He Makes Hitting a Reason for Being : Baseball: Players who need help can't get to the park too soon to satisfy Hriniak, batting coach for the Chicago White Sox.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few years ago, around noon on a midsummer day in New York, then-coach Joe Morgan of the Boston Red Sox was spotted outside the team's hotel, a frown on his face.

"I'm headed for (Yankee) Stadium," Morgan said.

So early? The Red Sox and Yankees weren't playing until that night.

"Batting practice," Morgan said, spitting out the words. "That . . . Hriniak. He's having extra . . . BP again, and I've got to help out. Damn."

During the 1988 season, Morgan became manager of the Red Sox, and Walt Hriniak, who had been the club's batting instructor since 1977, left at the end of the season, signing a five-year, $500,000 contract with the Chicago White Sox, which may make him the highest-paid coach in baseball.

At $100,000 a year, that's 10 times what Hriniak was paid when, at 25, he made it to the big leagues after nearly eight seasons in the minors. The short, happy life of Hriniak in the majors lasted a little more than a season. He played in 47 games for the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres. He got 25 hits, all singles, and he remembers every pitcher that he hit.

Now 47, he is a guru to the stars, helper of the downtrodden, another of those hitting coaches who tells his pupils to do as he says, not as he did.

He is following in the footsteps of the late Charlie Lau, a journeyman catcher who became the dean of batting instructors.

Lau, in fact, managed Hriniak one year in the minors, at Shreveport, La., in 1968. Hriniak, who batted .313 that season, credits Lau with getting him to the big leagues. He also credits Lau with passing along the hitting philosophy that Hriniak has, in turn, passed on to frustrated batters in Boston and Chicago for the last 14 years.

"Charlie had a patience and a compassion for guys who struggled," Hriniak said. "He was the best batting coach who ever lived. I stayed close to him for a lot of years after that one year I played for him. I wouldn't have made it to the big leagues without him."

Hriniak remembers the day--March 18, 1984--that Lau, 50, died of cancer. They had fished in Florida together three months before.

Hriniak wears uniform No. 6, the same number Lau had when he worked for the White Sox. In Atlanta in September of 1968, having been called up from Shreveport by the Braves, Hriniak got his first two big league hits, against Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.

"I have a father who I love with all my heart," Hriniak said. "But the first guy I called to tell about those two hits was Charlie."

A year later, the ambition that Hriniak had since he was a 7-year-old, growing up in Natick, Mass., ended. He was farmed out to the minors, told to play second base at Salt Lake City.

"I had come up as a shortstop, and then they made a catcher out of me," Hriniak said. "When they put me at second base, the handwriting was on the wall."

Actually, the beginning of the end for Hriniak in the big leagues might have occurred six years earlier. He and Jerry Hummitzsch, a teammate on the Austin (Tex.) club in the Braves' farm system, were up before dawn for a fishing trip. It was Hriniak's 21st birthday, Hummitzsch, the night before pitched a 1-0, 10-inning victory, driving in the only run.

Sandy Alomar, now a coach with the Padres, played with Hummitzsch and Hriniak the year before in Austin, and he still remembers the pitcher's car.

"It was a convertible," Alomar said. "A white Olds or a Buick."

On a curvy road on the west edge of Austin, the car flipped. Hummitzsch was killed instantly, crushed in the driver's seat. Police at the scene said it was one of the rare times a driver might have survived if he had not been wearing a seat belt.

Alomar remembers Hummitzsch as a powerful right-hander.

"He could throw in the 90s (m.p.h.)," Alomar said. "He was a little wild, but he would have made it (to the majors)."

There was no doubt in John Mullen's mind about Hummitzsch's future. Mullen, now general manager of the Atlanta Braves, was farm director then, when the franchise was still in Milwaukee.

"Jerry Hummitzsch was the No. 1 prospect in the organization," Mullen said. "I remember going to his parents' home in Sheboygan, Wis., and signing him for about $25,000. He was very close to being called up to the big club.

"The accident was a terrible thing. I got the call from Austin about 7:30 that morning. I was the one who had to call the parents and tell them."

The season before, Hummitzsch pitched a no-hitter for Austin.

Hriniak will not discuss the accident. "Never, not with anybody," he said during an interview last week.

Alomar, however, remembers that Hriniak was thrown through the windshield.

"Walt's face was cut up pretty bad," Mullen said.

Hriniak still has the scars and a left eye that appears to have been permanently damaged.

Hriniak played in only 52 games that season, and after batting around .100 the next season was demoted to a lower league.

