PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – As an escape from those cold Nebraska winters, the brick mason leaned on cigarettes. He would burn through two packs of Pall Mall a day, a habit that led to two heart attacks.
The brick mason’s son was reluctant to pin blame on that potent combination of tar and nicotine. He carried guilt on his shoulders. It was his fault. And it was his siblings’ fault.
"We were rabble-rousers," Dan Warthen said during a quiet moment in the Mets’ dugout last week. "Didn’t mind getting in a fight. Didn’t mind doing other things. You wonder if some of the stuff we did didn’t impart a little bit of this stress on his life."
The brick mason had one unbending rule for his seven children: When you turn 18, you leave the house.
And that’s where this began, when his son Dan left the house.
The caretaker of the Mets organization’s two most precious assets is a 60-year-old man. His right knee is made of titanium. His eyes are frequently framed by a pair of dark glasses.
On his pitching résumé are 12 major league victories. On his pitching coach résumé are four major league teams. He has polished deliveries in Detroit, in Seattle, in San Diego, and for the past six seasons in New York.
"I can’t really say enough about him," former Mariners pitcher Erik Hanson said. "Obviously he was very influential in what I was able to accomplish."
Warthen’s most intriguing assignment might be the one on his current plate. He is tutoring Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, the two Mets prospects whom team executives hope will deliver this franchise from darkness.
Wheeler barely knows Warthen. Harvey worked with him for the first time last spring. And yet their paths mirror the path Warthen once chose. Harvey planned to build a long career as a pitcher.
"I was very close to my father," Warthen said. "We sat down and talked. He worked as my agent at that time in the negotiation of the contract.’’
He won eight games in 1975, but was throwing way too many pitches. On July 11, he threw 142 in a 2-1 loss to Atlanta. Two days later, he threw 17 more during a relief appearance.
"Maybe a little overused," Warthen said. "No, I was definitely overused."
He pitched at least seven innings 12 times as a rookie, but only four times after that debut season. He was done pitching by the time he turned 30.
The remodeling of his life took shape in the minors. He began studying deliveries. He offered advice to teammates. By 1991, he secured his first pitching coach job in the majors.
"It was almost as gratifying as being a player," Warthen said. "At that time, I don’t think people ever realized how good the Seattle Mariners were. We had Edgar Martinez, A-Rod, [Ken] Griffey [Jr.], [Jay] Buhner, Omar Vizquel, Harold Reynolds …"
And they had Hanson, a second-round pick weighted with expectations.
The two men first met in the minor leagues. One game when Hanson was struggling, Warthen approached the mound and asked if he wanted to grab a pizza after the game. On his way off the mound – in a scene ripped straight from "Bull Durham" – Warthen casually added, "Hey, get a double-play ball here."
"Other coaches can tell you what’s going [wrong]," Hanson said, "but they have trouble relating how to get it right. Dan has a really good ability to figure out your personality and figure out a way of relating to the pitcher and what he needs to do and telling him how to do it correctly."