January 16, 2013
How to Hit, According to Kevin Long
A ballplayer I know told me recently that Kevin Long’s Cage Rat (Ecco, 2011, 198 pp.) was a great book, so I went and got it from the library. I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that, whatever the reasons why the ballplayer called it a great book, they have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. By “great,” it’s necessary to keep in mind that what’s meant isn’t really Ulysses-great; people throw the word “great” around to mean things like enjoyable, not a waste of time, even serviceable. The word is a tool to denote general positivity.
Cage Rat is made of strictly functional, ugly prose—it’s often barely functional at all, in fact—rendered by as-told-to specialist Glen Waggoner in self-consciously vernacular style. Or maybe “vernacular”: it often sounds stilted, like a writer trying to sound like how he thinks someone like Long talks. That sections of it may in fact be transcriptions of actual Long speech is immaterial. It’s all clichés and received ideas cut into ribbons and reassembled. It’s probably exactly what all parties involved wanted.
Long is the Yankees’ hitting coach—he insists, twice in a 22-page span, on that title, as opposed to “batting coach” (“hit is just about the most active verb in the dictionary”). Cage Rat is supposed to sound like him talking to you while you follow him, breathless, from Starbucks (“one thing never varies: Venti Caramel Macchiato with a triple shot”; yikes) to Yankee Stadium—cage, clubhouse, talk to players, watch film, make notes and reports, grab food, game time—and maybe then you finish up at a bar after a Yankee win. And—most importantly—“you” in this case are intended to be a probably 16-year-old boy who wants to be a ballplayer. The target audience is aimed at with maximum efficiency, from the think-positive, get-in-the-cage attitude to the occasional deployments of hortatory profanity: “Forget that shit! Stay the course! Believe in yourself!”
In other words, people like me (and probably you) are not the audience for Cage Rat, a reminder once again that the gap between insiders (or those who want to be) and outsiders in almost any pursuit is massive and often unbridgeable. For example, Long flogs RBIs as a hallmark measure of production—he (or Waggoner) even sometimes spells them “ribbies,” ugh. Driving in runs is a badge of honor among hitters, in never-leave-a-soldier-behind fashion. Pitchers, for their part, love wins and saves. We know those to be circumstantial stats in many cases, but an athlete’s mentality is almost always circumstantially oriented. He’s got a thing to do, right now, and he invests himself completely—if he’s doing his job the way it ought to be done—in accomplishing that thing.
Advanced stats, which tend to be rate-based, are called peripherals for a reason: they’re outside of the performer’s vision. The sabermetric community sighs, eyelashes fluttering, when Zack Greinke invokes FIP, but the vast majority of players care deeply about showier yet often deceptive stats that are the off-putting equivalent of shiny six-pack abs to an enlightened girl in glasses. Who lives in her mother’s basement.
So if you got the thing done—an RBI groundout, a two-runs-allowed save—you rose to the occasion. That’s why Long/Waggoner’s prose is just fine for the project of Cage Rat. It gets the point across, and it “sounds like someone actually talking,” so why care about anything more? A forceout scores the runner from third just as inarguably as a double to the gap. Or, from a pitching standpoint, what a book like this achieves is something like “pitching to the score” (a mandatory Jack Morris reference in the wake of his recrudescent Hall of Fame bid). So you clogged the basepaths with clichés. Big deal. You won the game. Next?
I have no substantive complaints, then, about the writing. It’s appropriate for its intended readership, it moves the runner over, and so on. So how should one approach a book like Cage Rat, and what does it tell us about baseball?
You can basically speed-read the first 75 pages of the book unless you have an abiding interest in the life and times of its hero. There’s nothing of major interest except a tantalizing reference to an episode with some dramatic potential, but Long leaves it alone as soon as he’s done announcing it. He married his childhood sweetheart, but not until after they broke up during high school and she married someone else while still a teenager. (Long evidently threatened to show up at the ceremony on her (first) wedding day and stop the nuptials. She and her first husband had two children before they divorced. Not long after the divorce, she went back to Long; soon after, they were married, still in their early twenties, and Long became a stepfather to Marcey’s youngsters.
(One of many reasons to be scared of the internet: I went searching online to see how old Long’s wife Marcey is, so I could determine her exact age when they were married. I didn’t find it, although I didn’t look hard, but I did discover on the very first page of my search the exact street address and property value of the house the Longs own in Scottsdale, Ariz.)
Long doesn’t air out his wife’s laundry regarding her first marriage, nor should he. (The basic narrative there would have been interesting in Raymond Carver’s hands, or Alice Munro’s.) He moves on with purpose, whisking the reader through his playing career, which stalled out in Triple-A, and then his expeditious and uncomplicated route to coaching—which he swore to his wife he’d never do.
