Lenny Harris was named Interim Hitting Coach of the Washington Nationals on May 11, 2007, after Mitchell Page was granted a leave of absence, and Harris, known in his playing days as perhaps the Greatest Pinch Hitter of all time, had an immediate and obvious influence on the Nationals hitters.
Harris was officially brough back, along with the entire coaching staff, by Nationals Manager Manny Acta last week. The players themselves may be the reason Harris' services were retained. Ronnie Belliard, for example, credits Harris with helping him remain effective in the part-time role he started the season filling.
Belliard is quoted in an article by mlb.com writer Bill Ladson on the Nationals official site from July 27, 2007 entitled, "Nats Give Belliard two-year extension," in which Ladson writes:
"Belliard credits hitting coach Lenny Harris for his success
coming off the bench. Harris was one of the best reserves
in the history of baseball.
"'When I was on the bench he said, 'Just prepare for one
at-bat.' When they throw me out there, I just try to do my
thing. If they throw a strike, I'm going to swing at it,'
Belliard was able to work his way into a starting role, eventually taking over at second when Cristian Guzman went down with what appeared to be a season-ending injury. Belliard was not Harris' only protege though, as Austin Kearns, Nook Logan, Dmitri Young and Wily Mo Pena all showed the benefits of their time under Harris' tutelage.
Harris explained his approach to hitting in another Bill Ladson article at washington.nationals.mlb.com on May 28, 2007, entitled, "Nats Notes: Harris teaching patience," where the forty-two year old, just two years removed from standing at the place himself, stated:
"I got the hitters to slow their swing down, pick out a
pitch that they like to hit -- just try to drive it to the other
side of the field...Just try to stay through the ball and let
things happen. Everybody is on the same page. Hopefully,
they will continue to do it."
This approach was evidently taking hold in Wily Mo Pena, who smacked singles the other way like he was Tony Gwynn on the way to batting .293 with 4 doubles, 8 HR's and 39 hits after joining the Nationals on August 17th, having batted just .218 in a part-time role with Boston before the trade. Austin Kearns ended 2007 by hitting .307 in August and .270 in September, with 11 of his 16 HR's and 44 of his 74 RBI's coming in the second half of the season.
This approach at the plate had also allowed Harris to continue his career in the Majors for 12 seasons after he had ceased to be an everyday player, maintaining a .269 AVG over 18 seasons with Cincinnati, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets, Arizona, Colorado, Milwaukee, the Chicago Cubs and Florida, in which he collected 1,055 hits and eventually became the player with the most pinch-hit appearances and pinch hits in MLB history.
When Manny Acta announced just last week, that Harris would be returning, both Acta and Nationals GM Jim Bowden expressed a cautious optimism about Harris' work thus far, with Bowden stating in a Washington Times article by Mark Zuckerman titled, "Nationals retain Acta's entire staff," that:
"As you develop rookie players at the major league level,
like we did, you certainly have to do the same thing with
a young hitting coach...Lenny's results were remarkable
with the players he worked with. He has a ways to go, as
we all do. But certainly he would get my vote as rookie of
the year on the coaching staff."
Manny Acta echoed those sentiments in another article by mlb.com Nationals writer Bill Ladson, "Notes: Coaches to learn fate Sunday," from September in which Ladson quotes Acta, who explains:
"I think he(Harris) obviously started shaky early in the
year. It's not an easy job. Lenny is growing into the job.
The numbers are there. Lenny brings a lot of energy, and
we are willing to give Lenny the opportunity to grow into
that job, because he brings a lot to the table. If we, at
times, do it with players, I think sometimes we should be
doing it with coaches, too."
A franchise, a Manager, his coaching staff and his players all growing together with a fan base that is just beginning to fully embrace the return of Major League baseball to the nation's capital, and all of this taking place with a brand new stadium set to open in April. Something about that just sounds right.
*Lenny Harris Links*
Ronnie Belliard on Lenny Harris in mlb.com's Bill Ladson's article at washington.nationals.com:
Bill Ladson's washington.nationals.mlb.com article on Harris' approach:
Lenny Harris' career stats at thebaseballcube.com:
Mark Zuckerman's Washingtontimes.com article quoting Nationals GM Jim Bowden:
Bill Ladson's article on Manny Acta and Coaching staff from washington.nationals.mlb.com:
Lenny Harris' profile at wikipedia.org: