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Friday, August 9, 2013

2013 Interview: Paul Menhart chased that rabbit to the majors as a player, then later turned coach

Harrisburg Senator hurler Robbie Ray delivers to the plate at Harrisburg's Metro Bank Park in August 2013. Ray's pitching coach at AA Harrisburg was former major leaguer Paul Menhart. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: That Rabbit | Part 2: Came Back | Part 3: Locked In

HARRISBURG, PA - Paul Menhart knew he did not want to go on that team outing.

Fresh out of Western Carolina University, the Blue Jays draft pick was playing for short-season St. Catharines and the team had put together a trip to see the big club in person, an hour away in Toronto.

Menhart, though, he recalled to The Greatest 21 Days, did not go. When asked by his coach why, he recalled he gave a straight answer: Menhart wasn't going to go to Toronto's SkyDome until he was going there for real.

"That was the goal that I always had in my head," Menhart said. "I didn't want to go to visit. I wanted to go to be a part of it. And I finally got that chance."

He got that chance five seasons later, making the team to start 1995. In that first chance to be a part of it, pitching from that SkyDome mound, Menhart set down the first two batters he faced on strikes. The first batter he set down was Mark McGwire.

Menhart spoke with The Greatest 21 Days in August 2013 at Harrisburg's Metro Bank Park, where Menhart was in his second season in 2013 serving as pitching coach for the AA Nationals affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators.

Menhart touched on his time turning pro, early struggles in the minors and then later successes. He also touched on his big early set back, a blown out elbow that cost him an entire season, then his comeback to make the major leagues in three separate seasons.
Paul Menhart, upper right, speaks with a player in the Senators' Metro Bank Park dugout in August 2013. Menhart played in three major league seasons and is the Senators' pitching coach. (G21D Photo)
Menhart also spoke about his time in the major leagues, his masterful one-hitter later in 1995 that he lost 1-0 and his need to stay health and in the majors, needs Menhart admitted he may not have taken seriously enough.

Then there was his transition from being a player to being a coach, with the challenge of passing on the knowledge he gained as a pitcher in the minors and majors to a young prospects, and seeing them off to Washington.

Menhart was born in St. Louis, but grew up in Connecticut. At Fitch High School in Groton, Conn., Menhart played three sports, basketball, soccer, as well as baseball. He recalled he might have gotten more college offers as a soccer player, than a baseball player.

On the baseball side, though, he was still a force, helped by his high school baseball coach Ed Harvey and American Legion coach Jim O'Neill. Both,, he said, gave him a good foundation.

Harvey, especially, Menhart recalled helped put Menhart on his path to the pros.

"He really was very instrumental in developing everything I became, and am right now," Menhart said of Harvey. "He was very hands-on. He knew a lot about the mechanics of pitching."

Harvey, Menhart recalled, has since sent at least one other pitcher on to the major leagues, Harvey's own son, current New York Met hurler Matt Harvey.
Harrisburg's Robbie Ray readies to deliver to the plate in an August 2013 game in Harrisburg against Reading. Ray's pitching coach at Harrisburg is former major leaguer Paul Menhart. (G21D Photo)
Among the schools that recruited him for baseball was Western Carolina and head coach Jack Leggett. With his other offers to play soccer, though, Menhart chose Western Carolina and baseball, believing it held more of a future for him.

At Western Carolina, Menhart recalled his freshman year as being probably his best. That's when he believes he started opening the eyes of scouts. That's also when he started a weight program, increasing his velocity 10 mph from his senior year of high school.

Menhart also got experience against bigger schools like Auburn and North Carolina State. And the scouts came, too. The scouts were there, too. And he knew he was one of the players they were watching, because they would talk to him after games.

Menhart had already seen how scouts work through his older brother, Dave Menhart. So seeing the scouts, Menhart said, didn't really phase him.

When draft day 1990 came around, Menhart was ready, he recalled, even though he had a year left of school. He knew he was going to get drafted, but wasn't sure how high.

.Scouts called all the night before, asking if he'd sign, what round, what kind of money he was looking for. Finally, Menhart recalled his father predicting it was the Blue Jays who would take him.

It was the Blue Jays. They took him in the 8th round, soon sending a scout to Menhart's home to work out the details. The offer: $20,000.

"I said, 'Where do I sign?' Because I was ready," Menhart recalled. "I had the goal and the ambition right then and there. I wasn't going to hold out."

The scout, Menhart recalled, was even taken aback. Didn't he want anything else? His last year of schooling paid for, maybe? Sure, Menhart agreed, they could throw that in, too.

Harrisburg pitcher Robbie Ray enters his windup at Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg in August 2013. Ray's pitching coach at Harrisburg is Paul Menhart. (G21D Photo)
After a brief mini-camp in Florida, Menhart was off to St. Catharines. Once there, though, Menhart started slowly. After eight starts, he was 0-5, with an ERA of 4.05.

As for his early performance, Menhart wasn't worried. He knew what was behind the numbers. He also knew what he could do.

"I never had any doubts, no," Menhart said. "I always, no matter what, I had a goal that I was going to make it to the big leagues, and I just took it day-by-day.

"I always had that rabbit in front of me," Menhart added. "It never really phased me what my numbers were. I never really even looked at them."

The organization seemed to see past the numbers, too, and moved Menhart up to single-A Myrtle Beach. At Myrtle Beach, Menhart took off. In five outings, four starts, Menhart gave up just two earned runs for a 0.59 ERA.

The change of teams aside, Menhart's success might also have been due to his glasses, or lack of them.

After joining the Blue Jays, a physical found something wrong with his vision. The result were the glasses that can be seen on his 1990 ProCards card. In reality, there was nothing wrong with his vision. In fact, he had better-than-average vision.

A closeup of Paul Menhart's 1990 ProCards card, Menhart wearing his unneeded glasses.
The result was also a scene that could have come directly from the movies Bull Durham or Major League.

On a muggy night in Columbia, SC, shortly after his call-up to Myrtle Beach, Menhart recalled his glasses started to fog up. On the mound, in the middle of a batter, Menhart called his trainer out.

"I said, 'I'm not wearing these damn things anymore and I handed them to him," Menhart said of the glasses.

"The hitter at the plate goes - and I got this later - the hitter at the plate goes, 'What in the world is he doing? Can he see?'" Menhart recounted of the reaction just over 60 feet away. "The catcher goes, 'I don't know, he just got called up. I don't know if he can see or not. He looks a little crazy to me.'"

Did the batter dig in?

"Oh, no, he didn't dig in," Menhart said with a laugh.

From there, Menhart started to move up the Blue Jays organization. He hit high-A Dunedin in 1991, AA Knoxville in 1992, then AAA Syracuse in 1993.

Then came elbow problems, an unsuccessful attempt to pitch through them, and, after surgery and a lost year, the major leagues.

Part 1: That Rabbit | Part 2: Came Back | Part 3: Locked In

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