Baseball people like to say the best third-base coaches are the ones you barely notice. The more invisible they are, the better they're performing. Only after a base runner is thrown out at the plate will a third-base coach feel the walls closing in around him; otherwise, good decisions on the base paths make the manager, not the coach, look smart.
So how, exactly, do we separate the geniuses from the dummies? A third-base coach obviously does more than just guess right when waving a runner home. By the time he's made his decision, a coach has considered the strength of the opposing outfielder's and infield relay-man's arms, not to mention the speed of his own baserunner.
He's factored in all that data with the inning, the score and the probability of the on-deck batter's driving home the run if the player is held at third base. In other words, a third-base coach has to be part gambler, part soothsayer, part computer, all at once.
So who's the best? Scouts and executives point to Oakland's Ron Washington as the complete package. Aggressive without being reckless on the bases, Washington is also in tune with his players, doubling as the A's infield coach.
It's no understatement to say the A's trust Washington; when Eric Chavez won a Gold Glove Award last year, he promptly gave it to Washington, saying, "He's been part of my success more than anyone."
That bond translates on the bases, because a runner being waved home likes to know the third-base coach isn't playing a desperation longshot, or that he's trying to impress the manager by being overaggressive, or worst of all, that he's miscalculated, sending the runner to a certain doom at the plate.
Washington is "definitely good at what he does," according to A's general manager Billy Beane, although Angels third-base coach Ron Roenicke also ranks high for perfecting the art of the late-inning gamble.
Washington and Roenicke both understand the importance of waiting as long as possible before deciding a runner's fate. That's why most valuable third-base coaches are rarely found in their box. Instead, they drift as the play is unfolding. By the time a runner has rounded third, a smart coach is sometimes halfway down the line, buying as much time as possible before making a final assessment.
One American League scout said, "The third-base coach who can hold off the longest [directing a runner] is the one who makes the best decisions. A guy who stays in his box isn't helping his team very much."
Washington's veteran-status almost certainly plays a part in that confidence. New coaches tend to be too cautious or too aggressive, overcompensating for their lack of experience.
The Yankees' Luis Sojo, who debuted in 2004, said, "The biggest thing I had to learn was how fast the game moves from there, and how it changes with every batter, every situation. You have to keep up and be ready."
The complete-package third-base coach does more than direct traffic, too. He stays in contact with a runner on second base, alerting him when an infielder is sneaking behind for a possible pick-off play. And a runner on third base counts on the coach to remind him of even the most obvious rules of engagement -- like, when the opposing infield is drawn in, making sure a ground ball gets through the infield before breaking for home.
Baserunners hear the instruction, but many don't really listen -- not unlike airline passengers whose eyes glaze over the moment they're reminded about buckling their seat belts. Repetition, after all, numbs the brain, especially in baseball.
What impresses outsiders about Washington is that the A's actually pay attention to him.
"You can see that Ronnie relates to the players, he's always teaching and they're listening," said Willie Randolph, who before becoming the Mets' manager served as the Yankees' third-base coach during 1994-2003.
Randolph spent those years as the Bombers' infield coach, just like Washington, and helped develop Derek Jeter and, before he was traded to the Rangers, Alfonso Soriano, too. The more time Randolph spent with his infielders, he found, the greater link with them on the bases, too.
The Yankees not only liked Randolph, they trusted him and bought into his aggressiveness. The carryover wasn't lost on Yanks manager Joe Torre, who said, "A baserunner will pick up on little clues from his [third-base] coach. If he's aggressive and confident, it makes a difference."
That's why Randolph, now an outsider, endorses Washington.
"He's aggressive, definitely not afraid to make things happen, especially on a team that doesn't have great overall speed," he said.
"Some coaches have it easy because their team is loaded with guys who can fly. Guys like Ronnie have to make it happen and he does that very well."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.