Bill Conlin: Hitting coaches subject to swings of fate

Posted: August 02, 2010

STAN MUSIAL and Ted Williams were holding court at the 1966 All-Star Game party in St. Louis. And what do you suppose two of history's most famous batsmen were talking about?

The record heat wave that would produce a game-time temperature in Busch Stadium of an official 105 degrees in the shade? (A thermometer in the sun-scorched National League dugout would register 145.)

Nope, they were not talking about the heat. Or President Lyndon Johnson's shrinking approval ratings as the war in Vietnam rapidly escalated. They didn't even bring up a Supreme Court decision that criminal suspects must be informed of their rights when arrested after overturning the conviction on rape and kidnapping charges of Ernesto Arturo Miranda. Hell, the only Miranda that Teddy Ballgame and Stan the Man had heard of was a light-hitting shortstop named Willie Miranda.

These professors of pop talked about hitting while a growing crowd of baseball folk and media types gathered. Actually, it was more Williams filibuster than discussion. Ted spread out in that wide stance and talked about the Belly Button Theory. He expounded on the Happy Zone and hitting counts and how the slider was both the best and worst pitch ever devised. The best, he said, was the late breaker that darted just off the plate after a hitter had committed his swing. The worst, he said, was the slider that just hung there in the middle of the plate.

It was wonderful stuff, of course. Williams went on and on. It was a baseball equivalent of Brando discussing method acting or Arnold Palmer breaking down the golf swing. Williams paused for breath and somebody said, "What was the secret of your success, Stan?"

Musial's statue would be dedicated outside Busch Stadium in 1968, corkscrewed forever into that peekaboo stance. The inscription reads, "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."

Stan shrugged.

"I see the ball and hit the ball," he said. End of lesson. Elaboration unnecessary.

One great hitter was all about the science of what Williams called the hardest single action in sports: hitting a baseball thrown at speed.

The other great hitter was all about instinct.

And that's what hitting is, really, the ability to master the physical mechanics required to turn on a 95 mph pitch, to adjust to a 75 mph breaking ball and still drive the ball. But once the pitcher releases the baseball, muscle memory and instinct take over, the see-the-ball-hit-the-ball act that must unfold within tenths of a second.

That is why major league hitting coaches are the javelin catchers of sports, even more endangered than NFL field goal kickers or French World Cup soccer coaches.

Everybody wants to know what magic new hitting coach Greg Gross has worked on a floundering Phillies offense that got Milt Thompson fired. I guarantee that GG has basically been an observer so far. A hitting coach deals with conflicting circumstances. He must learn every aspect of a player's swing, so he can use it as a template to apply when the player falls into the kind of confounding slump that afflicted Jayson Werth.

Hitters are like snowflakes . . . no two swings are exactly alike. But the best swings are unalterably similar. Take the swings of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle (from the left side), and Ryan Howard, all at the moment of contact, and you will see balance, extension, a firm front side and a head locked onto the baseball. Four power hitters from eras spanning 80 years, all with different setups - from Ruth's extremely closed, feet-almost-together stance to Howard's wide-open and spread stance. Ruth took a huge stride, so long his head was an average of 1.76 feet closer to the pitcher on the finish. Howard's stride is tiny and often no more than a toe-tap in place.

No action in sports involves more parts moving in a shorter unit of time than the baseball swing. And no action in sports involves more adjustments in the milliseconds that divide contact from miss.

The best Phillies hitting coach during my 21 years on the beat was a paradox because he was also one of the worst big-league hitters in the history of the game. Billy DeMars appeared in 80 games for the Philadelphia A's and St. Louis Browns. In 211 at-bats, the utility infielder batted .237 with five doubles, one triple and zero homers. He was out of the majors in 1951 at 26.

Decades later, after a tour of minor league managing, Billy was instructing future Hall of Famers, working with Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, with All-Stars named Greg Luzinski and Manny Trillo. Rose nicknamed DeMars "Sgt. Baseball" for the no-nonsense way he had of coaching hitters. Pete considers DeMars the best hitting coach he ever had, so good he bought him a jeep after the 1980 season.

"The best thing he did was pump you up to the point you believed no pitcher could get you out," Pete would say.

DeMars used elements of golf and tennis swings in teaching proper baseball mechanics. Billy was Greg Gross' hitting coach when he was traded here from the Cubs with Manny Trillo in 1979.

"He helped me a lot," says Gross, a career .287 hitter over 17 years. Having been relieved of batting-cage command here and replaced by Thompson, he knows hitting coaches are as expendable as combat infantry second lieutenants.

The late Bill Robinson coached the potent hitters on a 1986 Mets team that won 108 games, including Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. In 1989, the Mets slumped to 87 victories. Guess who got fired?

Milt Thompson, Robinson's former Washington Township, N.J., neighbor, knows the feeling.

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