By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 22 -- Mitchell Page's day began long before the Washington Nationals stepped onto the field at Osceola County Stadium to take batting practice Thursday evening. Page was there, of course, leaning on the batting cage, loping from side to side to look at hitters from different angles, analyzing everything. He does this every day. Hitting -- or rather, teaching about hitting -- is in many ways his life.
But Page's day Thursday began at 1:45 p.m., beyond the right field wall at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, sitting on a stool, a bucket of baseballs at his feet, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a student in front of him.
"Hands only," he told Ryan Church, a Nationals outfielder who has struggled this spring. They began a 25-minute session in Page's office, the batting cages.
"He has this way," Church said, "of totally breaking you down in one second."
That Page is in this position -- entering his second season as the Nationals' hitting coach -- is something of an upset given where he was two years ago, just beginning a battle with alcohol that was the main reason he lost his job as the hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals hired him as a roving minor league instructor in 2005, and moved him up to be the hitting coach with the major league club last year. This past offseason, new manager Manny Acta had the opportunity to assemble his own staff. He chose to bring back Page, with whom he had never worked.
"I did some digging," Acta said. "I talked to some of the guys on the Cardinals, to [Albert] Pujols and [Scott] Rolen. They spoke highly of him, and he's got a track record. . . . He works his butt off. He's the first in the cage and the last one to leave. That's half of the battle right there. Our guys like him. That's all you can ask for."
Watching his hitters rip out eight hits in the first inning Thursday night against the Houston Astros, it would seem Page could ask for no more, to be in the big leagues, to be teaching hitting. But in a way, making it back to the majors is secondary to merely being in the game at all.
"I love to teach," Page said. "Manny did his research on me and his homework on me, and I'm glad to be back in the majors because Manny wanted me back. But if Manny really had somebody else that he wanted, I had no problem going to the minor leagues, because I love teaching."
He has taught in the toughest crucible in baseball, the World Series, when the Cardinals failed to produce at the plate while being swept by Boston in 2004. He has taught as he did Thursday, in an out-of-the-way cage with no one around. He has taught in print, writing a book, "The Complete Manual of Hitting." And he has even taught from afar.
Last season, Rolen, the Cardinals' third baseman and one of Page's favorite students, was struggling as St. Louis headed to the postseason. He remembered how comfortable he was working with Page, who helped him set career highs in average (.314), homers (34) and RBI (124) in 2004. The two talked, and Page pointed Rolen to sections of his book he thought would be helpful reminders.
"He's seen where my stance is, where my base and my setup are when I'm hitting well," Rolen said last week. "He's somebody I trust, somebody who can take a look.
"He's a good man, and he's honest. You get effort every day from him, and you get honesty every day. I don't know what else you need."
Most of the Nationals' hitters feel the same way.
"He's open to every player, every approach," said center fielder Nook Logan, whom Page considers one of his chief projects this year. "He doesn't have favorite guys to work with. You go some places, and they put some guys above other guys. With him, he works as hard and as long with everyone evenly."
To get back to that point, Page had to do some work on himself. In an interview two years ago, he spoke about the dark days at the end of the 2004 season, when he was drinking vodka before games, when he knew he needed help. After the season, he was let go by the Cardinals. He checked into a rehabilitation facility.
"The best thing I did," he said Thursday. "It gave me a better outlook. I went 17 months without a drink, without having one drink. I pick my spots now -- a beer here, a glass of wine. But I don't need it. It doesn't control me. Seventeen months off without drinking, that really makes you look at reality, look in the right direction."
Given how his tenure with the Cardinals ended, Page thought of his former boss there, Manager Tony La Russa, following La Russa's arrest on a drunken driving charge early Thursday morning. He preferred not to talk about that situation, saying, "I got my PhD in coaching from Tony."
Those problems, Page believes, are well behind him. Only work lies ahead. As Church stood in the cage Thursday afternoon, Logan walked by and yelled to the pair, "Leave him alone!" Logan kept walking, smiling.
"You get to .300," Page yelled after Logan, "and I won't bother you no more."
With that, he went back to work, holding a ball up in front of Church, having him swing through it. When the session was over, Page told Church, "Take that to the game." Seven hours later, Church's results against the Astros came in: three hits, including a three-run homer. Lesson learned.