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Phil Bradley a calming force as Missouri volunteer assistant softball coach

Friday, April 30, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:32 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 30, 2010
Former Missouri football and baseball standout Phil Bradley chats with Missouri softball player Abby Vock at practice April 20. Bradley has been serving as a volunteer assistant coach with the team this season.

COLUMBIA — Phil Bradley walks slowly around Missouri's softball field, paying close attention to his players, like an drill sergeant making sure his soldiers are doing push-ups.

He wears a baseball glove, repeatedly tossing a softball into it. He pauses in the infield and notices something wrong. He pulls aside Missouri freshman Jenna Marston giving her advice on fielding at shortstop. Knees slightly bent and glove below his waist, Bradley takes three quick steps forward showing Marston how to field a ground ball.

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He then turns his attention to junior Abby Vock at third base. He puts his hand on her shoulders moving her a few feet to the right making sure she is in the right position.

He walks behind home plate setting his glove aside and picking up a bat. He stands behind freshman Princess Krebs, leaning on the bat planted in the dirt and one leg behind the other watching her take batting practice.

Bradley pulls Krebs aside with a softball in one hand and the bat in the other. Krebs watches carefully while Bradley points to a spot on the softball, extending his bat toward the ball. He drops the ball.

"Your top hand is your power hand," Bradley says.

Bradley grabs the bat with both hands and starts to demonstrate a swing.

"Follow through with the bat," he says.

Bradley swings the bat awkwardly, leaning forward and swinging as far away from his body as he can.

"You don't see anyone doing this. You extend your hands out," he says.

People unfamiliar with the Missouri softball team could mistake Bradley for the head coach. But Bradley is a volunteer assistant for the school where he is a legend.

Bradley was a two-sport athlete from 1977 to 1981. He was the starting quarterback for the Missouri football team his sophomore through senior year, leading the Tigers to three bowl appearances. He also played baseball for the Tigers, batting .457 during his senior season and earning third-team All-American honors. 

Baseball turned out to be his niche sport and Bradley went on to play eight seasons in Major League Baseball, spending most of his career with the Seattle Mariners where he was named to the American League All-Star team in 1985.

After leaving professional baseball, Bradley was the head coach of the Westminister College baseball team from 1994 to 1996. His assistant coach was Ehren Earleywine. They lost contact until 2009, when Earleywine was in his fourth year as head coach of the Missouri softball team. Bradley eventually inquired about being a volunteer assistant and Earleywine did not hesitate to accept the offer.

"If I had known he was even thinking about it, I would have offered it to him first," Earleywine said.

To the softball team, Bradley's expertise is invaluable. He passes on knowledge he learned from Baseball Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray and Rod Carew.

"He's a true student of the game," Earleywine said. "In a game, he sees a lot of things that I don't see. He's made a difference in a lot of areas. He has filled in the gaps. He sees what's lacking where I may not have enough time, or a hitter needs something said to them in a different way that he understands.

"Female hitters are high maintenance, and we have 20 of them, and it's impossible for one coach to touch all these kids like they need to be touched. There is only one of me, and to have him walking around where I'm not is a beautiful thing."

When Bradley talks about his role on the team, he is modest. Bradley closes his eyes and shrugs his shoulders.

"I'm just here to provide support," Bradley said. "It's not about me, it's about them. I'm just the volunteer assistant. The only reason I came here is because of Coach Earleywine. It was an opportunity to give back and help him out. My passion is coaching, but I don't want to necessarily make it my career. This gives me the opportunity to do both."

Bradley says coaching is more than just showing how to swing a bat or field a ball.

"It's about relationships," Bradley said. "I want these girls to feel like when they leave, at least when I'm around that ... they were touched in a real way. In a way that when they leave here that they look back at this and feel it was a significant part of their lives. Not, 'I can't wait to get out of here.' No. It shouldn't be that at all, it should be a positive impact on their lives."

