Gary Varsho, who turns 45 years old June 20, is in his fifth season as the Philadelphia Phillies' bench coach and could be on track to become a major-league manager -- again. He was 1-1 in a two-game tenure with the Phillies in 2004 after Larry Bowa was fired.
Varsho played three seasons for the Pirates (1991, '92,'94) and was one of their top utility players. Like former Pirate and current Pirates broadcaster John Wehner, Varsho does an excellent impersonation of former Pirates manager Jim Leyland.
"Probably because I sat by him on the bench so much," Varsho joked.
Before his Pirates stint, Varsho played 6 1/2 seasons in the minor leagues, then parts of three seasons for the Chicago Cubs, who selected him in the fifth round of the 1982 draft. He also played a season for Cincinnati (1993) and the Phillies (1995). In 571 games, Varsho batted .244 with 204 hits, 10 home runs and 84 RBIs.
He hit his first two major-league home runs July 2, 1991, at Wrigley Field. He also had a triple and six RBIs in that 13-4 Pirates victory, but it wasn't the most memorable game of his career -- as you'll see.
Varsho discussed his most memorable game and other topics with the Post-Gazette's Paul Meyer.
Q. You told me last fall about some "PHD" incentive thing from Rick Pitino. Refresh my memory.
Varsho: Poor, Hungry and Driven. It was in a book by Rick Pitino. In the book, Pitino told of a CEO in some company who took him up to the executive level and showed him a bunch of workers in cubicles. He said to Rick Pitino, "Do you see all these workers? They all have PHDs." And Pitino says, "Well, how can you afford all those salaries?" And the guy says, "Oh, no, no, no. They don't have the degree. They're all poor, hungry and driven to get the hell out of here so they can become something, so they're working [really hard]. Poor, hungry and driven is what we're trying to find in today's player. Guys who are poor, hungry and driven to excel -- maybe to win a World Series.
Q. Couldn't that also be relevant for people who coach or manage in the minor leagues who are trying to do the same jobs in the big leagues?
Varsho: Basically, those guys have a love for the game. You still have your drive as you did as a player. Why wouldn't you have that drive to come up here to coach and manage to try to win a division and get to the World Series? For me, guys who go back to the minor leagues [to coach and/or manage] really have a true love for the game. Guys who don't want to do that show me that they're just waiting. It's not that it's an easy road, but Jim Leyland told me and Bill Virdon told me and Gene Lamont told me the best experience you can ever get is to go back to the minor leagues and get ready for coaching and managing up here, and they're right. But you also have to have that drive to want to excel and teach kids and develop kids and have some patience, and that comes back to having that drive and wanting to do it and knowing where you want to go.
Q. Didn't you tell Jim and Bill and Gene that you thought you'd already spent enough time in the minor leagues as a player?
Varsho: [laughing] I said, "Couldn't I at least start in Double A?"
Q. As it was, you began managing in Class A.
Varsho: Yep -- the Appleton Timber Rattlers.
Q. What was the best advice Leyland ever gave you?
Varsho: In 1992, we're playing the San Diego Padres. Alex Cole just gets traded to us [from Cleveland]. It's the third or fourth inning, and we're up, 1-0, or it's 0-0. Alex Cole gets on first base. We all know that a lot of times the steal sign comes from the dugout and a lot of times I gave the steal sign -- since I was sitting on the bench a lot. Somehow Alex gets to second, and Andy Van Slyke is up. There's one out in the inning, and I go ahead and put the steal sign on, sort of as a camouflage type thing. It doesn't apply from second to third. Well, Alex Cole takes off for third and he's [going to be] out by a mile, but [Benito] Santiago throws the ball into left field and he scores. Alex Cole comes into the dugout, and Jim shakes his hand and I thought, 'Did I just make a mistake here?' After the inning, [third base coach] Rich Donnelly comes in and Jim asks Rich if he put the sign on. Rich says no. And they both look right at me.
Leyland says, "Come here." We go down into the tunnel and he says to me, "You're going to manage in the minor leagues some day and probably in the big leagues. Let me tell you something -- quit trying to trick the [dang] players, all right? Don't try to trick the [dang] players. Make it [really] simple. Make it fundamental. [Gee, whiz] you can't be doing that kind of [stuff] when you're trying to manage and teach. Keep the [dang] game simple so there are no [dumb] mistakes." I said OK. He said, "Did you put the [ding-dang] sign on?" I said yes. He said, 'Well [gee whiz] don't do it again."
Q. Is being a bench coach a good job to have for a guy who aspires to be a major-league manager?
Varsho: I think so. I think you're right in the heat of every decision, whether it's pitching or moving guys defensively or going to pinch-run somebody. I mean sitting there next to Jim Leyland for all those years? The greatest experience I had was listening to him. And the opportunity to ask him questions the next day about why this, why that. He was the greatest teacher I've ever had. He allowed you to ask and he allowed you to wonder. Of course, he also wondered -- a lot -- why I wasn't hitting.
Q. Was it fun to play for him?
Varsho: Fun? Greatest time I've ever had in my life in baseball. Playing for Jim for three years. We won in '91 and '92. Playing for him was the best learning experience and the best years I ever had.
Q. What was so good about him?
Varsho: He treated you as a player. You were treated that way even if you were the 24th guy or the 25th guy. I don't care if you were a reliever or a bench player, you played. I mean, think about this. Let's just really go back and think about this. On the 1991 team, we had Jeff King, Jay Bell, Chico Lind, Orlando Merced, Gary Redus, Mike LaValliere, Don Slaught, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke. And I still got over 200 at-bats? Curtis Wilkerson got over 150? Lloyd McClendon got over 200 at-bats? How does that happen? When you got here, you were treated as a player and you got ready to play.
Relievers? We never had a [true] closer. But Jim put guys in position to win. He made them all successful. He was the greatest guy to find success for a player. And he also was the greatest guy when it came down to people.
Q. The day in Chicago when you hit two home runs. Was that your most memorable game as a player?
Varsho: Actually the greatest day I ever had as a player was stepping up in Game 6 [in Three Rivers Stadium] in the 1991 playoffs. We were ahead three games to two, ninth inning, and I faced [Alejandro] Pena. We were down, 1-0. Steve Avery had thrown eight shutout innings. I lined a [leadoff pinch-hit] single to left field. Merced bunted me [to second]. Jay Bell hit a fly ball to right field. And Andy comes up, and I'm at second thinking, "If he goes deep here, we win. We go to the World Series." He pulled some balls foul. Everybody held their breath [Varsho's voice catches while relating this story].
Andy ended up striking out, but it was pretty thrilling.Gail Burton, Associated Press
Phillies bench coach Gary Varsho looks on in the first game of a doubleheader against the Orioles June 28 in Camden Yards in Baltimore. Varsho filled in as manager after Charlie Manuel served a one-game suspension for arguing with an umpire.
Click photo for larger image.