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Hired Hit Men

Wallach, Hatcher have one of baseball's most difficult jobs -- hitting coach

June 29, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

They are bleary-eyed from watching slow-motion video and unfamiliar to many fans. They are major league hitting coaches, and this was a moment any of them could appreciate:

Carlton Fisk was saying at his Hall of Fame induction in 2000, "Walt Hriniak is the single-most important person in my baseball life. The time we spent in the bowels of every stadium -- the sweat, the blood, the tears, the conversations, the relationship, the friendship, the closeness. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you, Walter. Thanks."

Cesar Izturis of the Dodgers and Chone Figgins of the Angels might never make Hall of Fame speeches, but given a podium and an audience seeking explanations for their .300 batting averages this season, both would tip their helmets to their hitting coaches.

At first glance, Mickey Hatcher, in his fifth season with the Angels, and Tim Wallach, in his first season with the Dodgers, seem to be opposites. Hatcher is the Robin Williams of his profession; Wallach takes a Clint Eastwood approach.

More important are their similarities. Both were considered overachievers as players, and neither fancies himself a hitting guru. Neither makes hitters adhere to a rigid style. Both deflect credit. Instead, armed with scouting reports, digital video and a lifelong obsession with making a round bat hit a round ball squarely, they view themselves as available resources. Wallach sits in a corner of the dugout during games, scribbling in a notebook, charting every pitch thrown by opposing pitchers. He analyzes Dodger swings, watching without expression as Shawn Green struggles and Paul Lo Duca flourishes. The players are receptive to his tutelage because they sense he thinks the way they do.

"If I force stuff on anybody, they won't respond," Wallach said. "I know because I had it forced on me when I played. I let it go in one ear and out the other. That's the best thing I ever did."

Dodger hitters apparently are absorbing something from him. The team batting average is .273 second in the National League and 30 points higher than last season's major league-worst mark.

"He knows how to talk to guys," said Izturis, whose .303 average tops his career mark by more than 50 points. "He's calm, and I like that, but he notices everything and is always available."

So is Hatcher, a cheerleader for his hitters, praising their successes and reminding them that they are good even when they fail.

"My main question is, 'Can you hit?,' " Hatcher said. "I'll tell them they can throughout the game. Then after the game, we can break down their mechanics."

Despite injuries to many of their best hitters, the Angels are fourth in the majors with a .279 average. Figgins is batting .303 with 11 triples.

Angel second baseman Adam Kennedy, struggling a bit at .242, said, "When I'm not hitting, I'm not sleeping well, and what I like best about Mickey is that he's not sleeping, either. He'll take a tape home and be up until 2 a.m."

Much of a hitting coach's work is done in batting cages and video rooms. Satisfaction comes from watching a player make an almost imperceptible adjustment and hike his batting average by a few points. Failure can cost him his job. The New York Yankees fired three hitting coaches in the last four years.

Hriniak, in fact, was fired in 1995 after more than 20 years as a coach with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox. It didn't matter that he was the most celebrated disciple of the respected Charlie Lau or that he had the ear of Frank Thomas and the trust of Fisk. It didn't matter that upon reaching the unprecedented combination of 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, Carl Yastrzemski had given him a gold watch with the inscription: "To Walt: Wouldn't Have Made 400-3,000 Without You."

A team isn't performing, a scapegoat is necessary, and often the guy responsible for offensive production is let go.

"A good hitting coach takes on the responsibility of the team producing at the plate," said Hriniak, retired and living in North Andover, Mass. "And if you don't help, you've got to be the guy held accountable."

Similar Roots

Maybe it's the proximity, but from the front office to the playing field, Dodgers often become Angels, and Angels, Dodgers. Hatcher, 49, played six of his 12 seasons with the Dodgers. Wallach, 46, joined the Dodgers in 1993 after 13 seasons with the Montreal Expos and four years later split his last season between the Angels and the Dodgers.

One of the first men considered an expert batting instructor in either organization was scout Kenny Myers, whose ties to the Dodgers began in the 1940s and who was employed by the Angels from 1969 until his death in 1972. He invented several contraptions to aid hitters, and some credit him for conceiving of soft toss -- a kneeling coach flipping balls to a hitter only a few feet away.

Because few teams had hitting coaches then, helping players took different forms. Myers picked up the phone late in the 1963 season and called Dodger center fielder Willie Davis.

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