- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mike Epstein sat in the Washington Nationals’ team store Monday, signing autographs for those who remembered the power-hitting Washington Senators first baseman.

He was surrounded by Bryce Harper jerseys — something Epstein predicted before the 22-year-old Harper was even born.

“What we are seeing is what I predicted years ago — that we would see younger, better hitters get to the big leagues quicker,” Epstein said. “When you see some of the young hitters now, right here, Bryce Harper, perfect example, Manny Machado, Mike Trout.”

He believes that one of the reasons we see Harper having an MVP season is because of a revolution in hitting that took place years ago — a revolution in which Epstein was one of the leaders. It’s a revolution based in large part on the teachings of Ted Williams, who managed Epstein in Washington from 1969 to 1971.

Epstein, 72 and fit, is, as they say in the business, a different kind of cat. He was born in the Bronx, but grew up in Los Angeles. After baseball, he became a cattle rancher in Wyoming, but also became sort of a batting whisperer — an unlikely hitting instructor who batted .244 over his nine-year major league career and who preached a different philosophy than what had been the norm in baseball.

Then again, Williams wasn’t the norm in baseball.

“He was so far ahead of everybody,” Epstein said. “The concepts I use are his concepts. I just figured out a way to teach what everyone used to put on napkins in those days, little pieces of information. I galvanized all that information in a way that could be taught to anybody.”

Epstein was a power hitter who was celebrated as “The Jewish Mickey Mantle” — so much so that a rival minor league manager in the California League in 1965, Rocky Bridges, dubbed him “Superjew” after he led the league in home runs and batting. It became his identity.

He played college ball at Cal and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles. Epstein was the minor league player of the year in the International League in 1966, batting .309 with 29 home runs and 102 RBI for the Rochester Red Wings.

He was called up by the Orioles, who tried to convert him to an outfielder since they already had Boog Powell at first base, and sent him back down to Rochester. Epstein refused to report — something that wasn’t the norm in baseball.

Baltimore traded him to Washington in 1967 for Pete Richert, and later than year, in his first at-bat against his old team, Epstein hit a grand slam.

When Williams arrived in 1969 as manager of the Senators, Epstein flourished, hitting 30 home runs, driving in 85 runs and batting. 278 in 403 at-bats with a .551 slugging percentage. He was traded to the Oakland Athletics in 1971 and was part of their World Series squad in 1972. By 1974, he was out of baseball, released by the California Angels.

His time with Williams, and his intellectual curiosity, resulted in Epstein becoming a hitting instructor for hire, where he gained a national reputation. With his son — also a former ballplayer ­— he built an instructional business, with more than 600 Epstein certified hitting instructors around the country.

“I started teaching rotational hitting, a term I coined back in 1985, to differentiate it from linear hitting [what was being taught at the time] — swing down, hit ground balls and all that,” Epstein said. “It was 180 degrees from what Ted said was good hitting, and he was right.

“I was the proverbial fish swimming upstream, trying to battle the conventional wisdom of baseball,” he said. “For a long time I was not interested, because there was no way I could win. But, once I started writing a lot of articles and speaking at coaches clinics and conventions, people started asking the key questions ­— why I am teaching what I am teaching? If we teach pitchers to throw down in the zone, why am I teaching my hitters then to swing down on the ball? It doesn’t make much sense. Logic entered the picture, and all of a sudden I became a hero.

“Every big league hitter you see today that makes big money is a rotational hitter,” Epstein said. “It helps not only them but young kids who for the first time could hit from a framework of hitting that made sense, and you could teach that to them.”

Epstein grew close to Williams after leaving the game. While he played, he described his relationship with Williams as “stormy.”

“In spring training 1971, we are playing the Cincinnati Reds in Pompano Beach,” Epstein said. “We just finished batting practice, and Ted would sit in the dugout watching the other team take batting practice. There would always be a throng of reporters.

“We were sitting there, and Ted was pontificating, the throng came apart, and a Reds player came in and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Williams, my name is Pete Rose, will you sign this ball for me?’” Epstein said. “Ted looked at him and asked, ‘Is it for you, Pete?’ Pete said yes, so Ted takes out a pen and writes, ‘To Pete Rose, a Hall of Famer for sure, your pal Ted Williams.’ Pete says, ‘Thank you very much.’

“He must have gone back to the batting cage and showed it around, because five minutes later, another Reds player comes over and says, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Williams, my name is Johnny Bench. Will you sign this ball?’ Ted asked, ‘Is it for you, John?’ He says, ‘Yes sir.’ So he wrote, ‘To Johnny Bench, a Hall of Famer for sure, your pal, Ted Williams.’

“So I am sitting there and thinking I would love to have a ball like that,” Epstein said. “So I reach into the ball bag. Ted is talking, and there is a lull in the conversation, so I asked, ‘Excuse me, skipper, would you sign this ball?’ He asked, ‘Is it for you, Mike?’ I said yes. He said, ‘All right,’ and wrote “To Mike Epstein, your pal Ted Williams.”

Epstein wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he took the lessons from a Hall of Famer and built his own legacy in the game. You can see it today as Harper winds up his MVP season.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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