Jimmy Piersall’s Raw and Memorable Coaching

New York Times
June 9, 2017
by Doug Glanville


Sometimes he would hide in orange groves near the ball field to make sure we were “executing.”

The longtime major-league outfielder Jimmy Piersall died last week in Wheaton, Ill. To many, he was a talented and eccentric All-Star from another era who ran the bases backward after his 100th home run. Others knew him from the book and the movie about his struggles with mental illness (“Fear Strikes Out”). To me, he was a coach, one of the most influential of my career.
I signed my first professional contract in July 1991, which sent me to the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league affiliate in Geneva, N.Y. Piersall was then the Cubs’ “roving” outfield instructor and would traverse the team’s minor-league cities, teaching the young players for a few days at a stretch.
The first time he came to Geneva, we had an outfield practice before a game. I strolled outside to meet him and my fellow outfielders right on time. Lesson No. 1 was reduced to a stark and cutting remark he hurled at me:
“Being on time … is five minutes late!”
For the first year, we were oil and water. If one oversimplifies, this was to be expected. Piersall, old-school Caucasian male, 40 years my senior, son of a struggling house painter, signed out of high school, battling mental illness his entire life. Glanville, African-American Ivy League engineer, son of a psychiatrist and a teacher, silver-spoon first-round draft pick from suburban, well-integrated Teaneck, N.J.
It didn’t help that I took one of our lunch breaks during spring training to call the University of Pennsylvania to enroll in the following semester’s classes. He screamed me off the phone with a profanity-laced tirade that probably scared the entire engineering school at the other end of the line.
Then something divine happened to bring us together. I took a swing during a game and felt a shooting pain down my arm. For several weeks I was allowed to do only some basic outfield drills. I worked religiously with Jimmy and he changed his mind about me. He saw work ethic, good listening skills, trust and determination that ran counter to my yearlong reputation of being too casual and overly analytical.
And poof, like that, he became a loyal advocate. In his eyes, according to Jerome Holtzman in The Chicago Tribune, I went from “a hotshot college kid, an All-American. He didn’t have the discipline to become a professional” to “If he played center field, he could become the best center fielder in the National League” by the end of my rookie year in the big leagues.
For decades, Piersall never wavered. As a major leaguer, I had become his example to follow instead of being made an example. As he migrated from the field to on-air analysis in Chicago, he was a cheerleader for my career. Anytime he had a chance to speak publicly about my development, he seemed to beam with enthusiasm. I was proud because I knew how far I had to come to earn his respect. But the respect was reciprocal. I had learned the side of him that loved to teach, cared about excellence, and was honest and fair, even though he would never relent on his expectations or filter his words.
Several years ago, I worked on a task force with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, and if there was one stark revelation in our final report, it was that coaches have even more influence on children than their parents. The opinion, the expectation, the love, the expression of equity from a coach, all are critical to a young person’s sense of self. As parents, we put our children in their hands — so they need to be hands that deeply care about our child’s well-being.
Even when I put on the major-league uniform of the Chicago Cubs, I was still a child in some regards, thrust into a world of money, fame and business, independent but with a career clock strapped on my back. A major-league manager does not have time to engage every single player every single day on every single issue he faces, so coaches hold tremendous sway over how we mature in that environment. Managers have other obligations that tear them in many directions. They are C.E.O.s in pinstripes and have to trust a staff of specialized experts not only to teach the nuances of each position with precision but also to help with the emotional and mental balance a young athlete needs in order to endure.
Every day I worked with Piersall, my fundamentals sharpened because I trusted his expertise wholly. Decades later, as a parent, I’m doing some Little League coaching of my own, and I understood how incredibly rewarding it is to receive a lump of raw talent that you shape, paint and shine with the education and experience of time. This is more special in baseball, a game that is uniquely held together by a fragile but taut generational thread of history.
From Jimmy I learned angles and ballistics, footwork and strategy, reacting to the sound of the bat and the cut of the grass, communication among outfielders, even down to what kind of glove to use. And maybe most important, how to be mentally and physically prepared on every pitch. As he would say, “You have to react like every ball is hit to you.”
And he would make sure you were doing it, sometimes hiding in the orange groves of the Angels’ Gene Autry Park or in the giant tower overseeing Fitch Park in the Cubs’ minor-league camp in Mesa, Ariz., during games. My fellow outfielders and I always scanned the landscape looking for Piersall before a game, but we would often learn where he was the hard way: We’d make a mental error during the game and hear his agitated voice echoing off the clouds.
We all knew that not “leaning” in some direction as the ball entered the hitter’s zone was a form of treason. If you did not execute, he would come out of nowhere, fungo bat in hand, stomping out vegetation along his laser-straight path to you, all while rattling off a blend of choice words and insightful teaching points. He’d mock our ridiculous lollygagging by running in slow motion. He was the only coach I came across who hated it when you hit a home run (if you had a skinny or diminutive stature): “You get home-run happy!” he would exclaim. “Then it ruins your swing.”
Embedded in the ecosystem of professional baseball is a teaching hierarchy. At its most fundamental level, it is led by the manager and his coaches. A player may have arrived with a foundational understanding of the game, but it is the organization’s tutelage that teaches him how to thrive in the system.
At its core are those committed field teachers who spend hours at the park before you get there and hours after you leave figuring out how to convey a message that reaches the players. And each player is different. Piersall found joy in this challenge, which is why it stung him so much when the Cubs let him go in 1999, for reasons Piersall and the team were at odds about. After his departure, he told Barry Rozner of The Daily Herald, “It just hurts because I still felt like I could help kids ... that was the best part of my day.”
When teaching resonates with a pupil, it becomes a space that knows no color, no race, no religion, no status, no hierarchy. It is musical. It is connecting with someone at such a level that they can embrace the common language you share. It is why two men with diametrically opposed backgrounds ignored the wedge that could have been conveniently driven between them to hone a craft that we both loved.
Thank you, Jimmy, for all that you imparted to me. I am now always five minutes early, and forever grateful that I didn’t miss your train.
Republished from The New York Times
Photo: Jimmy Piersall (34) celebrating the 100th homer of his career by circling the bases backward. 
Photo Credit: Associated Press



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