Mills cherishes having father as mentor
Astros manager offers encouragement, experience to son
HOUSTON -- No matter what kind of problems Beau Mills was having off the baseball field while growing up or how many strikeouts he had or errors he committed, he knew his dad would somehow have the right words to make everything seem better.
After all, Brad Mills had been there before. He grinded it out for years in the Minor Leagues as a player and later as a manager and coach following a brief Major League career, and had seen it all. So if Beau went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, he could count on dad.
The elder Mills was there to comfort, console and encourage, and perhaps even remind him things aren't as bad as they seem.
"Some problems might seem a little bit bigger to him than they are to you," Brad said. "There were many of those. There were some times it became tough in college balancing the schoolwork and everything else and playing, and he was able, for the most part, to do that pretty well. I would tell him, 'Everything is going to be OK' and 'Just keep working.'"
It's the same advice Brad, currently in his first season as manager of the Astros, is giving even today to Beau, a Double-A infielder in the Indians' organization. Because of their hectic travel schedules and time zone differences, frequent text messaging and occasional phone calls have become the communication method of choice and necessity.
"I'm struggling this year, and everything he says really helps," said Beau, who is hitting .205 with three homers and 32 RBIs through 54 games. "He's been there, done that. That's baseball. He's gone through it for 30 years and seen guys struggle and experienced those struggles as a player and a coach, so he understands and it really helps -- the little stuff he says about staying focused and understanding the process."
Ah, yes, the process. Beau, 23, has been hearing about the process and the routines since he was a kid. Brad is a stickler for organization and likes to leave as little as possible to chance. If a player is in a slump, there's a process to go through to get out of it.
"As he gets older, I've kind of learned to be kind of quiet and let him say something, and if he doesn't say anything, I usually wait a while, whether it be a day or two or whatever, and say, 'Hey, what's going on?'" Brad said. "He'll say, 'I'm not feeling good at the plate,' and I'd say, 'Have you gone through the routine we've talked about?'
"During the winter, when we do a lot of work together, it's all done with a routine in mind and a progression and working up to a routine before he gets into the batter's box during a game in the season. So we work on that progression and drills and what he needs to do to be ready to play."
Beau was born shortly after a knee injury led to the end of his father's brief Major League career, and he doesn't remember his dad as a player. One of his first memories surrounding his dad and baseball came in 1992, in Des Moines, Iowa, where Brad was managing the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate, the Iowa Cubs.
At 5 years old, Beau was more concerned about things going on around the ballpark than the actual game, and he wound up befriending the grounds crew.
"They knew I liked to fish and hunt, and they got me my first tackle box for my birthday," Beau said. "Almost every game, I got to hang with them and mess around with them. It's the little stuff like that behind the scenes that most people don't get to see."
As Beau grew up, he and his mother and two sisters would travel to where Brad was spending the summer. Brad managed at Colorado Springs from 1993-96 before becoming first-base coach for the Phillies for four years. He managed at Las Vegas in 2002, and returned to the Majors to stay in '03 as bench coach for the Montreal Expos.
"We were so busy doing other things, the players were probably his biggest coach of how he needs to throw, how he needs to hit, how he needs to run the bases, how he needs to do these things," Brad said. "One thing about Beau, he sat down and watched games. He'd have his times where he'd run around and create havoc, but at the same time, he really watched a lot of games.
"I told him from the time he was 5, 6, 7 years old or when he could understand, I said, 'If there's something else you want to do, feel free. You don't have to do it because of me.' I said, 'I'll help you be the best at what you want to be.' That's probably the most important thing to me, to be an asset to society and do exactly what you're capable of."
Not a chance. Baseball ran deep thought Beau's soul and he pursued the game with passion. He was a standout high school player in Visalia, Calif., before attending nearby Fresno State and eventually transferring to Lewis-Clark State, where he hit an NAIA-record 38 homers in 2007. He was drafted in the first round by Cleveland that year.
"It was really beneficial having a dad in the game," Beau said. "Having that experience with my father and being out there together and him hitting me ground balls and throwing batting practice, that was always fun. I'm pretty lucky to have a father that has been in the game as long as he's been in the game and being able to go everywhere and meet the people I've met."
Still, Brad was gone eight months out of the year, which meant much of the challenge of raising Beau and sisters Taylor and Rochelle was placed on Brad's wife, Ronda.
"It's challenging for me, because I like to be around them, and it's challenging for him, because he doesn't have a dad around a lot of times," Brad said.
Brad rarely got to see his son play in person, so when the Astros had an off-day last month and the schedules were aligned, he flew to Akron, Ohio, to watch a game in person. Those are the games Beau treasured the most while growing up.
"There were hard times," Beau said. "There were times I did really well and wished he could see me, but I understand that was the nature of the game. He was doing what he loved, and my mom did a wonderful job making us all feel like he was there with us."
The hours away from home and hard worked paid off for Brad when he was named manager of the Astros last fall. Beau was riding a tractor on a dairy farm in central California when he got a text message from his mother last October informing him, "We're Astros!" He jumped from the tractor screaming.
"I understand how hard my dad worked and how much he loved this game," Beau said. "He deserves every bit of that. Nothing was given to him."
Beau hopes to one day get the call to the Majors himself and have his dad be able to watch him more often, from a bench across the field.
"That would make our family's dream come true," he said. "Our whole life has been spent apart, and we're one step to being closer [to that dream]. But I try not to think about that. I'm where I'm at and am trying to get there, but if I think about that too long, it makes the process that much longer and harder.
"But it would be a dream. I'd love to hit a home run against him, maybe even a walk-off, and then let him pick up dinner."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.