"Easy Lessons"
Roger Angell

excerpt from
Game Time: A Baseball Companion (2003)

Game Time:
A Baseball Companion

is available at

Ted Williams, Tom Seaver

[1984] In Winter Haven, on the very first day of this spring jaunt, I found Ted Williams out in right-field foul ground teaching batting to Von Hayes -- a curious business, since the Splendid Splinter , of course, is a spring batting instructor for the Red Sox, and Hayes is the incumbent center fielder of the Phillies. Hayes was accompanied by Deron Johnson, the Philadelphia batting coach, and the visit, I decided, was in the nature of medical referral -- a courtesy second opinion extended by a great specialist to a colleague from a different hospital (or league). Von Hayes is a stringbean -- six feet five, with elongated arms and legs -- and his work at the plate this year will be the focus of anxious attention from the defending National League Champion Phillies, who are in the process of turning themselves from an old club into a young one in the shortest possible time. Since last fall, they have parted with (among others) Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and veteran reliever Ron Reed, and later this spring they traded away Gary Matthews, their established left fielder. (Matthews, in fact, was intently listening in on Ted Williams' talk to his teammate Hayes), to the Cubs. Two years ago, in his first full year in the majors, Von Hayes hit fourteen homers and batted in eighty-two runs for the Cleveland Indians -- sufficient promise to encourage the Phillies to give up five of their own players (including the wonderful old Manny Trillo and the wonderful young Julio Franco) for him. Last year, Hayes, troubled with injuries (and perhaps unsettled by the nickname Five-for-One, bestowed on him by Pete Rose, batted a middling-poor .265, with six homers -- reason enough for a call to Dr. Ted.
"Lemme see that," Ted Williams was saying, and he took Hayes' bat and then hefted it lightly, like a man testing a new tennis racquet. "Well, all right, if you're really strong enough," he said, giving it back. "But you don't need a great big bat, you know. Stan Musial always used a little bitty drugstore model. So what do you want? You know what Rogers Hornsby told me forty-five years ago? It was the best batting advice I ever got. 'Get a good ball to hit!' What does that mean? It means a ball that does not fool you, a ball that is not in a tough spot for you. So then when you are in a tough spot, concede a little to that pitcher when he's got two strikes on you. Think of trying to hit it back up the middle. Try not to pull it every time. Harry Heilmann told me he never became a great hitter until he learned to hit inside out. I used to have a lot of trouble in here" -- he showed us an awkward inside dip at the ball with his own bat -- "until I moved back in the box and got a little more time for myself. Try to get the bat reasonably inside as you swing, because it's a hell of a lot harder to go from the outside in than it is to go the other way around."
Hayes, who looked pale with concentration, essayed a couple of left-handed swings, and Williams said, "Keep a little movement going. Keep your ass loose. Try to keep in a quick position to swing. When your hands get out like that, you're just making a bigger arc."
Hayes swung again -- harder this time -- and Williams said, "That looks down to me. You're swingin' down on the ball."
Hayes looked startled. "I thought it was straight up," he said. He swung again, and then again.
"Well, it's still down," Ted said quietly. "And see where you're looking when you swing. You're looking at the ground about out here." He touched the turf off to Hayes' left with the tip of his bat. "Look out at that pitcher -- don't take your eyes off him. That and --" Williams cocked his hips and his right knee and swung at a couple of imaginary pitches, with his long, heavy body uncocking suddenly and thrillingly and then rotating with the smooth release of his hips. His hands, I saw now, were inside, close to his body, while Hayes' hands had started much higher and could not come back for a low inside pitch with anything like Ted's ease and elegance. Nothing to it. Hayes, who has a long face, looked sepulchral now, and no wonder, for no major leaguer wants to retinker his swing -- not in the springtime, not ever -- and Williams, sensing something, changed his tone. "Just keep going," he said gently to the young man. "Everybody gets better if they keep at it."
Hayes kept at it, standing in and looking out at an imaginary pitcher, and then cocking and striding, while Williams stood and watched with Deron Johnson, now and then murmuring something to the other coach and touching his own hip or lifting his chin or cocking his fists by way of illustration -- a sixty-five-year-old encyclopedia of hitting, in mint condition: the book.
When I left, he was deep in converse with Gary Metthews, who had asked about the best response to a pitcher's backup slider after two fastballs up and in. "Why, take that pitch, then!" cried Ted. "Just let it go by. Don't be so critical of yourself. Don't try to be a .600 hitter all the time. Don't you know how hard this all is?"
