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November 3, 2011 - John Mehno
There's always a debate about how much coaches can help a player.
A pitching coach in baseball is responsible for 12 players these days. The results are always going to be mixed. Some pitchers will make progress, some will regress. Some will stay the same. There are a lot of variables, including the player's ability, his aptitude, his work habits and his ability to translate the instruction to pressure situations.
Matty Alou was one player who was profoundly affected by his coach. Harry Walker became the manager of the Pirates in 1965, one year before the team acquired Alou from the San Francisco Giants. Alou had been a decent player for the Giants, compiling a .260 average in his years there. But Walker made him better. Walker got him to use a heavier bat and to focus on making contact and hitting to the opposite field. Walker knew that the speedy Alou would get his share of hits by just slapping at the ball and using the rock-hard infield at Forbes Field to chop down on the ball.
The result? Alou won a batting title in his first year with the Pirates, batting .342. In five years with the Pirates, he hit .327. He was a contact specialist who put the ball in play. In 3,224 plate appearances with the Pirates, he struck out only 165 times.
Alou played center field, and never was a great defensive player. The Pirates were playing in Chicago on Sept. 13, 1970. They were in the division race and appeared to be headed for a victory Steve Blass had a 2-1 lead, two out and the bases empty when Willie Smith hit an easy fly ball to center field. In the TV booth, Bob Prince called it, "A big old can of corn." Alou dropped the ball, and the error led to a rally that beat the Pirates 3-2. Their lead in the National League East was a half game.
They went to Philadelphia and won two games, part of a 12-5 finish that would let them win the division by five games. Alou was traded that winter, not because of the error, but because the Pirates had Al Oliver and Gene Clines ready to play center field and because Alou brought them Nellie Briles, a pitcher who would help them win a World Series in 1971.
Alou was one of those players in between the 1960 and '71 titles, so he was rarely back in Pittsburgh for reunions. But for five years, he was a productive hitter on some great offensive teams. Prior to winning the batting title here, Alou's claim to fame was playing in the same outfield with brothers Felipe and Jesus for the Giants in 1963.
One more Alou story. In 1965, Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was suspended for clubbing Dodgers catcher John Roseboro with his bat. The Giants had to play a man short during Marichal's suspension. They ran short of pitchers and needed someone to mop up a lost game on Aug. 26 at Forbes Field. The Giants were losing 8-0 and sent in Alou to pitch the eighth inning. In the only pitching appearance of his career, he threw a scoreless inning that ended when he struck out future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.
Matty Alou died earlier this week in Miami at the age of 72.