This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in June 2004.
2015 update: Billy Hatcher is in his 10th season as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds.
LIVING A DREAM
By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX — He had seven consecutive hits in the 1990 World Series, helping the Cincinnati Reds sweep the heavily favored Oakland A’s. He hit a game-tying 14th-inning home run in the action-packed Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series.
Those were, of course, memorable moments. But Billy Hatcher’s point of view is this: His biggest thrill as a big league ballplayer occurred the first moment he donned a Chicago Cubs uniform in 1984, his first day in the majors.
“My first time getting called up to the big leagues was just amazing,” said Hatcher, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first base coach, before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Bank One Ballpark. “It was something that I had worked for, for my entire life, and then getting that opportunity (was indescribable).
“I don’t think winning the World Series or doing the job I did in the World Series (hitting .750, 9-for-12) would ever (compare) with that moment, the feeling I had. … It’s a feeling that I can never, ever cherish again. I would cherish winning another World Series, because I would win one as a coach.”
Hatcher, a 1979 graduate of Williams High School, has been a mainstay of the Devil Rays’ organization since beginning his coaching career on Dec. 1, 1995, two-plus years before the franchise would play its inaugural season.
He spent the 1996 season as Tampa Bay’s roving minor league instructor and then worked as a coach for St. Petersburg, the 1997 Florida State League champion. He has served on the D-Rays’ coaching staff since ’98, spending time as the third base coach (2000), bench coach (2001-02) and first base coach (1998-99 and 2003-present).
Hatcher has taken a natural liking to this occupation.
“I probably get more enjoyment out of teaching than I did playing,” said Hatcher, who retired as a player in 1995 after playing a dozen seasons for seven ballclubs: the Cubs, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and, lastly, Texas.
“I love playing the game,” he continued, while sitting in the dugout and champing on a mouthful of Bazooka bubble gum. “When you were playing, you only had to worry about yourself. As a coach, you teach and worry about so many other players. To see these guys get better every single day just makes you feel good.”
Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford, one of the team’s talented, young players, said Hatcher has the natural disposition to be a coach.
“He’s real patient, laid-back, trying to keep everybody loose,” Crawford added. “He’s not up there in your face; he just lets you know what you need to do.”
According to Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, Crawford and center fielder Rocco Baldelli, a rising star, have especially benefited from Hatcher’s coaching.
“Hatcher is an excellent coach,” the manager said. “He’s outgoing. He communicates well. He’s got a lot of baseball knowledge. He works primarily with the baserunners, with the outfielders and him and (third base coach Tom) Foley sometimes do a little bit of the bunting (instruction).
“Billy is a good baseball man, he really is. He’s got some passion for the game. He’s enthusiastic and he’s a hard worker.”
In his own words, what sums up Hatcher’s coaching style?
“They understand how to play the game,” he said. “I give them a few tips on how I used to do things. But basically, I tell those guys to never get down on themselves. You are going to make mistakes. … The best baseball players forget real quick.”
THE LONG ROAD
Hatcher, who turned 43 in October, credits his father for giving him the proper perspective in regards to reaching his lifelong goal: to be a major leaguer.
He says he recalled hearing time and time again his father’s words of wisdom: “To be successful in life you have to give up something.”
For Hatcher, that initially meant playing for the Vikings’ varsity baseball team (from 1976-79) and running on the track and field team during the spring months. In those days, he’d step off the baseball diamond and run sprints just minutes after taking off his batting helmet and unlacing his baseball spikes.
It was time to work on becoming a well-conditioned athlete, which, he said, meant sacrificing time that could’ve been spent hanging out with his friends.
After he became a pro player, it meant spending five consecutive years (1981-85) playing winter ball in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
But the extra months on foreign soil paid off, giving Hatcher the opportunity to work on his skills — and get better.
By 1986, he was in the big leagues to stay. And he didn’t leave “The Show” until hanging up his hat at the end of the 1995 season, when he played for the Rangers. The speedy outfielder with an excellent glove wound up playing in 1,233 games and collecting 1,146 hits.
And forever, Hatcher’s name is one future generations of ballplayers will know about in the tiny town of Williams: The WHS baseball field is named after its famous alum.
“I’m very blessed and I’m very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be in the game of baseball as long as I’ve been,” said Hatcher, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife, Karen, and their two children: Derek (18) and Chelsea (14).
RETURNING TO ARIZONA
Believe it or not, Friday’s trip to Bank One Ballpark marked the first time Hatcher stepped foot in the Diamondbacks’ home facility.
Is this a special building for you? he was asked.
“Yes, it is,” he said.
Growing up during a time when the Phoenix Giants (later known as the Firebirds) of the Pacific Coast League were the closest thing the Grand Canyon State team had to a big league ballclub, Hatcher said he was thrilled when Arizona was awarded an expansion franchise. And even though the 2004 Diamondbacks do not resemble the team that won the 2001 World Series, Hatcher said it’s important for the fans to continue to support their team wholeheartedly.
“You never know what you really have until you don’t have it anymore,” he said.
The same could be said for the opportunity Hatcher has had getting to play and coach for one of the game’s all-great skippers, Piniella.
“Lou was my manager in Cincinnati. I won a world championship with Lou,” said Hatcher, whose mom, Gracie, and sister, Nell, reside in Williams while his two brothers, Johnny and Jesse, call Flagstaff home.
“Lou was not only my manager, Lou is also a good friend of mine. Lou has helped me in so many other ways besides baseball. He’s just been a friend to talk with … So, to me, he ranks No. 1 in my book.”
Even so, he’s eager to put his stamp on the Devil Rays, always ready to make things happen from the first-base coaching box. In essence, his position there is a direct extension of his playing days.
“At first base, we have some guys with some speed that can steal some bases,” he said. “In fact, I’m stealing bases with ’em, because I’ve picked up a move, (noticing) what a guy is doing, the first move. I tell guys a lot of times when to go. … That’s how I learned how to play the game.”
Having been raised in a small town, Hatcher never forgot his roots, never forgot the people that were his emotional backbone in his formative years.
“I want to thank all the people in northern Arizona for supporting me during my playing days,” Hatcher said. “I really appreciate it, and I still love them.”