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A friend in need

As Astros struggle, Mills has Francona to lean on

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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HOUSTON - Brad Mills has but a few frames adorning the painted cement block walls of his neatly kept office at Minute Maid Park.

On one wall, adjacent to his desk, there’s a photo of Mills posing with former President George H.W. Bush. On the opposite wall is the lineup card from Mills’s first major league managerial win, over St. Louis on April, 15, 2010, at Busch Stadium. That win came in the ninth game of the season.

Only some of those names from that lineup card remain on the Astros’ roster: Michael Bourn, Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, and Chris Johnson, the son of Red Sox first base coach Ron Johnson.

“Isn’t that something?’’ Mills said yesterday, glancing up at the lineup card autographed by every member of the Astros and Cardinals. “We’ve had such a turnover in the two years I’ve been here. Last year, they had such a turnover from the year before, and this year we’ve had such a turnover from the team last year. That’s so important because of everything that goes on.’’

Mills had spent four years as Terry Francona’s first base coach in Philadelphia and six more as Francona’s bench coach with the Sox before he was named Houston manager Oct. 27, 2009. It came with Francona’s strongest of recommendations to Astros owner Drayton McLane and general manager Ed Wade - although it was a job rejected by Manny Acta, who took the Indians’ managerial offer instead.

“You experience getting to know players and help these players get to know me and how I am,’’ said Mills. “But when you have a new group, you have to start all over again and it’s a process.’’

It’s a process that began with the trimming of the team’s payroll to nearly $70 million and the trade-deadline departures last season of marquee names, such as ace Roy Oswalt and five-time All-Star Lance Berkman. It continued with a turnover in ownership after McLane sold the team this May to Houston businessman Jim Crane for $680 million.

McLane, though, was sold on Mills when Francona went to great lengths to offer his recommendation. Francona left his tennis club, putting a match with his wife on hold, to drive 30 minutes home to have a private conversation with the Astros owner about Mills.

“[Francona] did call me back and we talked for well over an hour,’’ McLane said. “I said to him, ‘Am I going to be in trouble with your wife?’ And he said, ‘You won’t, but I will.’ He said, ‘She loves Brad, too, so she’ll think this is important.’

“But I think to give a reference and to take the time that he did . . . that told me as much as some of the questions I wanted to ask him. He just went out of his way and he kept saying, ‘Brad’s ready.’ ’’

While he has been surrounded by so much upheaval, Mills, 54, has remained a steady and constant presence. While the Astros may be struggling, at 29-53 following a 7-0 win over the Rangers last night, Mills does not burden anyone with his laments.

“He’s faced with maybe more pronounced challenges this year because of some of the economics have changed,’’ Wade said of Mills, whose average age of his 25-man roster this season is 27.48, some five years younger than the 2009 Opening Day roster.

“There are a lot of younger players here,’’ Wade said. “It’s not a case of hitting a rebuild button and bringing a lot of prospects up. We hit a rebuild button and, quite frankly, we’ve had to do a lot of $20,000 waiver claims, Rule 5 drafts, and things of that nature. He’s never complained and never expressed concern. It’s always, ‘We’re going to prepare every day to take advantage of the opportunity we’ve got.’ ’’

It’s the same approach he learned from his close friend Francona, with whom he now keeps in touch through text messages.

“We were texting this morning, because they’re coming in,’’ Mills said, noting the Astros’ three-game set with the Sox beginning tonight. “We’re struggling and it’s in a situation where I know that he probably doesn’t want to hear my struggles about our ball club.

“I know he’s interested in me and how things are going, as I am in him and how things are going in his life, because we have spent so much time together. But at the same time, I don’t want to bog him down, because I know he’s got issues there as well. When we talk, we talk about baseball, but at the same time we’re interested in each other.’’

Mills was the first to branch out on Francona’s managerial tree. He was followed this season by pitching coach John Farrell, who took over the Blue Jays.

“I’m proud for Millsie because he wanted to do this for a long time,’’ Francona said by phone from Philadelphia. “The thing I think that gets lost a little bit in the translation is that I’ve probably learned more from Millsie than he’s ever learned from me.

“I’ve always looked up to him. We can go back all the way to [the University of Arizona] when I was a freshman and he was a junior. He was always a bit of a big-brother type to me. Things work out funny sometimes, and he was a coach, but the bench coach, the way we do things, listens to an earful from me probably more often than they want to. Because of our relationship, he probably warranted it more than he should have, but I always looked up to him.’’

Mills has yet to cultivate a confidant that he was to Francona during their days together in Philadelphia and Boston.

“I sure understand, now in this seat, how even better I could’ve been for him, doing that. But my coaches are so good and they do a great job in what they do here that I try not to lament too much,’’ Mills said, “but at the same time I try to share my thoughts and everything else.’’

Said Francona, “It’s nice to be able to sit in the dugout with people in whom you have implicit trust, and I’ve probably been luckier than most. I’ve had John Farrell, DeMarlo [Hale], Millsie, now Curt Young is here. I mean, I’ve probably gotten a little of my share of breaks, probably more than I was supposed to.’’

If Francona knows anything about what Mills has experienced as a second-year manager, it is this: “You don’t sleep,’’ he said.

“I used to tell Ken Macha that all the time,’’ said Francona, who served as Macha’s bench coach in Oakland in 2003. “After a tough loss, I’d stick my head in his office and say, ‘Mach, I’m going home to bed, I know you’re not.’ It’s just the way it is. Every manager will tell you that, and Millsie is as conscientious as they come, so he’s probably losing sleep more than most.’’

Asked how he’s been sleeping of late, Mills replied, “Not good.’’

“But that’s the job, because you care,’’ he said. “You care about these players out there an awful lot. I care that they’re getting better, I care that the ball club isn’t winning games, I care about that. I care for this organization and I want this organization to be represented well, and I care for these fans. You say, ‘Well, that’s a lot of burden on your shoulders.’ Well, you know what? That’s what this job entails. I fully accept that responsibility.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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