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