Former MC coach enjoys major league moment on Rockies' staff

By Brian VanderBeek / The Modesto BeeSeptember 20, 2012 

SAN FRANCISCO -- Butch Hughes has been wearing baseball uniforms every summer since he was a third-grader.

Through Little League, high school, an All-American season at Cerritos College, a four-year minor league pitching career, 10 years coaching at Merced College and 30 years as a minor league pitching coach, he's been a passenger on every baseball bus known to exist.

Yes, Hughes has seen it all in the game, but at 71 he is enjoying a brand-new baseball experience.

For the first time, the Merced resident is watching major league baseball from the best seat in the house - the dugout. He's part of the Colorado Rockies' coaching staff at AT&T Park this week for the team's four-game series against the San Francisco Giants.

"It's exciting - no question about it," said Hughes, who was the pitching coach for the Modesto Nuts from 2005-08. "I didn't expect it.

"Last week I was in North Carolina when I got a call. They wanted to know where I was, because I have to report to instructional ball (Scottsdale, Ariz.) on the 24th. I told them I was visiting my kids in North Carolina and they asked me to join the Rockies for this series."

Hughes pretty much goes anywhere the Rockies ask these days. He began the 2012 season as a part-time special assignment coach with the organization, skipping between the Rockies' minor league teams to work with young arms as needed.

His job description changed radically in late June, when a shake-up on the major league coaching staff opened the pitching coach position with the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs. Colorado asked Hughes if he wanted to finish the season in the Pacific Coast League and he didn't have to think twice.

What he didn't know was that when the major league rosters expand every September, major league clubs routinely also promote their Triple-A staff. It's part to bring-in coaches more familiar with the minor league players, part to bring in more eyes to keep track of the bigger roster.

Officially, Hughes isn't doing much during this four-day tour by The Bay.

"It's a nice gesture on their part," Hughes said. "I don't have a role here. I get to put my input in about what I see and what I believe. Whether they listen to it or not is another matter."

But after only one day on the bench, Hughes already had an opinion about the Colorado coaching staff. And if you know Hughes, that comes as no surprise.

"Monday was the first day I sat on a big league bench, and what I found is that the same problems we had in Modesto they're still facing here," Hughes said.

"They"re still pitching behind in the count, they won't pitch in, they make mistakes with their curveball and they make make bad pitch selections. Those are the same problems we had in Modesto, and I saw the same problems in Triple-A this year. We have to make progress in those areas."

The Rockies have to be thankful to have the experienced eyes of Hughes on the coaching staff. At the same time Hughes is thankful just to be able to be on the diamond - whether a minor league facility at the end of a 17-hour bus ride or the gem of National League stadiums.

He was set to retire completely from baseball following his 2008 season in Modesto following the scare of his life.

On May 20, 2008, while playing in his regular golf game at Merced Country Club, Hughes fainted while walking down the first fairway, and it wasn't because he was shocked his opening tee shot found the short grass.

The scare came on suddenly. He lost his ability to speak, then his legs went limp and he lost his vision.

By the time the ambulance arrived he was fine, and his partners tried to convince him he'd just whiffed two shots, because in his regular game a whiff means you're buying the first round at the 19th hole.

Tests showed the spell was caused by an irregular heartbeat, and on Aug. 15 of that year a heart ablation at Stanford University hospital corrected the abnormality.

But Hughes took the scare as a sign it was time to slow down, and he retired at the end of the 2008 season.

"That lasted for about two months, and then the Rockies offered me a part-time job, which eventually led back to what I'm doing now," Hughes said.

And for four days, it led Hughes into a major league dugout.

"I enjoy being in the clubhouse because I know 90 percent of the players and all the staff," Hughes said. "It's not like I'm a stranger coming in. I'm not enamored by the big league experience. If this wouldn't have happened to be I still could have died a happy man.

"But I'm glad this happened. I think it shows that the Rockies appreciate some of the stuff that I've done and I think that's the reason I'm here."

Modesto Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@ modbee.com or (209) 578-2150.

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