tampabay.com

He's no talk, all action

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 21, 2006


"George Hendrick is probably one of the best clubhouse coaches I've ever been around. He is universally liked by every baseball player or person who's ever been affiliated with him. He's very introspective and bright. He's very straightforward and honest. And he's also a lot of fun. George is a wonderful man and I really enjoy being around him."

- Rays manager Joe Maddon on new first base/outfield coach George Hendrick Everybody's talking about George.

They talk about his baseball knowledge, his funny stories and his upbeat locker room presence. They talk about his dedication, his friendly manner and his knack for communicating with Rays players.

But there's just one catch. George isn't talking.

At least, not to inquiring media members. Not now. Not in the '90s, the '80s or most of the '70s. Not if you want to ask him anything about himself.

"Nah, it's just not my thing," he tells a reporter. Then he smiles, pats the reporter on the shoulder - as if a polite acknowledgment of the failed attempt - and disappears into the coach's office.

As brushoffs go, this is the work of a seasoned pro; the work of the man once dubbed Silent George.

He earned the nickname in the media early in his 18 years as a standout player with six clubs and 13 as a major- and minor-league coach for five.

He has always been immensely popular with players, coaches and fans. But he has also gotten plenty of practice not talking to the press, becoming, in fact, one of the all-time greats.

It's curious, George.

Even the Sultan of Silence, surly southpaw great Steve Carlton of the Phillies, ended years of keeping mum with the media upon his release in '86 when he publicly explained his reasons and thanked the fans.

But with rare exceptions, the lanky, 56-year-old coach appears in no rush to end the hush.

So try as you might. George isn't talking.

"I had an opportunity to play against him. And I always like to tell this story. I was struggling on hitting the inside pitch and I went up to George one time, right before we were getting ready to play, and I told him, "Man, I can't get to this pitcher.' He asked what I was doing and I said "I'm looking for it.' He said, "That's your mistake.' He told me to look at the middle (of the plate) and away and react then. After that, it just took off. And I still use that with my teaching." - Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson There's no mystery about his accomplishments.

He was a four-time All-Star outfielder (1974, '75, '80, '83) and earned World Series rings with Oakland in '72 and St. Louis in '82 (getting nine hits to bat .321).

He drove in 109 runs and hit 25 homers with the Cardinals in 1980, and he finished fourth in the NL in 1983 with a .318 average and added 97 RBIs.

He didn't play sports at Fremont High School in Oakland, but he still became the Athletics' No. 1 pick in the January phase of the 1968 draft.

He was named in 2001 to the roster of the 100 Greatest Cleveland Indians of all time.

He spent 2005 as the Dodgers' minor-league hitting instructor, after two years as hitting coach in Las Vegas.

And, lest anyone forget, he is credited with starting a major trend: wearing his uniform pants to extend to the top of his shoes.

It's still the talk of baseball's fashion game.

"He's got a lot of stories, and keeps everybody loose around the clubhouse; just a good guy to have around so you can ask questions. He's a real positive presence. And everybody's been enjoying him." - Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford He used to have no qualms talking to the press.

He talked openly in Oakland, where he played his first two seasons in 1971 and 1972. He talked when he arrived in Cleveland in 1973. But that year, his first of four with the Indians, something happened.

By some accounts, Hendrick got the feeling that the veterans on the team resented him talking too much about himself, so he stopped altogether.

But when asked what happened in 2003 by the Las Vegas Sun, while serving as a Triple-A hitting instructor in Vegas, he briefly mentioned a different story that has made the rounds.

The gist: He didn't like the way comments he made about an Indians teammate were handled in a newspaper story. He said it made him appear critical of the player and didn't convey what he meant, forcing him to defend himself the rest of the season.

So he decided not to talk to the media again.

Longtime national baseball writer Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered Hendrick during his tenure with the Cardinals from 1978-84. "George actually stopped talking publicly in Cleveland, so he basically was unquotable by the time he got to St. Louis through San Diego," Hummel recalls.

But the writer developed a rapport with the ballplayer over time, and there were a few occasions when Hendrick did talk to Hummel for attribution, "when he felt there were situations the fans needed to know about. But most of the time, almost universally, it was "no.' "

Still, they eventually had many conversations not for print, often about Hendrick's passion for pro basketball, and his son's pro basketball career overseas.

"He's just a very delightful, charming, intelligent fellow and I relish every time I get to see him," Hummel says. "People think because he doesn't speak publicly that he's this rude ogre. But he's as gentle and kind a person as you'd ever want to meet."

Hummel has a favorite story about Hendrick. On June 7, 1983, Carlton was facing the Cards, trying to move ahead of Nolan Ryan as baseball's most prolific strikeout artist at the time. Hendrick quietly assured Hummel that he would not be the victim.

Carlton was one away from the milestone, recalls Hummel, when Hendrick stepped to the plate: "He parked it in the second deck for a home run; and when I saw him in the clubhouse after the game, he just nodded and smiled at me."

His bat had done the talking just fine.

"He's awesome. I didn't really know much about the guy before he came here, but he's a player's coach. It's good to have a guy on your side like that who went through the same thing we're going through now. It's just great to have him around. He's real good at teaching the way that you'll learn. He's a fun guy and has great stories." - Rays rightfielder Jonny Gomes During games, you can't miss the 6-3, 215-pound coach beside first base. He waves his arms and gestures energetically and is nothing if not demonstrative.

As the Rays' outfield coach, his style is meticulous and methodical. On a recent Sunday morning, he is busy hitting line drives to the rightfield corner to give Nick Green some pregame practice.

"Don't rush it, get the ball first," he calls to Green, who fields the balls and fires them to second.

The coach studies Green's technique, offers some more tips, confers with third-base coach Tom Foley and heads back to the locker.

Inside, a reporter tries a different technique to draw him out, telling him that people on the team are saying awfully nice things about him.

"I got 'em all fooled, no doubt about it," he says, smiling, then heads into the coach's office.

George still isn't talking.