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Inside Baseball: Series hero Devon White finding niche as Herd hitting coach

Hitters spend the spring and early season looking to get back into their day-to-day routine. It's no different for a coach. But even though Devon White has not been with a team since serving as an instructor for the Chicago White Sox in 2012, the transition to Bisons hitting coach has been a smooth one for the center fielder of the Toronto Blue Jays' World Series championship clubs of the 1990s.

"It's not really about getting back into a rhythm for me. The game is in my blood," White said prior to a recent game in Coca-Cola Field. "I never really retired. I just stopped playing. I coached with the Nationals and White Sox and I was very involved with the Jays Care Foundation so I've stayed involved. The learning comes from these 'new-era' kids you're coaching. They're different from guys who came up in my time and they expect different things. It's my job to guide them in the right directions.

"It's a process. They have to understand the ups and downs of this game. Anything can happen and they have to continue to work hard. That doesn't always mean long hours either. That means quality work, making the best use of their time."

In recent years, White has been involved with Jays Care, teaching the game to youngsters in the annual Blue Jays Baseball Academy, as well as his own Devon White Baseball Academy. He reached out to the Jays when president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins came from Cleveland, and they were happy to bring another prominent member of the club's alumni into the fold.

So with the Bisons staging their annual Blue Jays Weekend and the likes of Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez and Duane Ward in the park for a Saturday autograph session, White was in the Buffalo dugout. The Bisons enter the weekend sixth in the IL in batting at .257 and seventh in runs.

"The organization has been great with the alumni," said White, 54. "I came here a couple years ago for this weekend and it's always great the way they keep in touch with their former players and make them a part of the organization. You'll see George Bell, Tony Fernandez is coming this weekend, Fred McGriff has been with them, Carlos Delgado was here (last week). It's great to see."

White came to the Blue Jays in 1991 and played with them for five of his 17 big-league seasons. He is best known for his miraculous leaping catch at the center-field fence of then-SkyDome in Game Three of the 1992 World Series against Atlanta. In a play often compared for its acrobatics to Willie Mays' grab in the 1954 Series against Cleveland, White made a backhand catch of David Justice's drive and fired the ball back to the infield.

Confusion among baserunners led to Terry Pendleton being called out for passing Deion Sanders,  and Sanders nearly getting nailed by Kelly Gruber for what would have been the first triple play in Series annals since 1920. Umpire Bob Davidson missed the call, however, and said Gruber didn't tag Sanders. Replay showed otherwise but there were no challenges back then.

"We can say that about a lot of things, right?" said a smiling White. "When you have replay of a lot of things, you might be better. Human error happens and you can't live in the past. I always say that without that double play we might not have won a ring. It changed the dynamic of a lot of things in that game. I just try to take things as they come."

White said in the heat of the series, he didn't immediately understand how the play was going to live in World Series highlight films forever.

"You don't think about it at the time that you made what's called an historic play," he said. "You never know how important it was and how it sits in history. Willie Mays made his catch, it was probably the same thing. It was a great play but you think there's always something better that comes up. You never think about it in that manner. Society and the game itself will be the ones to say, 'Hey that was a great play' but I know it happened to come in a World Series too and that makes a difference."

White said the Blue Jays' back-to-back titles -- the only ones by a team other than the Yankees since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s -- really resonate to him as the franchise celebrates the 25th anniversary of the first one.

"It's a hard thing to do and you sit back now and realize how hard. That's the biggest thing I look at is what we did winning back to back," he said. "When you win in Toronto, you're representing all of Canada. When they win, it's nothing like it. I tell some of these guys in Buffalo when they go up that they won't understand until they're in it."

Having a 17-year big-league career gives White credibility in the Buffalo clubhouse, even if some of his players are too young to remember a career that featured seven Gold Gloves.

"When I came up, I knew Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield. I knew what they did. Kids nowadays are different and you roll with the punches," White said. "If somebody says to you, 'Did you do this?' I tell them, 'Go look at the Internet.' You don't tell them about yourself, you make them figure it out and look you up.

"These kids like their coaches and their comfort is knowing you played and what can I do. You've been through the ups and downs. I understand. I was in your shoes. Played in the minors, struggled there, struggled in the big leagues, had personal issues here, personal issues there but we focused on baseball because it was our job. We understand what you go through."

Big number, tough times for Collins

Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Terry Collins managed his 1,013th game for the Mets Saturday to break Davey Johnson's franchise record but it's not a happy time in Flushing. Injuries have ravaged the Mets' pitching staff and's Jerry Crasnick wrote a scathing review of the team's strength and conditioning program last week that questioned its unusual training methods and said the heavy emphasis on weightlifting could bear responsibility for all the ailments, especially to their prized arms.

