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May 20, 2009

Prospectus Q&A

Toby Harrah, Part 2

by David Laurila

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This is part two of a two-part interview with Tigers hitting coordinator and former big-league infielder Toby Harrah. The first part ran yesterday.

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David Laurila: Your first manager in the big leagues was Ted Williams. What did you learn from the man often referred to as "The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived"?

Toby Harrah: Well, he was the best hitter I ever saw in my life, and he made me a better hitter. He talked to me about, "Getting a good pitch to hit! Getting a good pitch to hit!" And you always worked off the fastball. 0-0 you're looking for a fastball. One-and-oh, you're looking for a fastball. Two-and-oh, you're looking for a fastball. Two-and-one, you're looking for a fastball. Then you just adjusted off of that. He kept hitting really simple. He was probably one of the first guys that ever talked about hitting as an art. And hitting is an art, it's not a science. If it was, everybody who had a master's degree would be a great hitter. But it doesn't work that way. It's an art. But as for Ted Williams, I think he was the greatest hitter of all time. Everybody can talk about all these other hitters and how good they were, but there was nobody better than Ted Williams.

DL: It is often said that great players don't make good teachers, because their craft came so naturally for them. Do you agree with that?

TH: You know, people say that, but the guys who were great hitters, if they took the time to learn how to become good teachers, they probably could. They probably just didn't have the patience to take the time to learn how to teach. Think about it, really. These guys were great hitters, so they could take their time and start reading a little bit about the mechanics of hitting; they could become good teachers. So that stuff is all bull crap, that great hitters can't be great teachers. That's all bull crap. Maybe they just don't have the patience to learn to teach it, that's all. And the guys who teach it and spend a lot of time at it, because they were bad at it, they learned how to teach it. Do you understand what I'm saying? Guys who are good teachers, but weren't good hitters, how do you think they got their credibility? They learned how to teach it. Let me give you a good example. To me, one of the best infield coaches of all time is Perry Hill. Perry Hill never played a day of professional baseball, but he took the time to learn how to teach and now he's one of the best. Rudy Jaramillo. Rudy Jaramillo is probably the best hitting instructor in baseball today. Did he ever play a day in the big leagues? Not that I'm aware of, but he's a fantastic teacher of hitting.

DL: Charlie Lau played in the big leagues, but obviously had far more success as a teacher than he did as a hitter.

TH: Think about it, a lot of guys spend so much time in the big leagues that by the time they get out, they don't want to teach it. They just do it to make a living. But the guys who had no credibility, that have never done anything, they have to get that credibility in some way, so how do they do it? By learning; by reading; by observing; by learning the mechanics. Think about a guy like Wade Boggs and how great a hitter he was. He went to Tampa and was a hitting coach there for a year or two. Why wouldn't he become a great hitting instructor? Probably because he never really gave a shit that much. He probably wanted to do it for a little while but didn't want to spend five or six years in the minor leagues really perfecting the art. He probably had enough money that he didn't have to do it. You need passion, but a lot of times you also have to make a living. So you have to spend time at it; you have to do that. That's just the way it is. Charlie Lau was a very good hitting coach. He was George Brett's hitting coach in Kansas City, and Charlie is the one who talked about how advancing runners is winning baseball. The team that usually gets the most runners to third base-they win.

DL: Charlie Lau and Walt Hriniak each had a specific hitting philosophy. Is that a good way to teach?

TH: Well, I'll tell you what, it's a lot easier. It's a lot easier to teach everybody how to hit one way than it is to take each individual, with his own body and his own swing, and try to get it to work the best way for just him. Shoot, if I just had to teach everybody how to hit one way, that's cake. It's taking each individual, with a little bit different body, a little bit different fire in him, different eyesight, strung a little bit different, and getting the best out of him. You can't take a small guy... you definitely don't want him to have the same swing as a guy who weighs 240 or 250 and can hit the ball out of the park. The big guy who can hit it out of the park, you don't mind him hitting it in the air a little more. You don't want the little guy to have the same swing as the big guy. You want him hitting the ball on the ground a little more, especially if he has some speed. You want him to hit line drives. You don't want the big guy to hit the ball on the ground a lot, because he'll hit into a lot of double plays. But the easiest way would be teaching everyone the same way. That would be cake, because all you'd have to do is get a recording and do it over and over again.

DL: How would describe your own approach?

TH: It all depends on the individual, and to me, mechanics are just part of it. Like Ted Williams said, it's about trying to get a good pitch to hit, recognizing a good pitch to hit and a bad pitch to take. To me, hitting isn't a science. Like I said, it's an art, and if it were a science, everybody who had their master's degree, and was smarter than heck, would be in baseball making a living. Think about this: If you read a book on medicine, does that make you a doctor? No, it means you read a book.

DL: An increasing number of front office executives are graduates of prestigious universities and possess strong analytic skills. Is there anything to be learned from them?

TH: Yeah. There's something to be learned. It's a piece of the puzzle. It's kind of like video, as far as hitting goes. Video is good, but it's just a small piece of the puzzle. It's just a small part of it. Drills are good, teamwork is good, but those are only small pieces of the puzzle. Soft toss is good, batting practice is good, but those are only small pieces of the puzzle. The fact is, for most guys who can hit, it's like a sixth sense. They have the ability to recognize and see the ball well and react. I can't take a guy who can't hit and make him a good hitter. What I can do is take a guy who can hit and make him a little better. I can make him a little more consistent, which to me is getting better. If I could take a guy that can't hit, and teach him how to hit, I'd be making a lot of bread. A lot of bread.

DL: What do all good hitters do the same?

TH: That's a tough question right there. I think it's recognizing a good pitch to hit and hitting it, and recognizing a bad pitch to hit and taking it. Good hitters know the strike zone. They have no fear. Basically, they're not afraid to swing and miss; they're not afraid to make an out. You watch guys take batting practice and some of them look great in batting practice, but when the game starts and that ball is a little bit faster, that's when you start separating the guys that have that sixth sense-that ability to see the ball out of the pitcher's hand and stay in there and not panic or get tight. They enjoy it almost. They look forward to that confrontation with the pitcher. It's almost like a battle. It's pretty neat. They make an out and it doesn't even bother them. Watch Manny Ramirez. To me, Manny Ramirez is probably the best hitter in baseball, and he probably couldn't even tell you who the pitcher is out on the mound. It's almost like it's a game between him and the ball. See the ball, hit the ball. That's a pretty good way to be consistent.

DL: Is simplicity a key to hitting?

TH: Put it this way, it's a lot easier to have a simple approach where you can be more consistent, rather than trying to confuse yourself. Thinking seems to slow the whole process down. You think in practice-you work on things in practice-but once you get in that batter's box, you have to compete. You have to keep competing, because a lot of times, that fourth at-bat can win the ballgame for you. That fourth at-bat, a lot of times you're facing a guy coming out of the bullpen, who is fresh, and he's competing, I promise you. So you have to keep competing too, and that's what good hitters do. You never hear good hitters going back to the bench and saying, 'Geez, where did I hold my hands,' or 'Was my stride too long?' or 'Was I pulling my shoulder out?' Good hitters aren't thinking about that stuff. They're more focused on that next at-bat and what they're going to do to get a hit. Bad hitters, they're thinking about everything but seeing the ball and hitting the ball.

DL: As a player, you walked more times than you struck out. How important was that to you throughout the course of your career?

TH: Well, it's important to me now. Walks are important in baseball now. Back then, nobody ever talked about that. I just happened to walk a lot because I was a pretty good fastball hitter, I could see the ball really well and if it wasn't a pitch I liked, I didn't swing at it. I felt real comfortable with two strikes on me. I tell a lot of the hitters I work with that probably over a third of their at-bats they're going to have two strikes on them. So if they're going to be a good hitter, they're going to have to be a good two-strike hitter. You have to feel comfortable hitting with two strikes, just like you do hitting with any other count. You have to feel confident that you can put the bat on the ball.

