Bob Stanley says that during his pitching days with Boston, his wife, Joan, could tell right away if Bob was going to sharp that day.
“When I followed through and she didn’t see me until I came back up, that meant I was finishing and had a good sinker that day,” Stanley said Friday. “But if she saw my head sticking up, she said, ‘Uh oh, bad day.’ ”
Stanley had far more good days than bad during a 13-year career, mainly as a reliever and all with the Red Sox. The Bisons pitching coach considers himself a lucky man. He made a good living at the game he loved. He and Joan have been happily married for 35 years. They have three grown children.
Joan, who coached high school softball at their alma mater in Kearny, N.J., loves the game, too. She knew how tough it was for Bob to be away from it. In 2008, after serving 12 years as a minor-league pitching coach, Stanley quit. He took a job as a tutor at a baseball academy near their home in southern New Hampshire.
He said he was content. Joan saw something else. Just as in the old days, she knew his head wasn’t in the right place.
“Oh, he missed it terribly,” said Joan, who makes the eight-hour drive to Buffalo for Bisons homestands, accompanied by their German Shepherd. “He tried other things. Bob is a real family man, a homebody. So he’s happy as long as I’m with him. But what he hates about the business is being away from me and the kids. Now that they’re grown, it’s me.
“He loves the baseball business, and that’s also his family. He tried to do all these other things to stay home, but he loves the game.”
Joan was teaching in an elementary school at the time. She said Bob got so bored, he would come to hang around in the teachers’ lounge. Once, he went Christmas shopping and brought the gifts to the school to show the teachers.
He was driving her nuts. So late in 2011, Stanley began applying for coaching jobs. Doug Davis, the Blue Jays’ minor league field coordinator, had worked with him in the Mets’ organization. Early in 2012, the Jays hired Stanley to be their Triple-A pitching coach in Las Vegas.
Now he’s in Buffalo, a much easier commute for Joan. The most important thing is that he’s back to doing what makes him happiest.
“I missed being with the kids and trying to get them better,” said Stanley, 58, “trying to get them to the next level. And it’s worked out. I’ve had some good guys. I had Matt Cain, A.J. Burnett was definitely my project. He did pretty well.”
This year’s big project is left-hander Ricky Romero, who went from staff ace to lost soul in one season. In 2011, Romero went 15-11 with a 2.92 ERA. Last year, his ERA ballooned to 5.77, the worst among big-league starters. Two months ago, Romero was pitching in Class A ball.
The process has been slow for Romero, and for Stanley’s entire staff. The starters had a 8.38 ERA in May. But in June, it has dropped nearly in half. Romero, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 13 innings, appears to be finding himself.
“Bob is an easy, approachable guy,” Romero said. “It’s mostly getting comfortable with myself and trying to get my confidence back. A lot of it is mental. He’s put a lot of stuff into perspective, about playing the game and loving it and not killing yourself over it.”
Romero asked Stanley if he had ever had a bad year with the Red Sox. Stanley replied, ‘How about the sixth game of the World Series? Then the next year, they make you a starter and you go 4-15?’
“That’s a bad year,” Stanley said with a laugh. “Especially in Boston. People booing you every time, you can’t concentrate. But you’ve just got to deal with it, try to block it out. Sometimes it’s hard.”
Tough times? Stanley pitched in two of the toughest losses in Red Sox history. He threw the pitch that wound up going through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game Six of the ’86 Series. He had uncorked a wild pitch (some felt it was a passed ball) that allowed the Mets to tie the game moments before.
Everyone remembers Bucky Dent’s three-run homer that put the Yankees ahead in the one-game playoff in ’78. But it was Reggie Jackson’s solo home run off Stanley in the eighth that provided the last run in a 5-4 game.
You never quite get over those defeats. Stanley was pitching batting practice one day when an MLB Network video of the Buckner error came on the scoreboard. Stanley fired a baseball at the press box.
“I thought they were screwing around with me,” Stanley said.
One day, Stanley was hitting grounders to Josh Thole at first. Thole let the ball go through his legs and recited Vin Scully’s call of the Buckner error in ’86 (“slow roller toward first ... “).
“I laugh it off now,” Stanley said.
Life has a way of re-ordering your priorities. Three years after the ’86 Series, Stanley discovered that his 9-year-old son, Kyle, had sinus cancer. Stanley, who was 34, retired after the 1989 season to be closer to his family. His daughters, Kristin and Kerri, were 10 and 7 at the time.
“When my son was diagnosed with cancer, that put my career in perspective,” Stanley said. “Family first. They always talk about the ’86 World Series. I don’t really care about it. I would say I prayed to God that I would be a hero in ’86 and he didn’t answer my prayer. But he answered my prayer in 1989, when they cured my son of cancer. That’s all that counts.”
Kyle is 33 now. He got married in April. So if people remember Stanley for a couple of dark moments on the mound, what does it matter? The great thing is that a son was able to grow up and remember his dad.
Baseball people recall Stanley as one of the most singularly talented hurlers of his time, a true workhorse. Stanley holds the Red Sox record for pitching appearances with 637. He’s the only Sox pitcher with 100 wins and 100 saves (and one of only 15 pitchers to do it).
Stanley holds the AL record for relief innings in a season with 168.1. He had double-digit wins and saves in a season three times. In 1982, he went four or more innings in relief 18 times. He was 15-2 with 10 saves in ’78. Imagine a reliever doing that today, when pitchers are micromanaged and it’s rare for a reliever to pitch multiple innings late in a game.
“Oh, I was different,” Stanley said. “I had a rubber arm. I never had arm problems. I didn’t throw a lot of breaking balls. I threw sinkers. That was the natural way my arm went. I never lifted weights. All I did was run.”
Stanley stands 6-foor-4, 210 pounds. Still, he wasn’t a power pitcher. His signature pitch was a nasty sinker that produced groundballs. He didn’t walk many batters. When the sinker was on, he was hard to beat.
He doesn’t worry about getting to the big leagues as a coach. His satisfaction comes from helping the kids get there. Stanley said the most important thing is getting the pitchers to trust you. Technically, it’s mainly about balance.
Stanley has discovered balance in his life, with being happily situated between his two loves, baseball and family. Joan tells people they’re going on 36 years of marriage, but they’ve been together for about 18.
“I say that affectionately,” Joan said. “I also tell him, ‘If you want to stay married, don’t ever retire again.’ ”