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Baseball's most obscure coach

Bob Schaefer, 65, has been a jack of all trades during decades in the game and now is an invaluable assistant to Dodgers Manager Joe Torre.

September 09, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Bob Schaefer sits in a quiet dugout on one of those glorious baseball afternoons in Chavez Ravine, staring out at a gleaming stadium slowly filling with the clatter of dirt-caked groundskeepers, smiling peanut hawkers and grim security toughs.

"I've done that," he says.

Which part?

He smiles and shrugs.

"All of it," he says.

The Dodgers bench coach has been more than just the guy with the fungo bat and stopwatch and sweaty sleeve from throwing a basket of balls.

He has been the guy mowing the grass, spreading the lime, working the hose; the guy with the rake, the shovel, the strain.

He has been the guy taking tickets, selling snacks, peddling advertisements, sweeping the floor, guarding the door.

Bob Schaefer has spent a dozen years as a manager -- of a high school team.

He has been selected manager of the year -- in Class A of the minor leagues.

He is in the Hall of Fame -- of the collegiate Cape Cod League.

A guy who has spent two seasons helping guide the Dodgers to the top of major league baseball has spent exactly zero days playing major league baseball.

Thirteen paragraphs into this story, you might still be saying, "Who?"

But not Manager Joe Torre, who often leans into Schaefer's ear and whispers, "How?"

It is Schaefer, 65, who reminds Torre of everything from available players to matchup tendencies to the rule book, which he has memorized to the parenthetical letter. It is Schaefer who suggests many of the bunts and steals and strategy.

Watch Torre during games, and you'll notice two things: He never changes his expression, and he's always talking to Schaefer.

They whisper during the seventh-inning "God Bless America" and during the bottom of the ninth, perhaps the oddest couple in sports -- the outstanding manager deriving wisdom and calm from the former high school coach.

Says Torre: "He's the perfect guy to bounce stuff off of -- he's seen everything, and he's not afraid to tell you how he feels."

Says Schaefer: "It's not too complicated; he asks me what I think, and I tell him."

No Dodgers coach is more in the middle of the game. Yet, no Dodgers coach is more of an outsider.

On a name-brand coaching staff with Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly, Rick Honeycutt and Mariano Duncan, Schaefer is as noticeable as a rosin bag on a pitching mound.

"I know people look down here and see me and think, 'Who is that nobody?' " Schaefer says.

Yet, around the clubhouse, the man with the soft poker face and sharp New England accent is very much somebody.

Like, the only coach this season to directly account for a run.

Remember Arizona in April?

On what the Diamondbacks believed was an inning-ending double play line drive, Schaefer reminded the umpires of an obscure rule that gave the Dodgers a run because Andre Ethier tagged and scored from third base before infielder Felipe Lopez completed the double play by tagging out Juan Pierre near second base.

In his half a century in baseball, Torre had never seen such a play.

In 1983 double-A Jacksonville, Schaefer lived it.

Says Torre: "That's the kind of thing Bob does for us."

Says Schaefer: "You hang around long enough, you see a lot of things."

The irony is, few see him -- he has yet to be recognized on the streets of Los Angeles.

It's only a joke that he's not allowed inside the stadium without ID -- or is it?

"I always keep my field pass with me," he says. "You never know."

He arrives at the stadium at 1 p.m. for night games, and spends most of the next six hours working in obscurity, schooling outfielders on fielding -- do you think Matt Kemp has improved? -- and collecting scouting reports.

Like Torre, he believes in statistics; but he also believes in instincts.

"Statistics are one-dimensional, I also need to look in a guy's eyes," he says. "Around here, we believe that sometimes you can find the answer in a guy's eyes."

The most intense eyes belong to Schaefer, a self-taught baseball junkie who never demands more than he once gave himself as a diamond rat in Connecticut.

His father was a mailman. His mother worked in a restaurant. He parlayed his street smarts into a spot on the University of Connecticut's team, but he had to pay his way his first three years, working in movie theaters and liquor stores and on construction sites.

He is the only uniformed member of the Dodgers who once drove a taxi. He is also the only Dodger who was employed to dig up graves.

"That job lasted only as long as it took for my shovel to hit that first casket," Schaefer says. "I was like, forget this."

He was a power-hitting shortstop drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Connecticut, but he only lasted a couple of years, leaving Class-A Modesto when he realized he wasn't getting any better.

"But I didn't want to leave the game, so I decided to learn how to teach it," he says.

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