The Story of Michael Jordan's Baseball Swing
The often-forgotten element of Michael Jordan's quest to be a Major League Baseball player was his unfortunate assignment to the most controversial hitting coach of the time, Walt Hriniak. Hriniak had just been squeezed out of the Boston Red Sox organization because more and more of the front office personal were getting fed up with Hriniak meddling with the younger hitters.
While some players endorsed Hriniak, it seemed more were skeptical. The decline of Jim Rice, Rich Gedman, and Mike Greenwell under his tutelage, started to give Hriniak a shrinking following, and more and more if you had in a bat in your hands, you averted your gaze if he came your way.
Red Sox Farm Director Ed Kenney Sr. was one such detractor. After 1987, Kenney was so tired of Hriniak's meddling that he tried to retire, only to be coaxed back by his colleagues, with the assurance that Hriniak would soon be gone.
And gone he was. Let go by Boston, he was hired by the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and was soon working with one of the organization's brightest stars, Frank Thomas. One opposing manager who wished to remain anonymous said, “What [Hriniak’s] doing to Thomas’ stroke, well, it’s almost criminal."
Soon enough, Hriniak was given the assignment of a lifetime - to work with the greatest athlete the world has ever known, Michael Jordan. Jordan was a tireless worker and willing to do whatever he was told. He wasn't there to stir the pot. Just the opposite. He was there to be humbled again, to put his head down and do as he was told. He was in an unfamiliar domain, taking jobs away from young aspiring players, and he wasn't going to screw it up. His father had just been murdered, he had just won three championships in a row, and he was open to being drilled, and grilled.
Hriniak, in there first meeting, asked Jordan if his switch to baseball was a joke or if it was serious. (What kind of a thing is that to ask the greatest competitor the world has ever known?) Hriniak seemed to like to play the role of the hard nosed hitting coach, and some hitters' personalities just soak that up. It was almost like he had to intimidate players into following his swing advice. It seems to me that Hriniak saying this right away to Jordan was his way of saying, "you're going to do things my way or we're not doing this." His way of making Jordan feel like he needs him in order to navigate this foreign landscape of Major League Baseball.
Jordan had no reason to question him. After all, in basketball, if a guy is a good dribbling coach, then a player is going to get better at dribbling just by learning under him - no doubt. But we all know the baseball swing doesn't necessarily work like that. A guy could have a reputation as a swing coach and yet a single session with him could ruin your career. In fact, it was hitting coaches like Hriniak that showed us this can happen. Now, it is common that hitters are weary of ALL hitting coaches when they start talking swing mechanics around the hitting cages.
Ralph Kiner, one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball said about Jordan's work with Hriniak, “I’d say he’s got two chances: slim and none. And slim is going out the door. If Ted Williams were his teacher I’d say he has a chance, but he’s got Walt Hriniak, and I don’t think Walt Hriniak knows what he’s talking about when it comes to hitting.”
So what are Hriniak's theories of baseball swing mechanics anyway? They can be summed up by four main elements:
- Head down
- Swing down
- Let go with the top hand
- Hit the ball up the middle
"You keep your head down on the baseball. There's got to be some movement in your stance. There's got to be some extension. There's got to be some balance. There's a lot of things involved, but those three or four are the most important.”
“[I’m simply] carrying on the work of my friend (Charlie Lau), that’s all. It’s his stuff, I’m just teaching it. Once you start trying to pull everything, the pitchers and the defense all know what you are going to do. You have to commit yourself to pitches a lot sooner and get farther out in front and you are more wide open for breaking stuff. The percentages are against you.”
Back in the eighties, you could tell a Hriniak disciple a mile away. Most of them were on the Red Sox and White Sox. The signature move was the absurdly long time that the hitter kept his head down at the the point of contact. It just made for a swing that clearly would never be powerful. Trying to envision someone doing a Hriniak style swing and blasting a 400+ foot home run is like trying to envision your grandmother dropping into a half pipe and doing a tuck-knee handplant. The Hriniak swing and power just didn't go together.
It makes you think, what could Michael Jordan have done, if he was left on his own to develop a swing. It was nice that Hriniak was willing to spend the time with Jordan (I mean what hitting coach wouldn't?!), to throw him soft toss and front toss. But did he have to meddle with his swing? The greatest athlete of all time? Cmon, Walt!