Load. Step. Swing

The title is absolutely correct;. “Load (Period) Step (Period) Swing (Period)”

It’s not “Load, step, swing” or what I see way too much from young players, “loadstepswing”.

A good and consistent baseball swing consists of three distinct and separate parts.

  1. The load.
  2. The stride.
  3. The swing.

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Why is “Load. Step. Swing.” so important? Because it’s vital to develop solid fundamentals in young hitters so they will be fundamentally solid older hitters. Fundamentally solid older hitters are able to enjoy success against better quality pitching as they mature and enjoy playing the game longer.

Do you know why most kids quit playing the game of baseball? They say the game is not fun for them. The game is no longer fun for them because they usually struggle to hit the baseball at the advanced level. Hitting a baseball is fun. Period. Ask any kid, they’ll back me up at an almost 100% clip.

Here is the simple method I used to instruct hitters. I use this same basic philosophy to help hitters from preschool kids up to the collegiate level. It works, It’s basic. It makes hitters able to hit laser shots from the left field line to the right field line. And when one hits the ball hard, good things happen.

Get Bouncy

Athletes move on the balls of their feet, not flat-footed or with weight on the heels. Relax the body and get bouncy to be a better athlete.

Hitter’s Rhythm

Stand up. Go ahead, get off your rump and stand with feet comfortably about shoulder width apart. Now get bouncy off the balls of your feet. Feels good, right? Next, rock side to side. When one heel comes off the ground the weight shifts to the other heel on the ground. Do you know what this is? It’s your body’s natural, relaxed motion of hitting a baseball. It is hitter’s rhythm.

Hitters should naturally rock with this rhythm almost unconsciously, even when just standing around. (It’s how we find each other in the crowd…look for the guys rocking back and forth in hitter’s rhythm).

Load

When weight rocks to back foot, the hands load to the back shoulder and lock into place.  It’s like shooting a rubber band at your sister. Be honest, do you take that big, thick, Sunday morning paper rubber band and only pull it back an inch before firing it in the direction of their beloved sister? Heck no! You pull that rubber band back as far as you can so you can fire it at that beloved sibling with explosive speed and power. Same for loading up in your swing. When a hitter loads, the rubber band has been pulled and now you are ready to release that locked and loaded power onto the ball.

Step

The step, or stride, will vary between hitters depending on where the hitter is comfortable in their stance. If the hitter likes a narrow stance and longer stride is usually more natural. If the hitter likes a wide stance, then the stride is usually short. If I see a kid having problems controlling the stride or being consistent with their stride, the I’ll put them in a wide stance and have them just pick up their front foot and post it down right where it was. The whole purpose of the step is to shift the energy from the load into the barrel during the swing.

I like to teach hitters to “stick” the ball of the front foot into the ground with the outside of the foot pointed toward the pitcher. The hitter needs to post the front leg to stop the forward body momentum shift so the hitter doesn’t slide through the front hip and waste all that loaded up power. A solid step movement should be relaxed, quiet and stick the perfect hitting position. (see Hitting Position for an explanation on the importance of starting a swing from a consistent hitting position.)

Swing

You’ve loaded, you’ve stepped, and now you are in perfect hitting position. What’s next?

Simple, it’s a swing.

Take your front hand (the bottom hand) and pull the knob toward the ball in a quick, compact, powerful swing. By developing a consistent hitting position, a hitting only needs to learn the one swing which is directed toward the pitched ball. The swing needs to start from the back shoulder and go directly to the ball, no matter where it is pitched. Inside, outside, high, low, or right down the middle. A hitter with a good fundamental swing can hit any of these pitches with power to all fields and makes for a dangerous hitter who is very difficult to pitch to and defend.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Sounds like something we all want, right?

So, repeat after me.

“Load.”

“Step.”

“Swing.”

Say these three words hundreds and hundreds of times in your head and out loud. It is the rhythm of a hitter. It is the rhythm of baseball.

Three separate words, not one.

Three separate parts, not one.

Load. Step. Swing

Hitting a baseball is one of the great things in life.

Enjoy life!

Happy Hitting!

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Double Buck & Shoot the Sauce

There I sat.

In Texas Tom’s.

Late at night, almost midnight.

After one of the first Legion Post 199 doubleheaders of the summer.

Sitting there staring at the red tray holding two Buckaroo Basket orders on the white, shiny table in front of me.

Contemplating. Contemplating not only how hungry I was after a night of baseball, but contemplating the very future of this collection of baseball talent Dennis “Harpo” Hurla had put together for the summer’s Fegan’s Cafe team.

If there was ever a time I needed a clutch hit, this was it.

It was my second season playing for Harpo. I was one of only a handful returners, and, once again, the only player on this talent-laden team from Washington High School. The previous year was a conglomeration of talent from a wide variety of area high schools. This year, though, almost all the players were from Bishop Ward, all from one very successful high school programs that spring season and my school’s most hated rival, no less.

I knew many of these kids and played baseball with many of them coming up through Christ the King Catholic School. Still, I wondered how and where I would fit within the hierarchy of this baseball team. I didn’t wanted to be pushed out to the fringes of the team–I wanted to the hub this team turned around.

This may sound arrogant to you, but it’s part of being a confident athlete. My arrogance and ego as an athlete probably failed me in life 99% of the time, but on the sports field, that other 1% was MINE. That 1% was pure magic. I wanted to be dependable to my new teammates in any situation. I wanted them to rely on me.

There I sat in Texas Tom’s—a greasy, local fast food joint in the heart of Bishop Ward territory—ready to mark my place with my new teammates. I remember as a kid, driving by Texas Tom’s, with the cartoon cowboy painted on its sign, on the way to my grandparents house. We’d never stop there to eat. Never. The Ward guys talked about TT’s all the time. They even told the legend of how several big time Cyclone athletes had achieved rare air through their one-sitting consumption of a two Buckaroo Baskets.

In case you never had the pure, artery hardening experience of the Buckaroo Basket at Texas Tom’s, here’s what you got in your half-a-football sized red plastic basket lined with TT’s paper. One cheeseburger dripping in greasy goodness, one fried burrito made with the finest of synthetic protein sources, copious amounts of steaming french fries, a taco, and to top thing off properly, a handful of crisp deep fried onion rings dropped over the top. Oh, let’s not forget the spicy, red taco sauce served on the side packed in sealable white styrofoam cups due to potential negative environmental impact and ability to eat its way out of a normal paper serving cup.

Double Buckaroo Basket was twice of all the above.

So with a half-dozen set of eyes upon me, the outsider, and the clock close to striking midnight, I snarfed down one Buckaroo Basket and then proceeded calmly to the second. The second Buckaroo Basket proved little challenge as it went down with the expert fashion as only a 17-year-old highly active, Bubba athlete can do.

I finished to smiles, congratulations and many pats on the back. I was cool in their eyes. But, to me, that wasn’t enough. I wanted to be the workhorse of this team. I wanted to be the guy they looked to get the big hit, make the big play, and be the rock the team could be built on. I wanted my new teammates to not only let an outsider into their circle, I wanted them to hook their wagons to me. And I wanted to do justice to Dennis Hurla. Harpo gave me, an unknown from Washington High School, the opportunity to play for Fegan’s Cafe and I didn’t want to let him down.

I told the guys to sit back down in their seats. They did. I reached through the trash on the tray in front of me and fished out the two sealed containers of the taco sauce. The taco sauce the Ward guys said nobody EVER eats. I popped the lids off carefully and every chair in the vicinity slid away from me a few yards. Looking into the eyes fixed upon me and the cup of red goo in my hands, I threw back one after the other and shot down the sauce.

Eyes bulged around our little group and their stomachs turned over. But, I held strong. I stood, picked up my tray and deposited the trash into the can. I turned to my paralyzed, gawking teammates.

“Boys, let’s get the hell out of here. We have another game tomorrow night.”

I had forgotten all about that night 33 years ago. For some reason, the memory popped out of my neural network the other day.

Double Buck & Shoot the Sauce.

It quickly became a team battle cry.

How can one forget something like that?

Probably brain damage from too many containers of Texas Tom’s Taco Sauce.

Buckaroo Basket

(Note: We made to the Kansas American Legion state tournament that year for the first time in many years. Once Harpo survived coaching us crazy SOB’s, he went to several regional and national Legion events before becoming head baseball coach at Bishop Ward where he has won more Kansas 4A State Baseball Championships than he has fingers. I am forever grateful of the time spent playing for Dennis. I know we, the first couple groups of kids he ever coached, are better human adults because of the experience.)

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Still Waters

One of the best teams we ever coached was a group of kids who were magnificent running down the rapids. Virtually unstoppable and an honest-to-goodness tour de force when the current flowed swiftly in their direction. But, we would lose focus and intensity when the current became easy and let up. When things should have been easy, when the game should have been packed away neatly under the “W’ column, we’d struggle to tread water and keep our heads above water.

Handling success and maturity means you must learn to navigate the still waters to keep afloat and continue to move in the desired direction. It is one thing working to succeed, but it’s a whole other thing to achieve success and then stay successful. One of the true joys of being good is the scramble, the character, and the discipline invested in order to stay good.

Tom Osborne, the legendary football coach at the University of Nebraska, said that everyone wants to win; it’s human nature. The difference between winners and losers often depends on how willing one is able to go all in and put in the work necessary. And in order to stay a winner, one has to work even harder and with greater efficiency to stay on the mountain.

One needs motivation, an edge. Some sort of carrot to dangle just out of reach in front of you that keeps your motivated. My favorite edge as a player and a coach is the “Chip on Shoulder” approach. Succeed despite the barriers you face. Suceed because there are people who don’t believe you will ever accomplish anything.

The edge. When you choose to play on the edge you have to be careful of two things.

  1. It’s easy to fall over the edge, so you must stay balanced and anchored.
  2. Key an eye on those who will push, nudge, or flat-out kick you over the edge.

The KC Royals in the first month of the season are a good example of this. They found a chip-on-the-shoulder edge which worked very well. But, when this motivator went too far, they fell over the edge and lost their composure. Fortunately, it appears they were able to step back and reboot under control to be successful. Use the edge to motivate your habits and performance, not lose emotional control. Be motivated without becoming consumed by the motivation.

Use the edge to motivate your habits and performance, not lose emotional control. Be motivated without becoming consumed by the motivation.

So you’ve turned things around. Your team and your performance proved to be successful. Pat yourself on the back, smile, and then get back to work. You have things to accomplish. The job has just begun. Find your edge and anchor yourself to your motivation.

To be a success, you need to learn to navigate the still waters. There will not always be a swift stream to move you along, so you need to be able to put your oar in the water and pull yourself forward time and time again.

Word hard.

Work focused.

Play hard.

Play focused.

Just don’t get pushed over the edge.

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Courtesy WikiCommons

 

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Broken Bats

There was a time in my life where the world revolved around broken bats.

Baseball ruled my youth. From the time the snow melted, until the leaves turned, it was all about baseball. In our neighborhood, we weren’t the richest kids. We were from working class families in the 1970’s all trying to squeeze out the good life with lots of kids and minimal resources.

I spent a lot of time at our local baseball park. By local, I mean within bike riding distance because that was the only way to get around town for us kids. With both older brothers and younger brothers, there was almost always one member of the family playing a game on either the little field or the big field, so I was there about every night even if my team had the night off.

As a spectator, with “spectator” meaning chasing foul balls for a piece of gum and playing cup ball in the open dirt space between the fields, an eye and/or ear was always kept open for the hottest commodity around, a broken wooden bat. Yes, boys and girls, all bats used to be made of wood. Aluminum bats were around, but to hit a ball to the sound of a “tink” was not the most desirable way one wished to spend their summer. Back in the day, one might as well spend the whole of summer in the reference section of the library rather than swing metal instead of natural wood.

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Bats were expensive, even back then. It was a rare thing to have your own bat. I had a Carl Yastrzemski model 28-inch Louisville Slugger I got for my 5th birthday. The Yaz wasn’t for the backyard or the playground; it was a bat you held in your hands, took practice swings with and dreamt of championship winning balls flying over the Green Monster or the short right field porch of Yankee Stadium.

