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Dave Righetti offers behind-the-scenes look at Matt Cain’s early years



SAN FRANCISCO–They’ve worked together for 13 years, and on Saturday afternoon, they’ll celebrate their final day as player and coach.

The relationship that Giants’ pitching coach Dave Righetti and right-hander Matt Cain share is a special one, considering Righetti has guided the three-time World Series champion righty through all 13 seasons of his professional career.

Righetti watched a 20-year-old rookie grow into the only pitcher in Giants’ history to throw a perfect game, and has been a fixture in San Francisco’s dugout for every step of Cain’s career.

On Saturday, Cain will take the ball for the final time, starting the Giants’ penultimate game of the season against the San Diego Padres before officially retiring after Sunday’s season finale.

On Friday afternoon, Righetti met with reporters and shared stories of Cain’s earliest years at the big league level, and described how he helped Cain develop into one of the most important figures in franchise history.

Question: Are you excited tomorrow and are you thinking about any of the emotions you’ll have when Matt goes to the mound?

Dave Righetti: It’s strange. Only because it’s probably the first one. I’m trying to remember, we’ve had other folks obviously retire, but it’s been like last-second. They didn’t know. I remember Affeldt’s or Hudson’s, this is more Marichal-like, this is more Perry-like, this is a big deal for Giant fans and anybody that grew up a Giant fan. To have a guy start and end his career here and the length of it, and the innings, the 2,000-plus innings, the 300-plus starts, so I’m with you in terms of, I know I’m going to see him again so it’s not like you’re missing a friend. I wish I could put it into words, but when a player is no longer playing, and he wears the uniform, it’s not the same as when he’s playing. Whether you’re a coach, and a guy can back up whatever he’s earned all these years and go out there and contribute and play, that’s what generates the emotion for other players and the respect and all of those things that come with it. The cool thing, and he hasn’t felt it yet, the day after he pitches and he retires, he gets to be young again. He missed out on a lot of his youth. I’ll give you, I’ve been trying to think of things that pop into my head. Shane Turner was part of his maturity obviously, he drafted him. Shane was probably one of the first coaches that had to deal with him. When he got to the big leagues he was still only 20. He (Turner) goes, make sure you tell Matt, just don’t forget to be a kid. You’re allowed to have fun and be a child, so to speak. Because he had to tell him to remember that when he was coming up and he was the guy coming up through the system, he was going to be the next guy to come up and that sort of a thing. The burden that you carry is different than what other guys have to carry. I think he reminded Matty of that one time when he got to AAA, and maybe Turner was managing him, but about halfway through the second year I think it was, Turner said, ‘Hey, remember, this is what I told him.’ I told him and it rang a bell with Matty and he goes, ‘Yeah, I think I’ve heard that before. So that’s what coaches are supposed to do, help you a little bit. So that was from Shane Turner.

Question: Was there a big coaching moment with him where you thought like, oh, he learned this pitch and that’s where everything took off for him?

Righetti: No, it wasn’t a pitch. It was two things. The second one was really important. At first, you kind of just let him go and you give him structure and this is kind of what you have to do and how you’re supposed to act. That part, he was fine with. He had Matt Morris here, some other guys here that had been around a little bit. Of course, I think we had an older team, a much older team. But with Matty, the third pitch was big. Because he was a fastball-curveball guy. Everybody was wondering if he should throw sliders or not. Hard on the arm. And a lot of guys go through this in the Minor Leagues. Should they be slider-curveball guys. Vogelsong, same guy, same kind of thing. We never wanted a guy with a curve not to throw it, at least me. We also knew he was going to need a little something different to get rid of these hitters. Classic thing you guys wrote about was Helton’s at-bat. Well, it lasted that long because it was really only one speed. So a guy like that, it’s easy for him to stay on it. The curveball was a power, hard curveball, and when he, the changeup and slider just gave him more options against all kinds of hitters. But the changeup I think made him a star and an All-Star, a guy that started the All-Star game. A guy that won playoff games, series games, that guy had a good changeup, which he didn’t have when he came up. But that wasn’t a moment, that was kind of just a maturity.

Question: So he didn’t learn the grip from somebody and just take off?

Righetti: No, there’s only so many unless a guy like Eddie Whitson cut his finger off. You hear these stories and there’s always some circle change or a palm or a split and they find something that fits their delivery, but that wasn’t the moment. The baseball moment without a doubt was Brian Sabean, myself, Matty, not sure if Gardy (Mark Gardner) was in there but he probably was. And Felipe (Alou). And we were talking about whether or not to send him down or let him do it here and figure it out. We were all together, Cain was in there and Sabes wanted to talk to him as a group and he ran the meeting and talked about, he’ll get mad at me for talking about this, but that’s why I love Brian too. It was just a feeling he had about Cain, that he was going to learn more about getting better here with us than it was about going back to the minors again. What’s he going to do? It’s a strange, anybody that’s been through it will tell you, it’s an awkward. Are they really doing it for the time, because you’re going to be arbitration-eligible or you know, any of those things. And in this case, Brian, the player knew it was all about him and how he might take it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t going to be some thing, trying to figure out how to save money. No, this was about the best thing to do for this kid at that point. And he was, I’m sure 21 or 22 at that time. And we decided to, let’s do some things here. We tweaked some things, his delivery was awkward. And it still was. And part of his charm and tough on hitters was the way he delivered the baseball, too. The more you streamline a guy, the more hitters tend to like it. No, he’s comfortable with that. But we were worried about longevity at that point. And the reason that I mention that too is there was not a huge talk, but there was talk about Timmy (Lincecum) maybe going to Toronto for give me his name, the great outfielder, Alex Rios, if this happens, we didn’t have the closer guy, either. So was Cain the closer? Or is Timmy a closer? Who’s going to start these games, who’s going to finish them? So that was an important part of their careers and what was going on at that point.

Question: Was there something about Matt’s personality, because that’s a little bit rare to bring the player into that conversation, right?

Righetti: Yes.

Question: So was there something about Matt’s personality that you felt…

Righetti: Probably, yeah. He was a young professional, so to speak, I guess at that point. But he was like any young guy, he was trying to win desperately. We were worried about, and I know Brian (Sabean) was too, the grinding of trying to win a darn game. Because he went through long periods where, it didn’t matter how much he was going to throw, he wasn’t necessarily going to get a win probably. So how was this going to effect him? And he had to answer to people every day about the team, about not getting a win, that’s a lot to carry for a young guy and I thought he did, I thought it’s a model for anybody else that has to deal with that. You guys would know better than me how he did it, but he looked like a man.

Question: That conversation might have happened a couple of years before the World Series, ’07-’08?

Righetti: Oh yeah, well before. That was ’06 probably, maybe ’07, probably ’06. You’ll have to ask the other guys. But it’s easy to chronicle. The next game, he threw the one-hitter in Oakland. I went, okay, I guess he belongs here. He threw a one-hit shutout, a day game in Oakland, so that conversation happened before that ballgame. So that sticks out, obviously.

Question: You guys have worked together all 13 seasons, pitching coach and pitcher. You just don’t see that, how unique is the relationship that you two share?

Righetti: Gardy too. Mark Gardner. I guess you cherish it. We respect it. You don’t expect it. But you definitely respect it. In our division now, you see (Darren) Balsley, you see (Rick) Honeycutt, I think you’re seeing more of this. (Clayton) Kershaw is going to turn around and you know, you’ll have a nice conversation with Honeycutt one day, that’s going to be a hell of a deal. So you just appreciate it. Our game is very volatile. It can be. But I guess that part of it is very precious and so when it does happen, because you never want to coach a guy you’re not sure if you’re going to be coaching him again. What I mean by that, and a player has got to feel the same way. Is this guy going to be here next year? Why am I got to? So I think it helps to have some stability, doesn’t it? You know, god bless him. It’s been tremendous and I’m sure I’ll be able to come up with better words some day. It’ll be emotional, no question about it. You can’t get away from that.