Waiting Game Coming to bat cold and chafing at their second-string status, pinch hitters often must make the most of one big swing

June 24, 2001

It's 3 P.M. on a May afternoon at Veterans Stadium in
Philadelphia, an hour before batting practice, four hours before
the Phillies will take the field to play the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Where are Jordan and Ducey?" somebody asks in a nearly empty
Philadelphia clubhouse.

"Where do you think?" answers an attendant. "Down in the cage."

To be a pinch hitter, the job being performed by Kevin Jordan,
Rob Ducey and a host of other anonymous practitioners of this
sweaty-palmed, knock-kneed art, is to be a member of baseball's
Breakfast Club. Talk to a major league pinch hitter, and he'll
offer a version of this sentiment: "As a pinch hitter you have to
work twice as hard as a regular player."

Pinch hitters sneak in extra licks whenever they can because they
get only one at bat per game. They take extra fielding practice
because, on occasions when they remain in the game after
pinch-hitting, they could be asked to fill in at one of several
positions. (During his seven-year career Jordan has played every
infield spot except shortstop, and 13-year veteran Ducey has
manned each outfield position.) They track every pitch because an
opportunity to bat, if it comes at all, may present itself
unexpectedly. All the while they hope against hope that no matter
how well they perform in this role, one fine day they will be
released from it.

Or they might be just plain released. When second-division teams
start to trim their rosters, pinch hitters are usually the first
to go, and even contenders treat them like pawns in a chess game.
Witness the National League East-leading Phillies, who on June 6
gave Ducey his walking papers to make room for a power hitter
from the minors; six days later Ducey hooked on with the
division's last-place club, the Montreal Expos. Philadelphia's
move surprised Ducey only slightly. Even when he contributed four
pinch hits as the Phillies amassed a .297 pinch-hitting average
(way above the league's average of .218 and second to the Atlanta
Braves' .315), Ducey admitted he pored over box scores, paying
particular attention to what other lefthanded-hitting reserves
were doing. "When you're a 36-year-old bench guy like I am," he
says, "you have to know what's out there."

What's out there is a cocktail of sweat and adrenaline, mixed in
a tall shaker of obscurity. "When you're playing Wiffle ball in
the park," says outfielder David Dellucci, one of a fearsome
foursome of Arizona Diamondbacks pinch hitters, "do you ever hear
anyone say, 'Hey, I want to be the pinch hitter'? It's a role
that no one wants."

Then, too, the pay isn't spectacular, at least by the standards
of pro sports. On an inflated New York Mets 2001 payroll,
utilityman Lenny Harris, a 14-year veteran whose 142 career pinch
hits through Sunday placed him eight from tying Manny Mota as
baseball's alltime leader in the category, is earning $1.1
million. The highest-paid pinch hitter, at $1.5 million, is
Arizona's Greg Colbrunn. He's been in the majors for 10 years and
was a regular first baseman for the Florida Marlins in 1995 and
'96.

A pinch hitter is like a field goal kicker: He's often asked to
help his team in a make-or-break situation. Pinch hitters,
though, also have to be capable in the field. "That's why pinch
hitters fade in and out pretty quick," says Phillies bench coach
Greg Gross, a superb pinch hitter in his playing days (143 pinch
hits, third on the alltime list, during a career that lasted from
1973 through '89). With most teams carrying 11 or 12 pitchers
now, Gross adds, "they don't have the luxury of keeping someone
around who can't take the field."

The first pinch hitter is believed to have been Cleveland Spiders
catcher Jack Doyle, who was sent up to hit for pitcher George
Davies in a game against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1892. He
singled, and thus was born an art. The names of the great pinch
hitters, cold-blooded creatures who thrived under the pressure of
the late-inning at bat, hold a mystical place in baseball
history. There was Moose McCormick of John McGraw's New York
Giants, who used to hold up the game for three minutes while a
trainer massaged his legs, and Frenchy Bordagaray, a grandly
mustachioed Brooklyn Dodger. They were followed by, among others,
Dusty Rhodes, who made his name with the New York Giants; Jerry
Lynch of the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals; Smoky
Burgess of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago White Sox;
Gates Brown of the Detroit Tigers; George Crowe of the Cardinals;
Dave Philley of--who else?--the Phillies (and the Baltimore
Orioles); and Rusty Staub of the Mets.

The patriarch of pinch hitting is Mota, now a Los Angeles Dodgers
coach and mentor to the Dodgers' crack pinch hitter, Dave Hansen.
"When I stood up there as a pinch hitter, I honestly believed I
was the best hitter in the game," says Mota, who claims never to
have taken a called third strike as a pinch hitter in his 20 big
league seasons. "That's the only attitude to have."

The art of pinch hitting isn't as celebrated--or as necessary--as
it used to be, especially in the American League, where the DH is
a kind of full-time pinch hitter. (National League teams used an
average of 261 pinch hitters last season, compared with only 114
for American League clubs.) Nonetheless, a number of players
still excel at this perilous pursuit.

