Cueto credits Minor League coach for success
Reds righty developed under former Class A pitching instructor Brown
Forty-one years in professional baseball have taught Tom Brown a few things.
The first lesson: fame is fleeting and the spotlight eventually fades. One-hundred and sixty-nine games in the Minors and only six appearances -- 13 glorious innings -- in the big leagues with Seattle in 1978 helped teach him that.
Brown has also learned that most of the time, talent trumps hard work, but neither can operate independently of each other. The combination is the best recipe for success, but it doesn't guarantee anything.
These are only a few of the hard lessons of life and Minor League Baseball, and nobody knows them better than Brown. Nobody shares them like he does, either.
In the past 31 years as a pitching coach in the Minors -- the past six with Cincinnati, starting with the Class A Sarasota Reds in 2007 -- Brown has also come to realize how young pitchers learn, when and how they get it.
Some pitchers can watch video and immediately correct their mistakes, while others simply have to be told what to do. Then there are guys like Reds ace Johnny Cueto, Brown's prized pupil in 2007, who have to "feel it."
Something clicked for Cueto five years ago while working with Brown in Sarasota, and opposing hitters have been feeling the repercussions ever since. Brown, now the Double-A pitching coach for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, is feeling it, too. He's content knowing all those long discussions with Cueto in the dugouts across the Florida State League were not in vain, and his one-time student has come into his own as a pitcher and as a man.
"I am where I am today because of him," Cueto said. "He was a pitching coach, but he was like my baseball father. You want a coach that will treat you that way and is not yelling at you all the time. He makes you listen because he has the right approach. This is hard sport and you have to get the best you can. He got the best out of me."
The first time Brown met Cueto, he saw a 21-year-old kid with a smile that could light up a room, but a young man who had no idea what the future had in store for him. Like most ballplayers his age, Cueto was living a great life, having fun and walking around with more money in his pocket than he ever had.
Cueto knew he had talent, Brown said, he just didn't know how much talent.
The pair spoke about life almost every day, with Sarasota trainer Tomas Vera, now with the big league club, serving as the translator in the dugout. Brown asked about Cueto's adjustment to life in America and about his family back in the Dominican Republic, where the Reds had signed him back in 2004. He'd want to know if Cueto was happy, if he was learning English and what he thought about when he was on the mound.
"It was funny. He would do what he was told to do, but he pitched just good enough to beat the other team," Brown, 61, said. "I'd tell him, 'I don't think you understand what you can do. That smile is going to take you a long way and your stuff will take you a long way, but you need to understand what the future holds.' He was like a son, and you just hope the light comes on before he gets injured or something happens off the field."
The Reds' front office also had a message to deliver to the fastball-reliant Cueto: Have success with three different pitches and you'll be in the big leagues before you know it.
And Cueto did mix it up, just not the way everybody expected.
"He would throw 30 changeups, five fastballs and five sliders, or he would throw 30 sliders, five fastballs and five changeups," Brown said. "We asked why he didn't throw the other pitches, and he said he didn't have to do because they couldn't hit what he was throwing."
Cueto didn't get it, it seemed. But eventually, he did.
"I don't know what it was, but one day after the talks, I started to pitch better," Cueto said. "I started pitching, not just throwing. I was more relaxed, and everything Tom said starting to make sense."
Brown had stopped talking strategy in the dugout sessions. Instead, he focused on Cueto's motivation. Why was Cueto playing baseball in the first place?
"Everyone has one currency that they operate on," Brown said. "You find out if they are here to feed families, be rich and famous or go to the Hall of Fame, and you play on it. Johnny wanted nothing to do with money and fame. He took pride in being very good. He wants to be the best, and we challenged him to do that and showed him we know the path to get there."
Cueto was promoted from Sarasota to Double-A Chattanooga in the middle of the 2007 season, and eventually made it all the way up to Triple-A. By '08, he was in the big leagues to stay.
This season, he is 10-5 with a 2.39 ERA and has 14 quality starts in 18 appearances. In his eight starts following a Reds loss, the right-hander is 5-1 and the team is 7-1.
"His command has always been good, but now it's outstanding," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He knows how to pitch out of trouble, and he's talking to other guys when he's not pitching. He knows when to go for the strikeout, he knows when to entice a double play and he knows which guy to pitch around."
There does seem to be room for growth. Cueto made a few comments about Tony La Russa, the former Cardinals manager and skipper of this year's National League squad, after he was left out of this year's All-Star Game, which left many scratching their heads. Cueto said the snub was related to his turbulent history against St. Louis, stemming from an incident against the Cardinals in 2010.
La Russa denied the claim.
Fittingly, the Reds will start a three-game series against the Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on Friday, and Cueto is scheduled to pitch Sunday. Some wonder how the pitcher will react when he squares off against the division rival, but others believe there is nothing to worry about with him.
After all, it seems Cueto finally gets it.
"I have experience. I know what to do out there, and I'm relaxed and confident," Cueto said. "I'm more of a veteran now, but I'm growing still."