So, as I was saying, personal ownership of a high quality, store-bought bat was rare, which made the acquisition of batting practice, pick-up game, home run king, Indian ball bats of the highest importance. Hence, the broken bats market was vital to the game outside the game of summer baseball.

A typical summer day would start with a fine breakfast and then dress in my finest set of summer play clothes, grab the glove, the water-logged baseball an irresponsible five-year-old brother left outside in the last rainstorm and hit the road on the bike. Along the ride to the ballpark, neighbor kids would ride out of their respective driveways and fall into the line of bikers.  We’d arrive at the little league field and before we’d split off into teams for the game of the day, we’d split off into search parties.

We’d first hit the woods in the ravine behind the big kid field and search for lost foul balls. On a game night at the park, found foul balls meant bubble gum, but in the daylight, found foul balls meant we actually had a decent, real baseball to play with. Once the woods were properly scoured, it was time to fan out and check the trash cans for broken bats.

Coaches rarely threw a broken bat into the trash during a game. The busted bat was usually disposed of properly long after fans, players and parents left as the coach was packing the gear to leave. He would come across said cracked bat handle and drop it into the rusted trash cans dispersed around the stands. With any luck, I’d find a true pot of gold—a treasure. A bat with only a slight crack in the handle. Whatever the haul, though, one of us would take the bat home for repair.

Dad had taught us the fine art of bat handle repair well at the Hays house. We had an entire metal container of tiny, thin finish nails just for this purpose. We would put the broken section of the bat handle in the vise and carefully tap nails across the cracked section. Every couple of nails, we’d remove the bat from the vice and tap the knob on the floor of the workroom. If the sound was solid, it was ready. If the sound was hollow or vibrated. it needed more nails. Once nailing was complete, Dad’s handy roll of electrical tape wrapped tightly around the handle finished the reclamation and the bat was, in true Frankenstein fashion, ALIVE.

These broken bats were the heart and soul of our baseball life. Without them, who knows what we’d turned into. Gangs of street thugs? Petty criminals? Math wizards? Basketball players? I shiver to think of my life without baseball. The joy of hitting a baseball would never have been the same. The crack of the bat, even if the crack has a slightly finish nail/electrical tape ring to it, would hold no magic to my young-at-heart 50- year-old heart.

Life’s simple pleasures.

Broken bats.

The simple joy of a game.

A poor boy’s dream.

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Terry Pratchett—”bystanders to byrunners to bystampeders”

I will miss the writer Terry Pratchett.

He was a master.

I came to the Pratchett game late. I don’t know what rock I lived under, but I did eventually see the light and find his work. The Discworld novels, the Tiffany Aching books, DEATH, Hogfather, the collaboration with Neil Gaiman, GOOD OMENS. It makes my head spin to consider the volume of outstanding art he produced.

He was a master.

There’s been this vision in my mind of a huge two story wall existing in some secret location which served as a Discworld storyboard. I imagine illustrations of characters, storylines, locations, and a sapient pearwood trunk—all on an octarine background floating on the back of the Great A’Tuin. Truly a piece of wall art one could spent a decade studying. Maybe someday…

Terry Pratchett died March 12, 2015 from his Alzheimer’s. His speech on his Alzheimer’s is magnificent and can be read in a past post. It is a bit depressing to think of the stories he did not get to paper. The volumes of ideas nature kept for itself and we will never see. I think a good life goal will be to read every Terry Pratchett book published. I will give it a try, I believe.

Here’s an example of Terry Pratchett’s genius. It is from his latest (and 40th) Discworld book, RAISING STEAM.

“Most of them arrived in time to see something heading out toward them, panting and steaming, with fast-spinning wheels and oscillating rods eerily appearing and disappearing in the smoke and the haze, and on top of it all, like a sort of king of smoke and fire, Dick Simnel, his face contorted with the effort of concentration. It was faintly reassuring that this something was apparently under the control of somebody human—although the more thoughtful of the onlookers might have added “So what? So’s a spoon,” and got ready to run away as the steaming, dancing, spinning, reciprocating engine cleared the barn and plunged on down the tracks laid in the field. And the bystanders, most of whom were now byrunners, and in certain instances bystampeders, fled and complained, except, of course, for every little boy of any age who followed it with eyes open wide, vowing there and then that one day he would be the captain of the terrible noxious engine, oh yes indeed. A prince of the steam! A master of the sparks! A coachman of the Thunderbolts!”