But he did it, and with her blessing. His wife gets a few pinch-hit monologues in Cage Rat, always headlined Now Coming to the Plate, Marcey Long. In the longest of them she explains why she acquiesced:
His life was baseball. And the only way to continue that life was to become a coach…
My head said, No way.
My heart said, Yes, Kev. Go for it. Give it your best shot.
Today, I am so very, very happy that I listened to my heart.
In the book’s narrative, Long quickly becomes the Yankees’ hitting coach—his near decade in the minors in that role, first in the Royals’ organization and then the Yankees’, goes by in just a few pages.
You’ve read this far, 75 pages, because you want to know about the hitting and training habits of superstars like Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, and Long knows them. He calls himself the hardest working hitting coach in the business, and he may very well be right. (There’s no way to verify so subjective a claim.) Hardest working or not, he is also the hitting coach for the New York Yankees. Cage Rat would probably never have been published otherwise. There just aren’t enough readers out there for a book about the swing tendencies of Alex Gordon.
You speed-read most of this section, too, unsurprised along the way when you read that one of the first things Long did as the Yanks’ hitting coach was to fly down to Florida in the offseason, at Alex Rodriguez’s request, and work with the then-ascendant slugger on his mechanics.
This smacks of collaborative image manipulation by Long and A-Rod—who wrote the book’s Introduction—which is the reason it’s unsurprising. There is no dirt in this book, no villains, no real misfortune. It’s not a story. It’s not intended to be. It’s anecdotal and highly selective, carefully sanitized and then spot-spritzed with little off-colorations for authenticity. Everyone Long spends any length of time talking about in Cage Rat is an awesome guy. Long has name-checks and shout-outs and high-fives for countless associates, former teammates, mentors, daughters of pals of his, and so on. He publishes a panegyric for every single Yankees coach on the staff. (This section enables a truly wonderful howler from Whitey Herzog, who makes an appearance during Long’s praise of Yankee third base coach Rob Thomson: “A good third base coach,” Herzog says, “can win 16 or 17 games a season for his club.” Who needs an ace starter when you’ve got Nick Leyva?)
The meat of Cage Rat
Kid, brace yourself. This chapter, worryingly, is Chapter 11. More worryingly, it’s called “The Hardest Thing.”
After a brief lead-in that informs you that a good hitter will fail 70 percent of the time and that “players have their own special way to approach the plate,” Long sets about detailing the approach he wants you to use. First you get a nine-point mental plan, which runs from “1. Be Prepared” through “3. Believe in Yourself” and “4. Stay C-a-a-l-m” and ends with “9. Be Aggressive.” This is followed by a more elaborate eightfold path to hitting enlightenment which is less about mind and more about matter: how to grip the bat, where to stand in the box, what sort of stance to take. He detours in the latter discussion to describe the wacky stances of Kevin Youkilis, Craig Counsell, and Ichiro Suzuki while also insisting on the virtues of the square stance.
Step no. 5 on the eightfold path is: “Be An Athlete Up There.” This step contains a subsidiary six-point lesson in precisely how to be an athlete up there. It involves such athletic contortions as “flex your knees” and Tai Chi-like standing-meditation strategies such as “spread your feet about a bat length apart.” Also, “do not try to extract sawdust from the barrel.” Extract Sawdust from The Barrel is only for masters. “P.S.,” Long adds, “Remember to breathe.”
So: Having completed the nine-point plan, then gotten partway down the eightfold path and taken the side-journey of the six-point lesson—and remembered to breathe—you 7. Keep Your Head in the Game and finally maintain 8. The Right Angle (with the bat; do not practice the Mickey Tettleton).
“Ready to move on?” Long asks. “Good. But I warn you, from this point things are going to get a little technical.” Ah.
Here Long almost scraps the rest of his tutelage in favor of telling you to just go and buy his video. But he rallies with a four-point list of ways to jive, tap, and wiggle various extremities, a habit which he encourages and which he calls “The Rhythm Method.” (Not that extremity, kids!) Then, he adds, come to think of it, maybe you should go check out the Batting Stance Guy because, after all, “Different Strokes for Different Folks.”
But wait: “Load and Stride and Separate”—which of course always follows the Rhythm Method—offers a seven-sided die of additional skills to master. Try not to get tripped up when “Tiptoe” at no. 4 follows no. 3: “Toe Tap.”
No, hold on, actually, that seven-sided die was really just “Load,” because here comes “Stride and Separate” with its own, six-sectioned sutra: “Timing, Direction, Length, Lower Half, Upper Half, Hands.” Gentlemen?
