Tuesday, March 11, 2014
FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Will Middlebrooks walks from the Red Sox spring training clubhouse toward the indoor batting cages, he looks for a familiar face.
And when Middlebrooks finds Dave Joppie, he goes into his hitting routine, established when the two worked together in Portland two years ago.
"I still go to his cage every day during spring training," Middlebrooks said. "I love hitting with him. He's really the first guy I worked with when I was developing my approach in Double-A and when things really started to click."
Like other players, Middlebrooks discovered an extraordinary teacher in Joppie, a man who has taught players how to be major league hitters before they reach the majors.
Joppie, 47, was a mainstay in Portland as the Sea Dogs hitting coach for five seasons, an unusually long time in this business.
The thing about Joppie is that he never played the game professionally. The old baseball thinking was that a coach, as he moved up to advanced levels, had to have experience to relate to his players.
Joppie has proved that wrong.
"There may be certain things he doesn't know because he hasn't experienced them as a player," Middlebrooks said, "but he understands the game as much as anyone."
The Red Sox recognized Joppie's gift for teaching. This past offseason, they promoted him to Triple-A Pawtucket.
"Jop is a great teacher," Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said. "He has really good relationships and the trust of our players, and has had a successful group of guys go through there."
Think of players like Middlebrooks, Ryan Lavarnway, Daniel Nava, Josh Reddick, Ryan Kalish and others who walked through the Hadlock Field gates and eventually exited with improved fundamentals.
"Guys get better under his tutelage," Sea Dogs Manager Kevin Boles said. "He always is patient and has a plan for each individual hitter."
Boles was helping once during an individual batting practice that Joppie routinely holds with his players.
"I was working with him, just flipping balls to hitters," Boles recalled. "Each hitter had a different routine. No two guys were the same. A lot of work and a lot of planning goes into that. (Joppie) made sure their programs were geared to their individual skills."
Joppie has worked his way up. He played for and graduated from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then coached at the high school and community college level.
Then Joppie saw an advertisement for internship opportunities with the Oakland Athletics in 1995. He was hired to assist Oakland's Double-A team in Huntsville, Ala., managed by Dick Scott (an Ellsworth native, by the way).
Joppie interned for two seasons under Scott, and then the A's hired him full time. He stayed with the organization through 2005, managing Class A Kane County the final two seasons.
Joppie joined the Red Sox organization in 2006, serving as the advanced Class A hitting coach for two years before joining Portland.
At Hadlock Field, Joppie quickly earned a reputation for having an open door -- to his office or the batting cage.
"He's always accessible," said Bryce Brentz, who had Joppie as a coach last year in Portland and will again this season in Pawtucket. "There is never a bad time to go to Joppie. He cares, probably more than any coach I've been around."
If you are wondering why Joppie hasn't said much in this story, it's because getting Joppie to talk about himself is like getting his permission to swing at bad pitch.
But Joppie is thrilled with the promotion. He said he's pleased to be working with players, most of whom he already has a history with.
What will he like most about the new job? That's an easy question for the caring coach.
"The thing I'm most excited about is that I've never been able to be in a meeting when one of our players is being told he's going to the major leagues," Joppie said.
Sea Dogs historians will recall that Reddick jumped to the majors from Double-A, but Joppie was not around when Reddick got the news. "I was in the gym," he said.
For the most part, Joppie will be around the batting cage or in the dugout, analyzing, instructing, motivating. And now he will do it in Triple-A.
Joppie never played pro ball. The Red Sox don't seem to care.
"He's as good as anybody we have in terms of teaching consistency and routines, and working with the swing, Crockett said.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: