Walt Hriniak stands with his elbows on the frame of the batting cage, his hands pressed to the sides of his face, and with squinty eyes, his hat pulled low, watches Sammy Sosa hit. An ancient yellow fielder’s glove is rolled and stuck in his back pocket, the way an absentminded professor might treat a stack of graded exams. He rises, moves a couple steps to his right, and squats, looking at the swing from a different angle. As Sosa lunges at a low pitch, it cracks off the bat, the sound echoing off the grandstand as the ball flies into right field. He ends up with the bat in his left hand, crooked back and behind his head, while he looks intently at the ground in front of home plate, like a man who’s just dropped some change into the gutter and is using an umbrella for balance as he stoops to pick it up. When Hriniak speaks, he speaks in clipped phrases, saying, “Hands down,” or, “Same way, like in a game,” or, “Don’t get too up and down with your legs.” Sosa swings, lines one into right field, and, when only silence follows the crack of the bat, he bounces slightly at the knees and says, “Let me know,” then looks out again at the pitcher.

After Sosa finishes his first series of swings, he circles the bases while another player hits, and after rounding third he comes around the cage and goes straight to Hriniak. Hriniak takes Sosa by the shoulders so that they’re facing one another, and he says, “When you fight, do you fight like that?” He raises his fists, straightens his legs, and rocks back on his heels. “No, you fight like that,” and he bends his knees and leans forward.

Hriniak is baseball’s reigning batting guru, a disciple of Charlie Lau, the hitting instructor for the 1983 division-winning White Sox. Both were light-hitting journeyman catchers, with .250 lifetime batting averages in limited play. Hriniak’s major league career, in fact, was very limited–a total of 47 games and 99 at bats over two seasons in the late 60s. Yet both he and Lau were, in their own ways, studious and thoughtful, and over the decade that they’ve taught their unique method of hitting, from Kansas City to Boston to Chicago and beyond, they’ve dramatically altered the game.

The Lau-Hriniak method is distinct, and its practitioners are immediately recognizable, beginning with George Brett and moving on through Sammy Sosa. In its basics, it stresses a level swing begun with the weight back, then briskly and evenly transferred forward, with the bat accelerating across the plate–an acceleration that dictates the elaborate finish all the Sox hitters have. This method has been blamed for the increasing number of beanballs in the last decade–the hitter in the Lau-Hriniak system strides not merely toward the pitcher but also toward the plate, the better to cover the outside corner–as well as for the slumps of so-called natural hitters. The Hriniak method, it’s said, makes a poor hitter decent, but it can ruin a player whose skills are sharp and who has his own methods. That, however, is a lot of crap, as the success of Harold Baines has shown. There could not have been a more natural hitter than Baines, with his high stride and his large hitch, but he became a devotee of Hriniak even before Hriniak came to the Sox (Baines attended Hriniak’s hitting school in Florida), and the past couple of seasons have seen Baines shake off the fits and starts that used to typify his play and become a consistent .300 hitter, from the beginning of the season to the end. Hriniak came over from the Boston Red Sox two seasons ago, lured by a salary of unheard-of size for a batting coach and by the promise that he would get to appoint his own batting coaches throughout the White Sox minor-league system. The Sox immediately raised their team batting average, and last year they were among the league leaders.

