The fungo bat is going on 20 years old and looks it. Untouched by paint, it is the dull color of light wood, with one silver ring just below the barrel. It was made by a bat manufacturer from Canada for the man who still uses it to hit ground balls and who believes the wood is ash.
“Once I got it,” he says, “there was no other bat.”
The bat is remarkably top-heavy. Its owner has asked other bat companies to try to duplicate its balance, he said. Once, he even gave it to a company to take to its factory and try to copy it. But when he received the new fungo, it “just didn’t feel right.”
“I can put this bat head where I want it,” he says. “If I want it there (pointing to a spot in front of him), I can throw a ball up and put it there.”
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The man takes ground balls very seriously.
And this is why he’s back in Oakland, where he commissioned the bat as a first-year coach for the A’s in 1996. This year’s A’s have been the worst defensive team in the majors, with infielders accounting for most of their 51 errors entering Saturday’s game. To help address that issue, they called in Ron Washington.
Before managing the Texas Rangers for almost eight full seasons, Washington was the longtime third-base and infielders coach of the A’s, helping develop Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, among others. Chavez won six consecutive Gold Gloves at third base and reportedly gave his 2004 trophy to Washington out of gratitude.
Washington became Texas’ manager in 2007 and led the Rangers to the World Series in 2010 and 2011 before stepping down last September, saying in a news conference he had been unfaithful to his wife, Gerry, and needed to repair the relationship. Washington was back home in New Orleans, coaching part time at the University of New Orleans and at Major League Baseball’s Urban Youth Academy, when the A’s called.
“We’ve made some errors,” manager Bob Melvin said last week. “When you give up four or sometimes five outs in an inning, typically it is going to blow up in your face. … That’s something we’re working very hard on, and obviously we bring in Wash to team together with (third-base and infield coach Mike Gallego) and try to get that thing under control.”
The A’s officially announced Washington’s hiring to their major-league staff on May 21. Gallego is still working with the infielders, and Washington is not on the bench during games. In the hours before, though, he is active, coaching the infielders, throwing batting practice and, yes, hitting ground balls with his fungo.
“I’m back to what I do,” Washington said before a game at the Coliseum last week. “And that’s baseball.”
Improving their fielding
Washington’s main charge is shortstop Marcus Semien, who leads the majors with 18 errors. After a few days working with Semien, who is playing shortstop regularly in the majors for the first time, Washington said he believes Semien has “all the tools” to be effective. Their priorities are Semien’s “spread,” or body positioning with he fields a ground ball, and “stride” when Semien steps toward a base to throw. Many of Semien’s errors have come on errant throws.
“That’s what controls how consistent the baseball travels,” Washington said of a player’s stride. “Once we fix those two things, the rest of it comes into play easily.”
Hours before the A’s played the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, Washington was hitting grounders to Semien, who fielded them not with his glove but a large, flat pad that resembled a pancake with a slight indentation in the middle. The pad, which Washington said “trains the hands how to catch the ball properly,” has been part of his repertoire since he became an infield coach. Semien later said the last time he had used one was in college.
“He’s implemented a lot of drills to help me with my glove work, my footwork and just my focus,” Semien said. “I feel good with what we’re doing and just want to continue to get better at it.
“He has his own style. I like the way he approaches it and communicates. It’s real close-up work.”
Later in that pregame session, Washington approached infielder Eric Sogard near second base and spent several minutes tossing one-hop feeds to Sogard’s backhand from about a foot away. Sogard said it was an extension of something Washington had just shown him.
“He kind of showed me some footwork on the backhand that I don’t think I’d ever done before,” Sogard said. “But the second I did it, it just felt great, like compared to what I normally do. That was really the first time I’d worked with him, just for 10 minutes (that day), and sure enough, he figured out something that would be helpful.”
Sogard said Washington, 63, “comes with a lot of energy each day and a smile on his face, ready to get after it. You can definitely tell he’s excited to be out here.”
Back in the game
A baseball lifer, Washington said he “watched a lot of baseball while I was out.” During his emotional news conference last September, he said he looked forward to “getting back in the game.” But as spring training began, an opportunity had yet to come.
Washington said he continued to teach – at the University of New Orleans, where the head coach is a friend, and at the urban academy, where Washington said he worked with youths about three times a week.
“They don’t know it,” he said, “but I was just as excited as they were to be there.”
Now, though, he is back to working with big leaguers. And leaning on a rail near the A’s dugout at the Coliseum last week, swathed by the crisp sounds of batting practice and the cool air of the familiar Bay Area and a uniform trimmed in green and gold, Washington said he felt “blessed.”
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know if I was going to have a major-league job so fast,” he said. “But I hoped that with my abilities that I have, someone could use it. And Billy Beane called me – he could use it. So here I am.”