BY CAROLYN LaWELL
HICKORY, North Carolina | Bill Richardson used to coach high school kids. He owned and operated a successful business. He mowed his own grass. He sat down for dinner with his wife. He spent time with friends. He almost never stayed up anywhere close to 4 a.m., and when he did, it was always New Year’s Eve.
None of that is true anymore. Not during baseball season, at least.
Richardson played in junior college, a catcher, but “no pop and square wheels,” he says, “will make you a coach real quick.”
Over 22 years, he coached three different high schools in Sacramento, California, while running Athletics Unlimited, a team store he opened and built up to about $3 million in annual sales before he sold it.
Then, about five years ago, a Texas Rangers scout came to watch one of Richardson’s players and asked Richardson whether he would be interested in coaching a rookie team in the Arizona League. Richardson took that as a sign. He still coached the team at Bella Vista High School each of the next two seasons, then traveled to Arizona to work with minor leaguers — the first year as the hitting coach and the second as the manager. Good work there led to a promotion and a full-time position. Now he’s in his third year as the manager of the Low-A Hickory Crawdads.
"No pop and square wheels will make you a coach real quick." — Crawdads manager Bill Richardson
Players make the jump from high school to the minors every June. But coaches making the same jump — especially coaches with no professional playing experience — is rare. For a while, Richardson showed why. He knew the game and how to win when he reported to Arizona, but little about the minors.
“I didn’t get it,” he says. “Former players would come back and say, ‘Skip, you don’t understand.’ ‘Oh, quit your b—ing, you’re playing every day.’ No, you’re not playing every day. It’s work. Sometimes you think the guys are coddled and babied down here. They’re not. They’re trying to get to that place where maybe they’re taken care of, but what they had to do to get to that place is hard for the average fan to understand.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is how Richardson approaches player development. The top prospects expected to move up the ranks are normally locked into a system that needs few tweaks. Richardson has always received more gratification trying to help the other players on the team improve their mechanics and advance.
“It never was the first five guys that interested me the most because they’ve had a plan and are probably pretty well structured,” he says. “It’s getting the other 15 to have that plan and structure and seeing them pop.”
At times, he says, especially in Low-A — where most players play their first full season — managing is less about improving players’ skills and more about the mental aspect of the game.
“It’s getting them mentally tough to trust a routine that will get them through a 140-game season,” he says. “Teach them, treat them, now the game is theirs and get out of the way.”
One thing Richardson wasn’t prepared for was how difficult it was helping players adjust to working with each other. “The toughest one for me is when you start putting Venezuelans and Dominicans and Canadians — and I consider the South its own country, California its own country — you’re mixing about 10 different (cultures) into one clubhouse,” he says. “It can get volatile. I always thought the Dominican kids were loud, messy and disrespectful until I went there and saw a whole island of them. It’s their culture. I’m not saying they’re bad, it’s just different from me.”
He needed to adjust to the lifestyle, too. He went from coaching high school 26 games every season to 56 in the Arizona League to 140 with Hickory. Now he sees 4 a.m. more often than he’d like. He wakes up long after the sun rises. He rides buses for hours when he used to drive his car minutes to the store and the high school. He’s 2,600 miles from his wife.
"We’ve had champagne, clinched a playoff spot and there’s nothing like that in the world." — Richardson
“It’s challenging not only mentally, but physically,” he says. “It’s either going to kill me quicker or give me a couple more years.” He rationalizes why it’s all worth it. “When the season is over and you’ve accomplished something with individuals and the team accomplishments match some of those, there’s nothing better,” he says.
Richardson will continue managing until his wife or the Rangers say no more. He’s already the longest-tenured and winningest manager in Crawdads history with a record of 216-177. He would like to move up or switch leagues at some point, for both personal and professional reasons.
Until the Rangers sent him to Hickory, Richardson had never even visited the South. When the team travels, he wakes up early and explores the other cities in the South Atlantic League. He’s been to Atlantic City, Patriots Point, Gatlinburg and Dollywood. He’d like his career to take him to other parts of the country, but he knows that’s not his call.
“I feel like they think I’m good with these young groups of kids and the only one thing disappointing is I feel like I’m typecast a little bit,” he says. “I can manage the higher levels.”
He’s happy for now with the team, the organization, the city. There’s still plenty to work on in Hickory even this season. “I think if our individual goals improve, our team goals will,” he says. “We’ve had champagne, clinched a playoff spot and there’s nothing like that in the world. It is just tremendous to see a 17-year-old Latin kid and a 24-year-old from the South embrace an accomplishment that they’ve done.
“That’s the goal every time, to get that champagne soak.”
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