Bradley and Earleywine have contrasting styles. Earleywine said Bradley focuses more supporting the players while he described himself as a "little less forgiving" and a "little tougher."

Early in the season, Earleywine scolded Vock after she missed a double play opportunity, bobbling the ball while covering second base. Vock looked dejected and hung her head. Putting his hand on her shoulder, Bradley offered words of encouragement, comforting the junior.

"I try to get something accomplished when I come here, even if it's a conversation with someone," Bradley said. "If someone is not doing well, have a conversation with them. At the end of the day, I want to let them know I've been there and done that, good and bad. I tell them all the time, when you're struggling, I will be the first one to come along side of you."

Earleywine said Bradley is a mentor to him, and he praised Bradley for his presence in the dugout.

"It would take too long to tell you all the things Phil brings," Earleywine said. "First of all, he is real calming effect on all of us because he's had Major League experience. He sees the bigger picture and doesn't get wrapped up in the emotion of it. He keeps us all grounded.

"On a daily basis, he reminds me and the team that if we fall short of the mark not to beat ourselves up over it. His mantra is to have more fun and enjoy the ride."

In games, Bradley cheers on the team along with the players. In a game against Kansas, he rests his elbows on top of the dugout guardrail, cupping his hands over his mouth.

"Come on Megan let's go," Bradley shouts. "Step and throw."

One player Bradley has worked closely with is junior Catherine Lee. In a practice last week, Bradley and Lee looked like father and daughter, playfully shoving each other to see who could catch a fly ball hit to center field.

Lee struggled hitting early in the season but has been hitting better lately. She said Bradley was instrumental in her improving her hitting.

"There's too many things to count that he has helped me with," Lee said. "Most of all, he's helped me mentally, helping me settle down and trust my swing. He's always there as a mental coach. He's like, 'It's all right, stay with it. Everything happens for a reason.'"

"Part of being a successful hitter is a feel," Bradley said. "Sometimes we get caught up in how we look. It's about how I feel. If I feel good and it produces the results I want, I want to be able to feel what I'm doing to produce the results I want to get."

Bradley was not always a supportive coach. When he coached at Westminister, Earleywine said Bradley came across as stoic and aloof. Bradley had little interest in building relationships with his players. He was like a Hollywood movie star ignoring his fans.

"He was a guy that kept a lot of things inside of himself," Earleywine said. "Fifteen years ago, people might walk up to him, introduce themselves and talk to him, and he may just walk off. Over the years, I think he has started to share his feelings more, and to be more oriented with other people than just with himself. It has really been an amazing transformation. You just see him talking to people more often. He'll engage and ask questions because now he cares about who they are. It is like he has an ambition to help others and it's awesome."

Earleywine said Bradley and his wife Ramona Bradley are involved in church activities in Columbia where they live and said his relationship with Christ is the reason for his change. Bradley agreed with Earleywine, but mentioned other things as well.

"I'm older and I have kids," Bradley said. "They were college athletes. I watched and experienced what they went through. Now I see it a little different, and I know what the kids need." 

Bradley works for the Major League Baseball Player's Association where he is a special assistant to the executive director. He is in charge of eight teams including the Saint Louis Cardinals. The job requires him to travel away from Columbia for several days, so he is not at every practice and game for the softball team.

"We are all extremely grateful and sad to see him go when he leaves," Lee said. "Before the season he talked about how he never got to see a full softball game, so they are always excited when he can be in the dugout and coach us. We are very fortunate."

Lee said it was entertaining listening to people's reactions when they find out Bradley is their volunteer assistant coach.

"We were on a plane going to Texas, and some guy was like, 'Phil Bradley is your volunteer assistant?' And I was like, 'Yeah! Jealous?' He's like, 'Oh my God, that's crazy. Phil Bradley is a softball assistant?'"

Earleywine said Bradley has made the team better. But how much of a difference maker is he?

"I told him if we don't win the World Series that it's his fault," Earleywine joked.


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