Down swings toward serious Beginning at dawn, O's hitting coach does not whiff on intensity

March 03, 1997|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If you're looking for Orioles hitting coach Rick Down about 6: 45 a.m., don't bother checking his hotel room. The bed is empty, the television set is off, the door already has been closed behind him.

At this early hour, Down is arriving at Fort Lauderdale Stadium ahead of everyone else, ready to lift weights or sift through some notes. By 8 a.m., he's tossing baseballs underhand behind a screen in the indoor batting cage.

When most people are pouring milk on their cereal or wiping the sleep from their eyes, Rick Down is working up a sweat.

"There's not a whole lot to do in the hotel," he said.

Down, 46, is beginning his second season on manager Davey Johnson's staff after three years with the New York Yankees and four with the California Angels in the late 1980s. The uniform changes, but not the intensity of the man inside it.

Watch him during batting practice, the way he paces, barking out commands like a drill sergeant. First group, let's go. Barrel-chested and possessing the strong hands of a laborer, he doesn't have to say it twice.

"There comes a time for fun and play, and I would like to think, at some point during the day, I can be humorous just like anybody else," he said. "But when I'm in uniform, we have a job to do. [Owner Peter Angelos] isn't paying me to be a comedian."

"He takes the job real serious," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, "and he tries to help out everyone. He's great at what he does. He doesn't try to change you, just help you with what you do."

Down isn't teaching the perfect swing, just finding the one that best suits each individual. And don't come to him with some complicated analysis of how bat should meet ball.

"There's no such thing as that cookie-cutter approach," he said. "There are absolutes. We all have to see the ball and get in good hitting position, and I try to make sure they're doing that. But they all do it somewhat differently. I also try to give them a plan for the day, what that pitcher is going to do, what they might want to do and how they might want to adjust.

"One thing we talk about a lot is, every day you're going to get a pitch you can put a good swing on. If Brady Anderson gets a good pitch, he's going to hit it hard. It's so simple. It's not brain surgery. Get a good pitch, see it better than you ever have, put your best swing on it and you're going to hit it."

And if you're having trouble, Down will hit the rewind button.

"He studies you, studies a lot of film," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "He's just a real positive guy. He doesn't lean toward the negative very often. When you watch films, he doesn't put the bad tape in. He always puts the good tape in.

"He knows what he's talking about, and with that, he gets the respect of the players. He's always there, always easily accessible. It doesn't matter what time. He's always willing to do something."

It takes some extra hustle for Down to get to the park ahead of Fred Dallimore, who will serve as pitching coach at Triple-A Rochester after 27 years at Nevada-Las Vegas. He's here as part of Johnson's spring staff, and he's usually no more than a step or two behind Down.

"Our philosophy has always been that sleep's overrated," he said. "Play hard, work hard, sleep fast."

Dallimore hired Down, a former minor-league third baseman, as hitting instructor at UNLV for five years in the 1980s. They've remained close friends. Both live in Nevada during the off-season.

"He's probably the best baseball mind I've ever had work for me," Dallimore said. "He's a workaholic, and he's pretty well committed to excellence. I'm lucky we had him as long as we did. With his knowledge and his way of communicating and teaching, there's a real need for guys of that caliber in the professional game.

"He's all business, yet he's got a sense of humor about him that helps relax guys and bring the best out of them.

"And he's got a beautiful family in Vegas -- three lovely kids. He's gone seven months a year, but he's got a gorgeous wife who picks up a lot of the slack while he's gone. Through all the years of professional baseball, I've always been amazed at how well they make it work. He never misses calling home every night. It's hard being 3,000 miles away from your family and still stay focused on your job."

The job almost changed this winter, when the Angels narrowed their choices for their vacant managerial position to Down and Terry Collins. For one of the few times in his professional life, Down didn't come out a winner.

Beginning in 1990, he had directed the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to three straight International League West Division titles, and became the first manager to win two consecutive Governor's Cup championships since Syracuse's Frank Verdi in 1969 and 1970. The Yankees led the majors in team batting average twice during his three years as hitting coach. And last season, the Orioles set a league record with 257 home runs and were third in runs with 949.

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