I accompanied the Red Sox down to Sarasota to watch Tom Seaver work against them the following afternoon -- his first American League innings ever. Seaver, as most of the Northern Hemisphere must know by now, was snatched away from the Mets over the winter when that club carelessly failed to place him on its protected twenty-six man roster prior to a "compensation draft" -- a process that permits a team (in this case, the White Sox) that has lost a so-called Type A player to free agency to select as recompense a player from a pool of players with other teams that have signed up for the plan. This misshapen schema is a monster child spawned by the owners as part of the settlement of the player strike of 1981, and there is considerable evidence that its headstrong fathers may now wish to disinherit it....
The first glimpse of Tom in Chisox motley -- neon pants, stripes, the famous No. 41 adorning his left groin -- was a shock, though, and so was the sight of him in pre-game conversation with his new batterymate, Carlton Fisk. I took a mental snapshot of the two famous Handsome Harrys and affixed to it the caption "Q: What's wrong with this picture?" (A: Both men are out of uniform.) Then the game started, and Seaver's pitching put an end to all such distractions....
In the clubhouse after his stint, Seaver declared himself satisfied with his work -- perhaps more than satisfied .... He went over the three innings almost pitch by pitch, making sure that the writers had their stories, and they thanked him and went off. A couple of us stayed on while Tom ... talked about tempos of early throwing in the first few days of spring -- a murmured "one, two, three-four .. .one, two, three-four" beat with the windup as his body relearned rhythm and timing. He went on to the proper breaking point of the hands -- where the pitching hand comes out of the glove -- which for him is just above and opposite his face. Half undressed, he was on his feet again and pitching for us in slow motion, in front of his locker.
"What you don't want is a lateral movement that will bring your elbow down and make your arm drop out, because what happens then is that your hand either goes underneath the ball or out to the side of the ball," he said. "To throw an effective pitch of any kind, your fingers have to stay on top of the ball. So you go back and make sure that this stays closed and this stays closed" -- he touched his left shoulder and his left hip -- "and this hand comes up here." The pitching hand was back and above his head. "It's so easy to get to here, in the middle of the windup, and then slide off horizontally with your left side. What you're trying to do instead -- what's right -- is to drive this lead shoulder down during the delivery of the ball. That way, the pitching shoulder comes up -- it has to go up. You've increased the arc, and your fingers are on top of the ball, where they belong."
I said I'd heard pitching coaches urging their pupils to drive the lead shoulder toward the catcher during the delivery.
"Sure, but that's earlier," Tom said. He was all concentration, caught up in his craft. "That's staying closed on your forward motion, before you drive down. No -- with almost every pitcher, the fundamentals are the same. Look at Steve Carlton, look at Nolan Ryan, look at me, and you'll see this closed, this closed, this closed. You'll see this shoulder drive down and this one come up, and you'll see the hand on top of the ball. You'll see some flexibility in the landing leg. There are some individual variables, but almost every pitcher with any longevity has all that-- and we're talking now about pitchers with more than four thousand innings behind them and with virtually no arm troubles along the way."
Someone mentioned Jerry Koosman, who had gone along from the White Sox to the Phillies over the winter, and Seaver reminded us that he and Koosman and Tug McGraw and Nolan Ryan had been together on the 1969 World Champion Mets and that they were all still pitching in the majors, fifteen years later ....
There are other ways to pitch and pitch well, to be sure, Seaver said, and he mentioned Don Sutton as an example. "Sutton's exceptionally stiff-legged," he said, "but he compensates because he follows through. He doesn't do this." He snapped his right arm upward in a whiplike motion after releasing an imaginary ball. "The danger with a stiff front leg is recoiling."
...."What is the theory of pitching?" he went on. He sounded like a young college history lecturer reaching his peroration. "All you're doing is trying to throw a ball from here to here." He pointed off toward some plate behind us. "There's no energy in the ball. It's inert, and you're supplying every ounce of energy you can to it. But the energy can't all go there. You can't do that -- that's physics. Where does the rest of it go? It has to be absorbed back into your body. So you have to decide if you want it absorbed back into the smaller muscles of the arm or into the bigger muscles of the lower half of your body. The answer is simple. With a stiff front leg, everything comes back in this way, back up into the arm, unless you follow through and let that hand go on down after the pitch."
But isn't that leg kick -- " I began.
"The great misnomer in pitching is the 'leg kick,'" he interrupted. "That's totally wrong. Any real leg kick is incorrect. Anytime you kick out your leg you're throwing your shoulders back, and then you're way behind with everything. You've got to stay up on top of this left leg, with your weight right over it. So what is it, really? If it isn't a leg kick, it's a knee lift! Sure, you should bend your back when you're going forward, but -- " He stopped and half-shrugged, suddenly smiling at himself for so much intensity. "I give up," he said. "It's too much for one man to do. It's too much even to remember." He laughed -- his famous giggle -- and went off for his shower.