His intensity and concentration are legendary. In the narrow world of baseball, Red Sox batting coach Walter Hriniak has narrowed his even further — to the 17-inch width of home plate. There, he says, is “the only game going on.”
They played in the late afternoons in a schoolyard in Natick, and the father passed on the timeless lessons of baseball, how to throw and catch and hit; and the other ones, the lessons that don’t graft so easily to the young, about practice and hard work and being there when someone is counting on you. They shared a name, Walter John Hriniak, but the father, who had left school at age 14 to work in the mills and was working then in a plant in Newton that made cement blocks, did not want his son to share the life he had known.
“My husband always said he could’ve made a ballplayer if only he’d been bigger,” remembers Mrs. Hriniak, “and he’d stand Butch up against a post in the house and make a mark. Nothing gave him more joy than watching his son grow Butch — I called him Butch so I’d know who I was talking with — would wait for his father to come home from work. As tired and as dusty as he was, he’d put everything aside to play Butch’s games with him.” By high school young Hriniak stood six feet tall, and there was no longer any need for a mark on a post. He was an all-star in football, hockey, and baseball.
“Butch would be waiting for me with a bat in his hand at 7:15 in the morning, wanting me to pitch to him,” says his former high school coach, John Carroll. “No matter how many hits he’d get, he was never satisfied. He wanted perfection. He wanted a perfect swing.”
At 1:30 A.M. on graduation night he signed with the Milwaukee Braves for a $75,000 bonus, and the newspapers called him perhaps the top prospect in the country. It was early summer 1961. His parents drove him to Boston to fly for the first time to join the Braves’ farm team in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In his ears were a father’s words repeated since childhood: “Whatever you start, be sure you finish it.” And a mother’s concerns: “His shoes were not shined, and that bothered me. But the scout said, ‘Mrs. Hriniak, you’ve got to let him go.’ So I did.”
There were some good years at first, a minor league all-star team and a .300 average; then an accident and some bad years, and by the time he was 26 he was, as baseball people say, no longer a prospect but a suspect. Before he was 30 it was over for him as a player, and all he’d had were 99 at-bats and 25 singles in the majors. But he’d always been a worker, and he was asked to work with the kids, the 18-year-olds, the ones with all the promise. It was a second chance, and the only thing he knew was to work even harder. And in time he became something more rare in professional baseball than a .300 hitter. He became a teacher.
* * *
Through a door beneath the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park come the sounds of his classroom, sharp as rifle fire, twack, twack, twack. It is a private, hidden world; a dank, dusty place that players liken to a dungeon, and which they call simply “the cage.” The floor is dirt and the walls and ceiling are of thick, braided net, and here and there baseballs dangle from the webbing like trapped fish. Only 12 feet away from a powerful left-handed batter, the hitting coach of the Boston Red Sox sits in a metal folding chair just behind a four-foot-high screen. A canvas bag stuffed with baseballs is at his feet, a small chew of tobacco wedges into his cheek. His smooth-shaven face is fair, perpetually burnt from the sun. His body is trim, of the type often called raw-boned, and from a distance a shock of strawblond hair, straight and almost baby fine, makes him appear boyishly young.
But up close, here in the cage, he is 43 years old and shows wear and tear. The muscles are shot in his shoulder and he cannot play catch without pain; his fingers are scarred where baseballs have split them open; a scar runs across the left eyelid where a surgeon sewed it shut for two months after an accident in which a teammate was killed driving off the road on Walter Hriniak’s 21st birthday. He arches slightly to the right tossing the balls underhanded, as soft as to a child, and as the batter swings — twack! — he quickly rocks back. An observer flinches as the balls fly towards him. The hitting coach does not, though only a few years ago he retreated a split-second too slow and the ball shattered his elbow like a bullet.
The batter is the catcher from Worcester, Rich Gedn. Lately he’s been struggling, swinging off–balance, lunging at the baseball, and the more he struggles the harder everything gets. “I keep trying to pound a square peg through a round hole,” Gedman says. What Hriniak wants this day is for Gedman to relax. “But that’s not easy, is it?” he says later. “He knows he’s not swinging good. There’s 40,000 people watching and there’s no place to hide. If you say, ‘relax,’ what happens? Sure, he tenses up more. And you cannot hit a baseball when you’re tense.”
For a while they just stand together talking. Hriniak pauses, searching for the image he wants. He finds it.
