Bat Man

For Twins hitting coach Scott Ullger, baseball is a contact sport

By the time the national anthem is sung, most of Twins hitting coach Scott Ullger's work is done for the day. Hours before the Metrodome's gates open and the fans begin to file in, Ullger might be hanging out with his players in the clubhouse video room, studying tapes, going over previous at-bats looking for problems and breaking down a hitter's swing. Or he'll be down in the newly installed batting cage tucked in the Dome's right-field corner doing more fine-tuning, throwing soft-toss or working with a player who's hitting off a tee. Baseball players put in long hours, and much of the day-to-day grunt work of the game goes on outside the scrutiny of fans and media. This season, with a roster brimful of young and unproven players, Ullger has his work cut out for him.

The big cage is dragged out to home plate a few hours before game time, and Ullger and his fellow coaches take turns throwing batting practice from behind a screen at the front of the mound. BP affords a hitter the chance to work on his rhythm and his stroke. He's not going to see anything fancy--most batting practice pitches come in at about 60 miles per hour--and the goal is to hit the ball where it's pitched and jump on anything you can drive. If you arrive at the park early enough to witness the ritual of BP, you'll see a lot of line drives, plenty of home runs, as well as a steady stream of banter, advice, and heckling from around the cage.

On this day in late April, Ullger arrived at the ballpark early to put in some extra work with 23-year-old rookie outfielder Torii Hunter, who went hitless in four at-bats the previous night and is struggling to keep his average over .200. "We're gonna work on some things with Torii," the coach says. "We noticed last night that his hips and shoulders were flying open, and we're trying to keep him back until he makes contact, not before." Now, as the right-handed-hitting Hunter takes his turns in the cage, it's clear he's concentrating on Ullger's advice. He keeps his weight back, his hands quiet; with a short, level swing and his head down, he drives pitch after pitch back up the middle and into the gaps.

Hitting a baseball is the one challenge in sports that can consistently make an otherwise graceful and coordinated human being look as hapless as Roberto Benigni. Even the most sporting of pitching machines can reduce a decent weekend athlete to a flailing, frustrated wreck, and unless you're one of the blessed and fortunate few, the odds are very good that you couldn't even get good wood off the most rag-armed BP pitcher. The biggest bum ever to wear a big-league uniform would make you and me look sick. (All right, maybe we could hit Scott Aldred.)

But really, those are just the plain, hard facts of baseball, and it's the one reason the sport cruelly weeds out aspirants at a relatively early age, driving dreamers into softball leagues, where the ball is tossed underhand and always looks like a grapefruit coming toward the plate, or to the obsessive labyrinths of fantasy ball. Perhaps you're familiar with the clichés: How you're supposed to somehow hit a round ball square using a round bat. How even the best hitters fail seven out of ten times. You've got a split second to react to the trajectory of a projectile that's traveling toward you at 70 to 100 mph--a difficult assignment at even the lowest of skill levels. (Just ask Michael Jordan, who struggled to hit his weight in the depths of the minors.)

Imagine, then, the challenges facing Scott Ullger. The Twins' budget-slashing measures have left Tom Kelly and his staff with a roster of largely unproven young players, including a handful of hitters who have spent hardly any time above AA ball. As Ullger knows too well, and as his young charges are finding out in a hurry, there is a world of difference between even the highest minor leagues and the bigs. It's like trying to go from pounding out Christmas carols on a church-basement piano to mastering Chopin at Orchestra Hall, and the learning curve couldn't be steeper. A good minor-league fastball hitter won't get a chance to feast on major-league heaters for long before teams start to feed him a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed stuff, and the guy who can't adjust will find himself back in Triple A in a hurry. And it's not just the pitching: Defenses are more accomplished and unforgiving, umpires and managers are more exacting, the scouting is more sophisticated, and the scrutiny is more intense.

Ullger comes uniquely qualified to appreciate both the tremendous shot his young players are being given and the difficulties they face. At age 42, he has spent more than 20 years in professional ball, the majority of that time in baseball's backwaters, playing and managing in the minor leagues. Through ten minor-league seasons, he put up consistently solid numbers as a right-handed-hitting outfielder/first baseman/third baseman, but the big break never came, and his one opportunity in the majors was more like a drive-through shot of decaf espresso than the proverbial cup of coffee. Ullger spent the 1983 season with the Twins, but on a team that included Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Gary Ward, he didn't get much of a chance to show what he could do. He started the season in an 0-for-19 slump and finished with only 79 at-bats and a .190 average.

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