By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Even some of the most diehard Montreal Expos fans won’t remember Hal McRae’s 17-month tenure as the club’s hitting coach from January 1990 to May 1991, but you can bet that Larry Walker does.
In 1990, the Maple Ridge, B.C., native, then a prized young hitting prospect, was one of McRae’s pet projects after the Kansas City Royals legend started his new role with the Expos.
And at the beginning of spring training, thanks to a labour dispute that kept big league players out of camp, McRae and Walker could frequently be found working together.
“He talks, I listen,” Walker told the Montreal Gazette of his relationship with McRae that March. “The guys are going to like him. He makes you feel he knows what he’s talking about.”
McRae, who batted .290 and recorded 2,091 big league hits in a 19-year major league career, also lauded his young protege.
“I can’t believe how hard he [Walker] works,” McRae told The Gazette.
McRae said Walker was regularly taking 500 swings a day.
In fact, Walker and the wealth of promising young hitting prospects – a list that also included Delino DeShields, Marquis Grissom and Wil Cordero – in the Expos organization were a key reason McRae signed on with the club.
In the previous two years, McRae was a highly respected hitting instructor in the Pittsbugh Pirates organization and he was fielding several other offers when he decided to take the Expos job.
“I liked the way David [Dombrowski, Expos GM] approached me, the way he was a straight shooter,” McRae told The Gazette. “And I liked the challenge I saw in working with the young hitters.”
And the intense Florida native was never one to back down from a challenge.
McRae is best recalled as one of the American League’s top designated hitters of the 1970s and ’80s. With the Kansas City Royals from 1973 to 1987, McRae was known for his hard-nosed approach and when he wasn’t barrelling into a second baseman to break up a double play, he was putting up some impressive offensive numbers. He batted over .300 in a season six times, was named best DH three times, topped the American League in doubles twice and was a three-time All-Star.
McRae, who began his big league career with four seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, also competed in the post-season nine times and was the team leader on the Royals’ pennant-winning 1980 squad and their 1985 World Series-winning club.
And if you’re not old enough to remember McRae as a player, you can probably recall him as a fiery manager. In almost four seasons as the Royals skipper from 1991 to 1994, he posted a 286-277 record. During that time, he was also responsible for one of the most replayed manager meltdowns of all-time when he lost it on a group of reporters in a post-game scrum. You can watch the carnage here.
So with McRae’s memorable resume as both a player and manager, it’s no wonder many of us have no recollection of his tenure with the Expos.
From reviewing the Montreal Gazette archives over the past week, it’s clear that when McRae joined the Expos it was considered a major coup for the club.
“We think he’s just the man for the job,” Expos manager Buck Rodgers said at the press conference introducing McRae on January 4, 1990.
In the previous season, minor league lifer Joe Sparks had served as the club’s hitting coach and it didn’t go well. Some veterans felt Sparks, who had never played in the big leagues himself, tinkered too much with their swings.
“Joe Sparks was a manager who liked coaching hitting,” Rodgers told The Gazette towards the end of spring training. “Hal’s a bona fide hitting coach whose record as a player adds even more credibility.”
But McRae was also joining a team in transition. The Expos had gone all in in 1989, trading some of their prime pitching prospects – including Randy Johnson – to the Seattle Mariners for Mark Langston and then later parting with more prospects to acquire lefty Zane Smith from the Braves. Their gambles didn’t pan out and the Expos finished a disappointing 81-81 and in fourth place in the National League East.
In the off-season, the Expos watched three starting pitchers – Langston, Bryn Smith and Pascual Perez – depart via free agency, along with veteran infielder Hubie Brooks. This paved the way for a youth movement for the club.
Veterans Tim Wallach and Andres Galarraga were also coming off down seasons and McRae, who was given free rein with the hitters, hoped to get them back on track.
McRae’s approach to hitting was influenced by Charley Lau, his former Royals hitting coach. He believed that hitting was 75 per cent mental and 25 per cent mechanical.
McRae also believed in talking frequently with his hitters individually and he emphasized the importance of being patient and selective.
“I try to reinforce strong points and when a player makes a bad swing I want him to know why,” McRae told The Gazette in mid-May.
As noted earlier, a labour dispute initially kept the major league players out of camp, and that afforded McRae more time to work with prospects like Walker, DeShields and Grissom.
DeShields, then a heralded 21-year-old infielder heading into his first big league season, savoured his chance to work with McRae.
