Biagini cuts up in Orioles' managing line

Ken Rosenthal

March 13, 1992|By Ken Rosnthal

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's a little early to get this started, but just as John Oates was manager-in-waiting under Frank Robinson, new hitting instructor Greg Biagini appears next in line under John Oates.

Biagini, 47, is a virtual unknown in Baltimore, but not to the Orioles. He spent nine seasons managing in the club's minor-league system, the last three at Triple-A Rochester. Already Oates has dubbed him "the sleeper" of his new staff.

Oates has nothing to fear entering his first full season -- in fact, he might be good enough to manage the Orioles the next 10 years. Still, this is a team that once fired its manager after six games. It's always wise to keep that list of backup candidates handy.

If nothing else, Biagini should make a fine hitting coach, judging from the opinions of players and club officials who know him best. The Orioles, of course, already had a fine hitting coach (Tom McCraw) but they lost him to the New York Mets.

McCraw practically was forced out, but we're saving that unseemly tale for a rainy day. It's difficult to argue Biagini's promotion. This is his first major-league job in 20 years of professional baseball. What's more, he deserves it.

As always, the belief here is that it's impossible to measure the impact of hitting and pitching coaches at the major-league level. But Biagini certainly has built an impressive track record, and that's how reputations are built.

"B" not only led Rochester to one first- and two second-place finishes, he played a critical role in the development of several promising hitters -- first with Leo Gomez, Chris Hoiles and David Segui in 1990, then with Chito Martinez in '91.

Martinez signed with the Orioles as a minor-league free agent after seven years in the Kansas City organization. He hit 20 homers for Rochester in little more than half a season, then added 13 more for the Orioles his first three months in the majors.

"That topped it off," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said, and Biagini still wasn't done. Hitters usually struggle after jumping a level, but three Double-A players -- Scott Meadows, Jack Voigt and Ricky Gutierrez -- posted higher averages last season after getting promoted to Triple-A.

Meadows went from .300 to .329 -- "he was already swinging a hot bat," Biagini said. But Voigt improved from .244 to .270 after Biagini suggested he shorten his swing. And Gutierrez improved from .236 to .306 after Biagini instructed him to raise his hands.

The hands are Biagini's primary focus. He wants hitters to reduce extraneous body movement so they can generate maximum bat speed. As Martinez said, "Your body will be there if your hands are there. When I use my hands, I've got a very quick bat. When I don't, my bat gets very slow."

Biagini, mind you, never progressed past Double-A as a player, but he became a student of hitting during five -- count 'em, five -- seasons in the Mexican League. Hardly anyone spoke English. With no instructors, Biagini had plenty of time to assess his swing.

"You stay there to make some money, and if you're not hitting, they just get another gringo," Biagini said, smiling. "Everyone is so geared to hitting fastballs here. Down there, you learn to hit off-speed stuff. They'd throw spitters, use tobacco grease, do whatever it takes."

Spitters? Tobacco grease?

"The umpires would just say, 'Hey, that was a good one.' "

His last season in Mexico was 1982, and he became the Orioles' Rookie League manager in Bluefield the next year (Yes! A remaining fossil from the Hank Peters-Tom Giordano regime!). He went to Class-A Hagerstown in '85, Double-A Charlotte in '86, Rochester in '89. Baltimore was the logical next step.

The players say he's a hard worker and good communicator. McCraw was the same way, but Hoiles explained, "I think Biagini takes you to the next step. That's why he's liked a little more. It's not that Mac wasn't. But Greg goes the extra step to be there for you, talk to you."

McCraw sat at the far end of the dugout during games, while Biagini sits closer to home plate, the better to chat with hitters between at-bats. Oates seems to think that makes a difference, but who knows? McCraw helped boost the careers of Sam Horn, Randy Milligan, Mike Devereaux and Bill Ripken. The Mets obviously don't care where he sits.

Whatever, Biagini figures to make an impact of his own. Catcher Jeff Tackett played for him six straight years in the minors. He described Biagini as "a workaholic," but not one who forces his theories on every hitter. "He's not going to come in here and change people's swings," Tackett said. "He'll watch people hit, and go from there."

Pay close attention.

He could go far.

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