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He Makes Hitting a Reason for Being : Baseball: Players who need help can't get to the park too soon to satisfy Hriniak, batting coach for the Chicago White Sox.

August 08, 1990|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — A few years ago, around noon on a midsummer day in New York, then-coach Joe Morgan of the Boston Red Sox was spotted outside the team's hotel, a frown on his face.

"I'm headed for (Yankee) Stadium," Morgan said.

So early? The Red Sox and Yankees weren't playing until that night.

"Batting practice," Morgan said, spitting out the words. "That . . . Hriniak. He's having extra . . . BP again, and I've got to help out. Damn."

During the 1988 season, Morgan became manager of the Red Sox, and Walt Hriniak, who had been the club's batting instructor since 1977, left at the end of the season, signing a five-year, $500,000 contract with the Chicago White Sox, which may make him the highest-paid coach in baseball.

At $100,000 a year, that's 10 times what Hriniak was paid when, at 25, he made it to the big leagues after nearly eight seasons in the minors. The short, happy life of Hriniak in the majors lasted a little more than a season. He played in 47 games for the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres. He got 25 hits, all singles, and he remembers every pitcher that he hit.

Now 47, he is a guru to the stars, helper of the downtrodden, another of those hitting coaches who tells his pupils to do as he says, not as he did.

He is following in the footsteps of the late Charlie Lau, a journeyman catcher who became the dean of batting instructors.

Lau, in fact, managed Hriniak one year in the minors, at Shreveport, La., in 1968. Hriniak, who batted .313 that season, credits Lau with getting him to the big leagues. He also credits Lau with passing along the hitting philosophy that Hriniak has, in turn, passed on to frustrated batters in Boston and Chicago for the last 14 years.

"Charlie had a patience and a compassion for guys who struggled," Hriniak said. "He was the best batting coach who ever lived. I stayed close to him for a lot of years after that one year I played for him. I wouldn't have made it to the big leagues without him."

Hriniak remembers the day--March 18, 1984--that Lau, 50, died of cancer. They had fished in Florida together three months before.

Hriniak wears uniform No. 6, the same number Lau had when he worked for the White Sox. In Atlanta in September of 1968, having been called up from Shreveport by the Braves, Hriniak got his first two big league hits, against Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.

"I have a father who I love with all my heart," Hriniak said. "But the first guy I called to tell about those two hits was Charlie."

A year later, the ambition that Hriniak had since he was a 7-year-old, growing up in Natick, Mass., ended. He was farmed out to the minors, told to play second base at Salt Lake City.

"I had come up as a shortstop, and then they made a catcher out of me," Hriniak said. "When they put me at second base, the handwriting was on the wall."

Actually, the beginning of the end for Hriniak in the big leagues might have occurred six years earlier. He and Jerry Hummitzsch, a teammate on the Austin (Tex.) club in the Braves' farm system, were up before dawn for a fishing trip. It was Hriniak's 21st birthday, Hummitzsch, the night before pitched a 1-0, 10-inning victory, driving in the only run.

Sandy Alomar, now a coach with the Padres, played with Hummitzsch and Hriniak the year before in Austin, and he still remembers the pitcher's car.

"It was a convertible," Alomar said. "A white Olds or a Buick."

On a curvy road on the west edge of Austin, the car flipped. Hummitzsch was killed instantly, crushed in the driver's seat. Police at the scene said it was one of the rare times a driver might have survived if he had not been wearing a seat belt.

Alomar remembers Hummitzsch as a powerful right-hander.

"He could throw in the 90s (m.p.h.)," Alomar said. "He was a little wild, but he would have made it (to the majors)."

There was no doubt in John Mullen's mind about Hummitzsch's future. Mullen, now general manager of the Atlanta Braves, was farm director then, when the franchise was still in Milwaukee.

"Jerry Hummitzsch was the No. 1 prospect in the organization," Mullen said. "I remember going to his parents' home in Sheboygan, Wis., and signing him for about $25,000. He was very close to being called up to the big club.

"The accident was a terrible thing. I got the call from Austin about 7:30 that morning. I was the one who had to call the parents and tell them."

The season before, Hummitzsch pitched a no-hitter for Austin.

Hriniak will not discuss the accident. "Never, not with anybody," he said during an interview last week.

Alomar, however, remembers that Hriniak was thrown through the windshield.

"Walt's face was cut up pretty bad," Mullen said.

Hriniak still has the scars and a left eye that appears to have been permanently damaged.

Hriniak played in only 52 games that season, and after batting around .100 the next season was demoted to a lower league.

"It must have affected him," Alomar said. "Physically, the memory of Jerry, it had to have an effect on him."

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