RIP to Ray Miller, a pitching coach to multiple 20-game and Cy Young Award-winning pitchers and an MLB manager. He died on May 5, just five days after his 76th birthday. Miller managed the Minnesota Twins (1985-86) and Baltimore Orioles (1998-99).
Raymond Roger Miller was born on April 30, 1945, in Takoma Park, Md. He played baseball, basketball and soccer at Suitland High School, and in 1963, he was a pitcher on the Federal Storage team of Washington D.C. that won the All-American Amateur Baseball Association championship. He also won All-State honors as a basketball player.
Miller joined the Lexington Giants, part of the San Francisco Giants organization, in 1964. He was introduced to the concept of “tough luck” pretty early on in his baseball career. He threw a no-hitter against Statesville but failed to get the win. The game was a scoreless tie that was rained out with two out in the ninth inning, leaving Miller with a great game, but not one for the record books. Though his record was 9-11 on the season, his ERA was a brilliant 1.87. It was good enough for seventh in the Western Carolinas League, though, because a number of pitchers had brilliant seasons — including Steve Carlton, who went 10-1 with a 1.03 ERA. Miller joined the Cleveland Indians organization when he was claimed in the minor-league draft that offseason. Aside from one appearance with the AA Pawtucket Indians in 1965, Miller spent the next four seasons in A-Ball, mainly with the Reno Silver Sox of the California League. He had his struggles in Reno both as a starter and reliever until he had a breakout season in 1968.
Silver Sox manager Clay Bryant moved Miller back into the starting rotation, and he responded with a 16-8 record and a 3.22 ERA. He completed 16 of his 25 starts and threw 2 shutouts, striking out 206 batters in 193 innings. The Sierra Nevada Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association named him the Athlete of the Month for both May and July, and he was named to the California League All-Star Team.
There were some reports that the expansion Seattle Pilots were very interested in the right-hander, leading to speculation that Miller’s breakout year would land him in the majors. Miller did get his promotion, but not quite as high as that. Cleveland moved him up to AAA Portland of the Pacific Coast League. He won just 5 games there while losing 11, working primarily out of the bullpen. He pitched in AAA ball through 1973, never getting a chance to start again. Midway through the 1971 season, Miller was loaned to the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. Cleveland passed on bringing him in the majors in 1972, and his contract was sold to Rochester outright. He spent the final two seasons of his playing career working out of the Red Wings’ bullpen.
In 1972, Miller appeared in 47 games as a reliever, ending the season with a 7-5 record, a 3.21 ERA and 7 saves. That offseason, Red Wings manager Joe Altobelli asked Miller to become a pitching coach/player. He happily took the assignment, but the 28-year-old Miller had not given up on his dreams of reaching the majors. Unfortunately, he may have been too good of a pitching coach for his own good. The Red Wings had an excellent pitching staff, and Miller was limited to 14 games. One of those came when Altobelli was ejected from a game and Miller took over as manager — he put himself into the game and threw a scoreless eighth inning. He had a 1-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in those 14 appearances.
Miller never pitched professionally after that season. He ended with a 60-65 record and a 3.50 ERA in 10 seasons. He saved 31 games and had 992 strikeouts in 1012 innings pitched. He also batted .178 with a couple of home runs. One of them was an inside-the-park homer that left Miller with the nickname of “Rapid Raymond,” which was later shortened to “Rabbit.”
Miller’s decision to quit playing ball at a young age had nothing to do with injuries or ineffectiveness. It was spurred by a tragedy that occurred when he was working as a manager, pitching coach and reliever in Venezuela. One of his Red Wings teammates, pitcher Mark Weems, drowned on New Year’s Day in 1974. His teammates spent days searching for the body.
“On the fourth day, two of us found what was left of Weems’s body washed up in a cove,” Miller said, per a 1997 Washington Post article by Thomas Boswell. “I’d been thinking during those days about everything in my life. I stayed alone with the body all that night until the authorities came back the next morning. I said to myself, ‘This isn’t a dream world you’re living in.’ Maybe I just grew up.”
Miller dedicated himself to helping others and was named Baltimore’s minor-league pitching instructor, just weeks after Weems’s death. For several years, he traveled to the Orioles’ minor league affiliates to prepare them for the big leagues. One of his early successes was Dennis Martinez, who came to the Orioles as a 17-year-old with a great fastball. He remained a fastball pitcher, but Miller helped him develop a full repertoire of other pitches. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s pitching coach George Bamberger was preparing for his retirement, and Miller was considered the likely successor.
The transition didn’t go as smoothly as planned. In December of 1977, Miller agreed to join the Texas Rangers’ coaching staff, because it didn’t look like Bamburger was leaving anytime soon. Soon after, Bamberger shocked the Orioles when he quit to take a job as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. His departure left Baltimore in a bind, and the team asked Rangers owner Brad Corbett for permission to talk with Miller. In the end, Miller’s ties to the Orioles organization won out, and he joined Earl Weaver’s staff as the new pitching coach. Miller was 32 years old and only 6 months older than staff ace Jim Palmer.
