Nats' Young Hitters Have A Coach Who Can Relate

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga outlines the major storylines and position battles in spring training for the Washington Nationals. Video: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comPhotos: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 2 -- When your office is a patch of dirt and grass under a cloudless Florida sky, and a catchy tune pumps through some nearby speakers, you might be forgiven for tapping your feet and humming a tune. That's how Lenny Harris found himself Sunday morning, belting out, in order, "Surfin' USA," "Soul Man," and "Cheeseburger in Paradise" as the Washington Nationals took batting practice at Osceola County Stadium.

It is Harris's job to prepare the Nationals' hitters, a collection that scored fewer runs than any team in baseball last year. "It's a big responsibility," Manager Manny Acta said. Yet for Harris -- who two springs ago was competing for a job on the field -- these are all but carefree days, filled at any point with sun, hitting, and talking about hitting under the sun.

Stress? Don't even bring it up. In Harris's 43-year-old mind, stress is stepping to the plate in the ninth inning when, for the previous three hours, he'd been sitting on the bench.

"If you let it, this job will be too much work," Harris said. " If you let it. But I don't let it. I don't stress. I don't let it run me. I run it."

There is no overstating the importance of Harris's duties given the number of young hitters the team is trying to develop as it moves into a new ballpark this month. Likewise, there was almost no way to predict, a year ago, that Harris would be the one entrusted with the job. In spring training 2007, Mitchell Page was entering his second season in the position, one of the holdovers from the staff of former manager Frank Robinson.

Page, who has battled alcoholism, left the team last May for personal reasons. On May 10, Harris was in Harrisburg, Pa., working with the Nationals' Class AA team, part of his duties as a roving instructor, one charged mainly with coaching infielders. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden called.

"The next thing I know, I'm sitting in front of Jim and Manny, interviewing for a job," Harris said.

He had never served as a hitting coach -- at any level. Indeed, he had only retired, albeit reluctantly, a year earlier, when he failed to make the Florida Marlins out of spring training, thus closing out an 18-year-career. His playing days, regardless of how they ended, were distinguished by one quality: the ability to come off the bench and deliver a competitive at-bat. Harris finished with 212 career pinch hits. Not only is that the most in history, but no one is within 45 of him.

"He's the greatest all-time," said Houston's Mark Loretta, a teammate from Harris's days in Milwaukee. "Just ask him." Loretta laughed, but he knows the unpredictable and unsettling nature of being a bench player.

"It's one thing to do it physically, but mentally, it's so tough," Loretta said. "You don't get the same type of repetitions. The only feedback he would have was one at-bat when it was real crucial. He was great at being able to put behind the failures and move on."

Being able to hit and being able to coach hitters, however, are two different things. "I think it's tough for any of them," Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns said, "because you have to learn how however-many guys want things done."

Bowden said he was attracted to Harris for reasons that extended beyond his on-field accomplishments.

"Lenny has tremendous communication skills," Bowden said. "Having just retired from baseball, he was very close in his relationship with the players, which I thought our staff needed. I thought it would help the staff to have someone who could relate to players, and the players could relate to him -- as if he was a player."

Harris came in and slid seamlessly into the pregame card games that help wile away hours in the clubhouse on the road. He laughed and hooted and hollered with his charges. The change was a departure from the approach of Page, who spent hours in the cage working on mechanics.

Harris's approach rankled some in the organization who thought a person in such a position -- essentially the offensive coordinator -- should put in more time in the video room, more time learning the particulars of each hitter's swing. Harris, though, said he handled the job precisely how he wanted to.

"That was my way to get to know them," Harris said of the card games. "I don't want guys to go and look at my history and say, 'Oh, this guy was a good hitter and he played well.' No. I wanted them to know I'm a good human being, and I know you guys are human, too. I know you're not going to go out there and going to be successful all the time. I want to connect with them mentally."

Not all have embraced Harris's style, just as not all embraced Page's grinding.

"Mitch is more into breaking things down," Kearns said. "I think Lenny tries to keep it more simple. I think he helps you mentally. He's fun to listen to, his thought process. He's very, I guess, motivating."

Bowden considered that when evaluating, with Acta, whether to bring Harris back for this season. When Harris took over, the Nationals were hitting .229 with a .309 on-base percentage and a .332 slugging percentage. The rest of the way, those numbers rose to .264, .330 and .407.

"The mental part of hitting that he brought to the table, and his relationship with the players, his ability to motivate people, the ability to get in people's face when he needs to and give a pat on the behind when it's needed, that all helped," Bowden said. "He knows how to be real with guys. . . . We started to get better, and I certainly see a guy who can develop into one of the premier hitting coaches down the road."

He is not there yet, and he admits it. "But I'm at my goal sooner than I thought, being a big league coach," he said.

Still, given that he hit .314 in 2005, his final season, wouldn't he relish the chance to grab a bat and get back in the cage, rather than standing off to the side and watching others? The last four plate appearances of his career, all pinch appearances, resulted in two singles, a walk, a home run and five RBI. Wouldn't the guy who describes himself as "a player-coach" rather be a player?

"Nah," he said dismissively. "I'm glad I'm gone. To put up with this again? No. I'm in the right spot. I don't have to be worried about who I'm going to face tomorrow. No more stress."

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