Atlanta feels like home to Greg Walker
First order of business for Braves' new hitting coach will be to "fix" Jason Heyward
Greg Walker grew up in Douglas, Ga., a rural community of about 11,500 people in the deep southern portion of the state. Douglas is the hometown of Jennifer Nettles of the county music duo Sugarland. Bobby Bowden did an early coaching stint in the city at South Georgia College, and James Brown worked briefly at a local sawmill before graduating to bigger things as the Godfather of Soul.
As a child of the '60s, Walker was a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan, and a Hank Aaron fan in particular. So it was quite a thrill when he pulled into the Turner Field parking lot recently and saw Hammerin' Hank, now a senior vice president with the team, getting out of his car.
"I've been in baseball for 30 years and never had the opportunity to meet him," Walker said, "so I went over and introduced myself. That was pretty cool."
So much for the job perks. Walker has since graduated from star-gazing to bull sessions in the cage with Jason Heyward, winter caravan trips to Tennessee and the quest for some tangible results in a new role.
The Braves disdained a 25-man roster makeover this winter despite an 8-18 finish that left them a game short of the playoffs. Pitcher Jair Jurrjens and outfielder Martin Prado, both the focus of offseason trade rumors, will be on hand for spring training at the Disney complex in Orlando. Derek Lowe has departed for Cleveland and Alex Gonzalez signed with Milwaukee, leaving rookie Tyler Pastornicky as the new starting shortstop. He's backed up by Jack Wilson, the team's big-ticket free-agent acquisition on a one-year, $1 million deal.
General manager Frank Wren, while hamstrung by payroll constraints, is betting that the returning talent from the 2011 roster is good enough for the Braves to improve upon their total of 641 runs scored -- 10th-best in the league. Chances are Dan Uggla won't hit .185 in the first half again, nor will Brian McCann, who tried to come back too soon from an oblique injury, bat .203 after the break. The Braves also have reason to expect more from Prado, who missed several weeks with a staph infection and was ineffectual in August and September.
But the Atlanta hitters might need a push in the right direction. Toward that end, the Braves fired hitting coach Larry Parrish in September and replaced him with Walker, who was suddenly available after resigning as Chicago White Sox hitting instructor.
Coaches, like players, can benefit from a change of scenery, and Walker, a White Sox guy to the core, is about to find out whether that's the case. He broke into the majors with the Sox under manager Tony La Russa in 1982 and played 841 games in a Chicago uniform before a 14-game cameo with Baltimore in 1990. Walker began his big league coaching tenure with the Sox in 2003 and spent nine seasons working under Jerry Manuel and Ozzie Guillen.
Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski and numerous other Chicago hitters swore by Walker as a teacher and mentor. "He's gotten me to places as a hitter and a player that I would have never gotten to without him," Konerko told reporters upon Walker's departure from Chicago. "I trust him with every inch of my swing."
But the 2011 season was challenging for a lot of people in Chicago. Gordon Beckham and Alex Rios were disappointing, Adam Dunn was a .159-caliber disaster, and Walker inevitably became a target for blame. He clashed with general manager Kenny Williams, and their relationship bottomed out with a shouting match in September. According to one baseball insider who's familiar with the situation, the two men "are not on each other's Christmas card list."
Walker was extremely loyal to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. But as the season progressed, he assessed the situation and determined that his time in Chicago had run its course. He would have been gone anyway when Guillen left for Miami, but he made it official in late September by announcing his resignation.
"Looking back, I have my own feelings about what happened there. But the bottom line is you just have to cut the cord and move on," Walker said. "I have a lot of good friends back in Chicago that I'm wishing nothing but the best. They're dear friends that I care about, and always will. But professionally it was time for me to move on. I knew it."
Walker has pronounced himself "re-energized" by the move to Atlanta, but he also faces some new and distinct challenges. The day after the Braves hired him, the Macon Telegraph ran the headline "Walker will have to fix Heyward." That salvage job could go a long way toward determining where the Braves finish in the NL East in 2012.
