After finishing 13th in the American League in hitting last year, the Chicago White Sox now begin each day in shackles. Look inside the batting cages and there are young men with bats in their hands and black and yellow chains on their feet.
Cruel and unusual punishment for an off year at the plate? Cruel, no. Unusual, yes. What appear to be medieval torture devices strapped around the ankles of the Sox are actually Stride Tutors, a hitting aid invented by Chicago centerfielder Dave Gallagher to correct flaws in a batter's stride. Judging by Gallagher's personal strides—last season, after eight years in the minors, he hit .303 for Chicago and finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting—the thing really works.
In 1986, his seventh year in the bushes, Gallagher concluded that the reason he kept tripping up on his way to the majors was his own two feet. "I decided there was too much inconsistency in my stride," he says. "I was jumping at the ball, throwing my balance off. I figured that if I could control my feet, the rest of my body would follow suit. I thought, Why not just put something there to control them?" During the off-season back home in Trenton, N.J., Gallagher went to a hardware store and began to experiment. First he tried bungee cord, then metal chain before settling on plastic chain. At each end of the chain, he attached skirt belting he had found in his mother-in-law's sewing basket. By looping the belting around each ankle and adjusting the length of the chain, Gallagher found that his invention inhibited his overstriding. Eureka!
Gallagher's first application for a patent was rejected. The Patent and Trademark Office determined that the Stride Tutor was too much like a cow hobble and like the footcuffs worn by prisoners on a chain gang. After studying the patent laws, he reworked his application and in December 1987 was finally granted a patent.
Gallagher immediately began using the device in batting practice, but his career remained mired in Triple A Calgary in the Seattle Mariners' system. On Aug. 15, 1987, hitting over .300, he quit baseball and went home to sell his Stride Tutors full time. A phone call from the White Sox that winter persuaded him to give the game one last chance. He reported to Vancouver and was hitting .366 for the Canadians when Chicago called him up on May 13. Within two months, he was the Sox's regular centerfielder, and he has been ever since.
Even without chains, the 28-year-old Gallagher is burdened by leaden feet—he's undoubtedly the slowest centerfielder in the majors—and his lack of dash has made him one of baseball's least-known young stars. Though he didn't make an error in his first 110 games and began this year with a 14-game hitting streak, he hasn't exactly made headlines. "If [California centerfielder] Devon White goes oh for 5, you'll still notice him," says Gallagher. "I can blend in with the best of them."
"Dave's not flashy; he's not going to impress you in one day," says Sox infielder Jeff Schaefer. "But you watch him for a while and you'll see that he's one of the most consistent players in the game."
And while his career is blooming, business is booming. Gallagher sold some 5,000 Stride Tutors—at $16.95 a pop—by mail order in 1988 and may triple that this year. His advertising is aimed at young players. "It would be presumptuous for me to try to teach major leaguers to hit," he says. Yet a number of established stars, like the Twins' Kirby Puckett and the Indians' Cory Snyder, have Stride Tutors, and the Milwaukee Brewers recently ordered a dozen of them.
White Sox lockers, of course, are cluttered with them. The Stride Tutors, coupled with the wisdom of new Chicago batting coach Walt Hriniak, may explain why the White Sox team batting average is currently 42 points higher than it was at this time last year. As Chicago outfielder Daryl Boston says, "Just let the Stride be your guide."