What little limelight is being directed at pinch hitters this
year is falling mostly on Harris (12 for 37 as a pinch hitter
through Sunday) as he pursues Mota's mark. Last year Hansen (103
career pinch hits) got the attention when he established a
single-season record with seven pinch-hit home runs. "I promise
you they were seven singles that happened to go out," says
Hansen. "No pinch hitter can deliver home runs on demand." This
year Hansen has been hampered by a broken left middle finger
suffered in spring training, and through Sunday he was only 2 for
10. Two other good men in the pinch have been the Phillies'
Jordan, who was hitting .400 (6 for 15, with a homer and five
RBIs), and Chicago Cubs first baseman Julio Zuleta, who was
batting .350 (7 for 20), with three homers and 13 RBIs.

The Diamondbacks have the major leagues' highest PH level.
Indeed, they present what amounts to a 13-man lineup these days.
First baseman Erubiel Durazo ("the shiniest tool in the box," as
manager Bob Brenly puts it) blasted four pinch-hit home runs in
April; through Sunday he had run that total to five and was
batting .435 in the pinch. Dellucci was at .300 with two homers,
and Danny Bautista, a part-time outfielder, was at .364 with one
homer. The only Arizona pinch hitter who isn't tearing it up is
Colbrunn, the one who was considered the most reliable at the
start of the season. Before going on the disabled list on June 6
with a bruised right knee, Colbrunn was 1 for 18 as a pinch
hitter; the one hit, however, was a home run. The four pinchmen,
who last season wore T-shirts proclaiming themselves THE
STUNTMEN, are seeking a new moniker this year--the Four Amigos?
Four Diamond(backs) in the Rough? Four Guys Who Would Rather Be
Playing Regularly?

Arizona's pinch-hitting scheme is fairly set. "If we need a pinch
hitter leading off an inning, it's going to be either, depending
on who's pitching, Dellucci [a lefthanded hitter] or Bautista
[righthanded]," says Brenly. "If we have runners in scoring
position, and a home run or an extra-base hit won't tie it or win
it, it's probably going to be Dellucci. If I need a home run or
an extra-base hit, it's going to be Durazo [a lefty] or Colbrunn
[a righty]." Brenly admits that when Durazo kept going yard in
April he factored that into his strategy. "It got to where I was
going to save him until a home run would tie it or give us the
lead," says Brenly. "That's how specialized it became."

Not that Brenly is complaining, but late in a tight game he does
have to consider more options than most managers. During the
pregame he scrutinizes the makeup of the opposition's bullpen.
"If the other team's got two or three lefty relievers available,
it's going to be hard for me to get Durazo in the game against a
righthanded pitcher," says Brenly. So against the Braves early in
the season, Brenly used Durazo as a pinch hitter in the fourth
inning against righthanded reliever Jason Marquis, and Durazo
responded with a sacrifice fly.

Pinch hitters would prefer that their managers spend time
figuring out how to get them into the regular lineup. Those who
become regular players are rather like community-theater
thespians who get plucked for Broadway. They are the envy of
their erstwhile fraternity brothers, a status currently being
enjoyed by Pirates rightfielder John Vander Wal, who over the
years has fretted about being used mainly as a pinch hitter, and
San Diego Padres rightfielder Bubba Trammell, who recently
proclaimed pinch hitting to be "the hardest thing I ever did." A
number of great hitters might concur. Ty Cobb batted .367 for his
career, .217 in the pinch; George Brett, with a .305 career
average, was at .219 as a pinch hitter; and five-time batting
champion Wade Boggs's numbers were .328 and .207, respectively.

Pinch hitters say that the most difficult aspect of the job is
overcoming an inferiority complex: If you're by definition a
pinch hitter, you're by definition not good enough to be a
regular, and that gnaws at you. "Many players who are given a
pinch-hitting role won't accept it," says Gross. "They end up
sabotaging themselves."

Hansen agrees. "About three years ago [when he was with the
Cubs], it came to me that pinch hitting was why I was up here,"
says Hansen, who has played all the infield positions and in the
outfield during his 11-season career. "I decided to release all
that hardheadedness. I was mad about not being an every-day
player instead of accepting the fact that I could be a major
league player as a pinch hitter. That's when I started to get
good at it."

Pinch hitters estimate that they face a closer 90% of the time.
Moreover, they're coming in cold against that 95-mph fastball or
wicked splitter. They'll take a walk, but in the typical
pinch-hit situation it's not as if the hitter has the luxury to
work the count. "Athletes live for the excitement and the
adrenaline," says Hansen, "but, man, when you consider the
typical pinch-hitting situation--ninth inning, men on base, closer
on the mound, game on the line--sometimes you get a little bit
more than you need."

Further, Vander Wal (116 pinch hits and 16 pinch homers, the most
among active players) has a theory that a pinch hitter gets only
one good pitch to hit per at bat, which means one good pitch per
game. Colbrunn agrees. "You take or foul off that one pitch," he
says, "and you've got an uphill battle."

