My Baseball Pupil (last part)

I know it may not look like you have to be a great athlete to play ball – we stand around a lot while soccer players never stop running around until their weirdass clock counts all the way up – but baseball takes a lot of athleticism. We have to be able to do four different things, and do all of them well, otherwise we’re no use to a team. Those four things are: running, hitting, catching and throwing. And Lucas, the kid whose “baseball tutor” I am, proved to me that even the first one can be hard.

So I’m working with a kid who runs on his tippy toes, can throw hard and far, needs help on catching, and can make contact with a baseball when it’s thrown at him by a shortstop. (Anybody remember the game last season when Kiké Hernandez ended up pitching? I kinda feel like Kiké standing on the far side of his parents’ tennis court and tossing balls at Lucas.)

Team tryouts are in February, so I have less than 8 weeks to get Lucas to be good enough for the varsity team at his Division II private school. It’s not one of those times when you say “I have my work cut out for me” – but me and Lucas do have some work to do.

Together with his parents, we decided that I’d come over two evenings a week to work with Lucas, since it’s real easy to forget something someone’s taught you when you only see him once a week. As it is I have to keep reminding him about running like a girl almost every time he starts to move. Our schedule is usually me coming over at 6:15 on days I open at the store, working with Lucas for around 90 minutes, unwinding in his parents’ pool, and then freezing my ass off getting from the heated pool to the – I guess it’s called a cabana – to get out of my wet board shorts and back into my dry clothes. The whole visit to Lucas’ takes 2 hours, 1½ of which I get paid for…although the time in the pool is almost as good as the check I get from Mrs. Andrews at the end of each week.

One thing I’m not being paid for is being Lucas’ strength and conditioning coach. That’s a really good thing, since I have no idea how to be one. I mean, I know how to work out, and, like most ball players, I can do squats and leg presses from here until next Tuesday, but don’t ask me about one of those fancyass individualized exercise programs. I pretty much always did what my coach showed me to do, which was usually what he showed all the other guys on the team to do as well.

Y’all have heard a lot about how I eat – so you can figure out that I’m not the dude to turn to if you want specialized nutritional advice. Remember Slater from Hickory and his protein powders and vitamins that his mom put in a cabinet she put a lock on? If you ask me, the best nutritional advice he ever got was that night I fed him his first ice cream.

I told y’all that Lucas is still small for 16 – I’m guessing 5’7” and 135 or 140. I also told y’all that he was strong for his size, mostly because he hits the weight room they have at his school like a maniac. His parents had him see some bigtime conditioning coach and he set up the program Lucas does in the gym. I get it: he’s smaller than most of the other boys and he wants to make the team. He can’t make himself tall, but he can make himself strong, and, from the way he throws, he’s doing a good job. I forget exactly the number he gave me when he was telling me how much he benches. I do remember saying “holy shit”, though.

Lucas is also totally into protein powders and vitamins and supplements – he showed me a cabinet in his kitchen that’s got even more bottles and canisters than the cabinet Slater’s scaryass mother put that lock on back in Apartment 643. His parents have him seeing a nutritionist, and she’s giving him all this stuff, which I reckon must costing them a fortune. I know he drinks beet juice before our sessions in the backyard, and, as soon as we’re done working, he runs into the house to make some grossass recovery drink. He gave me a taste of it one time. I told him he should try putting a scoop of ice cream in it.

Hey, the kid wants to get bigger. He’s got a 16 year old metabolism and he’s very active. I wasn’t kidding about the ice cream. Look at what it did for Slater.

The one thing I was a little worried about after seeing his cabinet of magic powders, pills and potions was that Lucas might be desperate enough to start messing with PEDs. He goes to school with lots of other Pasadena rich kids, so I’m sure there’s plenty of really bad shit available in the locker room. There was really bad shit available in Maryville High ten years ago, and we were hardly a school for rich kids. He did admit to me that he tried HGH over the summer; I told him that I’d come beat the living crap outta him if I heard he was messing with anything like that again. That’s the advice Sumter gave me when I was around Lucas’ age, and it’s worth passing on.

So our program goes something like this. I start him off running around the backyard to make sure he’s not doing it on his tippy toes, then I have him run some 90 foot sprints. He’s pretty fast now that he’s running like a dude. He’s not going to be kept off the team because he can’t run.

I know he needs better BP than we can get on the tennis court with me pitching, but working there did give me an idea of what he can do with a bat. I hate to say it, but it looks a lot of the time like Lucas is modeling his swing on the Dodgers in the World Series. I’m not kidding when I say that he regularly knocks himself down on his follow through.

People used to tell me that I had a “pretty swing” – which is a compliment, even if it sounds totally gayass. (Yeah, yeah, pretty boy, pretty swing. Heard it before. Hilarious.) I think that’s because I always kept my swing super simple, no leg kick, no bouncing around of the bat when it was over my shoulder (that means you Cody Bellinger), just standing there quietly, waiting for your pitch, and taking a nice even swing at it. I had a little league coach who told us that swinging a bat was a natural motion (unlike pitching), so we should just let the motion happen naturally. Sure, you gotta get some power into your swing, but when you let the motion start naturally in your legs, the power’s going to come. Ok, fine, that didn’t make me the kind of hitter you could count on for a clutch home run, but I was the kind of hitter you could count on to get a clutch base hit.

And, don’t get the wrong idea, I could hit homers too. My MVP trophy from my senior year at MT says I hit 23 that season.

So the advice I passed on to Lucas was the best advice I ever got from my high school coach: you hit with your brain, not with your arms…so don’t get in your brain’s way. Your eyes will tell your brain to tell your body what to do, so take a breath, keep your eye on the ball, and take a nice, smooth natural swing. And whatever you do, don’t overthink your swing.

I know there are some great hitters who are more analytical about their swings, but this natural system always worked for me. Ok, I’ve been hearing that I’m a “natural” since little league, so maybe I have more baseball instinct than a lot of other dudes, but I still think that your worst enemy in the batter’s box is thinking about it too much and then trying to do too much.

The best hitter I ever played with – Slater back in Hickory – was also taught not to overthink his swing. He had a real good coach in high school, and now they’re telling him that he’s got a pretty swing. I reckon pretty doesn’t matter if you’re hitting .326 in AA (like Slater did last season), but, in my opinion, if your swing is pretty, you’re doing something right.

Ok. Now I need to communicate that to Lucas and get him to stop swinging out of his shoes.

That was going to involve a field trip to the batting cage.





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