgety. "I don’t really want to. That’s part of the thing I’m trying to get out of my head. Enough is enough."

Dick Mills spent six years in pro ball, sipping his cup of coffee with two relief appearances for the Red Sox in September 1970. He earned a business degree from now-defunct Parsons College but says he struggled finding a professional identity, holding about 15 jobs before settling into selling water-purification products. A friend, having seen the effects of Mills’ work with Ryan as an early teen, suggested he write a book about it. A business was born.

Mills quickly built a clientele of parents, children and coaches who bought his products, which now include a five-video package and a three-video package, newsletters, books, Web forums and a conditioning manual by his wife Ginny.

Early advertisements in magazines (including Baseball America) evangelized his methods. "I’ve got to get this off my chest before I explode!" the headline above one screamed. "Too Many Coaches Are Dishing Out Bad Pitching Advice." Ryan’s picture adorned the ads, and after the Twins gave him a $2 million bonus as the sixth overall pick in the ’98 draft, he became the videos’ star. For promotional purposes Dick Mills even printed up facsimile million-dollar bills with Ryan’s picture on them.

The business was thriving in 1998-99. But Ryan’s deterioration was just beginning.

Both Ryan and Dick Mills say the Twins altered Ryan’s mechanics during his first spring training in 1999. "It was the arm action," Ryan says, still reluctant. "I probably didn’t need to do it. It’s like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and we tried to fix it. But I was trying to get better."

Twins minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp says Ryan needed to slow down his delivery and gain control of his 6-foot-5, lanky body.

Not objecting to the term "robopitcher," Knapp says he saw a little too much of Dick Mills on the mound and not enough of Ryan. "I don’t think Ryan has his own style," Knapp says. "I think his style was made. It was fabricated. Not a lot of what he does is his own."

Knapp praises Dick Mills’ pitching program for amateurs, but says he became too active with Ryan as a pro. "I don’t get calls from dads," Knapp says, "but I probably talked to Dick six times a year. And it wasn’t, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ "

As Dick suggested solutions, Knapp emphasized that Ryan was now a professional, an employee of the Twins. In addition, he needed a softer approach than his father’s more rigid method for the masses.

Dick stayed involved from afar. He once asked a customer to film one of Ryan’s starts so he could examine the video. What the father saw only agitated him more.

"If you held a picture of what Ryan threw like in 1998 when he got drafted and right now, (scouts) would be like, ‘Who the heck is this one over here?’ " Dick Mills says. Asked if he is blaming the Twins, he replies, "I’m really not saying that. I’m really not putting any blame . . . (But) when you’re working with somebody as closely and it’s so important as this, sometimes it’s a good idea to get another opinion."

(Mills takes a less diplomatic tone when he shares his frustration with customers on his Website. "I have sat back and watched and said little for two years," Mills wrote this spring, "as I watched my son sink and nobody was throwing him a life raft . . . I know what’s wrong and I will tell you how I would fix it. In fact, I spent three hours with Twins brass in spring training telling them.")

Dick’s brazen approach on his Website, regarding both Ryan’s struggles and his pitching theories, has dragged his son into an ugly war. Ryan often becomes the topic of conversation on pitching.com as well as a number of similar sites. One, setpro.com, even posted video of Ryan and, with animated vultures buzzing over him, ripped his performance and mechanics, inviting others to do the same.

"This is business," boasts Setpro’s owner, Paul Nyman. "He puts his son on a million-dollar bill. He uses Ryan, so I use Ryan."

Ryan ignores the vultures as best he can. Some send him letters saying, "Nice stats, video boy," while others jeer from the stands. He has always been The Kid Who. The Kid Who Was In The Videos. The Kid Who Was Hit In The Face. (During his first college start in 1996, a line drive crashed into his jaw and catalyzed the controversy over aluminum bats.) As notable as he has been, Ryan Mills is not overflowing with individual identity.

Self-awareness is another issue. He has plenty of that. He knows what is happening to him. One former teammate described him as "a complete mess. On the mound, his head is spinning 100 miles an hour." Ryan doesn’t necessarily disagree: He earned a promotion to Double-A New Britain last year by going an encouraging 3-6, 3.53 at Class A Quad City, but was, he says, "totally lost . . . maybe I fooled some people."

"It’s not easy to clear your head when you have a lot of crap in it," he says. "A lot of people have their opinion on what I should do and what’s wrong with me. The only person that can figure that out is me."

He didn’t figure it out at New Britain, going 0-7 with a disastrous 9.28 ERA. It was during this time, Ryan says, that he and his father "broke up," rarely speaking with each other, and certainly never about pitching.

While sitting down with Ryan Mills this spring, Twins manager Tom Kelly tried to get him to ease up on himself. "Damn, he’s a nice kid," Kelly says, "but I don’t think he learned to have fun with the game."

Dick Mills translates it into his lingo: "The pitching motion is the fastest human movement in sports–7,500 degrees per second is how fast the arm moves," he says. "So the brain, once you start your delivery, it’s all over. All you can think about is that glove you’re trying to hit."

Ryan is trying not to think about much these days. Perhaps not unlike another phenom who lost his way, Rick Ankiel, Mills is minimizing the pressure, enjoying minor league life while traveling with his New Britain teammates. In a way the injury was a blessing, affording him a cocoon in which to clear his mind and emerge for instructional league with a fresh outlook.

Meanwhile, Dick Mills tries to become a new kind of father. "I want to just be in the stands cheering him on," Mills says. Still, the thought of Ryan and him hitting the back yard in Scottsdale again this offseason–something Ryan says he’s looking forward to–gets him revved up anew. "He got off track," Dick says, "because he stopped listening to what I was telling him."

And All About Pitching chugs on. Ryan didn’t relish helping build his father’s business, and gives little thought to whether his struggles will hurt it. "That’s his responsibility. For him putting me in all his videos, that’s something that he’s got to deal with," Ryan says. "It comes with the territory. You’ve got to deal with both sides of it. That’s the way it is. That’s life.

"It’s hard for him, too. He doesn’t know how to deal with . . . " Ryan thinks for a few seconds. "There’s no guidebook on how to handle a situation like this."

Perhaps Dick Mills will write one. The thought brings back Ryan’s sanguine smile: "I’m sure he will."

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