Tom Foley has seen it all in Tampa Bay. The Rays third-base coach for each of past seven seasons, Foley’s history with the team goes all the way back to 1996 when he oversaw the first mini-camp in franchise history. Now 48 years old, Foley spent 13 seasons as a big league infielder before beginning his coaching career. David sat down with Foley when the Rays visited Fenway Park in early May.
David Laurila: As a third-base coach, part of your job is holding or sending runners. How much of that is instinct, and how much is preparation?
Tom Foley: I don’t think there’s a whole lot of preparation. I just think you have to know what the situation of the game is, who’s running, where the ball is hit, and what kind of jump the runner gets. A decision also comes into play whether you want to push it and take that chance, knowing who is coming up next; maybe it’s Carlos Pena. You also need to know how many outs there are, so there are a lot of things that go into the decision of whether you’re going to push that button or not. Obviously, there are a lot of plays where there’s no chance of scoring and you’re going to hold the runner up, but there are also times with two outs that you’re going to send a guy and hope that the throw is off line, even though you know it’s going to be close. There are a lot of variables that come into play.
DL: There is preparation in knowing the arms of the opposing outfielders, is there not?
TF: Yes, there’s the arm strength of each guy out there, how quickly they get to the ball, the accuracy of their arm. We know who can throw, who the guys are that maybe throw it high so that you can take an extra base when they throw it home. And there are guys who get rid of it quicker than other guys, so yeah, there are things you need to know before the inning starts. But the rest of it is the situation of the game.
DL: The jump the runner gets is important, but so is the jump the outfielder gets. Are you usually able to get a good look at both?
TF: You want to see the lead of the runner, and by now I know everyone on the team and exactly how they run the bases. But it depends on how hard the ball is hit too, or if it’s hit to [the outfielder’s] left or to his right. If the ball is hit hard and right to him, there’s a good chance that we may not push it unless there are two out. If the ball is hit to his left or his right, it’s tough to get to it, stop, turn, throw to home–we’ve got a good chance of scoring a run there. For the most part, with two outs guys are going to get a bigger lead and break when the bat contacts the ball–there’s no hesitation to see if someone is going to catch it or not. A lot of things go into it, and you know a lot of that before the ball is hit.
DL: I’ve had coaches tell me that sign stealing is common in baseball, while others have told me that it isn’t. What are your thoughts?
TF: Well, I know there is. I know that we try. Sometimes we get some signs, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we’re guessing, and sometimes we guess right. There’s always somebody watching, and I can see them. When I’m giving a sign, I’ll look over and there’s someone watching me. So you have to be creative, and if you think they have them you need to change them.
DL: Are most stolen signs taken from the third base coach or from the dugout?
TF: My signs come from Joe, and I think it’s both. It could be that a manager is obvious giving them to the third base coach, or somebody could be eyeballing the coach and getting them from him. It can come from either one.
DL: What goes into your job outside of what happens in the third-base coaching box?
TF: I’m the infield coach, so I’ll position our infielders during the course of a game. We have meetings, and we have a defensive chart that we put up in the dugout before every game so that everyone knows how they should play each guy. If we feel that a guy might bunt, we’ll move the third baseman in, or if there’s a count where we feel someone might pull the ball more we’ll move guys over. So basically, I work with the infielders before the game and position them during the game.
DL: Can you give a defensive scouting report on Jason Bartlett?
TF: He’s sure-handed, so I feel good when a ball is hit to him. The thing with Jason is that he needs to make sure that his legs are underneath him and that he follows his throw–that he makes a good, firm throw to first all the time. He’s been fine as of late, although early in the season he had a bit of an achy arm and was getting on the side of the ball so that it sailed a bit. That’s why he needs to stay on top of the ball and keep moving toward first with his legs underneath him. But when the ball is hit to him, I feel absolutely great that we’re going to get an out.
DL: How does Bartlett compare to Brendan Harris, who was the shortstop here last year?
TF: Harry did a good job for us last year. He proved in spring training that he could play short. He began the year as a utility infielder, but ended up playing shortstop a whole lot. Harry has a stronger arm than Bartlett, so he can get in the hole and make that play, but he doesn’t get rid of the ball as quickly. Bartlett is a little more athletic and looser with his arm, so he can make some plays that Harry maybe can’t. But Harry did a great job for us.
DL: What about your new third baseman?
TF: Hah! That would be Mr. Longoria. First of all, he’s a fine human being, and second of all he’s a fine player. He wants to learn–he wants to work. He understands the game; he’s got great hands, good footwork, and a great work ethic. He makes adjustments at the plate during a game. He’s a special kid, and how good he’s going to be is up to him.
