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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
A's infielders pointed in right direction

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

There are Web Gems. There is a book out called "The Fielding Bible," which attempts to explain the value of defense. There is Perry Hill, the Pirates' infield genius/coach.

"We don't have any pages left in the phone books in our room because Perry is up all night demonstrating the double play using the phone books as the base," said Pirates coach Rich Donnelly, who is Hill's roommate this spring.

Mike Gallego
Mike Gallego played for eight seasons with the A's in his 13-year career, and is now back with the team as a coach.

There are the Tampa Bay Rays, who made it to the World Series last season in large part because of their defense. There are the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the World Series last year in large part because of their defense. And then there is a guy who can talk and teach defense all day long: A's coach Mike Gallego.

"Earthquake Series," Gallego said of the A's-Giants World Series in 1989. "We [the A's] are in the clubhouse at 5 p.m. The earthquake hits, the lights go out, everything is dark. The place is shaking. Guys are running all over the clubhouse, trying to get out. I was halfway out when I realized that I had forgotten my glove. I ran back into the clubhouse -- we didn't know if the place was going to collapse -- and found my locker … in the dark. I got my glove. I couldn't leave my glove behind. That's my livelihood, my glove."

All across the major leagues, teams are preaching defense, knowing that it's not a coincidence that good defensive teams win championships, and lousy defensive teams rarely win anything. Gallego is in charge of the infield play for the Oakland A's in 2009. He did that job for nine seasons with the Colorado Rockies, who in 2007 set a major league record for the highest fielding percentage (.989, only 68 errors) in a season.

Now he is trusted to improve an Oakland defense that ranked in the middle of the American League last year. His jobs are many, including attempting to improve the range of new A's shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who, according to several members of the 2008 White Sox, has lost more than a step. Gallego's biggest job this spring will be to help turn shortstop Bobby Crosby into a super-utility player, meaning he has to teach him how to play third base, second base and first base.

"Second base will be the hardest," he said. "The double play is the hardest play for a new guy. But it's not about being quicker with your hands. It's about being quicker with your feet."

Gallego was a brilliant defensive second baseman in his 13-year major league career, which included eight seasons with the A's. A lifetime .239 hitter, and maybe 5-foot-6½, he made a career for himself with his glove, hands and feet. "I wanted 27 balls a game hit to me," he said.

Gallego has introduced new drills to the A's. A large portion of his teaching is improving vision, seeing the ball better off the bat and sharpening focus. In one drill, Gallego has the infielder turn his back to home plate, then hits him a ground ball from a short distance. The player turns around and has to find the ball, a drill designed to teach him to see where the ball is as quickly as possible. Then Gallego will have the player face him, hit a grounder at him from slightly further away, then will hit the player a grounder from home plate.

"They can see it so much better that way because they're focusing on the ball after not seeing it at all," Gallego said. "That's key: Where are you seeing the ball?"

Gallego always saw the ball.

"I used to count the number of bounces on every ground ball hit to me," he said. "When you're counting, you never lose track of where the ball is. If you see that first bounce in front of the plate, then every bounce after that, you're following the ball. Very few guys can count the bounces. Most never think to count. [A's third baseman] Eric [Chavez] can do it. I'll ask him, 'How many bounces?' He'll say, 'Four.'"

Gallego had good range, but mostly, like Cal Ripken, he was a master of positioning. He knew every pitch that was being thrown, and every location.

I used to count the number of bounces on every ground ball hit to me. When you're counting, you never lose track of where the ball is. If you see that first bounce in front of the plate, then every bounce after that, you're following the ball.

-- Mike Gallego

"You have to play the odds," he said. "You're going to miss sometimes, but if the odds say that this pitch in this location, the ball is going to be hit here 95 percent of the time, that's where you have to be. I'm amazed how many times I see a catcher go to the mound and change the sign, and no infielder goes in to ask what's coming. I've asked infielders, 'Don't you want to know?' I had to know. By getting a jump on a ball, I could catch it right here [in front of him] where the guy without the jump has to backhand it. And it's the exact same ground ball, but I'm in a better position, and I have an easier throw because I knew what was coming."

Gallego was always prepared, and that included taking great care of his glove.

"I used the same glove for years," he said. "If it was just lying there, it was always lying open, I always liked it stiff. No one was allowed to touch my glove … no one."

Gallego wore his glove in a way that it covered only half his palm because that made him use his fingers more, which softened his hands. He has short, stubby fingers and huge palms.

"When the ball would hit my palm," he said, "it just died. That how you want it. By wearing the glove the way I did, I could use a 10½-inch glove, but it was actually over 12 inches long, which allowed me to get to more balls. But I didn't want the ball to go into my glove unless it was a backhand play. The rest of the time, I just used my glove to transfer the ball from my glove to my hand. The faster I got the ball into my hand, the better."

Gallego made a living with a glove. Now he's trying to make A's infielders better with new drills and techniques, and a new mentality that major league teams are emphasizing: Defense wins.

If there's another earthquake in the Bay Area, Gallego's hope is that the A's infielders, before they run like hell out of the clubhouse for safety, will grab their gloves first.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.