Gene Tenace transcends eras. Hired as the Blue Jays hitting coach when Cito Gaston replaced John Gibbons this past June, Tenace was a World Series MVP at a time when statistics like OBP and SLG meant little or nothing to most baseball fans. One of the most under-appreciated players the game has seen, Tenace has been rated by Bill James as the 23rd-best catcher in big-league history despite a lifetime average of .241. Now 62 years old, Tenace earned that distinction thanks to an ability to get on base and hit with power, having posted an OPS of 817 between 1969 and 1983 (versus a league average of 694). Tenace talked about his hitting approach, and about his spectacular 1972 World Series performance, during a Blue Jays visit to Fenway Park in September.
David Laurila: How would you describe your hitting philosophy?
Gene Tenace: I like to keep it pretty simple, especially at this level. When you look at the players at this level, they’re the best in the world. They have a consistent swing, so that’s something we don’t have to build. The big thing here really, for me, is probably more the mental part of hitting than it is the physical part-preparation, mental preparation, for what the pitcher is going to try and do to them; things like that. The mechanical part-things go wrong, things will break down; you’ll pull off the ball, but that’s pretty common stuff to fix at this level, because you can see it with the video. The technology is pretty impressive right now in this industry. It probably is in every sporting industry. You can break everything down and detect it pretty quick, if you don’t see it with the naked eye. We have that at our hands, and it’s a big helping tool for detecting things going wrong in a swing. The other thing is to keep them mentally prepared for the game.
DL: To what extent should hitters follow an organizational hitting philosophy as opposed to focusing primarily on their own strengths?
GT: A hitting philosophy-I don’t know if you really have a hitting philosophy. I think you have to take each individual hitter and work with his strengths. They have to stay with their strengths, because that’s why they’re here; their strengths got them here. If you’re telling these guys, “OK, this is our philosophy, and we want everybody to do this,” I don’t think that’s possible. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s not possible; it’s probably more difficult, more than anything. It’s tough to get somebody to do something that, number one, they’re not comfortable with, and they probably don’t have the ability to do it. So I try to stay with a hitter’s strengths, and continue to work on his weaknesses. And I’ve been pretty successful with that mindset in the big leagues. It’s so difficult to hit, anyway. Hitting is the most difficult thing to do in any sport, so if you’re making it so difficult for them, you’re going to have more problems to deal with. So, you try to keep it as simple as possible; you try to keep the mechanical part as simple as possible; you try to keep the mental aspect as simple as possible. That way they don’t have a lot of things going through their heads, because that’s where you run into problems. If you start overloading guys with a lot of stuff, they’ll start thinking about this, thinking about that, and then they’re trying to react to a 90 mph fastball with all these issues, all these demons going through their head. Then, bingo, now you’ve got some problems. So you try to keep it simple. That’s my philosophy: simple.
DL: How long does it take to learn hitters?
GT: It doesn’t take long. When you have 40 years in the industry-I’ve been 40 years in uniform-it doesn’t take me long to learn what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. I can probably look at a guy taking batting practice and tell you if he’s a high-ball hitter or a low-ball hitter, or if he’s a better fastball hitter or a better breaking-ball hitter. It doesn’t take long to figure that one out, watching someone hit in a game. If you’re a hitting coach, it shouldn’t take long to figure out what your guys’ strengths and weaknesses are.
DL: Who most influenced you as a hitter?
GT: Oh gosh, I played with some great hitters in Oakland: Joe Rudi, Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando. I had so many great hitters around me that it was ridiculous. Watching those guys, watching their mannerisms and their routines, and then I went to San Diego where I was with Dave Winfield, who was a Hall of Fame hitter. Then I went to St. Louis where you had great hitters like George Hendrick, who I played with for a number of years. I had an opportunity to play with Billy Williams and Deron Johnson, who I had a lot of respect for; we used to talk hitting a lot. They had great careers. Billy Williams is obviously a Hall of Famer, but Deron Johnson had great stats, tremendous stats. So I learned a lot from those guys as a player. And I had Charlie Lau at one time in Oakland, although I think I was only with him there for a year. I wasn’t playing every day, so unfortunately I didn’t get to spend much time with Charlie; he spent, probably, more time with the guys who were playing every day. But I would listen to him talk, so in my own way I got to pick his brain by just listening to him; I got a lot of information just listening. I also had Bob Skinner, who helped me out a lot in San Diego. So anyway, I’ve been around some pretty doggone good hitters, so I was fortunate. And you’d play against guys on other teams, and you’d talk to them about how to approach hitting. And you’d just listen, sometimes. I’d get closer to the batting cage so I could eavesdrop; I did a lot of eavesdropping in my career. Back in those days you couldn’t fraternize, so I’d ease over to the cage and listen to them talk.
DL: How does today’s strike zone compare to what it was the 1970s?
GT: To me, it’s different. I don’t know why, but it’s different. I think the pitch inside has kind of been taken away from pitchers, for some reason-the ball in. They don’t go inside consistently now, compared to when I came in the game. The game has changed in a lot of ways. It’s not just the strike zone. Everything has changed. The philosophy of how to play the game has changed.
DL: You had seven seasons in which you drew more walks than you had base hits, which is pretty remarkable.
GT: Well, you have to understand where I hit in the lineup, too. That’s where the misleading part comes in with this on-base percentage thing. Where my slot was in the lineup, and who was hitting behind me, had a lot to do with me walking. I had great eyesight, I’ll grant you that, and I knew the strike zone. I also had a good reputation with umpires. I think that for a guy to get on base a lot, he has to have a good reputation with umpires, because they’re the guys back there who are going to make the final decision. Having been a catcher and having had a relationship with umpires, a good relationship, I probably got some close pitches that maybe for somebody else they would have called them a strike. I don’t know. But knowing the strike zone, if the ball is two or three inches off the plate, some umpires will ring a guy up, and for me, they gave me a ball.
DL: Did it ever come up at contract time that you were drawing walks, which weren’t valued as highly as they are now, rather than getting base hits?
GT: Charlie Finley used all that stuff against me in arbitration. He said that the reason I walked so much was that the pitchers couldn’t get the ball over the plate. Well, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, you know. They weren’t trying to throw me a ball-they were trying to make me swing at it. But if it wasn’t in the strike zone, I wouldn’t swing at it. I taught myself, basically, to hit the ball in the strike zone. And I think that started during batting practice. That’s what I tell guys: you either develop good habits or bad habits in BP. That’s where slumps start, in batting practice, when you swing at everything. They want to get their swings in, while my mindset was that I wanted to get quality swings. I didn’t want quantity, I wanted quality. So if a coach was struggling throwing BP that particular day, I wouldn’t swing just to swing. I’d tell them, “I’m only going to swing at a strike.” I had to track the ball too; I was teaching myself to take pitches.
DL: Do you want your hitters here to do the same?
GT: Well, they ain’t gonna do it. I talk to them about it, but sometimes guys get set in their own ways, and you’re not changing a lot of things with them. I think you have to look at yourself individually and try to find a way to make yourself better. But I try to tell them to swing at strikes; we preach that: hit strikes. It’s easier to put a good swing on a good pitch; it’s tough to put a good swing on a bad pitch. That’s something that Cito [Gaston] and I believe in, and we talk to our hitters about it. And we’ve seen some progress since we came here and took over the club, in that respect.
DL: You mentioned your relationship with umpires. Were there other ways in which being a catcher impacted you as a hitter?
GT: It helped me learn the strike zone, but as far as making me a better hitter, well, it didn’t make me hit better. I think I probably would have hit better if I would have been at another position, because the catching wore me down; I was always banged up. My hands were always messed up, and if your hands are hurting, and I played a lot of games, it’s difficult, especially your third and fourth at-bat. Your hands are all bruised from catching guys like Vida Blue, who throw hard, or you have foul tips hitting off your shoulder blades and inside your knees or your feet. So, you’re dealing with some issues that the other guys on the field aren’t. It kind of wore me down as far as offensively, and there’s the mental part of the job, too.
DL: Despite consistently putting up high on-base and slugging numbers, you were only an all-star once. Were you under appreciated as a player?
GT: That’s not for me to say, so I don’t really know-but probably not. There were too many good players out there in my day. I was probably fortunate to make it that one time, and I actually made it at first base, I didn’t make it at catcher. There were some great catchers; you had Thurman Munson, you had Fisk. Those guys were always on the All-Star team, and they couldn’t take every catcher.
DL: Bill Freehan made 11 All-Star teams, yet received little Hall of Fame consideration. Should he have garnered more support?
GT: I definitely think so, because of his longevity. But I don’t even know what the criterion is for the Hall of Fame anymore. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even understand how they vote for the guys who go in. I think maybe it’s a popularity thing. I mean, there’s Jim Rice; are you going to tell me that Jim Rice doesn’t have the numbers to go to the Hall of Fame? You’ve got to be kidding me. They’ll sit down and tell you, “Well, he’ll get in next year,” but why did it take 15 years to put this guy in the Hall of Fame? He never got another at-bat; he never drove in another run; he never hit another home run. The same with Bruce Sutter; Bruce Sutter got in last year after 13 years. All of sudden he becomes a Hall of Famer when he wasn’t 13 years ago? The same way with Gossage. That’s why I don’t understand how they do it. So I don’t know the criteria or the qualifications any more. I thought I did at one time, but apparently I didn’t then, either. I think they just want you to wait and wait until they decide to put you in, and that’s ridiculous. If you’re a Hall of Fame player when you retire, and you get in 10 years later, why weren’t you a Hall of Famer when you first became eligible? I don’t get it.
DL: You were a World Series hero in 1972, hitting .348 with four home runs and nine RBI. Given that you hadn’t yet established yourself as a feared hitter and had only five home runs in the regular season, is that something that can be explained?
GT: I have no explanation for it, but I think I was probably well rested; I was a backup catcher. I had good numbers in the minor leagues, so the home runs weren’t an accident. The timing of them probably was. I think the fact is, the pressure factor was probably on more guys than it was on me. That’s because nobody paid much attention to me, because of my credentials. They were worried about Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Joe Rudi-these other guys who had bigger years, and had better careers than me at the time. So, they didn’t put a lot of stock in me. If I can remember, when the scouting report came out, Sparky Anderson said that when they got to my name: what do you do? And he said, “Don’t walk him.” Well, they didn’t walk me. They threw to me, and I just kept getting hits.
I don’t know, I just saw the ball really well that series. I was kind of like Michael Jordan; I was in a zone. I never knew what a zone was, but I experienced a zone then. I hit balls in that series where my teammates asked me how I hit them. I told them, “What do you mean? That ball was right down the middle of the plate.” And they would sit there and tell me that the balls were down and away, knee high out on the black. But I was seeing the ball so well that it looked like it was right down the middle of the plate; it looked like a grapefruit. Hitters go through that during the season. I had games where I had one at-bat where I was locked in, and I had games where I had a whole game where I was locked in. Then I wouldn’t get that feeling again for a while, or it would go in and out. That series, it was just there. It’s strange, and I don’t know how to explain it.