“Rich, when you step, come out soft, like you’re stepping on an egg. Soft.” They do this now, the tosses, the swings, until the bag is empty and they bend to the floor, flicking the balls back into the bag like dropped apples, and begin again. “Step on an egg.” Slowly the swings begin to please the hitter, and the tension begins to uncoil. They refill the bag again and the sweat soaks through Gedman’s shirt. They have worked like this since 1982, when Gedman asked for Hriniak’s help; he obliged by dismantling Gedman’s swing as if it were a broken-down engine, and over the years it has been reassembled, piece by piece, here in the cage.
They have been through a lot together and they are friends, but there have been times when Hriniak has shouted, “If you don’t want to listen to me, get out of here!” and there are other times when not a word need pass between them, like two old gardeners working side by side. Twack. Twack. Twack. “You get a guy in here and he thinks he’s just working on his mechanics,” says Hriniak, “but you’re working on his head at the same time, so when tough times come he’s got some ammunition. You’re making him stronger, you’re making him dedicated, you’re making him make a commitment to excellence or whatever you want to call it — and not too many people want to make that commitment, do they? It’s scary, but that’s what it takes.
In the cage you learn how to survive.” Later Gedman will say, “No matter how bad I’m going, Walter always has me come out of the cage feeling I’ll be okay.” Dwight Evans steps in. The canvas bag swells with baseballs. Empties and fills. Empties and fills. A tidal change of baseballs every ten minutes. Tony Armas… Marty Barrett… Bill Buckner… The game is still five hours away. The day of the hitting coach has just begun.
Within the narrow world of baseball, Walter Hriniak has narrowed his even further, to the, 17-inch width of home plate. He calls the battle between the pitcher and the batter “the only game going on” and adds, “It’s a lot deeper than people realize.” When his hitters go to bat, his eyes, deep green and steady, lock in like a sniper’s. Sometimes before a ball is pitched, he can sense when a player is about to go into a slump just by the way he moves around in the box. When a ball is hit, he alone does not immediately follow its flight, preferring to memorize every detail of a batter’s swing, including the moment just after impact. Something critical happens in a swing then,” he says, and I’d miss it if I watched the ball.”
“He sees things nobody else does,” says Wade Boggs, perhaps the finest hitter of our time. He compares his eyes to a microscope, able to spot and correct the slightest flaw, the tiniest alteration in his near–perfect swing. At the end of last season, when Boggs was honored as the most valuable Red Sox player for hitting a remarkable .368, he stood on a podium and told the banquet audience, “The man who should receive this is up there,” and he pointed to the balcony where Hriniak sat.
A teammate recalls last September when a few kids from Pawtucket were brought up for a look. “He was working with someone in the cage,” he said, “but out of a corner of his eye he’s watching this kid, Mike Greenwell, taking some swings. The kid had hit only .256 at Pawtucket, but Walter saw something. All of a sudden he’s got Greenwell and he’s moving him around the plate and he starts doing his flip drills with him. He just went crazy with him. The kid was drooling and I swear could hardly walk afterwards he was so exhausted. But everything off his bat was hit hard. Afterwards, Greenwell said to me, ‘Is that guy always like that?’ And Mike Greenwell went out and for the next two weeks just killed the ball. He hit four home runs and after each one he’d come into the dugout shaking his head and you could hear him saying, ‘Oh, man!'”
Often when players are traded from Boston they say what they will miss most is leaving Hriniak’s tutelage, for no other feat in sports imposes such bleak odds as does hitting. The ball arrives in four-tenths of a second or faster. It may rise or sink or dart in or out, depending on its spin. If a ball is hit at all, nine fielders await. Hriniak likes to say of .300 hitters, “They’re successful, but they’re not consistently successful. They fail seven out of ten times.” What the hitters seek from their coach is a way to even up those odds a little. For doing just that (the Red Sox have led the majors in nearly every hitting category the past several seasons), a baseball writer called Hriniak “in many ways the most important member of the team.”
On the rare occasions that his thoughts stray from home plate, it takes but a chance remark to bring them winging back. Not long ago a dinner companion was startled when Hriniak thrust aside a water glass, a coffee cup, and a half-full plate of fish and chips. He folded his napkin into a rough facsimile of home plate. He took his knife, a pat of butter still pressed to its tip, and waved it across the napkin. Unmistakably he was at bat. Just beyond the fish and chips loomed Fenway’s Green Monster. A lesson began.
