Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle throws to his hitters during batting practice three or four times a week, doing his best to groove ‘em down the middle at room-service speed for guys simply honing their muscle memory.
At that time of the day, before the lineup card is filled out, before fans find their seats, nobody really notices if he bounces a few.
Under the bright lights of the home run derby on Tuesday night in Kansas City, it’ll be a different story. Hurdle can empathize with those who’ll be trying to toss waist-high beach balls to some of the game’s most fearsome sluggers. He was in their shoes once. And he thought he’d never get off the mound.
Hurdle was the Rockies hitting coach in 1999 when Larry Walker invited him to throw at Boston’s Fenway Park. Hurdle was so effective, he ended up throwing to Jeff Bagwell, Jeromy Burnitz and Ken Griffey, too.
“Bagwell comes up to me, says ‘I don’t have a guy, will you throw batting practice to me?’ He hits like nine homers, he’s going to make the next round,” Hurdle said. “Burnitz, his guy had an anxiety attack and he said, ‘Will you throw to me? Of course.’ He hits like 12, so I’m definitely throwing the next round. Griffey sends someone over from his posse. He hits 12.”
Hurdle, whose playing career as an outfielder and corner infielder had ended a dozen years earlier, figures he threw than 180 pitches that night.
“I was there for 2 ½ hours, I was dripping wet when I walked off the mound,” Hurdle said. “It was silly,” he added with a booming laugh, “it was.”
The 54-year-old Hurdle is among a growing group of managers who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Tony La Russa did a bit of fungo-hitting, toting a red bat around the field to check on things, during his 33-year career.
Ron Washington of Texas hits fungos, too.
“I enjoy making them feel good about themselves because they can blast me,” the Rangers’ Ron Washington said. “In the process it gives me some exercise, too, rather than just hanging around. I’m a working manager. I can’t just sit around and watch. I’ve got to do something.”
The key to a successful batting practice session is consistency. Most managers believe the ideal speed is in the mid-60s for a pitch coming from 45 feet instead of 60 feet, 6 inches.
“It’s more of an art than I ever realized,” Cardinals rookie manager Mike Matheny said. “I think most guys would say that if you fluctuate 1 or 2 mph and you’ve got some unhappy guys. The guys that throw good BP and have done it for a long time, serious kudos out to them because that’s a tough deal.”
Most teams have several expendable arms they can churn through. All must incorporate a ducking motion behind the screen set up in front of the mound as part of their follow-through to avoid screamers up the middle, during the valuable daily ritual of helping hitters stay on top of their timing.
Bud Black, who had double-digit win totals in eight seasons and was a key lefty on the Royals’ 1985 World Series championship team, throws BP on days the Padres will be facing a left-hander. Earlier this year, he joked that in a few days he’d be impersonating Johan Santana.
“It’s still one of my favorite things to do, to play catch or to throw,” Black said. “I like throwing things, whether it’s a football, a baseball, a Frisbee. I can see how our hitters are reacting, too. I can see things based on their swings on certain pitches.”
The Marlins’ Ozzie Guillen threw a lot of BP when he was a Miami coach in 2003, noting “I paid my dues.” Yet, he’s still plenty active.
“It gives me something to do,” Guillen said. “I’m not sitting in my chair getting fat, and I like to see guys hitting.”
The 42-year-old Matheny, a former four-time Gold Glove catcher, is still conditioned to daily work from throwing batting practice to his kids for years. He often throws without warmups, rising from his desk at the end of a media session, straightening his hat and heading for the mound.
He estimated he’ll throw between 120 and 150 pitches, joking that batting practice duty helps him “remember what it feels like to hurt.”
Cardinals regulars take batting practice more than three hours before the first pitch of night games, avoiding the shadows that begin creeping into Busch Stadium late in the afternoon. Assistant hitting coach John Mabry throws to the heart of the batting order, but Matheny does more than his share.
Every day, White Sox manager Robin Ventura makes it a point to throw to the first hitting group. Same goes for Athletics manager Bob Melvin, who uses it to get insight on his hitters. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson also spends a lot of time at AT&T Park.
“You learn quite a bit about your hitters throwing batting practice, where they’re covering, what they handle, up, down, there’s no doubt,” Melvin said.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire used to throw more often, but has been hampered by shoulder tenderness that keeps him from experimenting with a knuckleball.
“I do miss going out there every day and throwing,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve got a little arthritis in there. That’s the fun part of baseball, being out there in the middle of it.”
The Phillies’ Charlie Manuel threw daily batting practice in the minors and majors until he was about 60 and began having arm woes. For years, he threw off the mound instead of cheating in 15 feet, and challenged hitters with breaking balls.
Now 68, Manuel would still be out there chucking away, health permitting.
Hurdle says Manuel gets a pass.
“Certain guys don’t need to throw,” Hurdle said. “Plus, if you’re a real good manager, you don’t need to throw. I’ll never fall in that category, so I need to throw. I’ll do it as long as I can.”