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Cards Insider: Long's approach takes J-Rod a long way
By Derrick Goold
Of the Post-Dispatch
Always capable of power in batting practice, John Rodriguez (right) has taken a more disciplined approach that has helped him go deep in games as well.
Deconstructing the untamed swing that marooned John Rodriguez in the minors meant one rule during batting practice:
No home runs.
During the 2004 season, Columbus Clippers batting coach Kevin Long offered Rodriguez the invitation to rebuild his swing. A free-and-eager swinger in an on-base percentage organization, Rodriguez's only ladder out of the minors was to alter his methods at bat. In batting practices, Long saw Rodriguez's talent to be an imposing hitter, but come game time the loose-swinging slugger would abandon any approach, ditch any swing that didn't produce a hit.
In stressing the necessity of consistency, Long sought first to take the slugs out of the slugger. So, batting practice came with strict rules.
Line drives only. Absolutely no home runs.
"It was clear he had a lot of talent inside," said Long, still the hitting coach with the New York Yankees Class AAA affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. "John's body could hit balls out at will at 5 p.m. Home run after home run after home run. But once he got into a game, he was free-swinging, with no approach. It was almost like a softball player, to be honest. He was all or nothing. There was a lot of movement. It wasn't honed. Always going for the home run.
"He was just a mess, basically."
About a year after retooling the swing and fixing the mess, Rodriguez rode a scorching streak of power - "Unlike anything I've ever seen," said one teammate - to his first major-league call-up. Less than two months ago Rodriguez was a player to be named in a minor-league deal that garnered little attention. Seventeen home runs in five weeks later, he made his debut as the Cardinals' left fielder and continued popping - his long swing discarded, his Long swing clicking.
Rodriguez, 27, with a belong-here cool around the clubhouse, clubbed three home runs in his first eight starts as a Cardinal. His slugging percentage in his first nine major-league games was a garish .719.
"What was advertised was his stats," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa about Rodriguez's promotion. "But it's not a case of where he doesn't have a strike zone. Now we know he does know the strike zone, he does not chase everything he sees. He takes aggressive swings at it, that's for sure.
"He's given us a lift."
Getting a chance
In the summer of 1996, Rodriguez had launched three balls into the upper deck seats of Yankee Stadium, gone on to have a strong summer-league season and then he said he was on his way to "get a 9-to-5 job, I guess." He'd taken his swing at baseball, baseball wasn't interested, so it was off to life. That was when a scout found him, again.
Rodriguez's uncle, Robert Allende, knew a police officer who worked security at Yankee Stadium. Early that summer, Allende asked the officer if he knew any way his nephew could get an audience with a scout. The cop knew one way.
He got Rodriguez the last invite to Cesar Presbott's tryout for draft-eligible players at Yankee Stadium that summer. When Rodriguez stepped out onto the Stadium's field "I was in amazement right there." Falling in with the tryouts, he ran a 60-yard dash, threw bullets from right field to third and bashed those three home runs in batting practice.
He saw Presbott talking to others, discreetly thanked him and left.
"I went off and said I had my chance. It's cool," Rodriguez said. "I went back to play in a summer league. The president of that league called a couple scouts and Cesar Presbott was one. 'This kid looks familiar,' he said. He came up to me and asked, 'Did you come to my tryout at Yankee Stadium?' Yeah. Yeah I did.
"He told me, 'Well, I was looking for you. I would love to offer you a contract to come play for the Yankees.'"
The long path
In 2001, at the Yankees' Class AA club he had his biggest power year, 22 home runs. He remained a free-swinger, launching when he connected, but susceptible to breaking pitches. His strikeouts soared - an anchor in an organization devoted to on-base numbers. He made Class AAA in 2003, played sparsely and struck out five times for every homer.
The next summer, Long joined Columbus and outlined lessons to recreate Rodriguez as a hitter. The strikeouts plummeted, and the power flickered with promise.
"In batting practice, all you want to do is hit home runs," Long recalled telling Rodriguez. "So, we're going to take away his home runs. . . . He had no consistency. What I wanted to see was the same thing every day, every at-bat. We started counting - seventh day in a row, eighth day in a row. He felt it and started getting excited."
At the end of last season, Long encouraged Rodriguez to sign elsewhere, with a team that didn't know him as his old swing. With a 25-page book from Long that detailed the new approach, Rodriguez went to Cleveland's Class AAA affiliate, and struggled in what he called a stale, uncomfortable environment.
He bloomed after the June trade to Memphis.
The outfielder hit two home runs in his second start, and he hit a three-run homer in the game before his promotion. In a span of 109 at-bats he hit 17 home runs, more than he had hit in all but one previous season.
"Every hit he got was a home run," said teammate Scott Seabol, "and it seemed like he got a hit every time up."
In his third major-league start, Rodriguez nailed Milwaukee All-Star Ben Sheets for a home run. Cubs righthander Carlos Zambrano said he attempted to challenge the rookie on July 22, and the rookie took him deep for a solo home run in a 2-1 Cards victory. Rodriguez also nailed Mark Prior for an upper-deck shot that veered just foul.
Two months into the Long lessons, Rodriguez said, "That's 57 days."
It's more than 400 now and "look where I am," he said.
"This is the stuff he used to do in batting practice at will," Long said. "I still see the John Rodriguez that I saw in Columbus. I just get goose bumps seeing what he's doing. It's almost like he's graduating. Here's your diploma, kid, here's the world, here's your chance. Now go out and get it."
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