Heyward's travails have been well-documented. After posting an .849 OPS and finishing second to Buster Posey in the 2010 rookie of the year balloting, Heyward hurt his shoulder, messed up his swing while making some mechanical adjustments and had his fortitude publicly questioned by Chipper Jones. From all accounts, Heyward never clicked with Parrish, a respected coach who had earned rave reviews for his work with hitters in the Detroit system.
"Larry is an outstanding baseball man," Wren said. "I've known him for 25 years and he is really good. But for whatever reason, it wasn't a good fit for us. Just because it isn't a fit doesn't make him a bad coach or a bad baseball guy. It just didn't work."
According to Wren, a "perfect storm" of developments led the Braves to Walker. Jim Fregosi, a special assistant to Wren and former White Sox manager, was strongly in Walker's corner, and the Braves liked Walker's mix of old-school fundamentals and receptiveness to new-age technology and information. Walker also has an amiable, disarming way with people that the Braves think will resonate with the team's hitters. No matter how well-conceived the message, it's meaningless if no one is listening.
"If you have a strong relationship with a player, you can be brutally honest," Wren said. "If you don't, you might have to hedge about what the real issues are. Greg has proven that. Players trust him and like him, and that sets up the ability for him to be honest and get the most out of them."
Walker, who ranks former Chicago hitting coaches Charley Lau and Walt Hriniak among his main professional influences, is a firm believer in the importance of forging bonds with players before trying to make changes or suggestions. The past few weeks have been an exercise in ground-laying.
In Chicago, most players fled the cold during the winter months. It's a different story in Atlanta, where many Braves call the city home year-round. In January, Walker held get-acquainted sessions at Turner Field with Heyward, Jones and Freddie Freeman. McCann and Uggla also passed through to take some swings and participate in the dialogue.
The early reports on Heyward are encouraging. He's dropped about 20 pounds to a reported 235, and appears to be "on a mission," in Walker's estimation. Heyward is working on taking a more direct path to the ball to avoid going around pitches and pulling all those weak choppers to the right side. After the first extended failure of his baseball career, he also needs to regain his self-confidence. From the coaching staff to Heyward's fellow players, it's been a collaborative effort to get him to the right place.
"Chipper cares about the kid and wants to see him do well," Walker said. "He's participating in the workouts and giving his input, too. All I can say is everybody who's seen Jason swing the bat is happy where he's at right now."
At Walker's suggestion, the Braves hired former White Sox and Rangers infielder Scott Fletcher as the team's new assistant hitting coach. Fletcher will provide a second set of eyes and a complementary voice in the cage, and also do advance scouting via video. The tag-team model has certainly worked well in St. Louis, where Mark McGwire is hitting coach and Mike Aldrete is the team's de facto "offensive enhancer."
For now, the Braves could stand some continuity in the hitting-coach department. They've gone from Terry Pendleton to Parrish to Walker since 2010, and Wren concedes that's not the optimal arrangement.
Ultimately, most of the scrutiny will fall on Walker. If the numbers fail to improve, Atlanta fans won't cut him any slack because he's a great guy and has an affable demeanor around the batting cage.
"In the big picture, the hitting coach is a very small piece of the puzzle," Walker said. "But it's a difficult job with a lot of pressure and media critiquing. Almost anybody who's played a game of slow-pitch softball thinks they know how the baseball swing works or what somebody is doing wrong. I love it. They're baseball fans, and that's what makes baseball special."
Walker comes to Atlanta with a thick skin, an appreciation for the organization's tradition and a foxhole mentality. He's ready to stick by his "guys" through good times and bad, and arrive at the park early and stay late if it means helping someone escape a slump. There's not a trace of front-runner in him.
Now that the introductions are complete and Walker has broken the ice with the players and shaken hands with the Home Run King, it's time to head to spring training and get to work. Chicago is in the past, and Atlanta feels a lot like home.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
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