Thursday, December 22, 2016

By Rob Goldman, Historical Writer - 

When I look back on my career, I think about how many Hall of Fame players I was lucky to come in contact with. The one I appreciate most is my first hitting coach, Rod Carew. A legend in his own right, Rod was able to continue his excellence off the field as he articulated the finer points of hitting to a bunch of rookies in 1993.

Sometimes, because their talent is innate rather than crafted from the toils of extra work and frustration, a lot of superstars often don’t appreciate the average guy who struggles just to achieve respectability. Rod Carew was different in this way. I think he always held the belief that anyone could achieve exceptional talent if he understood and worked hard enough at the fundamentals of hitting. As a hitting coach, he always had a great rapport with players, especially those who were really willing to be one of his disciples. To me, it showed he cared about us and I really appreciated that quality in him.

During games he’d always have the younger hitters sit next to him in the dugout. Sometimes even the pitchers hung around, trying to glean anything they could off of him. He assigned a chart to one of the bench players to track the types of pitches that were thrown to each of our hitters in games. It proved to be valuable at a time when advance scouting wasn’t nearly what it is today. Some of my best growth as a hitter came from his coaching.

There are so many facets to hitting. Some players like the mechanical approach and some like mental approach. Going back to my great experience in Triple A, I learned that what works best for me was not focusing so much on the mechanics of what my body was doing but rather my state of mind. The work I did with Rod was never mechanical but analytical. We never broke it down like he might have done with other guys. With me, his focus was primarily on the pitchers, helping me develop a game plan I could take to the plate. Like Chili Davis, Rod really made me understand the concept of pitching strategies, which made me think about what I needed to anticipate standing in the batter’s box.

Early in my career, when I didn’t always have a game plan, I’d say to Rod, “What’s this pitcher trying to do here? What should I be looking for?” He’d say something like, “Fish, you’re gonna see all sliders right here,” and he was usually right. His knowledge of the game was tremendous.

He took a team approach to hitting. He frequently held pre-game meetings for hitters and he’d go around the room asking everybody pertinent questions. “Fish, what are you looking for against this guy? What do you know about this rightie coming out of the bullpen?” Or he’d say to GA, “Garret, you’ve got a lefty coming out of the pen. How has he pitched you in the past? What have you done against him lately?” 

By drawing out our own knowledge and then adding his own, he really prepared us for the different pitchers we would face from night to night. Just as important, I found out that I could learn something new about a pitcher by hearing my teammates share their keys to hitting a certain guy.

Rod was also one of the game’s great pranksters. His favorite targets were rookies, and early in the season he would always make them ride in the bathroom during bus trips. If there was only one rookie it was no big deal, but when we had five or six rooks on the roster, they all had to pile in there, like 1950s college students in a phone booth. Often the ride from the stadium to the airport or to the hotel took around 30 minutes; Rod had them crammed into that tiny john the entire time.

In the mid-’90s we had a rookie pitcher named Mark Holzemer. Mark was a good-natured guy who knew that Rod loved him; and he always took his hazing in the fun spirit in which it was intended. But that also made him one of Rod’s favorite targets. One night, after a long road trip, we were coming home from Ontario Airport and Rod gave Holzy his usual marching orders: “Get in the toilet, rook!” Holzy did as instructed, to everyone else’s enjoyment. It was very late and after the long drive to the stadium everybody staggered off the bus, went to their cars and drove home. The bus was heading back to the terminal when the driver almost drove off the road because there was Holzy tapping him on the shoulder and wondering what was going on. He’d fallen asleep in the can, and everybody had forgotten he was in there. The bus driver had to turn around and take Holzy back to the stadium. When everyone found out about it the next day, the story became an instant classic.

As an everyday player, I was usually exempt from Rod’s pranks. But Luis Polonia wasn’t so lucky. He and Rod used to exchange some real doozies. After Luis found his spikes nailed to the bottom of his locker, for instance, he stole Rod’s street clothes from his locker, soaked them in water and froze them solid before hanging them back up. The game was on! It was fashionable for guys to wear leather pants in the early ’90s, and Polonia had a pair that he wore often. One day during the game Rod sneaked up to the clubhouse to do some of his own special tailoring. Taking the pants out of Luis’ locker, Rod went to work with some scissors. After the game, when Polonia put on his pants he discovered that the back pockets were missing exposing his cheeks and the legs were cut six inches shorter. Since Luis seldom bothered wearing underwear, it was quite a sight..

Rod’s greatest contribution to our team was his emphasis on communication. He was instrumental in reestablishing that old school part of the game among our group of hitters, and he forged a strong link between the new and old generations that was invaluable. For a Hall of Famer like him to take the time and effort to share his knowledge of the game with anybody who was interested made him as unique as a coach as he was a player.

Tim Salmon, Always an Angel, Playing the Game With Fire and Faith by Rob Goldman and Tim Salmon. © 2010 Triumph Books 
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