Brad Mills truly prepared for Astros' job

Brad Mills found his little niche in baseball history on April 27, 1983, when he became Houston pitcher Nolan Ryan's 3,509th strikeout victim. The encounter pushed Ryan past Walter Johnson into first place on the game's career strikeout list.

To this day, the competitor in Mills insists that the curveball that froze him for strike three was outside. Thankfully, he's not the type to engage in what-ifs.

"He was going to get somebody," Mills said of Ryan. "I just happened to be the guy at the plate."

Let the record show that Mills had his moments against future Hall of Famers: He went 2-for-6 against Don Sutton and recorded one hit each against Ryan, Tom Seaver, Bruce Sutter and Ferguson Jenkins. That's not bad for a guy who batted .256 (43-for-168) in four seasons as a Montreal Expo before blowing out his knee at age 29.

The injury led Mills to retire as a player and jump directly into managing with the Cubs' Rookie League club in Wytheville, Va., in 1987. More than two decades later, Mills is one of those heartwarming "baseball lifer" stories. He's the guy who persevered long enough to land his dream job.

In late October the Astros named Mills, who was Terry Francona's bench coach in Boston, to replace manager Cecil Cooper, who was fired in September after a turbulent summer at Minute Maid Park. The Astros finished fifth in the National League Central at 74-88, spawning numerous reports that Cooper had alienated players with his lack of communication skills and had "lost the clubhouse."

General manager Ed Wade, understandably, isn't anxious to relive the circumstances that contributed to Cooper's demise.

"I'm not into comparing and contrasting," Wade said. "Coop's a great baseball man, but things got rough from a win-loss standpoint last year. We're facing forward at this point and building off the strengths that Millsy brings to the table."

Translation: The Astros think they landed the guy who can cure what ailed them. Does it matter that they took a detour or two on their way to the finish line?

Mills wasn't at the top of the team's wish list when the Astros began looking at candidates. Dave Clark, who spent 13 games as interim manager in September, was on the list. So were Manny Acta, Phil Garner, Ned Yost, Bob Melvin, Tim Bogar, Al Pedrique, Pete Mackanin and Randy Ready.

Wade knew Mills from their time together in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, when Wade was general manager and Mills was Francona's first base coach. When Francona called the Astros last fall with an endorsement, Wade wasn't quite sure what to think.

"Terry told me, 'If you give Brad an opportunity to come in, you'll really enjoy the discussion,'" Wade recalled. "I almost took that as code -- that he was making the call as a courtesy because of their friendship. I talked to Terry later, and in his heart he knew what we would see if we gave Brad a chance to sit down and talk about his craft. He just didn't want to strong-arm us by saying, 'You have to hire this guy.'"

The Astros signed Mills to a two-year contract after Acta turned down their offer and accepted the managing job in Cleveland. In 3½ months since coming on board, Mills has won dozens of converts with his straight-talking, no-frills approach.

Mills arrived in Houston in mid-January for the team's winter caravan and spent time in Temple, Katy, Sugar Land and other stops spreading the Astros' gospel. At several venues, Mills either had to answer questions about that record-breaking strikeout against Ryan or had to watch video of it.

Mills spent time with Michael Bourn and J.R. Towles on the caravan; bumped into Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt at a dinner; and saw Hunter Pence, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Moehler and several other Astros working out at the ballpark. During each encounter, he quietly yet firmly articulated his vision for the franchise.

"He doesn't come in with a joke book or 100 baseball stories to engage his audience," Wade said. "His message is consistent whether he's in front of crowds or he's having individual discussions with players.

"I really think the players are buying into his program: Prepare to play the game the right way. Know that the manager and the staff have your back. But you're also going to be accountable."

When Mills hasn't been traipsing around southeast Texas this offseason drumming up interest in Astros owner Drayton McLane's team, he's been home in Visalia, Calif., spending time with family and friends and throwing batting practice to his son, Beau, a former first-round draft pick who hit .267 with 14 homers for Cleveland's Double-A Akron team last season.