"It must have affected him," Alomar said. "Physically, the memory of Jerry, it had to have an effect on him."

Hriniak didn't have another solid year in the minors until he played for Lau in 1968. He twice had 30-error seasons in the minors, and by the time the Braves brought him up in 1968, he had been converted into a catcher.

He never quit trying. In 1969 with the Padres, he took a foul tip off his right ring finger, suffering a wound that required 25 stitches. The finger looks like a stub now.

He was about to go on the disabled list, but in the 13th inning of a game against Houston, Manager Preston Gomez needed a pinch-hitter and had only pitchers left on the bench. Hriniak hit a bloop single, winning the game.

Hriniak managed for three years in the minors, but says he never wants to run a team again.

In Chicago, he was hired before Manager Jeff Torborg, and his contract with the White Sox runs longer than Torborg's.

In 1988, the White Sox finished fifth, 32 1/2 games out of first place, and their team batting average of .244 was second worst in the American League. Jerry Reinsdorf, the chairman of the board, wanted someone of Charlie Lau's ilk to improve White Sox hitting, so the club hired Lau's No. 1 protege.

In Hriniak's first season, even though the pitching-poor White Sox finished last in the West Division, the team's batting average rose by 27 points. This season, as the White Sox remain close to the Oakland Athletics in the West, that average is down by about eight points, but the team's hitting is still near the top of the league.

Lance Johnson and Dan Pasqua, who have attended Hriniak's winter hitting school, have raised their averages by a combined 70 points for the White Sox this season, Johnson batting above .270 and Pasqua better than .295. Shortstop Ozzie Guillen, a career .263 hitter, is batting better than .300.

Other than Lau, the man Hriniak has most admired in baseball is former manager Gene Mauch. Both men have been workaholics.

For instance, Hriniak was at Milwaukee County Stadium for a recent game against the Brewers by 1 p.m., six hours before the first pitch. Even extra batting practice--the kind that had Joe Morgan on an early trip to Yankee Stadium a few years ago--wasn't scheduled until 3, but Hriniak was still there, and available, if any of the White Sox wanted to discuss hitting.

Torborg, who is said to be comfortable with Hriniak, tells of a player asking Hriniak what time hitting practice would begin.

"What time does it get light?" Hriniak said.

There are many technical things--a balanced stance, a rhythmic, tension-free stroke, proper weight shift, correct extension after the bat makes contact with the ball--but an important part of the Hriniak credo is the work ethic.

"Persistence," Hriniak says. "The world is full of unsuccessful, talented people. Hitting a baseball, the only substitute for practice is practice."

One night last season, because of a pregame promotion, batting practice was canceled at Comiskey Park. So, under a hot sun, Hriniak pitched an hour of practice at 2:30 that afternoon. Years ago, Hriniak underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff, suffered while pitching batting practice.

Ron Kittle, traded by the White Sox to the Yankees in 1986, became a free agent while with the Cleveland Indians two years later and re-signed with the White Sox. Kittle, recently traded to Baltimore, was advised by his family not to return to Chicago, but chose the White Sox because of Hriniak.

Eddie Williams, the former White Sox infielder, said of Hriniak: "He's the best hitting instructor I've ever seen." Greg Walker said that when he was with the White Sox, he learned more about hitting in three days with Hriniak than he had in his career.

In Boston, Hriniak's work got mixed notices. Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski differed with him on hitting principles, and Ed Kenney, a team vice president, once temporarily resigned over a run-in with Hriniak.

Last week, Joe Morgan said he wouldn't talk about Hriniak.

"I spent 12 years (in Boston), it's my home," Hriniak said. "I needed to get with a different-type organization. I needed a change. And Charlie Lau had been with the White Sox, and they were committed to his kind of teaching."

Hriniak takes special pride in having helped veteran players such as Bill Buckner and Carney Lansford. His most gratifying project might have been Red Sox mainstay Dwight Evans.

"In 1980," Hriniak said, "Evans was hitting .180. He had lost his job. He came to me, and we made a complete change in his hitting style. Basically, he was trying to pull everything too much. All the good hitters use the full field when they hit the ball."

Evans wound up at .266. The next season, he was 30 points higher and led the AL in homers.

Lately, Evans, a career .273 hitter, has dropped to .240. Gorman, bypassing batting coach Richie Hebner, gave Yastrzemski permission to work with Evans.

Hebner screamed at Gorman. Morgan, who hired Hebner, protested to Gorman. Evans protested to Morgan. Yastrzemski, also upset, called a talk show, identifying himself as "Carl, from Andover."

Hriniak must have smiled.

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