The Mets went 0-6 on their road trip that ended Wednesday, giving up 29 runs in three games at Milwaukee and then getting walked off for two of their three losses in Arizona.

Said an exasperated Collins at one point on the trip: “I read the papers today. There are people thinking the Cubs are done. They’re not. If we go win seven of the next 10, then all of a sudden, ‘Hey, we’re OK.’ The issue is when you are in a losing streak and you are not playing well and you are getting knocked around pretty good. The sky’s falling, and it’s not.

"This is a game where every day, you have to forget about tonight. You got to get up tomorrow, get yourself ready and grind it out and put together good at-bats and put together a big pitch, make the big pitch when you have to make them. Don’t be afraid to walk a guy. You have to make a quality pitch when the time comes at this level. If you can’t do it, you are going to get hurt. I think our club right now … as one of the guys in the dugout said, right now, somebody has pissed off the baseball gods because every move we make, it turns out to be the wrong one, no matter what it is.”

Collins is 498-514 for the Mets. Collins and Bobby Valentine (1999-2000) are the only skippers to lead the team to consecutive playoff appearances. The matchup with first-year Arizona manager Torey Lovullo was the third one for Collins against a fellow member of the Buffalo Hall. He's also managed against Eric Wedge (Seattle) and Dave Roberts (Los Angeles).

Bibens-Dirkx gets the call

Just a tremendous feel-good story Wednesday in Texas as former Bisons reliever Austin Bibens-Dirkx made his long-awaited major-league debut after 12 seasons in the minors. He gave up a run while pitching the ninth inning of a 9-3 win over Philadelphia.

Bibens-Dirkx, 32, had waited 10 days since his callup from Round Rock to get into a game. The Oregon native pitched 22 games for the Bisons in 2014 and 2015, making seven starts. He first cracked Triple-A for one game with Tacoma way back in 2006, and Round Rock was his fifth Triple-A stop before finally getting the call.

“Fun is the only word I can think of,” said Bibens-Dirkx, who had two stints in independent ball the last 12 years. “It was a lot of fun. It was everything that I hoped and dreamed for. Before I got out there and threw that first pitch I had to take a step back and try to take it all in, take a deep breath and go out there and try to throw strikes. Honestly, I had a really big smile on my face pretty much the whole way."

Texas manager Jeff Banister understood Bibens-Dirkx's story well. Banister, remember, got his first and only callup from the Bisons to Pittsburgh in 1991 when Collins was the manager here and got a hit in his only at-bat in the big leagues.

“It’s obviously emotional,” Banister said of Bibens-Dirkx. “The guys love him. They love his story. They relish him. Every single player was up on the rail watching. Every guy was clapping as soon as his name was announced. He had a lot of advocates in that dugout. That’s what is fun. It’s great when you can get a guy like this in a game, it’s well worth the wait for him and for all our guys."

A word on the Herd

The Bisons had a tough night Friday, with long lines greeting fans at the entrance gates due to the new metal detectors and a flat-out goofy decision to not have the Washington Street gate open. Fans not familiar with the ballpark should know they really don't have to form a massive line at the Swan Street gate. Both the Pettibones entrance and Seneca Street gate (by right field) had much shorter lines at the detectors.

Things were going fine until about 6:30 when huge swarms of fans started to show up for the 7:05 first pitch. The team made some on-the-fly adjustments but there was no way to last-minute open and staff Washington Street to alleviate the crunch.

There are concerns about fans lining up at that gate due to its proximity to moving traffic but it's a key entry point. It needs to be open on Friday nights and on major dates like Star Wars Night, July 3 or Fan Appreciation Night. Teams insist metal detectors are faster than wanding, which I don't necessarily agree with. But at least the Bills and Sabres have enough devices and staff. The Bisons have to be better.

As for the fans, I renew what I say every year on big dates at the ballpark and what the Sabres and Bills now say routinely: If you show up 15 minutes before the start of the game, you're not getting in on time. It's a sad fact of life we need metal detectors at a Bisons game. This isn't an inebriated crowd of football fans who have been drinking in a parking lot for four hours. I think it's unnecessary but I get it that it only takes one evil-intentioned lunatic to cause a serious issue.

On the promotional side, however, the No Rain Guarantee week was a great idea, as were concession and ticket specials and the Blue Jays weekend. And in case you missed it with the late finish to Friday's game, it rained briefly during the Herd's 13-inning win. So all fans can turn in their tickets from Friday at the box office for two free tickets to the games Sunday or May 30-31.

And if you use them for Sunday's 1:05 start, don't complain to me if you show up at the metal detector at 12:55.

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