TORONTO – After five seasons of bouncing around independent baseball mounds and pondering a sixth, Jeff Ware took a call from Doc Edwards, his former manager on the Atlantic City Surf of the Atlantic League, and listened to some hard truths.
“I was 32 and still pitching and he said, ‘Hey, Jeff, it’s time. I want you to come be my pitching coach.’ He grabbed me,” Ware remembers. “I took a few days to think about it with the wife and we made a decision about what’s going to be best for the family. That’s how I ended up getting into coaching.”
The offer from Edwards took Ware to the Sioux Falls Canaries, then in the Northern League, for the 2003 season, the start of a two-decade coaching odyssey that this week carried him up to the Toronto Blue Jays as manager John Schneider’s assistant pitching coach – bullpen.
Ware replaces Matt Buschmann, who according to the club left his position a couple of weeks ago to pursue other opportunities, and will work closely with pitching coach Pete Walker and David Howell, back for a second season with a promotion to assistant pitching coach – strategy.
The Show won’t be entirely unfamiliar to the 52-year-old Ware, who was a Blue Jays first-round pick in 1991 and after overcoming two major shoulder surgeries pitched in 18 games, nine starts, for Toronto over the 1995-96 seasons.
“The (bullpen) job opened up and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. They reached out to me and 10 days later got the job. I’m extremely excited,” says Ware. “It’s been about 26 years since I had a big-league uniform on so it’s really cool to get back and put a big-league Blue Jays uniform on again.”
In this turn, he’ll draw from lessons learned during a hard-knock baseball life that since his last big-league outing July 7, 1996 at Detroit included nine years on the fringes of pro ball in Atlantic City, Aberdeen, Tyler, Jackson, Sioux Falls and North Shore before seven years in the New York Yankees system and nine more in the Blue Jays system.
“It’s been quite the road trip, I guess you could say,” Ware says with a laugh. “I always look back on my career like, ‘what would I have done differently? What would I have liked to know then?’ And I think the biggest thing is to go out there and compete and understand that you’re really good, not just me in particular but in general for all pitchers, and you’ve made it there because you’re really good. When I got to the big leagues, I put a little bit too much pressure on myself and I tried to be better than what I was and that’s what really hurt me. I thought I had to make every single pitch the perfect pitch, I had to throw harder than I was already throwing.
“That’s one of the things that I tell a lot of guys right now,” Ware continues, “Whether they’re getting moved up from A-ball to double-A, or triple-A to the big-leagues, ‘Hey, you’re really good and you deserve this. This is why you’re going to the next level. Don’t change. Continue doing all the things you know that you do now and continue to improve.’”
It’s a message Ware has delivered in a number of different roles since rejoining the Blue Jays in 2014, when he served as Schenider’s pitching coach with the Vancouver Canadians, a short-season A ball team at the time. The duo reunited again in 2016 with low-A Lansing, rooming together for the season, and continued to work closely when Ware served as the organization’s pitching co-ordinator from 2017-19.
After working at the Blue Jays alternate site during the pandemic season of 2020, Ware spent two seasons as pitching coach at triple-A Buffalo, filling in as manager last year when Casey Candaele was promoted to serve as Schneider’s interim bench coach following Charlie Montoyo’s firing.
All of it has him prepared for his new role on a win-now team that needs to maximize each opportunity.
“Building up a player’s confidence is huge for a coach,” says Ware. “If you can do that, you’re in the right direction building relationships and trust with the players so they can listen to you or at least take some of the stuff that you’re telling them and use it and make it their own. So many of these players are so good nowadays that if they can just worry about what they can control and focus on every pitch from a pitching standpoint, a lot of these guys would get to the big-leagues.
“One of the biggest challenges in baseball as a pitcher is getting on the mound, you’ve got 30,000 fans yelling out there and you put a lot of pressure on yourself,” he adds. “If they can focus on what they need to do in the moment and block everything out, shoot, that’s half the battle, maybe even more, right there.”
A couple of familiar faces await him in the bullpen in closer Jordan Romano and left-hander Tim Mayza and the trio reminisced about old times and shared a few laughs Tuesday when Ware’s promotion was announced.
“As a pitching coach in the minor-leagues, a guy pitches for you and then he moves up to the next level and sometimes you don’t really see him again unless it’s on TV or maybe spring training,” says Ware. “Being able to do it now at the highest level is really rewarding.”