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LESSONS LIVE ON : Baines Is Still Avid Student of Lau’s Hitting Approach

Times Staff Writer

Harold Baines has stepped into the batting cage for the past five years with the words of an absent teacher in his mind.

Charley Lau was only a .255 hitter, but he could teach players to do what he could not. He could teach a man to bat .300.

Baines never hit .300 while Lau was alive. But in 1984, the year that Lau died, Baines hit .304.

He would hit .309 the next year, and had a chance for a third straight .300 season in 1986 before missing the last nine games because of an injury to his right knee and finishing at .296.

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Now Baines is working toward the third .300 season of his 10-year career, all spent with the Chicago White Sox. He is batting .320, with 13 home runs and 56 runs batted in.

The credit, he says, still goes to Lau, who became one of baseball’s leading theoreticians in his years as a coach with the Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees and the White Sox--years during which he was given much of the credit for the successes of such hitters as George Brett and Reggie Jackson.

Lau coached Baines in 1982-83, the early years of a major league career that began in 1980--three years after Baines was the first pick in the June draft, and about eight years after Bill Veeck is said to have discovered him playing Little League ball on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Four White Sox hitting coaches have come and gone since Lau died, but Baines never paid them much mind.

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“The other guys weren’t too enthusiastic about Charley’s ideas,” Baines said. “But I didn’t let anybody change me. Charley was the guy who gave me the success I have now.”

Bothered by a right knee that has undergone three operations since 1986, Baines hit .293 in 1987 and dropped to .277 in 1988.

Baines said the knee problem--exacerbated by the force with which the left-handed Baines brings down his right foot as he shifts his weight forward on his swing--is better now. White Sox Manager Jeff Torborg has played Baines in the outfield 24 times this year but likes him as the designated hitter because of other lineup considerations.

This year has marked a resurgence for Baines. Although he is only 30, some had come to regard Baines as a player on the decline, in part because his knee trouble had relegated him to DH the past two years, and in part simply because--after he broke in at age 20--it seems that he has been around so long.

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Instead, Baines may be on his way to the highest average of his career. And if you ask him why, he says it is because he once again hears the lessons Lau taught him--not not only in his mind, but from Walt Hriniak, a Lau disciple who joined the White Sox this year after 12 years with the Boston Red Sox. Wade Boggs was his star pupil.

Now Baines inherits that role. He is a player Hriniak watched from afar, and yearned to work with--co-conspirators in the philosophies of Lau.

“He and Harold have something going,” Torborg said.

After years of characteristic slow starts, Baines started fast this year. By May 17, after 38 games, he was hitting .367. He credits Hriniak, who had him thinking with discipline from the start.

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From the looks of things, Baines is not the only player benefiting from the legacy of Lau that Hriniak brought back to Comiskey Park. The White Sox’s team batting average last season was .244; it was .274 through Wednesday.

“Hriniak has refreshed my memory of what Lau taught,” Baines said. “It has put my swing right. I know it has. In other years, my head position wasn’t right. I had a tendency to tilt my head too much to the side and have my head up a little.”

But now, some of the Lau principles--keep the head down, follow-through with one hand--are in his ears again.

As much as the physical rules, Baines says, there are mental disciplines.

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“So many guys take batting practice just to get loose,” Baines said. “But, really, batting practice is most important.”

Under Hriniak, Baines said, he thinks pitch by pitch, not at-bat by at-bat.

“I keep working,” Baines said. “This is not a very easy game.”

For all of his success, Baines has something of a low profile.

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His career average is .286 and he has played in four All-Star games. In this year’s game, American League Manager Tony La Russa had him bat fourth, perhaps out of affection for a player he coached in the minors and the majors.

“Harold’s a very quiet, unassuming person who in my opinion hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves,” Hriniak said. “He doesn’t self-promote himself like a lot of guys do. I think he’s been overlooked.”

Baines shrugs at such talk.

“It’s just the way I’ve always been,” he said. “No reason to change because you’re a professional ballplayer. I don’t want to be above anybody or make anybody lower than me just because I’m making more money.”

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He makes his money, but with the White Sox, there is not always great pleasure in that. Too many fifth-place finishes can wear on a man.

“There are only certain things you can control,” Baines said. “I control what I do, and I pull for my teammates.”

In recent years, with a youth movement in the making, Baines has been mentioned as trade bait more times than he cares to think about.

Baltimore, where former White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond is now general manager, would seem a possibility. And for Baines, that would be home.

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“Without a doubt,” Baines said.

Although there is a certain appeal to staying with a team through an entire career, there is also an appeal to winning.

Baines’ only brush with winning was in 1983, when the White Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League playoffs. Baines hit .280 that season, but only .125 in the playoffs.

“A hit’s not guaranteed,” he said, recalling the playoffs. “I hit the ball well, but right at somebody. They have eight guys trying to catch it. You can’t control that.”

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With the White Sox in last place despite an 11-2 streak since the All-Star break, another chance at the World Series seems far off. The trade idea holds some interest.

“I’ve thought about it,” Baines said. “Every player’s goal is to win the World Series. Eventually, they can take your uniform, but they can’t take the World Series. . . . It hasn’t crossed my mind to want to be traded, but if I’m not wanted, I don’t want to be here.”

If the White Sox can improve, he would just as soon stay.

Already, he is their all-time home run leader with 186, and he is closing in on 1,500 hits, with 1,494.

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But personal numbers aren’t the only ones he thinks about.

“I don’t want to lose for the next five or 10 years,” he said. “If I don’t see us progressing . . . “

Whether the White Sox progress or not, Baines seems bent on progressing himself.

“He’s not past his prime,” Hriniak said.

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