When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was a rookie with the team in 1981, he quickly became comfortable with the NBA game and did not feel far behind the veterans. But when he was a rookie infielder with the Blue Jays in 1979, he was much more inquisitive, much more green. So he was thankful to have Red Sox legend Bobby Doerr, who was then Toronto’s hitting coach, as a mentor.
“Our relationship was great,” Ainge said. “I loved him. He really cared. I thought he was a great teacher. He had a very calm and trusting demeanor. I thought he was brilliant in his ways of teaching hitting.”
Doerr, a Hall of Famer and nine-time All-Star, died Monday at the age of 99. He saw Ainge blossom into an NBA All-Star and two-time world champion in Boston, the same city where Doerr shined for 14 seasons. But their unlikely bond was created in Toronto, after Doerr had left Boston.
“I learned a lot from him about just the mental part of hitting,” Ainge said. “He would talk about that a lot. He would talk to me about strategies of most pitchers. It was just amazing how he was able to teach me about just thinking the game of baseball.”
Ainge, who was just 20 years old during his rookie season with the Blue Jays, said that Doerr would often sit with him in the dugout and analyze games in real time. He had an uncanny ability to look at the pitcher, the batter, and the circumstance, and predict exactly what would happen next.
“He’d ask me what pitch was coming, and I’d say a high fastball out of the strike zone,” Ainge said. “And he’d say, ‘No, he’s going to throw him a curve in the dirt.’ And sure enough, it was a curve in the dirt. ‘Now what pitch?’ And I’d say, ‘Fastball, outside.’ And he’d say, ‘No, it’s going to be a fastball high and out of the strike zone.’ And it was.”
Ainge said that Doerr always saw promise in him as a hitter, and he would work diligently with him on his swing.
Early in Ainge’s career, Doerr’s wife, Monica, was having health issues, so Doerr frequently left the team for a week or two at a time to be with her.
“And he would be so mad if he came back and I’d changed anything in my hitting style,” Ainge said with a chuckle. “He’d notice the littlest things, and he hated it when anybody would talk to me about my swing.
“Well, being a young player and being surrounded by lots of veteran players and coaches and so forth, people that had been in baseball a long time, they knew way more baseball than me. And so I had a tendency to listen to somebody trying to give me some advice. But Bobby did not want me listening. He thought I had a really natural baseball swing and that they were all screwing me up.”
Ainge hit .220 over parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays before leaving the team in 1981 to pursue an NBA career. He said the most difficult part was leaving Doerr and Toronto general manager Pat Gillick, because they had shown so much faith in him.
Ainge and Doerr stayed in touch after their time together in Toronto, but their contact became less frequent over the last 10 years, as Doerr battled health issues and Ainge presided over the Celtics.
“Whenever I saw him, he was all smiles, and we’d hug and embrace,” Ainge said. “I felt like he was proud of me and of what I accomplished in basketball. But I think he always wanted me to stay in baseball.
“I just loved him as a guy. I felt like as much as any person and any mentor I’ve had in my life, he was as good of a man and as competent in his job as anybody I’ve ever been around.”