Getting the swing vote

Orioles: Terry Crowley's return as hitting coach this season has been a hit with the players, several of whom are having career offensive years.

July 10, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The unassuming King moves purposefully, head down, and quietly through the maze of first-floor arteries at Camden Yards. Terry Crowley has an appointment in the hitting tunnel with a future Hall of Famer. Time waits for no man, not even the King, and not even if the subject is timing.

Known during his 15-year playing career as the King of Swing for his uncanny ability as a left-handed pinch hitter, Crowley now oversees Orioles hitters. During a protracted surge, they have reached second in the league in home runs, fourth in batting and fifth in runs despite a painfully sluggish April. Overshadowed by the team's season-long pitching malaise, Crowley's return as hitting coach after a 10-year absence has coincided with several career seasons and, in other cases, positive reversals.

In his 13th season, left fielder B.J. Surhoff is a first-time All-Star after batting 62 points above his career average, with 20 home runs and 70 RBIs.

Shortstop Mike Bordick is hitting .406 against left-handed pitching a year after scuffling along at .179, worst among American League regulars.

Catcher Charles Johnson is 22 points over his career average in his first season as an American Leaguer. He is also pointed toward career highs in home runs and RBIs.

Addicted pull hitter Brady Anderson has exhibited greater willingness to use the left side of the field.

Only weeks after his career was considered in extremis, Cal Ripken has exhibited offensive vitality unseen in several seasons.

Crowley would have one believe this is some sort of harmonic convergence. "That's deflected," says Crowley. "Those guys are having great years, and they are 100 percent responsible for it."

His hitters, however, won't let him get away with it.

"Crow is excellent," says first baseman Will Clark, among the game's most analytical hitters. "He isn't the type of guy who's going to force himself on anybody, but he's always there. He respects players as professionals. If you go to him with a problem, he presents options and then you work together to find an answer."

Clark became a believer after returning from a stay on the disabled list with a broken left thumb. Frustrated over his diminished ability to drive pitches, he sought out Crowley in Atlanta. Clark cited the adjustment, protected as a state secret, for a five-RBI, 10-total-base night against the Braves on June 13.

"You get a feel for what type of hitter they are. You try to get a picture in your mind of what the long term is going to be. And you try to keep the hitter on an even keel all year," says Crowley, whose 379 major-league hits included 108 as a pinch hitter.

"Nobody is as bad as they appear when they're struggling. You try to reflect on what good has happened."

Crowley's work ethic and his ability to motivate with positive reinforcement have earned him the trust of the game's most veteran clubhouse. Even 15 years into his career as a respected instructor, Crowley never takes that acceptance for granted. Crowley speaks of being "honored" to work with a team featuring numerous Hall of Fame candidates and several others regularly mentioned as future managerial possibilities.

"He understand mechanics of hitting, but he also understands the difference in each person," Ripken says. "There's not one way to deal with everybody."

Crowley's extensive resume includes time under five Orioles managers, including Ripken's father. He also worked within the unique hitting styles of then-prospects Jeff Bagwell and Mo Vaughn as a minor-league instructor with the Boston Red Sox. Bagwell used a reverse stride that a more dogmatic coach might have tried to eliminate.

"Crow works with whatever makes you comfortable," says Vaughn, now with the Anaheim Angels. "He makes suggestions and is very positive. He's very comfortable working with you within your swing. He has the ability to communicate with everyone. He has a genuine like for people and wants to see them play better. Crow also has the knowledge to do that."

In his clipped Staten Island, N.Y., accent, Crowley verbally blushes at such sentiment. Old enough at 52 to have been the Orioles' original designated hitter but young enough to have once been Ripken's teammate, Crowley has never distanced himself from what players confront daily.

"If there's one thing I try to pride myself on, it's remembering that it looks very easy from where I sit and from the seats behind home plate. I try to never forget the times it was difficult for me in the batter's box. I think, over the long haul, players appreciate that," says Crowley.

Crowley returned to the Orioles after helping develop young hitters such as Todd Walker and Ron Coomer in Minnesota. Here, the emphasis is more on maintenance.

"This is a far more seasoned ballclub," says Crowley. "You try to do what they need that particular day to get them ready to play. There are 13 hitters here, and every one has a slightly different way of preparing to play the game that night. They have their own style. You just have to stay with that."

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