That boss was Gerry Hunsicker, the former general manager of the Astros who now works with Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman as senior vice president of baseball operations. It was Hunsicker's belief that big league coaches should have big league experience, and therefore Hickey, who pitched in the Minor Leagues for eight seasons but never made it to the Majors, did not qualify.
It wasn't personal, Hunsicker emphasized. This was simply what Hunsicker learned during his years as an assistant GM with the Mets, and he became accustomed to that line of reasoning. When he took over as GM of the Astros in 1996, he brought that philosophy with him.
"As most people have come to know, I am a pretty direct person," Hunsicker said. "It wasn't malicious or mean-spirited in any way. I always tried to tell people where they stood. I told Jim, 'The fact that you didn't play in the big leagues, the chances of you getting a Major League pitching coach job while I'm here isn't very good.' And I told him why."
Although disappointed, Hickey didn't take it as an insult to his coaching abilities and understood where Hunsicker was coming from.
"I would rather have someone tell me that right up front, rather than get passed over two or three times, thinking I have the same chance as everyone else," Hickey said. "I appreciated what he had told me, so every time a job came open, I didn't have to think, 'This is my gig, this is my gig,' and then not get it.'"
Hickey can look back on that conversation now and chuckle. He is in his second year as pitching coach for the Rays, after serving in the same capacity for three years with the Astros. Both times, his hires were directly connected to Hunsicker, who promoted Hickey to the big leagues in 2004 and recommended him to Friedman during the winter of '06.
"Ironic, isn't it?" Hickey said on Thursday, prior to Game 2 of the World Series between his Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies.
"You try to teach your kids to do the right thing, and to see them do it, it just makes you really, really proud."
-- Jim Hickey
So how did Hickey go from a career Minor League coach to a pitching coach for two World Series teams? Timing, a little luck and a nice showing as interim coach when the Astros overhauled their staff after an unproductive first half of the 2004 season.
The Astros ended up making a last-minute push to the playoffs that year and took it all the way to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series before falling to the Cardinals. Still, Houston's late success solidified Hickey's status with the team, and he stayed on as pitching coach for the next two seasons, through 2006, at which time he was dismissed by then general manager Tim Purpura.
Less than a half-hour after receiving his walking papers from the Astros, Hickey received a voice-mail message from Hunsicker.
Hickey remembered Hunsicker saying, "'I know what happened, and I just want to let you know whenever you get a chance, give me a call. We'd love to have you on board here.'"
Turns out, Friedman had called Hunsicker first, as soon as he heard Hickey was let go. Friedman asked about Hickey, and Hunsicker gave a rousing endorsement. The Rays at the time were looking to fill their Triple-A coaching position, but when their big league coach, Mike Butcher, abruptly took a job with the Angels, Hickey was quickly promoted.
Looking back, Hunsicker realizes he was "short sighted" with his opinion that coaches had to have big league playing experience. He credits Hickey with reshaping his thinking.
"As I got to know him and watched the way he worked and saw the connection that he made with the players and the success that he had with them, I started rethinkng my position on that," Hunsicker said. "I remember on multiple occasions [with the Astros] where some of the young Major League pitchers that we promoted were calling Jim Hickey for advice and direction, rather than the Major League pitching coach. It really hit home for me that you don't have to have Major League experience."
Hunsicker lauded Hickey for his ability to work with pitchers from every status level, for finding common ground with established superstars such as Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, as the well the young, talented fireballers such as current Rays hurlers Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza.
Hickey categorized his time spent with Clemens and Pettitte as less about teaching and more about "monitoring." With the Rays, it's all about "teaching, coaching, exploration," Hickey said. "When you introduce a pitch to a kid, introduce a thought process to a kid, and [when] he's able to use it in a game, [it] is really gratifying."
Hickey said the success of the Rays' staff makes him feel like a proud papa.
"You try to teach your kids to do the right thing, and to see them do it, it just makes you really, really proud," Hickey said. "But we've got some extremely talented guys, also. It's not that I ended up taking guys and molding them into top-flight pitchers. The talent was always there."