There's something to hitting, and guys hitting well in batting practice, but then they go into the ballgame and they're not the same hitter. There's a little bit of fear in hitting. You're getting in that batter's box and the ball is coming in there 90-plus miles an hour. Or the guy throws a breaking ball that starts at your head and breaks across the plate. I'm telling you, everybody has it and if they say that they don't, they're lying. But you just learn how to deal with it. That's the thing about baseball... it's the whole process about baseball that makes it so much fun. It's not just the hitting; it's not just the catching. It's running the bases, diving and catching balls. It's breaking up double plays. It's a double up the gap with a runner on first and you're playing in the middle of the field, and you're running out there real fast knowing that there's going to be a play at the plate and you're hoping you get a good relay throw so you can throw a one-hopper and hopefully get that guy sliding in. It's the process of the game. That's why you started playing when you're little. It wasn't for statistics. If you play the game, you need something to grab a hold of, and for a lot of people, especially in today's day and age, it seems to be statistics. But to really enjoy and love the game of baseball, you've got to go out there and play it, and then you'll understand what makes baseball the game it is. As a kid, you never think about statistics. I never did, anyway. I always just thought about playing and about the process. The battle between the pitcher and the hitter, chasing the ball down... all of that stuff. The love of the game, and the passion for playing the game, is competing and going out there to beat the guy on the other team so that you can hold your chest out a little bit and feel good about it. You play not only to have the respect of your teammates, but also your peers, the guys in the other dugout. You also want to look good in front of all the people who paid to see you play. That's all a part of it. Do you understand what I'm saying?

DL: What it sounds like is that you really love the game.

TH: Well, yeah. Think about it. I was out of high school at 17 and played a couple of years in the minor leagues, then I played my first big-league game when I was 19 or 20. I've been in it ever since, and it's still the greatest game in the world.

DL: Do you have any final thoughts?

TH: You know, you get talking baseball... baseball is a great game, man. I mean, we all have that little-bitty kid in us and it never leaves. I'm 60 years old and that little-bitty kid is still there. If I could start all over and do it again, I would. It would be fun to do all over again. I don't think I'd change much of anything, I'd just appreciate it more, because you think you're going to play forever, but you don't. Before you know it, you're done.

DL: It sounds like you're going to stay in the game as long as you can.

TH: I don't know about that, but it sure is fun. I honestly feel that the young players I'm around today... they're no different than the young players when I was growing up. They have the same dreams and ambitions. They want to get better, they practice hard, they have good habits. They're outstanding young men. If you want to be around some good people, come to the minor leagues. Come to the ballparks and watch these young men working hard and chasing their dreams of becoming big-league baseball players. They're no different from when I grew up. They give you energy; they charge your battery. They have the same dreams I did.

You know, I just feel like I was lucky. I had good coaches, from Nellie Fox to Wayne Terwilliger, and to just be around good baseball people... and I wish I could have played in the old days. I've always loved the old ballplayers and listening to their stories. And the camaraderie... you really miss your old teammates. You might make a diving catch to save a game, or hit a home run to win a game, but it's being around the players every day. My very first spring training, I rode a train, and I'll never forget... on that train was a pitcher named John Boozer. He had been in the big leagues with the Phillies, but he was back in minor league camp like me, and players like that, the old timers, it was neat to be around them. You know, the crazy windup like Luis Tiant had. You should have seen it. There's nothing like it in baseball today. But you do have Paul Byrd... have you ever watched him pitch? He has that kind of windup from the old days, the way he kind of pumps twice. He kind of reminds me of the old days, and that's the thing. You asked about teaching everybody to hit the same way. As a fan, would you like to see every hitter go up there with the same swing and same approach? You like to see everybody be a little different. That's what makes the game. That's the beauty of the game of baseball. Different windups, side-armers, guys who throw overhand, hitters with different stances... all of those things. Hitting still goes back to what Ted Williams said: Get a good pitch to hit. But different windups and different stances? They're fun. They say "Play ball." They don't say "Work ball." Baseball isn't a job. Baseball is a game.

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Prospectus Hit and Run... (05/19)
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Premium Article Prospectus Q&A: Toby H... (05/19)
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Game Story (05/20)

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