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Bystanders to byrunners to bystampeders…

Nobody can do it like Terry Pratchett did.

Rest in peace, Sir.

You will be missed.

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Finding Their Missing Somethings

“Let me tell you something, Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz was one of the great all-time leaders. She took three people that were missing something and had them look back inside themselves to find something they thought they never had. She wanted to go home, that was mission No.1, but in the end it was all about everyone else.”

I read this quote from Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Major League Baseball Preview. Not only is it a statement about what a good leader does, it is perhaps the best distillation of the very essence of The Wizard of Oz I have ever seen.

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A leader seeks their own goal by helping everyone around them find what makes them better. A coach needs to pay attention to know what each of his or her players desires or needs and work with that athlete to make them better. When the collective individual goals are met, the team goals often follow for the coach. The devil is in the details. The devil is in making every single individual who walks through your door better on a daily basis.

I saw another fitting quote in a training and conditioning magazine this past week from Coach Mark Morrison, who is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for Hendrick Motorsports. On the subject of training individuals and the myriad of training philosophies/programs available, Coach Morrison said,

“At the end of the day, as long as you are developing happy, healthy, strong, lean, and agile athletes, you have done your job.”

Truth! Write this in stone and live by it. Be the coach who, like Dorothy, finds the missing somethings in your athletes. Be the coach who helps them be happy, healthy, strong, lean, and agile athletes.

You will be a happier (and more successful) coach because of it.

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Roadkill Monkey

There’s been a lot of roadkill lately. I know these things. I have maybe the calmest, quietest 42 mile commute around and I’ve been driving it for 27 years. A couple weeks ago, on one morning alone, I counted seven skunks dead on the side of the highway. Seven! It was a bad night for skunks and highways.

Today, I was in the middle of my drive eastward and I felt a little sleepier than usual. The blinding orb of the newly-risen sun was head-on square burning the retina of the poor eastbound commuter. This forced visual focus to the white highway line to my right in order fight the road glare and stay on the asphalt path.

About a quarter mile up the highway, I see a mass of misshapen, twisted, grey and brown fur lifeless in the gravel of the highway shoulder—the all-too-familiar shadow of a dead animal on the shoulder. I move closer, and, for a brief moment, I think I see a dead monkey on the side of the highway.

Swear to God.

The body was stretched and curved—the back of the furry head facing me with the front left shoulder stretched at an odd angle as if reaching to block the bright headlamps of the racing vehicle. You could sense the pain and anguish in the way the body lie there in the gravel. A roadkill monkey. In Kansas.

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As I arrive at the roadkill, the sun’s angle shifted, allowing more color and detail to be visible. It was not a monkey. It was the severely twisted body of a poor raccoon dead on the side of the road. Honestly, I felt a slight disappointment.

I drove past the “wouldn’t-that-have-been-really-wild-if-it-was-an-actual-monkey” roadkill and grabbed my coffee mug from the safety of its carrier. I had just taken a quick swig when a thought occurred to me. Sure, this was just a racoon roadkill. Ordinary. We see these dead coons almost daily in this area, along with the skunk, possum, squirrel, hawk, or the occasional deer carcass. Normal local creatures, not monkeys.

But, there are places in this world where a roadkill monkey would be the ordinary thing. In such a place, the weird animal to find smashed to smithereens on the side of a highway would be a racoon or a skunk.

Where I only see monkeys in pictures and on the screen and think of a possum or a skunk mostly as a pest, there is somebody out there somewhere who only knows a possum/skunk from a book or film. The monkey is their ordinary.

I guess it really is all about your perspective and frame of reference. Life is an adventure no matter where you are.

Roadkill monkeys.

I either found a new life goal to search out or found a new name for my future garage band.

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