Now we have “Position A+,” a four-item rundown which tells you what you are ideally doing with your weight, hands, wrists, and body; the latter, “body,” is evidently separate from the former three. This rundown is quickly reinforced by a 10-tendrilled plant of instruction called “Stay Connected to Contact” (I think this means you’re supposed to call her the next day). Back foot, back knee, hips, front leg, etc.
To be serious for a moment: if in this long, long, exhaustive chapter there is one single thing to take away, it might be this:
Without hip torque and explosion, you might as well not have a bat in your hands. All great hitters have tremendous hip torque.
After the 10-tendrilled plant of connection to contact comes the twofold “Back Side and Balance” and then the three-horse “Finish”: Lower Half, Hands, Head and Eyes. (Note that “Head and Eyes” are a single horse. We do not have room for four horsemen of the baseball-hitting apocalypse. This is a trifecta. [additional clever use of horse-racing term])
Okay, you studied all of that. You memorized it. You practiced. You bought the video—which Long has by now gone ahead and more or less commanded you to do—that Long made with A-Rod before A-Rod bought and burned all remaining copies of those, too. You made flash cards. You had your girlfriend go marry someone else and have two kids while you practiced and studied, apprenticed, and learned. You bought that video!
Oh, and you chose a tune that makes you feel “sexy,” as Long writes, because not only do “players have their own special way to approach the plate,” but: “Today, players even come out to their own songs over the PA in their home ballparks.” It’s unlikely that Long actually means your own song, like one you wrote, but anyway if you’re not sure about the one you chose it’s okay because “the song may evolve along with [your] taste in music.”
All right, rock star. Are you ready for your quiz?
You are? Good. Before you take the quiz, though, think a little about hitting a baseball and all the advice out there for hitting baseballs that you could take, and then think over this line from Anton Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard:
If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you may be certain that the illness has no cure.
Now that’s some walkup music! Hunh?
K-Long’s first quiz question to you, after you have received and mastered the nine-point mental plan, the eightfold path, the six-point lesson, the four-point list, the seven-sided die, the six-sectioned sutra, the four-item rundown, the 10-tendrilled plant, the twofold backside and the three-horse finish, is this:
WHO HAS THE BEST SWING IN BASEBALL?
I don’t know.
I have no idea.
I didn’t realize I would be responsible for that.
Was that even covered?
Actually, it was not. In mastering the plans and plants and points, the fingers and horses, you should have felt the wisdom-fire of the answer. Who has the best swing in baseball?
Wait! Alex Rodriguez?
No. (Gardy—please! “Too bad baseball doesn’t have a stat for toughness,” as Long writes of him on page 185 of Cage Rat, but Brett Gardner as Best Swing in Baseball makes Long snort with disdain and derision. Long had to revamp Gardy’s entire swing to keep him from going right back down to Triple-A)
Kevin Long will now tell you the answer to the question, WHO HAS THE BEST SWING IN BASEBALL?
He is not a New York Yankee.
He is Joe Mauer. [page 145]
Do not dwell. You ready for the next question? It is:
WHAT’S THE HARDEST PITCH IN BASEBALL TO HIT?
But you haven’t… thrown me a… pitch… yet…
JUST ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION! “FORGET THAT SHIT! STAY THE COURSE! BELIEVE IN YOURSELF!”
Alright, for Vishnu’s sake! Here, I’ll eliminate a few:
I give up.
My answer is always the same: the hardest pitch in baseball to hit is the located pitch. [page 145]
The located pitch. It’s a trick question. Dumbass.
Can I go practice free throws now?
Okay, fine, I’ll spell it out for you:
It’s the pitch that pitcher puts in exactly the place he knows the hitter has the toughest time getting to. For most hitters, that’s down and away. [you should have just skipped right to page 145]
I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of the plan, the lesson, the horse.
Well, no wonder. No one does, not even I, Kevin Long, New York Yankees—
HITTING coach! Have you forgotten already? I wrote it down in there twice!
It’s easy to make fun, and it’s also wrong—not morally wrong, but true/false wrong, solve-for-x wrong, smell-a-(cage)-rat wrong. We might all be laughing, but Chapter 11 made perfect sense to the 16-year-old kid who wants to marry his girlfriend as soon as they’re old enough. He finished the book turned on and enlightened—his excitement caused him to throw the book on the floor, jump off his bed, and throw on his gym shorts. Right now he’s in a cage somewhere, taking his cuts, attuned to his back leg and his hip torque, and he can’t wait until the video comes in the mail.