YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

AT AGE 72, HE'S STILL . . . The Batting Coach : Ben Lefebvre Has St. Bernard High Team Switch-Hitting at Better-Than-.400 Pace

April 05, 1985|PAT CANNON | Times Staff Writer

Ben Lefebvre may be 72, but he is still a swinger.

"Benny is a swinger all right," Verbum Dei baseball Coach Pete Morado said. "He's a guru of hitting. Anytime you play his kids, you know they aren't going to be standing at the plate, watching. They're going to attack. They'll be up there swinging."

Guru may be a perfect description for Lefebvre, a sun-tanned picture of health whose supple fingers caress a baseball bat as if it were a magic wand.

Indeed, bats have been known to perform wondrous feats for athletes lucky enough to have had the St. Bernard coach as a tutor. The honor roll includes his three sons--Jim, Tip and Gil--all of whom signed major league contracts. Jim, a Dodger standout, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1965. Don Buford, Norm Sherry, Larry Sherry, Billy Consolo, Rene Lachemann and George (Sparky) Anderson, all learned their fundamentals from Lefebvre.

"I took over the playground at Rancho Cienega (now Jackie Robinson Park) in 1948," Lefebvre said. "And in 1951, our American Legion team with George and Billy and Rene won the national championship.

"I've always been able to help people hit, but George was a terrible hitter. I mean brutal. He'd swing and screw himself right into the ground. But he was an outstanding fielder, and his glove took him to the majors for one season. But hitting, no. He couldn't hit a thing."

As he talks, Lefebvre invariably demonstrates with an invisible bat--"keep it level, don't overstride, keep the hands relaxed"--or remonstrates with his players to keep their heads back, nit-picking the slightest flaw.

"Baseball is like golf, almost identical," he said. "One little hitch, and the whole thing can break down. You've got to have constant repetition. It's what I call muscle memory. You do it over and over, and your body will remember the movement."

Lefebvre was one of the first people to hit upon the idea of using a batting tee as a concrete memory aid. He recently sold his rights in the Lefebvre Super Tee to a sporting goods distributor.

"It's the best tool there is for a hitter," Lefebvre said. "How did Palmer and Nicklaus learn to hit the ball? I'll tell you. Off a tee. It gave me an idea, and so I used a bathroom plunger and nailed it to an apple box and put a hose on top.

"Now, it's adjustable and a lot more sophisticated, but the concept is the same. It's great not only for little kids, but watch the pros, too. When something goes wrong, they go back to the tee."

Lefebvre, who has been at St. Bernard since 1976, believes that the art of hitting is constantly undergoing subtle changes, and so he is never afraid to revise his thinking on hitting. This season, he came up with what could be a first at any level--an all switch-hitting team.

"Walter Alston once said that the quickest way to the major leagues was to be a switch-hitter," said Lefebvre, affectionately known as Skip by his players. "My kids were all switch-hitters. Jim played with the Dodgers when they had an all switch-hitting infield with (Jim) Gilliam, (Maury) Wills, Jim (Lefebvre) and (Wes) Parker. You know, Wills didn't start switch-hitting when he was a kid, either. He was playing pro ball for seven seasons in the minors, but one day he tried it, got a double, and four years later, he was the MVP.

"I've always believed in it. It makes you a much tougher hitter. They can't get you out of the lineup. So, last year, toward the end of the season, I called the kids together and told them what I wanted to do. I said I'd hold a camp in the summer for two hours a day for five weeks. And we would work on switch-hitting."

For first baseman Lester Fennell, a powerful right-handed hitter, that was as welcome as news that castor oil was the soup du jour.

"When Skip told us, I said 'No way,' and I told my dad I couldn't do it," Fennell said. "I wanted to quit. It was such a big adjustment. But Skip made me stick with it. He wouldn't let me quit. He said to keep working at it, that it would come."

Last Wednesday, in a 5-3 Camino Real League victory over Verbum Dei, Fennell couldn't buy a hit. Even so, his average fell to only a shade below .400, hardly disappointing since St. Bernard has seen only two left-handers all season.

"I'm going to stick with it," Fennell, a senior, said. "I'm making contact and I'm getting more comfortable at the plate. I wouldn't mind seeing a left-hander, but I'll go with what I get."

The two most enthusiastic supporters of the switch to the switch are senior outfielders Tony Nettles and Dan Cossettini. Both are natural lefties and both are hitting better than .500.

"This is fun to do, something new, something that maybe no one has done before," Cossettini said. "It's really helped my hitting on both sides of the plate. I definitely have more confidence. I think I understand my swing more, now.

Los Angeles Times Articles