SARASOTA, Fla. — When the Orioles first contacted Dave Wallace in October about their pitching coach vacancy, the 66-year-old baseball veteran took pause.
Wallace already had a nice job as the minor league pitching coordinator for the Atlanta Braves. He was fulfilling his passion of developing young pitchers. He didn't like to leave a job unfinished, either, and he felt there was still work to do in Atlanta.
There was nothing left to prove. As a major league pitching coach for four organizations, he had guided staffs to two pennants and won the World Series with the 2004 Boston Red Sox. After more than four decades in professional baseball, he'd been at every rung of the organizational ladder, from player to minor league coach to front-office official.
Most important was Wallace's own health. A life-threatening scare in 2006, his final year in Boston, had made him re-evaluate everything.
"It was real difficult," Wallace said of deciding whether to return to a big league coaching staff. "I'd be lying to you if I said it wasn't. I'm not the youngest guy in the world, but I'm in pretty good shape physically now. Actually, I did some praying. I have a strong faith, and if the good Lord thought I was healthy enough to do it again, then I would love to have an opportunity."
"You know what the reality of it is: That it's a challenge," Wallace said. "When you can, at 7 o'clock every night, watch the best competition in the world, baseball-wise, and maybe have a little positive influence on some young pitchers, that's a great thing."
A difference maker: When Wallace came to Baltimore to interview, his ability to be a difference maker was apparent as he distanced himself from a group of qualified candidates. Above all, he seemed a perfect fit for an Orioles organization that needs to develop its young pitchers to sustain its recent success.
On Oct. 29, the club hired Wallace to be its next pitching coach, replacing Rick Adair, who did not return after taking a personal leave of absence in August.
"I was impressed from the first day I met him in the interview," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson said. "He's had varied roles in the game and he listens, he understands. It's hard when you're a player and you're being pulled in different directions. And usually the people who are being pulled in different directions are the ones who are struggling. And normally the stars or the everyday players aren't coached much.
"But it should still be the same. It shouldn't matter your status in how a coach approaches you. There should be no discernment between Chris Tillman and Mike Belfiore. You want to be coached and treated the same way, and I think that's definitely something he subscribes to."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter never had worked with Wallace, but he respected him for a being a teacher who concedes the spotlight to his students. And given Wallace's resume — he helped guide pitchers such as Orel Hershiser and Pedro Martinez to stardom — he would have had plenty to boast about.
"It's never about him," Showalter said. "He wasn't some look-at-me guy. He didn't care about the attention. It was all about his pitchers and players. He had a nice demeanor. He was very calm. He was very focused and had a great reputation. He's not the guy who latches on to the best pitcher and lets that be his [reputation]. I want to see him work with Joe Blow and Frank Smith. I don't think Dave really cares what your resume is. As soon as you put on the uniform, he's going to give you what you've got."
Said Wallace: "That's why it's called a pitching staff. I know exactly what he's talking about. It's never been a real big, personal thing for me, other than to take the guys who nobody expects to make it and help him nudge their way into the big leagues. I can name four or five guys who I'm proud of, who nobody's probably ever heard of, who I'm really proud of, who probably had two or three years in the big leagues, who made a little money and got a nice start on life. That's what really makes you feel good."
'Open-door policy:' While his arrival means a fresh start for many, Wallace also knows his new staff has seen its share of turnover: He is the Orioles' fifth different pitching coach since 2010. So he believed one-on-one meetings with Orioles pitchers, along with new bullpen coach Dom Chiti, before spring training would help establish a valuable foundation before the day-to-day grind of spring training.
Wallace and Chiti met with the 20 pitchers who attended this month's Florida minicamp, then immediately flew out to California to meet with a group of pitchers working under the supervision of Anderson that included Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton.
From the organization's top prospects to pitchers still trying to make an impression, the discussions were the same.
"It was more trying to get to know each other, getting to know where we're from and what kind of person we are outside of baseball as much as baseball," left-hander Belfiore said. "He's a great guy, and that relationship hopefully starts on the right track and builds from there. He's not necessarily in here to change people's mechanics, but instead to help us work through the battles. The communication seems like such an open-door policy, and that's the best part. You can have a normal conversation and not have to worry about anything else."
Right-hander Kevin Gausman was caught off guard when Wallace asked him what the coaches could do to make him better.
"I had never been asked that," Gausman said. "I just told them to get on me if they have to. I'm a pretty coachable guy, so anything you say to me, I'll consider. I'll do anything."
Wallace said those meetings went well.
"It's only step one, but one of the things we tried to tell them is that it's all about building trust and building a relationship on both ends," he said. "Like we told them, we're not going to jump in there and on day one start working on stuff. We're going to take our time, get to know them, and study their deliveries and mechanics."
Wallace's partnership with Chiti, who also came to the Orioles from the Braves, where he was a special assistant, will be interesting. They seem to complement each other nicely. At baseball's winter meetings, Wallace said his approach was more of a slow-simmering Crock-Pot, and Chiti's a get-it-done-now microwave.
"We are kind of the antithesis of each other," Chiti said last month. "We're had some good [battles], but that's kind of what makes this pairing pretty good."
'I'm lucky to be here:' Wallace is glad to be back, especially after health problems that led to his last departure from big league coaching.
In 2006, Wallace felt pain in his left hip while making his annual drive from Boston to spring training in Florida. As he drove down, a severe bacterial infection in his hip sent his body into shock. He was able to get to a hospital in South Carolina for treatment, and it might have saved his life.
"I didn't think I was going to make it," Wallace said. "But I'm lucky to be here. Let's say that. It was a process. It took probably seven months, and probably when I went back on the field, I probably shouldn't have done it."
Wallace's return was slow. He needed multiple surgeries on his hip back in Boston, including hip replacement surgery that June, and he missed most of the season. He returned in August for an additional six weeks — he said he used a fungo bat as a crutch to help him walk — but was not retained. He came back as the Houston Astros' pitching coach the next year, but was there for just one season.
Now, seven years since his last major league pitching coach gig, Wallace said the timing for his return seemed right. He feels strong, he has the blessing of his wife, Joyce, and he gets to remain on the East Coast. And he has another challenge.
"I can't tell you how many people around baseball have said, 'How'd you get Dave Wallace?' They didn't know he was [available]," Showalter said. "He got a little out of sight, out of mind for a couple years. People who I respect and have been in the [game] spoke very highly of him. The thing was just where he was, health-wise.
"It's kind of like a pitcher. You kind of get everything squared away at one time, and that's where I think Dave is. He feels great physically. I just hope I can keep up with him."