The leader of the hit squad
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 1999
It's early. Hours before game time. And the cameras already are rolling.
This is batting practice at Al Lang Field. A time most fans have yet to arrive and most players are in a casual mode.
New Tampa Bay hitting coach Leon Roberts, meanwhile, is preparing for the season, anticipating slumps that have yet to arrive. By his request, video cameras are capturing players as they take their morning cuts in batting practice.
"I like to video BP because that's when you see their natural swing," Roberts said. "No pressure, the scoreboard is not on, the pitcher is not out there trying to eat the guy's lunch. The hitter's not worried about going 2-for-4 or going after a curveball in the dirt or a fastball on their fists.
"I want a tape of that natural swing because once that scoreboard comes on, things can change in a hurry."
This is how Roberts, 48, figures he can help the Devil Rays. Make a difference, as he says. Not by making wholesale changes. Not by offering unwelcome advice. Instead, he said, he wants to be prepared when players need his counsel.
When the slumps arrive and the hitters are perplexed, he'll have the tools to help.
"I've had guys in the past say, "I don't do that.' I'll tell them, "I have you on video from last week, Joe. This is what you're doing, that's your number on your back,' " Roberts said. "That's why I'm taping, to show them what they think they feel isn't always what they're actually doing."
It may sound a little high tech or new age, but it's actually a simple way to accomplish a hitting coach's ultimate job:
To help hitters help themselves.
"At the big-league level, everyone can hit," Rays outfielder Bubba Trammell said. "You don't want to change a lot once you get here because you wouldn't be here if you couldn't hit. A hitting coach will just let you know what he sees. (Roberts) has been easy to talk to. He'll throw things at you to think about."
Roberts, who had an 11-year major-league career as an outfielder, has spent the past 14 years learning the nuances of hitting as an instructor.
Yet, for all the knowledge he has compiled, his biggest contributions may be less than technical.
Though he has noted hitting strokes all spring, Roberts also has observed personalities. Deciding which hitters might need to be pushed. Which hitters might need to be encouraged. Which might need both at different times.
"Whether I'm being sarcastic or challenging them by raising my voice or patting them on the back in support, I have to figure out how to push them," Roberts said. "You almost need to be part psychiatrist. You have to feel when you need to be easy or when you need to be hard."
The Devil Rays' offense could use a push. The Devil Rays scored fewer runs than any team in 1998. That's not a shock considering the Rays were an expansion team, but they still had a number of veteran players turn in subpar seasons.
When hitting instructor Steve Henderson was replaced by Roberts in the off-season, Tampa Bay officials went to great lengths to say the players were at fault for their poor performances, not the coach.
"Hitters have very temperamental psyches," catcher John Flaherty said. "We saw last year that guys get down and it's very hard to get back up. I don't think it comes down to technical stuff and changing swings, it's more making a guy believe he can hit when he's going bad.
"Leon has gone about it the right way. He's not jumping in headfirst saying, "This is the way to do it.' He's been very laid back early on."
Patience comes easier for a man who has put in a lot of time learning his craft. Roberts was a manager and coach in the Tigers and Braves farm systems after his playing days ended in 1985.
"If you work hard and keep staying positive, they'll eventually come find you if other people think you have what it takes to have an impact," Roberts said. "The phrase our skipper uses is to make a difference. So I'm planning to make some kind of difference."