Managers perfect ‘art’ of throwing batting practice

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 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 All-Star Home Run derby tonight in Kansas City, Mo., it will 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 threw to Jeff Bagwell, Jeromy Burnitz and Ken Griffey Jr., 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 more than 180 pitches that night.

“I was there for 2½ 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,” 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, 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 batting practice 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 of the Mets.

“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.”

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 Chase Field.

“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.

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.”

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