“Now we’ve got a right-handed pitcher to a right-handed hitter;” he said earnestly. “The pitcher’s going to keep the ball low and away, right? Low and away, he figures he won’t get hurt. So how many out of 120 pitches will be middle of the plate to the outside? At least 80 to 90 percent. So what sense does it make for a right-handed hitter to look for the ball inside to pull? Not much. But what happens if you whistle that outside pitch to right field a couple of times? The pitcher’s going to say, ‘Holy cow, that guy’s nailing my best pitch to right field. I better pitch him inside because he’s looking outside. Now you as the hitter, now you look inside. And you try to hit the home run. A pitcher knows he’s got the guy who’s always pulling. But the other guy, well, he gives him nightmares. That’s what I try to teach. Use the whole field. Give those pitchers nightmares!”
He can hardly bear a day without helping somebody hit. In winter he drives the 40 minutes from his home to Fenway Park to work with his hitters in the cage. It is clear what is at stake for the players. Only 25 hits spaced over a long season separate the fair-to-middling .250 hitter from .300; and the potential of a million dollars. They come to the cage hoping to find those 25 hits. For Hriniak, whose salary would remain the same fraction of a player’s were he to laze the winter away on a warm bass pond, the rewards would seem more elusive. “If a player says, ‘Can you help me?” says Hriniak, “I’ll hold nothing back. I’ll be there anytime. What that player owes me is work. If he wants to get better; I want to see the results.”
Jerry Remy was a 160-pound .260 hitter with the uppercut swing of a bigger man that mostly produced fly-ball outs when he was traded to the Red Sox for the 1978 season. The next winter, teacher and student went to work. “We’d go to a gym in Lexington,” Remy said, “and he’d have me kneel and he’d throw tennis balls right at my head, making me swing down, so I’d hit line drives and grounders where we knew my hits would come.” During the next three seasons, before injuries took their toll, Remy became an all-star and batted .297, .313, .307. When he made his 1,000th hit, a grounder that scooted through the infield, he quietly doffed his cap to the bullpen, where Hriniak was sitting. This past spring just before retiring, Jerry Remy went to Hriniak and closed a circle that began in a Lexington gym.
“I told him I have three hits that will always stick with me. One was my first hit in the major leagues, another was the base hit in the bottom of the ninth of the playoff game in ’78, and the last was when he came to me in Yankee Stadium and asked a favor. He said, ‘Get a hit for me,’ and I said I didn’t know what he meant. And he said, ‘Well, it’s the anniversary of the day my father died. I’d like you to get a hit for him.’ I got a ground ball hit up the middle. I looked at him and pointed upstairs. He knew what it was for and I knew what it was for. That’s one I’ll always remember because I knew what it meant for him.”
Hriniak does not seem to care what age his hitters are, only that they are serious. In the off-season he holds several week-long hitting schools, and if a youngster shows he’s more interested in a good time and rubbing shoulders with the famous players who drop by, Hriniak refunds the money and shows him the door. When someone asks him about his own hitting success, he is quick to point out that once, in the minors, he came to bat 37 straight times without a bit. It was many more years before he learned how to repair a troubled swing, but what he was learning then, he says, was just as valuable. “I learned what it’s like to stink. To hear ‘Boooo!’ I learned that hitting is always a struggle. I learned that hitting is about suffering.”
There is a videotape of Walter Hriniak teaching hitting. His face is intense, his no-nonsense voice sharp and clipped as he demystifies the perfect baseball swing, which for nearly a century was thought to be the province of only the gifted few, the “born hitters.” When his close friend and mentor Charlie Lau, the famed hitting coach, was stricken with cancer; Hriniak sent him a copy of the tape. There is a hard-nosed edge to the man that doesn’t allow self-praise. But perhaps the closest became was when he described what it felt like to see himself there on the screen, bat in hand, teaching. “When I saw that I said, ‘That is it. That’s you, Walter.’ ”
Walter Hriniak does not smile easily; rarely does be seem to relax. Part is the nature of the man, part the reality of his task, when nearly every night some of his players will fail miserably “They’ll never know how bad I feel,” he said. “They’ll never know how bad I really feel. That belongs to me. I don’t want them to know … I don’t want them to know how good I feel inside when they do good, either.”
He does not drink, but sometimes he’ll sip Cokes in a hotel bar until 2 or 3 a.m. unable to sleep. After tough games on the road, he often leaves the bus and takes off alone, walking fast, putting distance between his feelings and the hitters until, many blocks away, he calms down and returns. “The only time I can really feel good,” he says, “is when every player gets two hits. That’s not gonna happen too often though, is it? You know when I relax? I’ll get to the ballpark at one in the afternoon. It’s nice and peaceful. I’ll go sit in the stands. I’ll go sit in the bullpen. I’ll sit on the bench in the dugout and look out and there’s no one there. It’s nice.
