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