It was the day before game 1 of the 1993 World Series, the first Fall Classic for Johnny Podres in 28 years. He shuffled past dozens of reporters, asked a clubhouse kid, "How do I get to the field from here?" and then seemed to disappear into the artificial turf of Toronto's Sky Dome while the Philadelphia Phillies worked out. Later, when he was asked where he had been all day, Podres laughed and said, "On the field, picking up balls. That's all I'm good for."
That's typical of the 61-year-old Podres, the unpretentious, self-deprecating, droopy-faced son of an Adirondack Mountain coal miner. It has been 38 years since he shut out the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series, giving the Brooklyn Dodgers their first and only world championship. Since then he has overcome alcoholism, a heart attack and, as the Phillies' pitching coach the last three seasons, an endless line of injured or dreadful pitchers.
"He's MVP of this staff, no doubt," says Philadelphia starting pitcher Curt Schilling, the MVP of the National League Championship Series. "He deserves all the credit and wants none. Have you ever seen a pitching coach do what Pods has done?"
As the pitching coach with the Boston Red Sox in 980 Podres nurtured young pitchers John Tudor and Bruce Hurst. During his coaching stint with the Minnesota Twins, from 1981 to '85, he taught rank Viola and Mark Portugal how to throw a changeup and made a 15-game winner out of Ken Schrom. But his biggest challenge—and greatest coaching accomplishment—came when he was named the Phillies' pitching coach following the 1990 season. After five years as a minor league instructor with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Podres inherited a Philadelphia staff so wretched that he collapsed into his chair one day during spring training, stared into his locker and muttered to himself, "I had it made. I was making $50,000 a year with the Dodgers. Worked 10 days. Took the next seven off. I gave that up. What did I do?"
What has he done?
He has taught Terry Mulholland how to throw a sinker, or "dry spitter," making him one of the league's best lefthanders, with 41 victories over the past three seasons. He has convinced righthander Benn Rivera to throw over the top rather than sidearm, turning him from a project into a 13-game winner this year. He has tutored Danny Jackson on the changeup that helped the lefthander have his best season (12-11, 3.77 ERA) since 1988. He has shown Tommy Greene how to throw a four-seam fastball, and Greene has gone from a throw-in in the 1990 Dale Murphy trade to a dominant righthander with a combined record of 32-14 over the past three years.
Then there's the 26-year-old Schilling, who, when he was traded by Houston to Philadelphia in 1992, was joining his fourth organization in seven years. He arrived in Philly with a reputation as a goofball who didn't take the game seriously. He has since become Podres' prize pupil. The righthander was 14-11 last year and 16-7 this season. "I've stated what kind of impact my father [who died in 1988] had on my life, but Johnny Podres runs a close second," says Schilling, who owns an autographed Dodger jersey that Podres wore in his playing days. "He taught me how to pitch, how to act—he taught me about life. Without him it would have taken me four to five years to get to this point. He never lets you believe that the game is better than you."
Whenever Podres visits the mound he tells his pitchers the same thing: You've got really great stuff. "I'll walk the bases loaded, and he'll say that," says reliever Mitch Williams, who is aptly known as Wild Thing. "I'll ask him, 'Are you watching the same game I am?' "
Reliever Larry Andersen refers to Podres as the mother hen and says, "We're his chicks. I've never seen anyone so protective of his pitchers. Say one bad thing about any of us, and he'll be barking up your butt. That sign BEWARE OF DOG should read BEWARE OF POD if you say anything bad about us. He's A-1 positive."
Schilling concludes, "He makes you believe things that just aren't there."
Believe this: After finishing last in the league in ERA in '92, the Phillies finished sixth this year while also leading the league in complete games. Podres speaks highly of his staff—"My pitchers can do no wrong," he says—but he deflects questions about himself and his career, which included 148 wins in 15 years, four shutout innings in two All-Star Game appearances and a 4-1 record in six World Series starts. He's even hesitant to talk about his two complete-game victories in the '55 Series, including the 2-0 Game 7 shutout that helped earn him, among other things, SI's Sportsman of the Year award.
"I think about that game a lot," Podres says. "I can still see [leftfielder Sandy] Amoros making that catch [of Yogi Berra's drive with the two tying runs on base in the sixth inning]. It's unbelievable for me to be back in the World Series after all this time. I had hoped that somewhere along the way, I would help these guys get here."
And that he did.