He moves with the agility of a man half his age, camping under fly balls and getting ready to throw to the right base.
It’s still second nature for Jimmy Piersall, who at age 56 is back in baseball doing what he thinks he does the best: teaching baseball.
The Cubs hired the controversial ex-ballplayer and ex-announcer to serve as an outfield instructor during the spring. He will also serve as an instructor for the minor league prospects the Cubs have down on the farm.
Piersall has dedicated himself to keeping in shape, not just to be a coach and teacher but to stay alive.
“Well, I played a lot of tennis and some workouts but I had open heart surgery a couple of years ago so I have to watch it,” Piersall says. “One of the toughest things is to hit the fungoes. I must hit 100 fungoes a day.”
Piersall has lost weight since the surgery, due in part to his self-imposed training program but also from just bending over to pick up baseballs.
“When you pick up your own baseballs, it’s a lot of exercise,” he said. “Coaches get a lot of exercise, just as much as the players do.”
Piersall encountered a generally veteran ballclub with the Cubs’ major league players. He had to reorient some of them on the basics of fielding.
“Bobby Dernier had some trouble picking up the balls the right way and he’s a former Gold Glover,” Piersall said. “I found the veterans responsive. I also got a lot of support from (manager) Jim Frey.”
Piersall was known as a slick fielder during his 17-year career. His offensive statistics never quite matched his abilities as a glove man.
He has tried to use his experience not only to work with the veterans but to instruct some of the 18- and 19-year-old prospects the Cubs have in their farm system. Piersall admits he recalled the advice he got when he came up from Dom DiMaggio as a basis for his teaching.
“At the end of his career he was a big help to me,” Piersall said. “After a time, Dom said I didn’t need any more help and when he said that, I knew was ready for the majors.”
One essential element in the Piersall school of teaching is to treat players the same way he was treated when he was in the majors.
“I think we all like personalized attention. Don’t show up anyone,” he said. “If I see something, I take them aside. You don’t try to embarrass anyone. Make them aware. I read where Carlton Fisk says he is going to go to sleep in the outfield. No way you do that in the outfield.”
Fielding has become somewhat of a lost art in the days where offensive performances are gauges for the high salaries for free agents. But Piersall said he was encouraged by the attention some of the younger Cub prospects have had toward sharpening their fielding skills.
“Some of them are working hard. Some may be better than the veterans on the field,” he said. “I think pride is a big thing. Think of 50,000 fans in the stands and you mess up. That’s a great incentive to work at fielding.”
Overlooking fielding skills may actually start on the Little League level where the weaker kids are often “stuck” deep in the outfield. But Piersall said that is a mistake.
“I don’t think the best players play the infield,” he said. “That’s a myth.”
Piersall played the outfield from the time he started in grammar school and, with the exception of a brief stop at shortstop under Lou Boudreau, with Cleveland, Piersall has made the outfield his home.
“I don’t like to think about those days at short,” he said. “If you want to be good, you stick to one position. That’s what I tell people. Keep them there and develop that skill. Don’t be moving your prospects around.”
The best fielding outfielder--other than himself--that Piersall ever saw?
“I would say Paul Blair, but he didn’t have a good arm like me,” he said. “Willie Mays was the best all around player including fielder I ever saw.”
“Yogi Berra was the worst,” he said. “He’d been a great DH. He was a great player.