Bill Richardson:
Coaching From the CAL to the SAL
 and ESPN Between

In a new ESPN commercial, former Sacramento high school coach Bill Richardson is seen playing himself, the skipper of the Hickory Crawdads. Richardson appears so fleetingly—coaching third base—trying to match wits with Charleston RiverDogs manager, Greg Colbrunn. Both managers flash a flurry of signs, resulting in a failed pickoff play at second base. The commercial tagline reads: "It's Not Crazy. It's Sports." 

The spot "Sign Language" began airing this week on ESPN during the MLB Home Run Derby competition. (You can view the video at the end of this feature.)

For years ESPN has cast its own recognizable staff in its on-air promotions. This time, they used two teams from the South Atlantic League (SAL) and filmed at the RiverDogs home ballpark in Charleston, nicknamed "The Joe." The team's principal owner is Michael Veeck, son of legendary baseball promoter, Bill Veeck. Comedian/actor Bill Murray is a co-owner, who owns the title "Director of Fun." 

When Richardson reported to "the set" at 6 a.m. that day he had no idea what he was getting in to when he agreed to play the opposing manager in the commercial. He was awestruck by the multi-million dollar cameras, dolly tracking and cranes swooping in from the outfield to give the commercial its high production value. Back in Hickory, North Carolina, when members of the Crawdads are invited to film a commercial, it usually comes from a local car company or the Piggly Wiggly. 

In the commercial, the RiverDogs' manager flashes signs to the catcher, who signals the pitcher to wheel and try to pick off Crawdads' base runner, Joe Bonadonna, who slides safely into

second.  Shooting ended around 6 p.m. just in time for the game scheduled that night at Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, which sits on the banks of the scenicAshley River in beautiful, historic Charleston, the belle of the South.  

For his efforts, Richardson was compensated $500; not bad for a day's work. He gave $100 to Bonadonna, who had to dive headfirst back to second about 30 times to avert the pickoff play. Nice of the skipper to share the loot with the starving Single-A ballplayer. "The ESPN crew were fantastic to work with and we feel it turned out pretty well," said Dave Echols, RiverDogs' Executive Vice President and General Manager. "Bill and his crew were easy to work with as well. It   was a long day and they could easily have complained."



Anyone who recalls Richardson from his days coaching high school baseball in Sacramento's Capital Athletic League* will tell you Bill's not one to complain. In fact, his reputation for developing talented young ballplayers into men with character earned him the plum coaching job in the Texas Rangers organization. 


In 2007, while coaching the Bella Vista baseball team, a scout from the Rangers approached Richardson about working as a hitting instructor for the team's Arizona League entry. The scout was Jay Robertson, father of Bronco's star player Charlie Robertson, who twice made the Bee's All-City team (2007 & 2008). Richardson agreed to the interview. 


Once there, Bill noticed two former major league ballplayers waiting their turn. During the meeting, he was direct. "Obviously, you're looking to give these rookies some direction. Nobody knows young men better than I do. If you want to give these kids a shot, you'll choose me." His honesty and fresh approach won him the job. 


At the conclusion of the AZL season, the Rangers Scott Servais, Senior Director of Player Development, asked Richardson if he'd like to manage the team in 2008. Bill said he'd love to, but had already made a commitment to the returning players at Bella Vista.

"Let me get this straight," Richardson remembers Servais saying to him. "You're gonna pass up an opportunity to manage in pro ball for high school?" 


"That's not what I'm saying," Richardson explained. "I made a commitment to some young men." Servais appreciated Richardson's personal integrity and made arrangements for him manage the AZL team when the season began the following June. Over the 2008-2009 seasons, Richardson compiled a 59-53 record in the Rookie League. 

This season he was rewarded with a promotion and given a choice: Bakersfield in the California League or Hickory, NC in the South Atlantic League. "I've never been to the South, and I really wanted to try the (Southern) experience. I've enjoyed it immensely," Richardson remarks. "It's nice to have someone call me 'sir' for a change instead of 'dude.'"  

Along with Southern courtesy, in Hickory Richardson has been exposed to Veeck-style minor league promotions, such as Thirsty Thursdays and Friday Night Fireworks. Although his primary goal is player development, the 'Dads are playing above .500 for their new skipper, with a 50-41 mark as of this writing (07.16.10).  


Asked to compare the experience of managing in the pros versus high school, Richardson says he was surprised that "the pro game is so different by letting men fail, to learn the hard way. You put them in positions that challenge them, to get knocked down a bit, and see how they get back up."  

Another key difference is the handling of the catchers. In high school and college, Richardson notes, "the coach calls the pitches, in hopes (the catcher) will comprehend how to call the game." In pro ball, the coaching staff knows the hitters a lot better and shares this information with the catchers in a meeting before the game. At this level, the biggest thing for catchers is to incorporate the staff's advance scouting input and then "trust what they see (during the game)," Richardson explains.  

Except, of course, when the manager is having an apoplectic fit, flashing signs to "pick off the runner at second," as in the ESPN commercial.  

It's not crazy; it's baseball in the SAL, and Bill Richardson is lovin' it. 

* Richardson coached at San Juan High (1982-1990), Del Campo High (1996-2002) and Bella Vista High (2005-2008). 


ESPN -- It's not crazy, it's sports -- Sign Language


Uploaded 07/16/10

 All contents © Rick Cabral, 2010