Dellucci believes the most difficult facet of pinch hitting is
that your chances are few and far between. (The season record for
pinch-hit plate appearances is 94, set by Staub in 1983.) "If you
don't drive in a runner or move a guy along," says Dellucci,
"maybe you don't get another chance to redeem yourself for three
or four games. So it sits with you."

Gross used to play a mental game with himself. "I got about 50
pinch-hit at bats per season, so I'd chop them into five
'seasons,'" says Gross. "If I was, say, 0 for 9, I'd want to get
the 10th real quick. It was like, O.K., thank God that's over
with. Now I can start a new season."

Here's another fear, one that may be unique to pinch hitters:
They worry about becoming too good at what they do. "If you do it
successfully, then you're thought of as just a pinch hitter,"
says Dellucci. "That's the worst thing that can happen."

Pinch hitters fill their days and nights with routine. "Surprise
is the enemy of the pinch hitter," says Hansen. "[You're always
asking] Who's in the pen that day? How's he been throwing? What's
my likelihood of seeing him? I learned more about the intricacies
of baseball when I became a pinch hitter than I did as a
regular."

In the third inning Durazo will go either to the batting cage to
hit off a tee or to the locker room to swing in front of a
mirror. Colbrunn and Bautista usually join him, and Durazo picks
their brains for pointers about opposing pitchers. Dellucci likes
to jump on the stationary bike in the fourth inning, pedaling
away while he watches the game on the clubhouse TV. "One thing
you worry about is getting up there, getting a hit and then
pulling a muscle because you've been sitting around," says
Harris, who also rides the bike during games. As with the
Diamondbacks' pinch hitters, Jordan often finds himself in the
locker room, stretching and swinging. He takes a lot of what he
calls "dry swings" or "shadow swings," getting the timing down on
his compact stroke.

With all that peripateticism during the game--Gross had a rule
that he never sat still for longer than a half inning--one might
think pinch-hitting lore is rich with stories of pinch hitters
sneaking in a quick hand of clubhouse rummy or being in the
middle of relieving themselves when the call comes. Forget it.
Unlike closers, their late-game counterparts, pinch hitters tend
not to be flakes. Most of them got the job precisely because they
are, first, disciplined, studious hitters and, second, desperate
to stay in the bigs and know they can't afford to blow a single
opportunity. "I didn't want to become a pinch hitter," says the
27-year-old Durazo, who was a regular as a rookie in 1999 but now
sits behind Mark Grace, "but they know I'll do anything to stay
here."

There have been pinch-hit surprises over the years. In the 1960
World Series, New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel sent Dale
Long up to bat for third baseman Clete Boyer in the second inning
of Game 1. Long flied out, and the Yanks were without Boyer, a
sterling gloveman, for the rest of the game, which they lost 6-4.

The lefthanded-hitting Gross recalls the night in '79 when
Phillies skipper Danny Ozark had him hit for righthanded-batting
cleanup man Greg (the Bull) Luzinski with the bases loaded.
"Other than my first at bat in the majors, it was the most
nervous I had ever been," says Gross, who delivered a sacrifice
fly. What was the Bull's reaction? "I can't say because I stayed
away from him," says Gross. "Pinch hitters, you see, can't get
too cocky."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEY TERRILL Desert storm Arizona's bench bunch--(from left) Durazo, Colbrunn, Bautista and Dellucci--has packed pop with nine pinch homers. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Stay loose While awaiting the call, the Phillies' versatile Jordan repairs to the locker room, where he gets in a few "dry swings."
B/W PHOTO: JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN Old Smoky Only Mota had more hits off the bench (150) than the reliable Burgess (here as a Pirate in 1960), who banged out 145. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO

Dirty Half Dozen

THE METS' lefthanded-hitting Lenny Harris (right), a 14-year
veteran and the career leader in pinch hits among active major
league players, lists the six nastiest pitches to put into play
when coming off the bench.

1. Indians righty closer Bob Wickman's slider. "It's hard to pick up
out of his delivery," Harris says. "He hides it well, so you have
almost no time to react."

2. Padres righty closer Trevor Hoffman's changeup. "I'm always
geared up when I pinch-hit. I want the fastball. But this guy's
changeup looks just like his fastball."

3. Giants righty closer Robb Nen's slider. "His fastball is deadly.
Then you get the ball with rotation and the bend in it. You look
up and see the scoreboard calls it a slider--but it's going 97
[mph]. Damn!"

4. Astros lefty closer Billy Wagner's fastball. "Straight gas. I
admire that: 'Here it is. Hit it.'"

5. White Sox righty setup man Antonio Osuna's cutter. "I'm not sure
what it is or what he calls it: cutter, slider, fastball. I call
it a tough pitch to get the head of the bat out on."

6. Mets lefty setup man John Franco's sinker. "The ball dies before
you get to whack it. What's more, he never gives you anything on
the plate."

"Playing Wiffle ball, do you ever hear anyone say, 'Hey, I want
to be the pinch hitter'?"

"Many players who are given a pinch-hitting role won't accept
it," says Gross.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)