Red Sox Batting Coach Walter Hriniak | Hit Man of Fenway Park
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.