Starting in 1978, Miller continued the Orioles’ tradition of maintaining an excellent starting rotation. Palmer, Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor were all capable of 15 to 20 wins in a season or more, and Don Stanhouse was one of the top closers or the day. Miller utilized video cameras to film his pitchers’ deliveries, so he could break down things frame by frame, if need be, whenever a pitcher fell out of rhythm. But his pitching beliefs were pretty simple: work fast, throw strikes, change speeds. Sometimes, the simplest messages are the most effective. Flanagan had a 23-9 record in 1979 with a 3.08 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award. The Orioles won 102 games and the AL pennant before losing to the Pirates in the World Series. The following year, journeyman pitcher Steve Stone won 25 games, far and away the best season of his career, and brought another Cy Young Award to Baltimore. Stone was a well-traveled player, so he knew a little something about pitching coaches.
“I’ve had about 10 pitching coaches, but none are close to Ray Miller,” he said. “He typifies the Orioles. He’s a fundamentalist who is also a master psychologist. He will humor you, cajole you or kick you in the seat, depending on what you need. He doesn’t change your style. Ray works on your mind. You throw strikes, you don’t walk anybody and you let your defense help you.”
The 1983 Orioles, led by 18-game winner McGregor and 16-game winner Mike Boddicker, won the World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies. The pitching staff had a 1.60 ERA in the 5-game Series, and McGregor and Boddicker each threw a complete game — McGregor’s was a 5-hit 5-0 shutout in Game Five to make the Orioles world champs. Shortly after the championship, Miller’s name started popping up in reports about managerial changes. Several teams were reported to be eyeing him as their next manager. The Minnesota Twins were the ones that made the move when they hired him away from Baltimore on June 21, 1985. He had his work cut out for him, too. Billy Gardner was fired with a 27-35 record, and he badmouthed his entire pitching staff on the way out the door. “I just think what happened is that they made a lot of money, they were picked to win and the pressure got to them,” he said.
Under Miller, the Twins finished with a 50-50 mark over their last 100 games. Some of the pitchers showed improvement with Miller in charge, including starters Mike Smithson and Frank Viola and closer Ron Davis. Miller, for his part, said he played it cool in the clubhouse because it was his first time managing, and it was a young team. He did what he could to train them on fundamentals. Second baseman Steve Lombardozzi, a strong Miller supported, noted that he brought in Lou Brock to teach base-stealing in spring training and hired Wayne Terwilliger as the team’s first infield coach. “Ray Miller has done everything possible to try and improve this team,” he added.
Ultimately, the record was what mattered most. The Twins suffered through some poor pitching — odd considering Miller’s expertise — and had a 59-80 record when Miller was fired on September 12. He later pointed out that whenever he asked team president Howard Fox for bullpen help, he would get some random hurler with the expectation that Miller could work his magic on him. “You don’t make pitchers,” Miller explained. “I had five guys in the bullpen, and only one threw over 83 miles per hour. When you are teaching a change-up to a guy who throws 81, you are teaching him to throw something slower than he already throws.”
Miller had his pick of jobs in the offseason and elected to join the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Their approach to me was that they had some great young pitching, and that they were looking for someone to come over here and help bring it along,” he said. Miller stayed with the Pirates for 10 seasons. The Pirates finished first in the NL East in 1990, 1991 and 1992, but they couldn’t make it past the NL Championship Series each time. The superstar combo of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla accounted for much of that success, but the Pittsburgh pitching staffs can’t be overlooked. During that time, Doug Drabek became one of the top pitchers in the NL and won a Cy Young Award in 1990. John Smiley transitioned from a reliever to a 20-game winner, and relievers like Bill Landrum, Neal Heaton and Bob Patterson became pretty effective in their roles. Several of Miller’s pitchers wore T-shirts that read, “Work Fast, Change Speeds, Throw Strikes.” Many of those pitchers who previously had been instructed to throw the ball as fast as possible learned the changeup from Miller, and that extra pitch made the difference in many cases.
The Baltimore Orioles brought Miller back at a pitching coach in 1997, after the ’96 squad turned in a franchise-worst 5.14 ERA. Pitching did improve in ’97, and the Orioles won 98 games and the AL East title. The team made it to the ALCS before losing to Cleveland in six games. After the season, manager Davey Johnson resigned after a dispute with owner Peter Angelos, and Miller was named as his replacement. His new pitching coach happened to be Mike Flanagan, one of his favorite pitchers from his first go-around with the O’s.
Unlike the short stay with the Twins, Miller had two full seasons with the Orioles as manager. His teams were a little under .500 each year and finished in fourth place twice. In two pretty average seasons, the most noteworthy thing that happened was that Cal Ripken ended his iron man streak on September 20, 1998. Miller was fired after the 1999 season, along with general manager Frank Wren. Miller swore that his baseball career was over after 36 years. However, he was coaxed back out of retirement in June of 2004 to return to his familiar role as Orioles pitching coach. The team was going through more pitching woes, and Flanagan, now the team’s vice president, made the call to get Miller back. He remained with the team through 2005, but he suffered an aortic aneurysm that, compiled with some previous health issues, led to a permanent retirement from the game of baseball.
Miller had a career 266-297 record as a manager. As a pitching coach, he worked with seven 20-game winners and three Cy Young Award winners in 21 years between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2010.
Pitching is an elevated game of catch. There’s just you and the catcher. And maybe one other person, the batter. And maybe 50,000 people in the stands. But never mind everybody else.Ray Miller
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