And Mickey Hatcher thought riding the No. 7 train to Shea Stadium was tough.
Hatcher, the Angels’ embattled hitting coach who said he was eyed up and down by gang members on the subway during the club’s June interleague series with the Mets, has been in the crosshairs of web-surfing fans who type out calls for his job on message boards whenever the team hits an offensive funk.
He says he has been the object of derision by members of the media, who wonder aloud when the prolific Angel offense they’ve become accustomed to covering is going to show up.
The criticism? Hatcher can deal with that. It’s the feeling of helplessness and the strain of dealing with an underachieving offense that have the sixth-year coach tossing and turning in the middle of the night.
“You know, what’s frustrating is people that watch the game don’t understand that these guys are swinging the bats as good as we did in 2002 when we won it all,” Hatcher said before Sunday’s 5-3 victory over Detroit, a game in which the Angels had three first-inning runs. “The hits aren’t coming as easy ... you see a lot of line drives being caught, you see a lot of good defensive plays. A lot of the guys are having quality at-bats so I’m fine with that.
“But so many people are built on stats. We don’t have the power team we’ve had in the past. We don’t have a Troy Glaus and a [Jose] Guillen. We’re missing 60 home runs and probably 200 RBIs right there so we’ve got a different type of ballclub. We’re kind of like Oakland; good pitching and the offense is going to scrap and do the little things.”
Sure, though the Angels spent some $42 million more for their club than the Athletics spent on theirs. And if the Angels are indeed going to scrap for runs, shouldn’t their hitters be working pitchers deeper into counts, taking more walks than the 2.8 bases on balls they get a game?
And that’s where the angst of many onlookers resides: If the team is going to manufacture runs, then shouldn’t hitters be more disciplined?
Hatcher’s hitting philosophy, his detractors say, flies in the face of scrapping for runs because he has never shied away from hacking at first pitches.
With the hand-wringing that seems to accompany every at-bat, you’d think the Angels were out of the pennant race rather than holding a two-game lead over the A’s in the American League West with a 13-game sprint to the finish remaining.
The cause for concern? A year after tying a team record and leading the league with a .282 batting average, the Angels are batting .270, sixth in the AL.
Last year, the Angels tied a team record with 1,603 hits and this season they are on pace for 1,521. And though they pounded out 162 home runs in 2004, they are now on pace for 145. And after scoring 836 runs last year, they are on pace to finish with 751.
“We’re not going to have the offense we’ve had in the past; we’ve lost the power,” Hatcher said. “That’s something I think everybody in this organization realizes.”
His pupils are quick to rise to Hatcher’s defense.
“I’ve known him for two years and it’s been a good relationship,” said Vladimir Guerrero, who was selected the AL most valuable player his first year under Hatcher after batting .337 with 39 home runs and 126 runs batted in. “He helps us when things are going bad, helps us to work out the problem whether it’s by watching video or getting extra work. He keeps us going whenever things are going bad.
“Whenever I have a question, I can always go to him. I don’t feel bad about talking to him. He makes you feel good about yourself, not bad.”
Hatcher, known as a clubhouse cut-up throughout a 12-year major league career in which he batted .280, has brought his brand of levity to his position of power, so to speak.
“A comic? Oh yes, of course,” Guerrero said. “That’s how he keeps us going. He’s always funny.”
Darin Erstad said he was unaware Hatcher had come under criticism.
“I can’t even believe it,” Erstad said. “I know Hatch works harder than anyone. You’re not going to find a better hitting instructor. He cares more about us than we probably care about ourselves.
“He’s not the one swinging the bats. He does everything he can possibly do for us, and more.”
Even if the job description includes a little housecleaning along with massaging the psyches of millionaire ballplayers, when not breaking down tape or helping out with a little soft-toss in the cage.
“Not only do I have to get to know every individual swing, but I’ve got to get to know every individual personality, every individual superstition,” Hatcher said with a smile. “There’s a lot of guys with little superstitions.
“So you’ve got to make sure, like with Ersty, you don’t want to see a cup standing up in the dugout. When he comes in, I’ve got to make sure all the cups are knocked over in the dugout. I’m not going to put this guy in a negative frame of mind.
“The guys that are really hard on themselves, them are the guys you have to really nurse them through tough times ... just get a conversation and get them laughing and joking, get them away from thinking about it.”
The frustration reached a boiling point during the Angels’ series at Boston two weeks ago. Hatcher was ejected after Orlando Cabrera was called out on an appeal by the Red Sox that he had left second base early in tagging up.
“It’s frustrating when we’re not getting breaks; breaks are what get a team going,” Hatcher said. “And when something like that happens -- Garret [Anderson] moved a guy over from second to third and we’re ready to score a run, we’re high-fiving each other for getting the job done -- and next thing you know it’s taken away from you.
“If I’ve ever played this game and been on a contender, it takes breaks during the season, little magical things that happen. Well, this would be the first year I can say that every game has been a nail-biter. We have not had any games where we can just have some fun and relax. We’re in it and if that’s what it takes the rest of the way, then so be it. Hopefully I can get some sleep in the off-season.”
So long as he doesn’t have to ride the subway or read message boards.