To most fans the concerns of Walter Hriniak seem almost to belong to a different game from the one they knew when a coach on the sidelines hollered, “Keep your eye on the ball!” He is, he says, mechanically inept, barely able to change a tire, yet he sees each batter’s swing as a complex series of movements and reactions, all within milliseconds of each other; each movement dependent on the other. A slight misstep along the way and the swing collapses like a stack of dominoes.
All the fans see, though, is that weak groundball to third. About yesterday’s game he can tell you little more than the score, but the swings of his hitters remain as clear as crystal, almost as if he could pick them up and hold them like puzzle pieces spilled onto a floor. Once a visitor asked him to recall the swings of his batsmen. The game was long over; the score already forgotten, for this was in the spring and the scores did not matter. Yet without a pause he turned his eye backward.
“First guy was Dwight Evans. Swung at three fastballs out of the strike zone. He looked over at me and I motioned to him to keep his head down. Next pitch he jumped out and jammed himself…Wade Boggs hit the second pitch, a sinker; down and away, to the shortstop. His top hand rolled over. He didn’t get extended … Buckner tried to pull a low, outside sinker and hit to the third baseman. Should’ve just taken the ball to left field…” When he finished going through the lineup he shrugged, almost apologetically, for he dislikes calling attention to himself. “Concentration,” he said at last. “It’s the best talent I’ve got. Some of these guys have taken a million swings with me. A million. They all know what to do. But they get bogged down. So I keep searching for a way to unlock the door. I always figure if I think hard enough, if I look hard enough, I’ll find that one little thing to keep them going.”
When Walter Hriniak is finished in the cage, perhaps an hour and a half after he began, he picks up his black fielder’s glove and his canvas bag full of baseballs and walks to the one spot on earth he loves more than home plate — the pitcher’s mound during batting practice. Old-timers in Natick still speak of the strength in his throwing arm. “You could hear a football hum when he threw it,” one said. Before he was a hitting coach, be made a reputation, first with the Montreal Expos, later with the Red Sox, as the best batting practice pitcher in baseball.
He would throw early batting practice to the hitters who wanted or needed extra work when only a few reporters and ballboys would be around to shag flies, then he’d change his shirt, throw regular batting practice –over 400 pitches every day that had to be hard and had to be accurate. Eight years ago when his arm started hurting, he clenched his fists and ignored it. Finally, a few years ago, a doctor cut into the shoulder and told him the muscles had been ground away, that, in effect, he’d been throwing on nothing but scar tissue. He prides himself on his straightforwardness and honesty with his players, but each day begins with deception when for 30 minutes he lifts weights trying to convince his arm that it has not yet died.
He has cut down now to about 600 innings a year; the workload of three starting pitchers, and when he throws, his face tightens with effort as if in a vice. Looking on, an observer would never guess that he was watching a man full of happiness with his work. He does not throw batting practice for the exercise, but because a pitcher’s mound offers a perspective he cannot get from 12 feet away beneath the bleachers. “A professional hitter who’s tending to his business should never miss a batting-practice fastball,” he says. “You can go out there for batting practice, but if you don’t practice right, with the right technique, it’s just a waste of time.”
When he is relieved on the pitcher’s mound, he gets right up close to home plate. “I want to see the look in their eyes,” he says, “hear things they might say… things they don’t say. If something’s wrong, sometimes you can’t tell until he takes his swings in batting practice.” He never stands still, but shuttles from side to side of the batting cage, telling one hitter to pull, another to hit and run, another to lay down a bunt. Said one veteran player; “I’ve known hitting coaches on other teams. They usually watched you, and when you hit a good drive said, ‘Way to go!’ Hell, I could do that. I guarantee, nobody does what Walter does, every pitch, every day” When early batting practice ends and all the players have had their swings, he grabs a bat and steps in. “The players always stop and watch him,” says a teammate. “He wants to do well, and he does. Line drives. Pow. Pow. Pow!”
He can tell you the story of each of his 25 singles in the major leagues, the ones hit off Don Drysdale and Robin Roberts and Juan Marichal, and the very last one off Gaylord Perry. But the first one he keeps in a special place because its story is not just about hitting, but about a friendship. It was 1968 and he was languishing as a Double A shortstop. The parent Braves, now moved to Atlanta, asked him to change to catcher and sent him to Shreveport, Louisiana, where the manager was a former journeyman big-league catcher named Charley Lau.
“When I got there, I took batting practice,” Hriniak remembers, “and Charley watched. I hit the ball real good, but I pulled everything. When I was done, the only thing he said to me was, ‘At least (if I were fielding) I’d know where to play you.’ And then the fun started. He broke me back down and taught me my old style all over again. See, my first two years I hit to all fields. It’s what I did naturally. But people told me I had to hit home runs to get to the big leagues. So I started pulling everything. They wanted me to hit home runs, but nobody ever showed me how.” When he called home, Hriniak told his parents, “I’ve finally found somebody”
Charley Lau was just beginning to develop the ideas that one day would make him famous as one of the most innovative hitting coaches who ever lived. But the basics were there: spray the ball around, keep your head down, shift your weight, stay loose and relaxed. That year Hriniak was an all-star; and in September the Braves beckoned. “I cried like a baby” Hriniak says. “Charley Lau brought me into his hotel room. He was a very stylish dresser and he said, ‘Take some of my clothes. You’ve got to go to the big leagues in style.’ The next night I got my first hit, a two-hopper right through the middle. And I loved my father with all my heart, but Charley Lau was the first person I called.”
It should have all worked out from then on; the dues had all been paid. But in the spring a foul tip split a finger wide open. Infection set in. By the time he recovered someone else had the job; in short order he was traded; he was back in the minors; he was released. Ten years after leaving Natick, Walter Hriniak was home.
He returned to baseball as a coach, first with the Expos, then with the Red Sox. Whenever he could, he talked hitting with Charley Lau, who by then was redefining some age-old beliefs about hitting. What Lau found in Walter Hriniak was a true believer. He had enemies in baseball, and for all his success with hitters, he was fired several times, but his true believer would tell him, “You’re right, Charley. You’re right.”
A few weeks before Charley Lau died, Walter Hriniak spent a week by his bedside. It was just before spring training, and though Lau was full of painkillers they could talk of hitters and hitting, of down strokes and weight shifts, and they passed the days in shop talk until it was time for Walter to join his hitters. “He had the caring,” says Hriniak. “Until the day I die I’ll never forget him. If it wasn’t for Charley I wouldn’t even have attempted to try to teach people how to hit.” Sometimes sportswriters refer to a “Lau-Hriniak School of Hitting.” It does not bother him that his name is hyphenated that way like a modern–day bride. “When someone calls me a disciple of Charley Lau,” Hriniak says, “I take great pride in that. I feel honored.”
He is an intensely private man in the most public of our games, and he grows uneasy the moment a question strays from the difficult art of hitting. Anything else he considers gossip or worse, a distraction. But not only did he inherit a philosophy of hitting from Charley Lau, but he also inherited his detractors. The most vocal of these is the most famous Red Sox of them all, Ted Williams. In the spring he scoots around the practice fields in a golf cart with a black bat perched in the rear, inspecting the crop. In a booming, good–natured voice he is happy to inform all who care to listen that the Lau-Hriniak theories are wrong.
No matter that they agree on far more than they disagree on, discourse is a competition that Ted Williams has always thrived on. But to Walter Hriniak, who is some 521 lifetime home runs and 2,629 hits behind Williams, the debate is like a family squabble at dinner that never seems to end. “I don’t have a problem with Ted Williams,” Hriniak says. “He teaches his way, and I teach mine. I don’t teach a level swing, a downward swing, or an uppercut swing. Hitters are all different, so I teach all three.” To his hitters, who sometimes must try to sort through the scrambled messages of springtime, he offers this: “You don’t have to hit my way, you don’t have to hit his way. Just make up your minds. Don’t keep changing lanes. You can’t hit when you’re confused.”
Sometimes his friends wonder why he doesn’t grab one of the offers to teach elsewhere for substantially more money and free himself from the doubting eye of Ted Williams. For one thing, he doesn’t want to move because his nine-year-old daughter Jill lives nearby with her mother. The only time he can leave hitting aside, he says, is when he is with his little girl.
And for another, the task of a teacher is to build, not to uproot, and he figures it takes at least five years to really know someone. “The only way to help someone,” he says, “is to get inside his head and inside his heart, and to let him inside your head and heart. But that doesn’t happen all the time, does it?” Enough. It happens enough. When the game is over, he drives to his house in Andover where he lives alone. When he sleeps, he can almost touch the 15 bats that lie beneath the bed. Each bat is a gift from a hitter he has helped. It is how big-league hitters say thank you when, no matter how tired, dusty, and sore you might be, you are always there to help them play their games.