In the beginning, there was just a man, a ball and a tire on a rope. Really, Alan Mills, now the Aberdeen IronBirds' new pitching coach, probably thought it was the beginning of the end.
By the end of the 1989 season, Mills had pitched for four seasons, primarily in the New York Yankees organization, and he hadn't climbed out of Single-A. One coach in the organization spelled it out for Mills: like so many minor-league pitchers, he simply wasn't throwing enough strikes to make anything of himself.
Aberdeen's new manager, Gary Allenson, knows this. He knows this because he managed against Mills in 1989. He knows that Mills seemed like another one of those guys who would stall out in A-ball. And he also knows what Mills did to turn things around.
"He went in the offseason and put a tire up in his backyard, and twice a day he'd practice throwing the ball through the hole in the tire," Allenson said. "The next year obviously he knew how to throw strikes, and the next thing you know he's pitching  years in the big leagues."
Over time, the size of the tire has changed to the point where the other coaches now kid Mills that he used a tractor tire. But the message is still the same: for a minor-league pitching staff to succeed, command is key.
Mills' experience gives him a skill set particularly suited to coach pitchers at this level, for the Orioles' short-season Single-A affiliate. Success for the IronBirds' — who began their season on Monday — hinges on the arms of pitchers who are either young or inexperienced. Or both.
Aberdeen has two pitchers who have never played professionally (23rd-round pick Gene Escat and nondrafted free agent Sander Beck) and nine more hurlers who were born in 1990 or later. Often such pitchers, who typically could rely on superior stuff to blow away hitters in lower levels, struggle to locate the strike zone.
"This is a level here where, if you watch games, too many times guys aren't throwing strikes," Allenson said. "It can be some ugly games. … Pitchers nowadays get too concerned with how hard I can throw and what's my velocity and not about getting hitters out. And sometimes you just have to get them on track."
Mills spent 12 years in major league bullpens, nine in Baltimore, the city he calls his "second home." After retiring in 2001, he attempted a comeback in 2007 with the Tigers' Double-A affiliate in Erie, Pa.
Mills thought he had pitched well enough to earn a spot on the Tigers' spring training roster in 2008, but when he broached the topic with the organization, he received a different offer. They wanted him to coach.
"One of the first things they told me is if you get into coaching, you have to have the ability to let the playing go," Mills said. "They told me I couldn't be an effective coach if I still wanted to play. I guess really just kind of getting that behind me as far as playing was the first step I had to take."
Mills hadn't coached since the 2008 season with Detroit's short-season Single-A team in Oneonta, N.Y., but he kept in contact with the Orioles. When the Aberdeen pitching coach position opened up, he jumped at the opportunity.
Mills said he learns best by asking questions, and Allenson dubbed him "The Instigator" for his penchant for starting things up: jokes, questions, discussions. Sometimes, Mills will pop into the manager's office and say, "teach me something."
"I'd rather get my information and learn from guys that have done it than to constantly make mistakes and learn from my mistakes," Mills said.
Ultimately, Mills is tasked with turning those questions into answers for his 17-man pitching staff. When he's through with them, Mills wants to see a motion that is consistent, repeatable and effective.
And of course, he hopes to see strikes.
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