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Unfinished: Hiatus away from baseball motivated Bobby Spain to coach

06/30/2018 1:38 PM -

For 99.9% of baseball players, their careers end not with a bang, but with a whimper. Whether it be the expiration of a contract, running out of college eligibility, or being released outright, when the day comes, it is a sobering reminder for that player of the cruel nature of baseball.

For some, they are lucky enough to stay in the game, as scouts, coaches, or front office executives, just doing anything they can to hang around, carving out a livelihood around a boy’s game.

But for most, that final cut to end a career signals the end of an era, where it’s time to give up the dreams of athletic glory and fade away into the real world, working a 9-to-5 job like everyone else.

For RailCats hitting coach Bobby Spain, that scenario appeared to be the reality for him. After three solid seasons as a third baseman in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, he was nonetheless cut following the 2009 season. After catching on with the Frontier League’s Traverse City Beach Bums, he didn’t even last a full season, being cut in July, 2010. For Spain, that second cut was the one that really hit home.

“I was bitter with my career coming to an end” Spain said. “So I went back, finished up school, did some things, and did a year of law school.”

Spain also briefly worked in the so-called real world, working for a spell at Northwestern Mutual.

But Spain realized then that his future was not in a courtroom, or sitting at a desk, but on the baseball field. So, after three seasons away from the game, Spain began his coaching career in 2014, working as an assistant at his alma mater, Oklahoma City University.

“I needed some time away from the game to know how much I loved the game and wanted to be back in the game,” Spain said.

As it turns out, taking the job at Oklahoma City ended up being the catalyst for the big break he would receive in his coaching career.

With the Oklahoma City, Spain worked alongside Keith Lytle, an NAIA Hall of Famer who had been Spain’s hitting instructor during his college days. Lytle also happened to know RailCats manager Greg Tagert.

That connection would be useful when the RailCats suddenly needed a hitting coach early in the 2016 season.

“[Greg] knew Keith from their time in the Northern League and Keith recommended me,” Spain said. “Next thing you know I’m here.”

So with that, one-third of the way into the 2016 season, Spain was back in professional baseball. His days of aspiring towards a white-collar profession were officially over, the suit and tie traded in to once again wear a baseball uniform.

His days now consisted of mentoring approximately a dozen professional hitters, some of whom were streaking, some who were struggling, some who had been in the high minors, and others who were fresh out of college.

For Spain, the adjustment from the NAIA to the American Association wasn’t as difficult as it may seem, pointing out that the one main difference is the general change in hitting approaches between the college and pro game.

He did say that the toughest part of adjusting to his role as the RailCats hitting coach was continuing to let go of the idea that he was a baseball player.

“The transformation from a player to a coach is tough,” he said. “You know the life of a player, that’s what you’ve been your whole life. But as a coach, you have to tell a player something they don’t want to hear, but you know it’s what’s best for them to hear.”

“You’re no longer teammates.”

Now in his third season coaching the RailCat hitters, Spain says he continues to learn every day and adjust to the rigors of the job. One of those challenges is molding hitters to adjust to one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in all of baseball, the U.S. Steel Yard.

“[The Steel Yard] certainly wasn’t something [Greg] was selling me on when selling me the job,” Spain remarked. “But I turned a corner when I realized, it’s not impossible. You can hit there.”

Part of being able to hit there, Spain says, is buying into the idea of trying to hit line drives and make contact, rather than swinging for the fences. At times, he says, it can be a challenge selling that approach to hitters.

“Think about how many hitting coaches they’ve had,” Spain said. “And now they have me trying to tell them something, so I have to earn that trust.”

For Spain, it often comes down to a simple case of trial and error.

“I let them swing for a couple weeks with what got them here. If they hit, then they hit, and if they don’t, then the game will tell you when it’s time to adjust.”

With the guidance of Bobby Spain, the RailCat hitters have been able to make enough adjustments to carry the team to its first postseason berth in four seasons last year, and now a first-place perch in the American Association North Division.

While the fruits of Spain’s labor can vary wildly from day-to-day, the approach remains the same.

“We’re going to continue to work, and continue to get better every day.”

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