DL: Akinori Iwamura switched from third to second base this season. How has that transition gone so far?
TF: Aki’s done a great job for us. We asked him to play third base in his first year, and now with Longoria coming up we’ve asked him to move, and the transition has been great. He’s done a fine job over there. He accepted it right away when we asked him, and he and Bartlett work very well together. They did everything together in spring training–they made very sure of that–and they work together great.
DL: How has Iwamura been turning the double play?
TF: He’s been fine. That’s the one thing we thought we might have some trouble with, not knowing if he could handle it or not. But he went over to Japan and worked with one of the coaches he knows over there, and from day one after he came back it hasn’t been a problem.
DL: Prior to moving to the outfield, B.J. Upton was inconsistent defensively at second base. Why was that?
TF: B.J. is a great athlete, but he’s just a long-action type player. It’s just like you see him out there in center field–he gallops and he’s nice and smooth; his strides are long. His arm stroke is also kind of long, and in the outfield that plays great. If we needed him to come back to the infield in an emergency, we wouldn’t hesitate to do that, but we felt that his position is center field.
DL: You spent 13 seasons as a big league infielder. What stands out when you look back at your playing career?
TF: Probably just making it to the major leagues. I signed out of high school and spent six years in the minors before making it to the big leagues. And I can remember that like it was yesterday, just the excitement. As the years go on–and this is my 31st year in pro ball–I guess the plane rides and the travel are a little different, but the excitement is still the same. But just making it and experiencing that first opening day is very memorable.
DL: What do you remember about your first at-bat?
TF: If I’m not mistaken, I pinch-hit against Lee Smith. I got jammed and hit it to shortstop and I was the happiest guy in the big leagues because I made contact off of Lee Smith. That was my first at-bat and it was a memorable one even though I made an out.
DL: Is Lee Smith a Hall of Fame pitcher in your eyes?
TF: I think so. I think he’s earned that right, because he had a great career. He was dominant in his prime.
DL: How about Bruce Sutter?
TF: I think that Bruce is one of the guys who put a staple on the closer role. He had a great career, so he’s a guy who should be mentioned in the same breath.
DL: Despite the fact that he once gave up a ninth-inning game-tying home run to Tom Foley?
TF: He did. As a matter of fact, he and Rick Mahler both gave up home runs in that game! That was my only two-home run game. It was at the end of his career, but I was still happy because it was Bruce Sutter. A lot of guys can’t remember all of the home runs they hit, but I can remember them because there weren’t that many. We did lose that game, though.
DL: From an individual standpoint, is that game the highlight of your career?
TF: No. I can remember hitting a walk-off home run against Goose Gossage in Cincinnati, and that was pretty exciting. You know, I had one of those quiet careers where I played 13 years, and it was all under the radar. I really wasn’t a great player, but I was an average major league player who did the little things. I played all of the infield positions and did what I was supposed to do. They say there are glove guys, and I was a glove guy. I could catch the ball and throw the ball, and I tried to mix in as many hits as I could.
DL: When you look around the American League, are there any current players that remind you of Tom Foley?
TF: When I think back to when I played, guys like Rex Hudler, me, and Raphael Belliard did a good job of playing our roles. Of the guys now, I don’t really know. Here in the American League, there aren’t that many guys who come off the bench and play second, short, and third too much. I guess Alex Cora is one of those guys. He was a starter earlier in his career, now he’s a veteran utility guy who does a good job. Managers like guys like that–veteran guys who accept their role and you can count on them when one of your starters needs a day off. He can put you on the field and you won’t make any mistakes.
DL: You made one appearance as a pitcher in the big leagues.
TF: Hah! We were getting blown out by the Reds, Joe Hesketh was pitching, and Buck Rodgers comes out on the field and points to me. I thought he was making a double switch, so I started running off the field, but then he yelled at me, so I knew that I’d be pitching. A friend of mine, Jeff Reed, was hitting. The count got to 3-2, and he pulled a foul ball that would have been a home run had it been fair. So I threw the next pitch a little harder–at least I thought I did–and he hit a home run! Then I got Ron Oester to ground out to first base. I had forgotten about that, but it was definitely a highlight of my career. It’s always a rush when a position player gets to pitch.
DL: According to the Rays media guide, in high school you were a right-handed-throwing shortstop and a left-handed-throwing quarterback.
TF: Yeah, I was born left-handed or became left-handed. My dad played ball in the Army, and I picked his glove up and started throwing a baseball right-handed. I played three sports in high school. I shot left-handed playing basketball, threw right-handed playing baseball, and I was a left-handed quarterback. That was just how it ended up.