As a kid growing up in south-suburban Chicago, Jesse Barfield was too capable a ballplayer to sit on the bench. But the Seattle Mariners’ new hitting instructor extends no apologies for the way he rode the fence.
“I was a fan of the Cubs and the White Sox,” Barfield said. “They said you couldn’t be both, but I didn’t care.”
The Cubs of Barfield’s childhood had three Hall of Famers on the same team: The irrepressible Ernie Banks (“my hero”), batting technician Billy Williams and ironman pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. The White Sox countered with the gifted and eccentric Dick Allen, a sort of Albert Belle for Beginners.
It is a century-long Chicago tradition that kids make a pledge of allegiance to one team or the other. But Barfield never had the heart to root against anybody. He was too busy dreaming big dreams.
“I was at Comiskey Park once with a friend,” Barfield said, “and I pointed to the field, and told him, ‘I’ll be out there one day.’
“I played my first big-league game right there on that field.”
During his distinguished 13-year career with the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees, Barfield never lost his reverence for the diamond. In 1989, the veteran’s geewhiz attitude caught the eye of Lou Piniella, who had been shifted out of George Steinbrenner’s front office that season and placed in the Yanks’ broadcast booth.
“I was impressed with his play on the field,” Piniella recalled, “and his comprehension for being a total package. I’m talking about helping in the clubhouse, and being an example for the rest of the kids. I was impressed with Jesse’s knowledge and, especially, his enthusiasm. The knowledge you can acquire. But the enthusiasm he has - the love he shows for the game - that’s something you can’t teach.”
Still, it’s impossible to make a good living in baseball as a cheerleader (unless, perhaps, your name is Tommy Lasorda). It is Barfield’s talent for putting arcane technique pointers into upbeat pep talks that made him an obvious choice to succeed retiring Lee Elia.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Barfield, 38, pronounced at the Mariners’ annual pre-spring media luncheon. “I’ve always said I’d love to see what I can do with some horses. I got my wish.”
The horses Barfield inherits sprinted to the regular-season finish line first last year, only to go limp against Baltimore Orioles ace Mike Mussina in the playoffs. Seattle’s inability to manufacture the occasional run was its doom. To his delight, Piniella discovered that Barfield not only was familiar with the problem, but he offered a solution.
“The main thing I bring,” Barfield said, “is a solid situational-hitting plan.”
In shorthand: When somebody such as Mussina is working the outside corner, the batter must be in a position to drive the ball to the opposite field. The sweet spot on the wood still is there; putting it to use requires a confluence of timing and rhythm.
Barfield was a solid all-around right fielder who in 1986 led the A.L. in homers with 40. But he actually was regarded more for a splendid arm - he led the league in outfield assists five times - than his prowess as a contact hitter. But as he got older, the idea of imparting the philosophies of former coaches and teammates appealed to him.
“I’ll never forget a night Don Mattingly hit five balls on the screws, hard,” said Barfield. “He signed up for early hitting practice the next day. I asked him, ‘Donnie, what’re you doing hitting early in the morning?’ And he said, ‘Jesse, something just doesn’t feel right.
“I thought, that’s why you’re Don Mattingly.”