Menke has fond memories of his time with Phillies
Denis Menke, the Phillies' hitting coach from 1989-96, remembers the time Pete Incaviglia had one of the best batting practices he'd ever seen, pounding balls out all over Veterans Stadium.
"So about five minutes before the game, I'm in the coaches' room and in comes Inky. He says, 'Menk, come here.' And he [asked] me, 'Do you think my hands should be here or should they be there?' I said, 'What? You just put on one of the greatest exhibitions I've ever seen anybody ever do, and now, right before the game, you're worried about where your hands should be?'" Menke recalled with a laugh.
There were lots of laughs in 1993, when a Phillies team that had finished last the year before went all the way to Game 6 of the World Series before falling to the Blue Jays. And Menke played a big role in the success. That team scored 877 runs, still the second-highest total for the franchise since 1930.
After leaving the Phillies, Menke was a hitting coach for the Reds from 1997-2000 before retiring.
"I have nine grandkids -- seven boys and two girls," he said during a visit to Bright House Field this spring. "So they'll keep you pretty busy. My wife and I just got through celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary.
"I was golfing, but I noticed I wasn't getting any better at it, so I said, 'That's it. I'm through with this game' I watch a few ballgames on TV, and if I don't like what I'm seeing, I can turn it off."
He played 13 years in the big leagues with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Astros and the Reds. An infielder, he made the National League All-Star team in 1969 and '70. Now 73, he lives in Tarpon Springs, Fla., and he still has fond memories of the out-sized personalities on that '93 team.
"Each guy was so different on that ballclub. Incaviglia was probably the most insecure," Menke said. "Del Unser [then the team's player development director] was out throwing BP for [Darren Daulton] because Dutch was struggling against left-handed pitching. So, he was on the field at old Jack Russell Stadium. And Dutch can't hit any balls out of the ballpark. I could see he was really getting frustrated. So he looks back and says, 'Menk, let's go down in the cage.' He took 10 swings down in the cage and he said, 'I've got it.' And he was fine."
Those happy memories are tempered by a glance at the team picture from that magical season. Bench coach John Vukovich passed away in 2007 at age 59, and first-base coach Mel Roberts, 64, followed later that year. Pitching coach Johnny Podres was 75 when he died the following year, and manager Jim Fregosi was 71 when he was felled by a stroke last February.
"A lot of surprises," Menke said. "Vuk died very young. Roberts was pretty young, too. Pods was up there, but still a shock. And, of course, now Jim is gone. My neighbor. That was probably the biggest shock, because I just had seen him probably two weeks before. We were at his house, just sitting and talking. I never expected that. I said, 'Well, pretty soon you're going to have to go back to work.'"
As clichéd as it sounds, it's a useful reminder to savor each day.
"It boils down to that. I've been very fortunate in my life. Baseball has been really good to me," Menke said. "Things happen. You're surprised by things, but then you realize that life has to go on. That's kind of the way I look at it. I still enjoy life.
"I wouldn't have changed anything. Grew up on a farm, entered baseball when I was 17 years old, and 40 years later I decided it was finally time to get out. I really did get out on my own terms. After the 2000 season in Cincinnati, I knew it was time to get out. It was a little harder for me to be around some of the high-priced players and the so-called superstars. And I decided it was time to get out. The scout who signed me said if you ever get tired to the point you're not enjoying the game, it's time to get out. And that's what I did."