“The thing I like is that the man doesn’t mess with your mechanics,” DeShields told The Gazette. “With me, it’s more like he’s giving me situational tips – how he handled this kind of pitcher on that kind of count and how it might help me.”
When the labour dispute was settled and the big leaguers returned to camp, several of them quickly warmed to their new hitting instructor.
Wallach, who had hit .277 with just 13 home runs in 1989, particularly enjoyed hearing McRae’s ideas and input.
“He’s got me thinking situations up there,” Wallach told The Gazette two months into the regular season. “He doesn’t change your mechanics so much as he just gets you to concentrate on what you do best.”
Whatever advice McRae gave Wallach, it clearly worked. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee rebounded to bat .296 with 21 home runs and registered a career-best 185 hits in 1990.
Other than, perhaps, Walker, Galarraga is the player that McRae seemed to devote the most time to. McRae was convinced that the Expos first baseman, whose production had been down in the previous two seasons, could win a batting title if he could cut down on his strikeouts and exercise more patience at the plate.
Galarraga seemed to be listening to McRae early on. After he drew a walk that brought in the winning run in a comeback win over the Philadelphia Phillies on April 16, Galarraga gave credit to his new hitting coach.
“That was probably the best walk I’ve had as an Expo,” Galarraga told reporters after the game. “I’m just doing what [Hal McRae] wants me to do. I go to the plate comfortable, stay back and get good eyes on the ball. Last year I would have jumped on those two close pitches.”
But it doesn’t sound like The Big Cat and McRae were always on the same page. Just over two months later, an article in The Gazette is subtitled “Cat resisted McRae’s advice” and it indicates that Galarraga wasn’t always open to McRae’s suggestions.
“He [Galarraga] basically told Hal at the start of the year that the one thing he wouldn’t do was change his hands,” Rodgers told The Gazette. “The thing with that is the hands are the start of the swing. So what you’re basically saying to the guy is: ‘I don’t want you helping me with my swing.'”
For his part, Galarraga admitted he should’ve listened to McRae earlier.
“Hal’s the best guy I’ve had for hitting,” said Galarraga. “I haven’t been doing exactly what he wants, but I’m working hard.”
Meanwhile, McRae continued to work closely with Walker who understandably struggled at times during his rookie campaign. In early June, Rodgers was concerned that Walker was being overmatched by fastballs so he gave the Canadian slugger some time out of the lineup to get in some extra work with McRae.
Then, after the All-Star break, Walker slumped again when he began pulling off the ball. This, again, earned him more face time with McRae.
Walker finished his rookie campaign with a .241 batting average and 19 home runs and showed enough improvement for the Expos to be excited about his future.
But overall, the Expos’ offence improved only marginally under McRae. The team batting average rose from .247 in 1989 to .250 and they clubbed 14 more home runs and scored 30 more runs than the previous season. But keep in mind, McRae was focused largely on helping DeShields, Walker and Grissom in their first big league campaigns.
The team finished 85-77 and there was a sense of optimism surrounding the club when McRae returned to his post the following spring. But things never really got off the ground for the Expos, their offence or for McRae in 1991. When the Royals struggled and found themselves in last place in the American League West division in late May, they fired manager John Wathan and placed a call to McRae.
The Royals offered the Expos hitting coach a multi-year deal and McRae agreed to become their manager on May 24.
“Everyone is wishing me well,” said McRae of Expos players and coaches as he prepared to leave for his new position with the Royals. “This is a chance to move ahead. That’s what this game is all about.”
Grissom, then a 24-year-old centre fielder, didn’t want McRae to leave.
“He’s going to be missed just as much for his presence here as for the way he was as a batting coach,” Grissom told The Gazette. “I mean, he was such a smart man. He was one of those guys who had an answer for everything but could tell it to you without sounding like a know-it-all.”
And with that, McRae’s 17-month tenure in Montreal was over. He left the city to begin his career as a big league manager. He would serve as the Royals dugout boss for almost four seasons before he returned to being a hitting coach — first with the Cincinnati Reds (1995-97), then the Philadelphia Phillies (1997 to 2000) and finally with the Tampa Bay Rays (2001).
That same year, he got his second shot at managing when he took over for Larry Rothschild and managed the Rays for close to two seasons. In 2005, the St. Louis Cardinals hired him to be their hitting coach (where he was reunited with Walker). He served in that role for four campaigns before retiring.
These days, McRae is reportedly living in Bradenton, Fla., playing some golf and chasing his grand kids around.