AT AGE 72, HE'S STILL . . . The Batting Coach : Ben Lefebvre Has St. Bernard High Team Switch-Hitting at Better-Than-.400 Pace

Times Staff Writer

Ben Lefebvre may be 72, but he is still a swinger.

"Benny is a swinger all right," Verbum Dei baseball Coach Pete Morado said. "He's a guru of hitting. Anytime you play his kids, you know they aren't going to be standing at the plate, watching. They're going to attack. They'll be up there swinging."

Guru may be a perfect description for Lefebvre, a sun-tanned picture of health whose supple fingers caress a baseball bat as if it were a magic wand.

Indeed, bats have been known to perform wondrous feats for athletes lucky enough to have had the St. Bernard coach as a tutor. The honor roll includes his three sons--Jim, Tip and Gil--all of whom signed major league contracts. Jim, a Dodger standout, was National League Rookie of the Year in 1965. Don Buford, Norm Sherry, Larry Sherry, Billy Consolo, Rene Lachemann and George (Sparky) Anderson, all learned their fundamentals from Lefebvre.

"I took over the playground at Rancho Cienega (now Jackie Robinson Park) in 1948," Lefebvre said. "And in 1951, our American Legion team with George and Billy and Rene won the national championship.

"I've always been able to help people hit, but George was a terrible hitter. I mean brutal. He'd swing and screw himself right into the ground. But he was an outstanding fielder, and his glove took him to the majors for one season. But hitting, no. He couldn't hit a thing."

As he talks, Lefebvre invariably demonstrates with an invisible bat--"keep it level, don't overstride, keep the hands relaxed"--or remonstrates with his players to keep their heads back, nit-picking the slightest flaw.

"Baseball is like golf, almost identical," he said. "One little hitch, and the whole thing can break down. You've got to have constant repetition. It's what I call muscle memory. You do it over and over, and your body will remember the movement."

Lefebvre was one of the first people to hit upon the idea of using a batting tee as a concrete memory aid. He recently sold his rights in the Lefebvre Super Tee to a sporting goods distributor.

"It's the best tool there is for a hitter," Lefebvre said. "How did Palmer and Nicklaus learn to hit the ball? I'll tell you. Off a tee. It gave me an idea, and so I used a bathroom plunger and nailed it to an apple box and put a hose on top.

"Now, it's adjustable and a lot more sophisticated, but the concept is the same. It's great not only for little kids, but watch the pros, too. When something goes wrong, they go back to the tee."

Lefebvre, who has been at St. Bernard since 1976, believes that the art of hitting is constantly undergoing subtle changes, and so he is never afraid to revise his thinking on hitting. This season, he came up with what could be a first at any level--an all switch-hitting team.

"Walter Alston once said that the quickest way to the major leagues was to be a switch-hitter," said Lefebvre, affectionately known as Skip by his players. "My kids were all switch-hitters. Jim played with the Dodgers when they had an all switch-hitting infield with (Jim) Gilliam, (Maury) Wills, Jim (Lefebvre) and (Wes) Parker. You know, Wills didn't start switch-hitting when he was a kid, either. He was playing pro ball for seven seasons in the minors, but one day he tried it, got a double, and four years later, he was the MVP.

"I've always believed in it. It makes you a much tougher hitter. They can't get you out of the lineup. So, last year, toward the end of the season, I called the kids together and told them what I wanted to do. I said I'd hold a camp in the summer for two hours a day for five weeks. And we would work on switch-hitting."

For first baseman Lester Fennell, a powerful right-handed hitter, that was as welcome as news that castor oil was the soup du jour.

"When Skip told us, I said 'No way,' and I told my dad I couldn't do it," Fennell said. "I wanted to quit. It was such a big adjustment. But Skip made me stick with it. He wouldn't let me quit. He said to keep working at it, that it would come."

Last Wednesday, in a 5-3 Camino Real League victory over Verbum Dei, Fennell couldn't buy a hit. Even so, his average fell to only a shade below .400, hardly disappointing since St. Bernard has seen only two left-handers all season.

"I'm going to stick with it," Fennell, a senior, said. "I'm making contact and I'm getting more comfortable at the plate. I wouldn't mind seeing a left-hander, but I'll go with what I get."

The two most enthusiastic supporters of the switch to the switch are senior outfielders Tony Nettles and Dan Cossettini. Both are natural lefties and both are hitting better than .500.

"This is fun to do, something new, something that maybe no one has done before," Cossettini said. "It's really helped my hitting on both sides of the plate. I definitely have more confidence. I think I understand my swing more, now.

"You know, I think some of us were worried that teams would all throw right-handers because with Lester we have good power from the right side. But we've proved that we can hit on both sides. So, I think it's been great."

Nettles, an outstanding athlete with speed and a good arm, is also convinced that the experiment has been a success, pointing to the team's 8-1 record, including a 5-0 mark in league play.

"I thought at first it might be hard, but it's really not that difficult, once you get used to it," Nettles said. "It's been coming along gradually, and I really feel at home on the right side now. Skip made us relax. Once you hit the ball the first time, you have the confidence to do it again."

Over the years, Morado, who has been at Verbum Dei since 1969, has also toyed with the idea of an all switch-hitting lineup. He believes, however, that St. Bernard may have the only coach capable of making proper corrections if something goes wrong.

"It really is a great idea," Morado said. "It puts so much pressure on the defense. From the left side, the batter has a walking start, and they can almost always stretch a single into a double.

"It puts great stress on the catcher, too. With the batter in front of him and a runner on first, they are going to try to steal almost every time.

"But I'm not sure anyone else could do this. Ben is such a student of hitting. I mean he sees stuff no one else sees and can correct a mistake after watching a kid hit for a few minutes.

"He's such a gentleman's gentleman, too. One time, we were playing them, and his kid on the mound is mowing us down. I'm standing in the coaching box, and all of a sudden someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn, and it's Ben. He says 'I hope you don't take this in the wrong way, but I think your kids are making some mistakes at the plate.'

"So he explains what we're doing wrong, and we went home and worked on it. The next time we played them, the advice paid off, and we beat them. And Ben wasn't upset at all, just delighted that the kids were hitting so well."

Lefebvre has never won a Southern Section championship, and this season may not produce one, either. Although the Vikings are long on hits, they may be short a quality arm or two. Still, Lefebvre is delighted with the team's early success and a team batting average of better than .400.

"So, what if there are two out in the bottom of the seventh. . . .," a reporter began to ask.

"I'm going to stick with it," Lefebvre interrupted, anticipating the question. "I don't care if Lester's at the plate and a homer would win the championship. Because if I turned him around, then it wouldn't be perfect.

"People would say, 'Oh, sure, he taught that switch-hitting, but then when it really mattered, he backed off.' You've got to believe in something all the way. From now on, all my ballplayers are going to be switch-hitters."

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