Professorial Wiley is still educator, on mound

Orioles Plus

From teaching family, he urges research, homework

May 19, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Peering from behind his glasses, with clipboard at the ready, Mark Wiley looks more like a professor than a pitching coach as he sits in the Orioles' dugout, keeping tabs on his various projects.

The Orioles have a bevy of young pitchers to groom, and they have entrusted that task to a man from a family of educators.

Wiley's oldest brother was the dean of education at Northwestern University before moving into a consultant's job in Washington, D.C. His other brother has been an assistant director of survey research at Cal-Berkeley and now works at San Francisco State.

With a mother who taught first grade and a father who served as the postmaster in La Mesa, Calif., the Wiley boys gained a passion for knowledge.

When it came time for Mark to pick a college, he chose Cal Poly-Pomona because it offered a chance to study his first love: baseball.

"I had a couple professors who looked at my background and thought I should go into a master's program," said Wiley, who earned an undergraduate degree in kinesiology. "But I honestly went to Pomona because the baseball coach was John Scolinos, one of the most highly regarded college coaches ever."

At 6 feet 2, Wiley had enough skills to pitch 11 years professionally, making brief stops in the big leagues with Minnesota, San Diego and Toronto.

But Scolinos, whose Hall of Fame coaching career spanned 45 years, remembers Wiley most for his intelligence.

"He was always sharp," Scolinos said. "He was always a student of the game."

Wiley's playing career ended in 1980 with Triple-A Rochester, where the Orioles had him serve as a player-coach. That winter, Wiley's wife died suddenly from an embolism, and he was in Australia with her family when the Orioles offered a chance to manage their Double-A team in Charlotte.

He said he needed four days to think about it, and awoke on the fourth morning convinced it was right. That Charlotte team went 74-69, and one of its pitchers, 19-year-old Storm Davis, went on to win 113 major-league games.

"It was my first year my wife was gone, and it really helped me because I had like 23 other guys to worry about," said Wiley, who eventually remarried. "I wasn't totally qualified for the job yet, but we had some good pitching prospects there, and I think I was able to help them."

At age 54, Wiley looks back on it all now, realizing the years have snuck up on him. This is his 33rd season in professional baseball and 12th as a major-league pitching coach.

It's the kind of job where you sometimes don't know how good you are until you're suddenly out of work. The Cleveland Indians fired Wiley after the 1998 season, and he was surprised at how many teams called offering jobs.

He spent one year as Kansas City's pitching coach, and one year as a senior director of player development for the Colorado Rockies. The Orioles, meanwhile, were running a carousel, changing pitching coaches seven times in seven years.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove had lost Wiley from his Cleveland staff two years earlier and jumped at the chance to get him back. Wiley, who worked as Orioles pitching coach in 1987 under Cal Ripken Sr., returned to the organization in October 2000 with a three-year, $900,000 deal.

"He's very into his job and enjoys it, which seems to make a huge difference," said pitcher Scott Erickson, who has had six pitching coaches since getting traded to the Orioles in 1995.

"He does a lot of research and homework and has ideas on how to pitch to the hitters," Erickson said. "It's really helpful for the younger pitchers who haven't been around, and he knows where to step back and let a veteran guy take care of his business."

The Orioles rank fourth in the American League with a 4.33 earned-run average, and Wiley gets credit for the success of such young pitchers as Rodrigo Lopez, Jorge Julio and Rick Bauer.

While his brothers have pioneered research in academic fields, Wiley has taken his studious nature to a kids' game. A year ago, he began a meticulous study to learn precisely how well pitchers command the strike zone.

With the help of Vince Horsman, a former big-league pitcher himself, Wiley has studied almost every single pitch thrown by the Orioles over the past two years. Horsman watches the videotape of every game twice, inputting data about each Orioles pitch into a computer.

For example, an entry might indicate that Erickson threw a sinker for a ball, aiming for the lower-inside quadrant of the strike zone, only to have it land high and inside.

Wiley's data shows that the average pitcher, for any team, hits his desired quadrant only about 50 percent of the time and hits the glove without making the catcher move just 10 percent of the time.

"Pitching isn't an exact science," Wiley said. "Being able to throw to general areas is important, but you don't have to be precise. People think they do, but they don't. It gives you a concept that it's not impossible to pitch at the big-league level. You don't have to be perfect."

Scolinos, who was Team USA's first pitching coach in 1980, laughed when asked if his old pupil had surpassed his knowledge for pitching. The two of them still keep in touch.

"Are you kidding?" Scolinos said. "This guy has surpassed me, and he's not only knowledgeable, he knows how to communicate. This guy is something else. I can't say enough good things about him."

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