Charlie Lau was a friendly, outgoing person who died from cancer in 1984; his death, many people believe, contributed greatly to the premature descent of the 1983 team. (It certainly contributed to the early retirement of Greg Luzinski and the several-season slump of Ron Kittle.) Hriniak is dour and distant. Standing around the batting cage, squinting out at the field, his presence has a forbidding quality, and I must admit there were times, standing nearby, when I was reminded of my freshman-level philosophy class, which took place in a room immediately after a graduate seminar. The professor from that course would linger on with his students at the front of the room as we’d file in and sit down. They’d be talking about whether this desk or that chair were really there; we certainly didn’t exist for them, we were beyond consideration. Hriniak has the same intent quality as that professor and those students; nothing exists for him except the batting cage and the batter. If the rock music on the public-address system gets too loud for him–say, during the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”–he simply presses his hands against his cheeks, a favorite pose of his, and slips his index fingers into his ears. He is not known to give good interviews, although he did make time earlier this season for the syndicated This Week in Baseball, and I think it’s this reticence–and not the team’s lower batting average this year–that has brought the frequent criticism he’s been subjected to in the media. (When rookie Robin Ventura struggled early in the season, Hriniak drew more criticism than Ventura himself.) Hriniak simply doesn’t like to waste his time talking to people unable to understand or use his knowledge. He can leave the batting cage, walk wide around a group of reporters, sit down in the dugout, and, with his shoulders hunched and his straw blond hair sticking out from under his cap, take up a pose more like a scarecrow than a college professor (although both might share that absent gaze).

While watching Hriniak around the batting cage, I was approached by an old acquaintance, a former White Sox beat reporter who’s moved on to other things. He asked what I was working on and I said I was about to talk to Hriniak and he said, “Good luck,” adding that all Hriniak liked to talk about was hitting and that even during spring training he didn’t like to bother talking about it with reporters. Sure enough, when the Sox were through hitting and I maneuvered myself into Hriniak’s way and asked if he had a couple minutes, he said, “Nope. Got a meeting.” And he was gone down the steps and into the shadows of the clubhouse runway.

That’s an approach I can respect, but one that beat reporters have a tough time accepting, since their livelihood depends on getting quotes from ball players and coaches. Hriniak does his talking in and around the batting cage to those he thinks his time is best spent on. As Boston’s Dwight Evans said during the TWIB profile, Hriniak doesn’t believe that practice makes perfect; he believes that perfect practice makes perfect play. He is not above telling the batting-practice pitcher what kind of pitches he wants thrown and where in the strike zone, in order to analyze a hole in a hitter’s swing.

Leaning against the cage, squatting, pacing left and right, he examines a swing the way an art critic looks over a sculpture. Scott Fletcher cues one down the first-base line and stands erect, saying, “I’m not finishing.” Hriniak looks at him and says, matter-of-factly, “You’re not finishing.” And Fletcher goes on hitting, getting angry with himself, squibbing one barely out of the cage and shouting, “Finish!” Hriniak doesn’t look happy or sad but merely intent, knowing that at this point Fletcher is already telling himself everything Hriniak could possibly say.

The Cubs’ Joe Altobelli couldn’t be more different from Hriniak, as a coach and as a person. He is friendly, with a quick smile, and eminently approachable near the batting cage. He has no system, but is more of a problem solver. “There’s always gonna be somebody who needs help,” he says, “and I think the basic thing is when the player is ready to listen, and to try to figure out what the player’s strengths are with the bat. Don’t try to get him to do something that he isn’t capable of doing.”

Altobelli, in fact, appears to give very little instruction in and around the batting cage. If he says something to a player, it’s usually away from batting practice, where the player can ponder before trying it out. Whereas Hriniak always seems to want more from his hitters–for them to, as Evans says, practice perfect (he’s been working hard with Dan Pasqua straight through his torrid hitting stretch) –Altobelli doesn’t tinker with a player on a streak. He also doesn’t tinker with players like Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson.

“As a hitting coach, I say very little to Sandberg and very little to Dawson,” Altobelli says. “The basic reason is they know exactly what they’re doing. They try to practice it each day before a ball game just exactly as they would do in a ball game. You can’t get any better habits than those two guys have.”

As of late last week, the Cubs were leading the National League in hitting at .272, while the Sox were in the middle of the American League pack at .260. Whether that’s a fair comparison or not, I don’t know: there’s the ballpark differential to consider, and the Cubs pitchers’ batting statistics, and the differing styles of play of the two teams. What it shows most, I think, is that the best things in baseball are sometimes the easiest to achieve, but as that ease can be elusive perhaps it’s better to deny it and to work hard all the time. Then again, perhaps not.