BRADENTON, Fla. --- Ray Searage has nothing against the construction business. He thinks it is good, honest work.
It’s just wasn’t for him.
The Pirates pitching coach retired as a player following the 1992 season after pitching for the California Angels’ Class AAA Edmonton farm club. After spending 17 years in professional baseball, including parts of seven in the major leagues, Searage was 37 and ready for a career change.
So he took a job working construction.
“I hated it,” Searage said, shaking his head before a recent spring training workout. “I was miserable. It made me realize how much I loved baseball and how much I missed it.”
Twenty-one years later, the Pirates pitching coach has established himself as one of the best in the business. And he never takes a day for granted in his job because of that year in construction.
“I’m the happiest guy in the world,” Searage said. “I’m doing what I love. It just beats the heck out of the real world.”
Searage’s life changed during the winter of 1993-94 when he got a call from St. Louis Cardinals player development guru George Kissell offering a job as a pitching coach with Class A Madison. The Cardinals had selected Searage from West Liberty State in the 22nd round of the 1976 amateur draft and Kissell had always liked the personable kid from Long Island.
It wasn’t long into his stint in Wisconsin’s state capital that Searage realized he had found his life’s calling.
“I loved it,” Searage said. “In a lot of ways, I enjoyed it more than playing because it was fun to watch the young kids take something you taught them, put it into action and get better. I found it very rewarding.”
Searage did not mind paying plenty of dues before reaching his current post. He spent 16 seasons coaching in the minor leagues with the Cardinals, Tampa Bay Rays, Florida Marlins and Pirates before getting his major-league break.
Searage was promoted to the Pirates’ staff prior to the 2010 season as the quality control coach. That August, he took over as interim pitching coach when Joe Kerrigan was fired.
Searage impressed Pirates general manager Neal Huntington enough that he landed an interview after John Russell was fired as manager and replaced by Clint Hurdle. Searage and Hurde hit it off immediately.
“I believe you that you need to promote people in your organization who are deserving,” Hurdle said. “It was obvious after talking to Ray that he was the guy to lead our pitching staff.”
The Pirates have improved in each of Searage’s three full seasons on the job, going from 11th in the NL in runs allowed in 2011 to seventh in 2012 to second in 2013 when Pittsburgh both ended its streak of 20 consecutive losing season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
“He’s done a great job,” Huntington said. “He cares so much about his pitchers and he is so committed to doing everything in his power to help them succeed.”
Pirates pitchers say that there is a comfort level they have with Searage that provides an atmosphere conducive to learning.
A case in point is left-hander Francisco Liriano, who was the NL Comeback Player of the Year last season when he went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 26 starts. In 2012, he went 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.
Searage had Liriano make a small mechanical adjustment in which he dropped the arm slot in his delivery to a three-quarters angle instead of straight over the top. The change enabled Liriano to get more movement on his fastball and tilt on his devastating slider.
“Ray made things simple,” Liriano said. “They were little changes but I trusted him and they made me a better pitcher. I owe a lot to him.”
And the 58-year-old Searage hopes to keep making pitchers better for many years to come.
“They’ll probably bury me under the pitcher’s mound,” he said with a grin.