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