At Rickwood Field, home of the University of Alabama in Birmingham baseball team, the players were limbering up and UAB Coach Harry Walker, who can teach hitting and bump gums with the best of them, was talkin' baseball. "The greatest hitter I ever knew was Ted Williams," said the Hat of the Splinter. "He had arm strength, and the quickest hips I ever saw. But in my career of 40-odd years, God didn't give us but one man like him, so you can't say everybody should hit like Williams. You take a guy like Harry Walker, who's below average, and you try to get the average out of him."
Walker made his reputation as a batting coach by getting weak hitters to rap out sharp grounders and line drives. The best example of what he could do for a batter was the case of Matty Alou, who rose from .231 in 1965 to a league-leading .342 a year later while playing for Walker in Pittsburgh. Though Walker quit organized ball five years ago to return to his 50-acre farm near Birmingham and to start a baseball program at UAB, where his record is 105-84, he didn't desert the pros completely. For a week or two each February, before spring training begins, a handful of major league players and prospects are sent to him by their clubs to sharpen their skills in the art of contact hitting.
Among the active players Walker has worked with are Indians Outfielder Miguel Dilone, who hit .220 in 1979 and .341 in 1980 after a visit to Birmingham, Mets Centerfielder Mookie Wilson, and Astros Third Baseman Phil Garner and Outfielder Terry Puhl. But none is as notable a performer as the star pupil of this spring's class, Outfielder Omar Moreno, a 29-year-old Panamanian who signed a five-year, $3.25 million free-agent contract with the Astros in December.
Moreno, a lefthanded batter, had the best season of his seven-year career in 1979, hitting .282 and stealing 77 bases while helping to spark the Pirates to a world championship. It was no coincidence that Moreno visited Walker twice before spring training that year—or that Moreno's mid-World Series awakening followed a session with Walker, who flew to Pittsburgh after watching his pupil go 1 for 10 in the first two Series games. Moreno wound up with 11 hits. But he has yet to provide a sequel to his 1979 performance. By last season his average had fallen to .245, and though he has always struck out excessively for a leadoff hitter, he fanned a career-high 121 times. Nonetheless, the Astros don't see Moreno as a gamble. "After we signed him, we requested that he go down to Birmingham again," Houston General Manager Al Rosen says. "Certain theories help certain hitters. Omar is the type of hitter Harry can help."
Moreno went to Birmingham not to discover a new hitting style, but to reestablish an old one. He had experimented with pulling the ball and developed some bad habits. "The last two years I haven't hit that well because the Pirates tried to change me," he said upon arriving in Birmingham. "So right now I'm trying to remind myself of everything I did in 1979." Added Walker, "Instructing a hitter is not so much changing him, but finding a guy's natural style of hitting and, when he gets out of it, trying to get him back into it. Omar needs a few days to get in the groove."
Moreno spent six days looking for that groove. He took one to two hours of b.p. every morning, with 100 to 150 pitches per workout. Walker spent the first two days watching, and then began tossing out reminders between pitches. Toward the end of the week, after Moreno had regained his old form, the Hat filmed him hitting and gave him a print for midseason reference.
Walker's fundamentals are: head still, hands letter-high, knees slightly bent, good balance on the balls of the feet. Then, stride toward the mound as the pitch comes in and, after waiting as long as possible to commit, throw the bat on a level plane at the ball. He teaches adjusting to what the pitcher gives. Walker's detractors call this "Punch-and-Judy hitting." Well, as a member of the Cardinals and the Phillies he led the National League with a .363 average in 1947 on that kind of hitting, and after 36 years of hearing rude remarks, he's still provoked by them. His eyes flash, and his teeth can barely get out of the way of the on-rushing words.
"I'm tired of hearing about pulling the ball," the Hat says. "That's misleading young hitters. Every scout tells them to jerk the ball out. That's asking a kid to do something he can't. If you can't jerk it, take it to centerfield. Make adjustments.
"The Cardinals are a good example," Walker says of the reigning world champions. "They had only one guy who powered the ball and that was the rightfielder [George Hendrick]. If you'd tried to make pull hitters out of the rest of them, they would have finished last. All I want to teach a guy is to use his talent."
Moreno is an ideal student for Walker. He has minimal power (25 career home runs), but plenty of speed (412 career stolen bases). "They sent me down here because they know that once I get on base, everything is different," Moreno says. "Once I get on first, I feel 100 percent that I can steal second. If I get on second, with any base hit I can go all the way to home plate." What Walker wants Moreno to do is to hit up the middle and to the opposite side. "If he hits a ground ball to second, he's out," Walker says. "If he hits a ground ball to short or third, the other guy is thinking, 'I've got to hurry my throw,' and Moreno may get on on an error."
The ground ball and line drive were not a major part of Moreno's repertoire last season. In attempting to pull, he developed a loop in his swing, the result being more than 200 fly-ball outs. "Omar was hitching his hands way down. Then, to compensate, he was rolling his upper body back and opening his hips too quickly," said Walker, who leaned back to mime an off-balance batter trying unsuccessfully to get the bat around. He began to analyze each pitch Moreno hit.
"See what I'm talking about, how he got that bat out? That's a base hit in the hole."
"Now that's what I'm trying to get him to do. That ball was a little tough, but whack, a line shot."
Moreno lets one go low and inside.
"That ball you take. That ball he swings at and misses—and strikes out on 100-odd times a year. You lay off that pitch unless you've got two strikes."
"That's what you want! You see that? Force the pitcher to give me the ball where I can bang it."
There were no miracles in Birmingham. But the Walker-Moreno combination has proved successful in the past. "If Omar hits .265 to .280, he'll improve tremendously," the Hat said. "Cut down on his strikeouts from 121 to maybe 80. Walk more. He should be on base 20 to 30 times more, and that means he'll steal 10 more bases, maybe 15." Moreno was confident of a comeback. "I've got a feeling I'm going to hit .280, maybe .300, so I can steal over 100 bases. The more I get on base, the more I steal."
It's a good bet that when Moreno gets in the groove, he will remain there for a while to come. Houston's batting coach, Denis Menke, was one of Walker's most devoted students, hitting .304 and driving in 92 runs in 1970 for the Hat's Astros. "He hit like me a little bit," says Walker, more than a little proudly. But if Menke can't keep Moreno sharp through September, Moreno can call Walker. The Hat is always ready to talk.