Mills grew up in the town of Lemon Cove, a community of citrus groves in California's San Joaquin Valley. His father, Jim, managed an orange ranch, and his two older brothers helped work the fields while young Brad spent his spare time shooting baskets, hitting golf balls and throwing a baseball against the house.

"I know that used to tick them off quite a bit," Mills said, laughing.

Lemon Cove had a population of 180 when Mills was a boy, and it's exploded to more than 300 in the four decades since. Mills' parents still live in the house he grew up in, and his father, now 86, roams his 25 acres with his dog, pulling weeds, cutting trees and tending the sprinklers to stay active.

Mills played ball at the College of the Sequoias before leaving for Jerry Kindall's powerhouse program at Arizona. He was a third baseman in the Montreal system and a teammate of Francona and Frank Wren, now the Atlanta Braves' general manager.

Wren still remembers watching baseball's "Game of the Week" with Mills at the team hotel in Charlotte in June 1980 when Memphis manager Larry Bearnarth knocked on the door and told Mills he had just been called up to the majors.

"We were both in shock," Wren said. "That was the first time I'd lost a roommate to the big leagues. We were getting ready to get on the bus to go to the ballpark in a few minutes, and Brad was packing to get on a plane to St. Louis. He was pumped."

When Cubs farm director Gordon Goldsberry offered him a chance to manage a few years later, Mills never could have envisioned where it would lead. The road took him from Wytheville, Va., to Charleston, W.Va., with later stops in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Peoria, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Las Vegas, along with big league coaching gigs in Philadelphia, Montreal and Boston.

He wouldn't trade a minute of it.

"Those experiences are invaluable," Mills said. "You learn a lot about yourself and how you react to certain situations. Personally, I gained an appreciation for how the game is supposed to be played and how hard the game is. It took a while, and you don't make much money. But that's not a bad thing. Those experiences really form who you are."

Mills has a lot of work to do in Houston. Last season, the Astros ranked 24th in the major leagues in ERA, 27th in runs scored and 29th in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings. ESPN.com's Keith Law rates Houston's farm system as the 28th best in baseball, and Baseball America ranks the Astros as 30th and last overall.

Oh yeah: Houston's Opening Day roster last year was the oldest in baseball.

At least the Astros are getting younger. They plan to go with rookie Tommy Manzella at shortstop and Towles and/or Jason Castro at catcher. New third baseman Pedro Feliz's on-base percentage leaves something to be desired, but he'll combine with Manzella to upgrade the defense on the left side.

Frank Wren If there's a better training ground than he got in Boston, I don't know what it would be. I think he'll do a terrific job.

-- Braves GM Frank Wren on Brad Mills

The Astros need Oswalt to improve upon his 8-6 record, Brett Myers to rediscover his old 200-inning form; Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom to stabilize the back end of the bullpen; Berkman and Carlos Lee to scare people in the middle of the order; and Pence, Bourn, Bud Norris and the kids to keep maturing.

A decent start would also help. From 2000 through 2009, the Astros posted a .480 winning percentage before the All-Star break (427-462) and a .555 win percentage after the break (405-325). It would be nice if they don't play themselves into a hole by Memorial Day.

As Mills prepares for his first spring training, he'd rather avoid the obligatory labels. He doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a "players' manager" or a "feel guy" or a "Terry Francona clone." Yes, he regards Francona like a brother. But he played under Dick Williams, Jim Fanning and Bill Virdon in Montreal, and they all left their mark on him.

The one thing nobody will ever say about Mills is that he comes to the job unprepared.

"If there's a better training ground than he got in Boston, I don't know what it would be," Wren said. "I think he'll do a terrific job."

During a recent interview with his hometown California paper, Mills described himself as "a little bit vanilla." When his three kids came over to the house for dinner a couple of nights later, they immediately gave him the business.

"They told me, 'You're anything but vanilla!'" Mills said, laughing. "Then they started listing things. They told me, 'You're more like Tabasco sauce than vanilla.'"

Focused or driven. Quiet or intense. If Mills can bring a winner to Houston, it doesn't matter what people call him. Baseball fans in Houston might even learn to forget a certain strikeout in the spring of 1983.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.