SAN DIEGO (6-18-2018) -- The San Diego Padres made one of the smartest decisions in the the franchise's history 15 years ago this past Sunday when they promoted Palomar product Darren Balsley, at the time the pitching coach for their their Class AA farm team in Mobile, Alabama, to pitching coach for their Major League team.
The date was June 17, 2003.
Balsley, one of three big-time prospects who pitched at the same time as teammates in then-head coach Bob Vetter's program, was drafted out of Palomar in the third round by the Oakland A's in 1984. He turned down a scholarship offer from defending NCAA champion Cal State Fullerton to sign with the A's.
Steve Kovensky and Todd Poelstra were both freshmen at Palomar during Balsey's sophomore season. Kovensky would go on to dominate for back-to-back College World Series teams at Florida State following his sophomore season for the Comets, including the 1986 Seminoles club that lost in the College World Series championship game to the University of Arizona. Kovensky was drafted in the 11th round by the Detroit Tigers and pitched in the Tigers' farm system, while Poelstra went on to star in the Southeastern Conference for the University of Alabama following his sophomore season.
As good as Kovensky and Poelstra were, both have long since been out of baseball. Balsley remains a huge name in the game.
Balsley was forced into a sudden career change -- from pitcher to pitching coach -- after the A's traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays. Arriving as a top prospect in the Jays' farm system, he appeared on the fast track to the a spot on Toronto's big-league roster when an arm injury ended his professional career prematurely.
Balsley's injury, meanwhile, eventually turned out to be a God-send for the Padres, as well as for the 224 Padres Major League pitchers he's worked with. Also, as it has turned out, it was a God-send for Balsley.
After the injury, the Blue Jays would immediately hire Balsey as a pitching coach in their farm system. There, he spent the next 10 seasons as a minor-league pitching coach and rookie-league manager.
That's when the Padres, who have made countless money-driven bad decisions in their history, actually made great decision by hiring Balsley away from Toronto and installing him as a pitching coach in the beleagured San Diego farm system.
Some 35 years after arriving at Palomar from Mt. Carmel High as a two-time All-CIF San Diego Section selection under another ex-Comet, Sam Blalock, who recently retired from Rancho Bernardo as the winningest coach in section history -- and 15 years after being named the Padres Major League pitching coach -- Balsley is recognized almost universally as one of the best pitching coaches, if not the best, in baseball.
Balsley's pitching staffs have led the Major Leagues in earned run average twice, including 2010 when the Padres' team ERA was 3.07. In his 14 full seasons since the Padres hired him, Balsley's pitching staffs have been ranked in the top five in the Major Leagues in earned run average five times.
That's not because the notoriously "thrifty" Padres have spent vast sums of money signing pitchers, because they haven't. If there is one thing the franchise is famous for, it's pinching pennies. The Padres historically have thrown quarters around like they're manhole covers. Meanwhile, Balsley takes the pitchers he is given and develops them.
He's the second longest-tenured pitching coach with one team in the Major Leagues, working for six different managers -- Jim Riggleman, Bruce Bochy (the father of former Palomar pitcher Greg Bochy), Bud Black, current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (for one game), Pat Murphy and, currently, Andy Green.
Yet, Balsley obviously feels uncomfortable taking almost any credit at all for everything he accomplishes. Very uncomfortable.
"It's trial and error," Balsley told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a lengthy interview published in its Sunday editions on the anniversary of his being hired by the Padres as their Major League pitching coach. "I was a coach at the age of 25. To this day, I have failures as a coach. Probably far more back then. Working with a lot of pitchers in 28 years, you learn difference personalities, what guys need, different talent levels, ways of communicating."
Those who have pitched on Balsley's staffs disagree about the so-called "failures" that Balsley talks about.
"He's got a good eye for what guys can excel in," current Padres pitcher Phil Hughes told the Union-Tribune. "Right off the bat we watched some video. He talked about my arm stroke and what type of pitches would work well for me. He's a guy who knows a lot about the nuances of pitches. He's not just like, 'You should throw the change-up and slider -- and for no good reason. Guys will say that. But he actually understands what pitches will work for guys and maybe what pitches won't.
"He's the first guy that has ever even brought up that I do a weird thing with my wrist out of the glove. He's the first guy who said 'This pitch will work for you because you do this' He just sees things that certain guys don't."
Added Tyson Ross, whom Balsley developed into one of the top pitchers in baseball when he first came to the Padres prior to the 2013 season and currently in his second stint with the team, has rejoined the club after two shoulder surgeries: "I got to the major leagues pretty quickly, but I found a million ways to fail (coming off a 5.33 ERA in three seasons pitching for the A's). And no one really had answers for me. Everyone wanted to change my mechanics or do different things that took away from me being me. He found a way to say, 'Hey, you're pretty good as you are. We've just got to get your timing a little better.'
"He was able to do that in two bullpens when I first got here. It's a gift, really. His ability to connect with an individual on a one-to-one basis in a language they're going to understand and be able to apply immediately is why so many pitchers trust him."
Finally, Clayton Richard had this to say:
"It's his ability to be relentlessly optimistic and -- more important -- his ability to communicate with the pitcher in a way the pitcher can apply. It's very difficult, because when we go out there, our mind drives our body. And so many pitching coaches want to analyze what your body is doing. But if you can't make a connection with what your mind is telling your body to do, it is not going to be able to change anything. He's able to tell us the small keys that get our mind to work the way it should."
To demonstrate that Darren Balsley prefers to remain underneath the radar, consider this: When he was inducted into the Palomar College Athletic Hall of Fame in January, 2016 he found a way to avoid having to speak at his induction by explaining that he felt obligated to attend his daughter's dance recital that evening in Tennesse, where he lives in the off-season.