Bat Man

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

Having those stats next to his name in the Baseball Encyclopedia must smart, but Ullger can only shrug now when he remembers the frustrations of that season. "It was different then," he says. "A player usually got only one chance, and I pretty much sat on the bench the whole year. You can't be bitter about it--you know, maybe I could have caught a break and played ten years, but I was a couple years older than most of those guys, and the opportunities were given to them. I did learn from the experience how to prepare yourself to come off the bench, and I learned a lot by just sitting around watching and paying attention to what was going on. I think that opportunity to really study the game, plus the versatility I had as a player, has allowed me to be a halfway decent coach."

Ullger spent his last minor-league season with the Orioles' Triple A team, and the next year Jim Rantz, the Twins' minor-league director, called and offered him a managerial job at Visalia in the California League, which at the time was the team's class A franchise. He ended up spending seven years as a manager in the Twins farm system, and had success at every stop, winning titles at A, AA, and AAA and being named Manager of the Year in both the California and Pacific Coast leagues. The Twins named Ullger their first-base coach in 1995, and he's been around ever since, spending the past few seasons in the third-base coaching box. When Terry Crowley departed for Baltimore during the off-season, creating a vacancy in the hitting-coach slot, Ullger lobbied for the job, and won it.

Though Ullger has embraced some aspects of Crowley's favored approach--e.g., a short, compact swing--he has some different ideas about the way hitters might trigger that swing, and incorporates components of the famed Charlie Lau/Walt Hrniak weight-shift model (in which the weight is shifted back with the pitch and forward with the swing) while recognizing the limitations inherent in any one absolute approach.

Weight back, hands quiet, head down: Torii Hunter puts Ullger's wisdom to work
Craig Lassig
Weight back, hands quiet, head down: Torii Hunter puts Ullger's wisdom to work

"You can't really go with one style," the hitting coach says. "Because each hitter is different, has different strengths and different weaknesses. Our approach is really just to work with these guys to try to get them to hit the ball hard, try to hit line drives back up the middle, and then, if they can work the count in their favor, maybe looking for a spot to drive the ball. And you'd like guys to be able to handle the outside pitch and learn to take it the other way. Plate discipline is such a big thing with young hitters, learning to work the pitcher and know what pitches to look for in what situations. A lot of times young hitters will get themselves out, and when they start scuffling it becomes a mental thing. That's what we try to stay away from: We'll work on mechanics, a consistent approach, studying pitchers, keeping emotions under control. They have to learn that sometimes when they're making outs they're not doing anything physically wrong."

With so many young players, there are days when time management is Ullger's greatest challenge. He gets to the ballpark at one o'clock most afternoons, and there's often a line for early batting practice. "It's hard to find time," the coach admits. "Everybody has their needs. It never ends, but this is a great group of guys, willing to work hard and get better. And I think we're having a lot of fun."

Later this night, in the game against Boston, the freshly tutored Torii Hunter has about as much fun as a hitter can have, belting a grand slam off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and ending the evening two-for-three with a walk and five RBI. For Scott Ullger it's one of the more conspicuous triumphs in what promises to be a long season of small victories.

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