The Hitting Coach
Today, though, is my last day following the Nationals around, so I need to tie up some loose ends. I'll try to do that during the day, and will hand off any left-over stuff to Chico, who flies back to Florida tonight and returns to the beat rested and ready tomorrow.
The hitting coach: I had forgotten how passionate the debate about this position was. Stupid of me, because it was worth every minute of said debate.
Let's go back to the origins of how Lenny Harris got the job. It was May of 2007, and Mitchell Page - with whom I always enjoyed talking hitting - left the team for personal reasons. Page had battled alcoholism, and people in the organization were concerned about his well-being. But his departure did not help the Nationals, regardless of what the numbers said.
Harris, at the time, was a roving instructor for the Nationals in the minors, basically working with infielders. He was, as he was quick to tell you, the all-time leader in pinch hits. Still is. And he had an approach at the plate that worked for him in those eighth- and ninth-inning situations. He was aggressive. He knew how to stay ready even when he wasn't playing. And he had success.
But when Jim Bowden installed him as the major league hitting coach, he wasn't ready. He told me as much months later, but it was obvious to anyone who was around. He didn't work like a hitting coach - studying videos, talking with players about their swings. Rather, he played cards, trying to connect with them emotionally. This, some in the organization told me, was clearly because he hadn't gotten playing out of his system.
The big error, it seems to me, was not that the club installed him as the temporary hitting coach for the remainder of the 2007 season. Rather, it was re-hiring him for 2008. That left several of the Nationals' hitters - young and old - drifting for an entire season.
Last spring, I wrote a profile of Harris that I think was revealing. Here's one of his quotes:
"If you let it, this job will be too much work," Harris said. "If you let it. But I don't let it. I don't stress. I don't let it run me. I run it."
Not exactly the words of someone who's grinding it out with his players. Here's what Bowden said about keeping him.
"Lenny has tremendous communication skills," Bowden said. "Having just retired from baseball, he was very close in his relationship with the players, which I thought our staff needed. I thought it would help the staff to have someone who could relate to players, and the players could relate to him -- as if he was a player."
That all was true for some players, particularly Lastings Milledge, with whom he connected. But here's more from that story last spring:
Harris's approach rankled some in the organization who thought a person in such a position -- essentially the offensive coordinator -- should put in more time in the video room, more time learning the particulars of each hitter's swing. Harris, though, said he handled the job precisely how he wanted to.
"That was my way to get to know them," Harris said of the card games. "I don't want guys to go and look at my history and say, 'Oh, this guy was a good hitter and he played well.' No. I wanted them to know I'm a good human being, and I know you guys are human, too. I know you're not going to go out there and going to be successful all the time. I want to connect with them mentally."
Well, the Nationals ended up with the worst offense in baseball, and it's hard to point to a player who really developed over the course of 2008. So when the entire coaching staff was canned after last year, they turned inward, to Rick Eckstein.
I do not know Eckstein yet, though I've met him. However, it's not hard to draw some conclusions. He was described to me by one front office official as a "grinder," and he has to be, because he didn't play in the majors yet he has to gain the respect of major leaguers.
That he has done. Chico wrote about Eckstein and Nick Johnson early in camp. I think some of the attributes players respect about him are apparent there. I have not seen a moment at HSCS when Eckstein wasn't working with someone on something.
Take last Monday night. Johnson got, I think, three at-bats against Houston. But he didn't like them (even though he drew a walk and some such thing). After the regulars came out of the game, Eckstein was in the clubhouse talking to a few guys about their swings, their at-bats that night. He pumped his fist toward Austin Kearns, who has made a mechanical adjustment to how he loads his bat - and had hit a three-run homer.
But clubhouse manager Mike Wallace then said to Eckstein, "Nick's down at the cage. He's waiting for you." At 10 p.m. or so, Eckstein sprinted down to the batting cage to work with Johnson.
I'm not saying the Nationals are going to turn things around offensively because of one guy. But with a group of developing hitters - and lots of the Nationals are young enough that they're still coachable - this is a hugely important position. The people who matter - the players - tell me it's a huge upgrade.
Anyway, we'll have lineups and such when they become available.
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