0

Getting to Know ... Billy Nicholson

Billy Nicholson, 43, is a minor league bench coach in the Atlanta Braves organization. A Suwanee resident and baseball and softball coach at Johns Creek, Nicholson has worked with a Braves affiliate for the past nine years. His assignment this year is with Class A Rome, but he spent the past three seasons with the Gwinnett Braves.

During the recent Southern League All-Star break, Nicholson returned to help coach in Gwinnett and talked with staff writer Ben Beitzel about what a bench coach actually does, how you transition from coaching pro baseball to high school softball and the advice he gives his high school players hoping to be professionals in this installment of "Getting to Know...".

BB: How do you become a minor league bench coach? I don't see that job posted many places.

BN: I was in southwest Georgia, kind of like a birddog scout for (agent) Al Goetz. I came up to throw, they do a pre-draft down at the stadium, and I came up to throw and after I got through Mr. (John) Schuerholz and Dayton Moore asked did I want a part-time job in the summer, helping out. As I've gone through the years and built trust up amongst the coaches they realized I am not here to take anyone's job. I am just here to help out. My role has kind of expanded more. I assist the hitting coach with the hitters and, obviously, with Brundy (G-Braves manager Dave Brundage) and these guys I traveled with them last summer. I call bullpens whenever they need it. I just serve as an extra coach. I am happy to help out. With Rome, I coach first base. I go through and do a little spray chart for the coaches. It's just expanded into a full-time, part-time role. But what I tell everybody is that I have the best part-time job in the world.

BB: What were you doing when this job came about?

BN: I was in south Georgia as a high school coach. Scouts don't really get down to that area too often. They count on us, the birddogs, to go out and identify people. I had several people that the Braves were interested in. I'd call Al and say, 'We've got a guy.' And word would get out.

BB: Did you know what you were getting into when you started?

BN: I really didn't. To me, I don't really look at it as a job, it's the relationships that you build with the players and the staffs, it feels like family. It's been a lot of fun. It's been a lot of fun. You are baseball, pretty much, 24/7. It's great. It's been a great time for me, professionally. A lot of the things I learn from the Braves, I take to my high school teams. We do a lot of the same things. It's like a coaching clinic all the time. I pick up something everyday. Being around Brundy, who I feel is one of the smartest managers in all of minor league baseball, is phenomenal just being about to learn from him. Randy Ingle in Rome and last year I had an opportunity to spend a couple of weeks with Luis Salazar. Wow. That was amazing. I have been able to spend time with different managers and hitting coaches in the organization and it's done nothing but help me professionally. And it's been a lot of fun. It sure has. This year (Johns Creek) made it to the semifinals and lost out to Loganville. You learn a lot of things and one of the things I learned is from skip, Brundy, is how to deal with people and how to deal with adversity and not being too high and too low and that helped me a lot.

BB: Did you play baseball growing up? In college?

BN: I played baseball at Georgia Southern for a year and then to Georgia Southwestern State University and played there for four years. I decided I wanted to go ahead and get my teaching degree, which I did. I am glad I got into coaching. But being able to get into this is just like a dream come true for me. Every day you get to come to the ballpark and do something that you enjoy and have fun. It's not really a job, it's just something you enjoy doing.

BB: With a wife and three daughters, do they enjoy what you do?

BN: We are a baseball family. I've got probably the best family anybody could ever want. They are baseball lifers just like me. They come to the ballpark and they support me in everything that I do. They are around the game as much as I am, but you have to have a special family to do what I do. My (softball) season begins in August. I have a little time off from November to December and when January starts it's baseball at the high school and when I am not doing anything at the high school I am usually around here with Gwinnett, then I get my assignment to get wherever I am going to go.

BB: You've got to prefer coming to Gwinnett.

BN: It's definitely the closest. It's good to sleep in your own bed sometimes. Big travel difference from low-A to triple-A. The hotels are a lot nicer (in AAA). But, no complaints whatsoever. I am just glad to be around the game.

BB: You can't be home much.

BN: I actually get to see my family more in the summer than I do during the high school season. You go to school at 6-6:30 in the morning. Then practice, or if you have a game you get home and they are in bed. There are a lot of times I can go a good, solid week without seeing them. But during the summer, if I miss home, I can get in the car right after the game and get home as long as I am back by 1-1:30 the next day.

BB: What do you teach?

BN: I teach health and physical education. I have been teaching 19 years. It's a passion. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy being able to teach high school.

BB: Did you open Johns Creek when it opened?

BN: I was at Centennial High School, I was there for five years, and coach Mike Cloy who hired me at Centennial actually called and asked, 'Hey, do you mind helping me open up a new school and be my softball and baseball coach?' Absolutely. It's a lot closer to home. It's a lot less of a drive. I can get home in 15 minutes.

BB: You live in Suwanee? North Gwinnett school district?

BN: We love Gwinnett County. Gwinnett County has been our home and Suwanee is a wonderful area to live in and raise kids. It's a really nice area to live in and be a part of.BB: How'd you meet Jennifer, your wife?

BN: We went to college together. We had a class together, a speech class. It was 1991, when the Braves made that run and I did my speech on signs and signals so a lot of the people were interested. Not long after that we started dating, but we split up and went our own separate ways. But when I was coaching down at Southland Academy down in Americus, Ga. I happened to go out the back gate and I saw her. We have been together ever since. She is my best friend and my wife. She loves baseball as well.

BB: That's probably important.

BN: I told her before we got married that being a coach's wife is not the easiest thing in the world. They are my rock and solid foundation. Without them, I couldn't do this. They'll be at the game tonight and ready to go. They enjoy coming to the Gwinnett Braves games and the Rome games. They have a lot of fun. It's amazing how my kids, we'll talk about the game the next game.

BB: Your seventh-grade daughter, Halee, plays softball. How close is girls softball to professional baseball?

BN: They are probably closer than you would probably imagine. A lot of the same management techniques you use in baseball, you can use in softball. Obviously dealing with girls is a lot different than dealing with guys. You can't go out and get all over a girl, but there are still a lot of similarities. There is still a bat, a ball and a glove. You still do bunt defense. You still do cutoffs and relays. You still do hit-and-runs and steals and bunts.

BB: Is baseball really that sophisticated a sport as you climb the levels from high school to triple-A?

BN: We live in an area up here where high school baseball is really, really good. A lot of the guys get superior coaching all year round. The guys know the game and what part they don't know it's our job as high school coaches to teach them that. A lot of the guys play 70, 80, sometimes 100 games during the summer against some of the best competition in the country. High school season it's more like a tune-up for these guys to get ready for their summer season. When they are used to facing 90 mile an hour fastballs day-in, day-out and then they get to high school baseball up here where you look around, at Brookwood and Parkview and North Gwinnett and us and Milton and Northview. Everyone of those guys have two or three guys on their staff that is 88-94 mph. It helps tremendously for those guys to play against that type of competition. The biggest difference is these guys are playing for a job where high school kids are playing for hopes of getting a college scholarship or hopes of maybe getting drafted. The good thing about me being in this organization and a part of pro baseball is giving them some advice and things that I see on a daily basis that they may not recognize. They might not understand.

BB: What do you tell them?

BN: Are you mature enough? Ready for it? Professional baseball you do it every single day and it becomes a grind. It can wear on you. As a high school kid, is that something you want to do every single day? You stop and think about a high school season that's only 26 games long, three, three and a-half months. Do you want to do it for six months every single day with just a few days off here and there? You have to come to do your job every single day because somebody is ready to take your job if not. That's the biggest thing I tell them. It's a job. It's something that you not only have to love to do, but it's something that you have to go out and perform you best every single day.