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.
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.
"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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