While the weather is making news on Clearwater Beach for the cold snap, and Jimmy Rollins is making waves of his own on the mainland in the Grapefruit League, the return of Barry Bonds in a San Fran uniform to the Cactus League as a seven day instructor hasn’t attracted much attention here. It’s a monumental event, for Bonds is dipping his toe into the water to see how well he can handle the instructional side of baseball. Much like current Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg had to work hard to learn how to be as good at coaching and managing as he was as a player, Bonds sounds committed to go through the same type of process. It seems like he’s angling to become a coach at some level.
At the 3:45 mark of the video you’ll hear Bonds say that he’s worked with Ryan Howard on an individual basis.
They talked about working together on how close Howard should stand to the plate.
“What [Bonds] told me was, find that spot where you’re comfortable. I know Charlie’s told me to move a little bit closer,” Howard said. “Some games I’ve been closer, some games I’ve been further away.¬† It’s finding a comfort zone in between.”
Bonds worked with him on always being in position to hit the ball hard to right, center or leftfield.
“We talked about upper body, just keeping it straight. Sometimes you get too closed off and you can’t see,” Howard said. “Sometimes, you get too open and you pull off. Being able to hit pitches each way; [opposite field], up the middle and being able to pull the ball, from the exact same position.”
“The one thing about him was just being in the ready position early and seeing the ball.”
Howard’s manager, Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson were all in favor of him working with Bonds. So far it looks like the work with Bonds has helped Howard, who has started out the season on fire.
He seems to be more patient and disciplined as a hitter.
Well that was the optimism at the time. How effective was Bonds in coaching Howard? Turns out that Ryan cooled off considerably in the second half of that year, and has maintained the same problems he’s been cited for time and again since 2010. Lack of plate discipline, inability to hit or get on base once he’s down to two strikes in the count, failure to hit to left field, inability to handle off speed pitches, inability to hit left-handed pitching. All these factors have gotten progressively worse, and the hope was that Howard’s injuries explained much of his woes.
The tips that Howard might have assimilated from Bonds were as potentially valuable as the tips that Jimmy Rollins absorbed from working during the off-season in early 2004 with the Padres’ great Tony Gwynn. Rollins took those lessons to heart and became a very effective offensive weapon in ’04 through ’08. But then the self-absorbed Jimmy returned, and progressively regressed to the same “it’s all about me” attitude that plagues Howard.
All of this gets magnified of course because Howard is “The Big Piece”. The bigger the piece the higher the stakes — that’s just the way it goes in professional sports. Though Howard clearly had some glory years, he appears to be going the way of Lindros, Iverson, and McNabb – the three icons in the other three major sports who never fulfilled their potential to be great rather than very good. And when you’re the designated Big Piece, greatness – however you achieve and maintain it – is what you owe the fans. Howard’s manager knows a thing or two about that.
Sandberg’s message to J-Roll to hustle at all times has been played out publicly, but his message to Howard has been more subtle. Today, in the spring training game at Bradenton vs. the Pirates, Ryan Howard has – for the second time this spring – been in the 5th spot in the order instead of the cleanup spot. Last time it was Marlon Byrd as a RH bat splitting Utley and Howard. Today it is Chooch in the cleanup spot splitting the two lefties. No doubt Sandberg will say he is just experimenting with alternating R/L as opposed to Charlie Manuel who had Howard enshrined in the cleanup spot. There is however a veiled message here. Will Howard heed it? If he does, and does the things that make him great, new bonds will be forged all around.