Red Sox Batting Coach Walter Hriniak | Hit Man of Fenway Park
From Yankee Magazine September 1986
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.
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