If you want to pinpoint the season when the Orioles began their obsessive love affair with the home run, it might be 1996, when Rick Down arrived to become the hitting coach and the star-studded O’s set the then-major league single-season homer record with 257 home runs.
Down, who died last weekend at 68 after a long illness, was a square-jawed, no-nonsense guy who served in that role for three seasons and was a big part of the club’s consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series in ‘96 and 1997.
He was one of those guys who never quite got over the top in the minor leagues, an outfielder who came up through the Montreal Expos system at a time when they had an impressive stable of major league outfielders that included Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine and Warren Cromartie.
Down made it to the Triple-A level before retiring as a player and knocking around the low minors as a coach in the late 1970s. He then spent six seasons coaching at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas under UNLV coaching legend Fred Dallimore.
His big break in professional baseball came when he was hired by the California Angels as a roving hitting instructor. Four years later, the Yankees hired him and he started working his way up the minor league managerial ladder.
Though he had great success leading the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to several International League titles, he never got a chance to manage in the majors. Instead, he spent three seasons as Yankees hitting coach under manager Buck Showalter (1993-95) before moving on to the Orioles.
“He could manage...He could have taught anything,” Showalter said on Thursday, “but his passion was hitting and he was good at it. You won’t find anybody saying anything bad about Rick because he had a pure heart. He was blunt. He was honest. He wouldn’t say one thing and then say another thing in a meeting…This guy was just everything you’d look for in a coach.”
Down also served as hitting coach for the Dodgers (1999-2000), Red Sox (2001), the Yankees again (2002-2003), and the Mets (2005-2007). His final major league job was as an advance scout for the Giants.
He will be remembered fondly in Baltimore for the two years he spent working under manager Davey Johnson, but he obviously spent much more of his career in pinstripes. The Yankees led the majors in batting average in his first two seasons as hitting coach (1993-94) and he was also hitting coach for two of their nine straight AL East titles from 1998-2006.
“He was knowledgeable, very loyal, a lot of fun to be around,’’ Showalter said. “A lot of people didn’t get that about him. He didn’t take himself too seriously. Players loved him because he didn’t want to do anything but make you better as a hitter.
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“When you saw guys like Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs sitting with Rick and listening to him talk about hitting, that ought to tell you something.”