Baseball: A new stance

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March 30, 2010

1:19 AM

Stand there along the wall of William and Mary Head Coach Frank Leoni’s office. Keep your voice down. It is the end of the 2009 season, and Leoni is sitting in front of his locker after another Tribe loss.

The skipper has already moved on from a senior class that has largely tuned him out. But it is his freshman first baseman, Tadd Bower, who has him at his wit’s end.

Bower spent most of the season flailing at curveballs on the outer part of the plate. By the end of the year, Bower will finish with a .279 batting average and only 19 runs scored, well below Leoni’s expectations. Even more disturbing is the fact that Bower has tuned out his coaches, failing to make the adjustments they keep recommending in his swinf.

As Leoni sits in front of his locker, visibly exhausted from what will be the worst season during his tenure at the College, he begins to talk about Bower:

“I was told a long time ago by an old coach, whom I really admire and trust, that some guys get it and some guys don’t,” Leoni said. “And I don’t know if Tadd Bower is ever going to get it. He refuses to make adjustments; he refuses to listen to the stuff we tell him. I don’t know if he’s ever going to get it.”

***

It is a rainy day in Montpelier, Vt., a one-stoplight town with a summer-league baseball team and a whole lot of time to kill. It is the summer after Bower’s freshman season and his summer team — the Vermont Mountaineers — have an off day on account of the rain.

Back home in Williamsburg, Leoni sees Bower’s name pop up on his cell phone.

“I saw his name come up, and I said to myself, ‘Do I really want to answer this right now?’” Leoni said. “I did, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, and it was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with a player, period. It was like I was talking to a totally different kid on the other end of the phone.”

It turns out the Vermont air does wonders for your attitude, as well as your health.

“I had no purpose in the phone call; I just wanted to see how things were going over the summer,” Bower said. “I let him know I was having a great time up there and that coming back, I wanted to take more of a leadership role on the team.”

After spending a season fighting Leoni on the mechanics of his swing, Bower had epiphany while watching some of his Mountaineer teammates over the summer.

Leoni teaches his hitters to load and stride at the plate, as well as to drop the angle of the bat in order to create tilt and lift the baseball. Coming out of high school, Bower believed in a more spread approach where he would swing the bat straight down on the ball in order to create backspin.

But the more he watched some of his summer league teammates, the more Bower began to see some of Leoni’s teachngs in their swings.

“Instead of just goofing around, I would try to watch everybody’s swing and learn from it and learn how to play the game,” Bower said. “Basically, what I looked off of, I looked at what Frank had given us the year before and looked at what these guys who had success were doing, and a lot of them were the same things.”

For the first time, Bower seemed receptive to Leoni’s advice, which surprised the skipper even more than the mid-summer phone call.

“Tadd had a lot of success as a high school player,” Leoni said. “He had been doing things a certain way a long time, and it was working for him. When he got here, he was reluctant to let go of the control he had over his own game, and let somebody else help him. It wasn’t like we wanted to change his whole game, but I think that’s how he perceived it.”

The true test of Bower’s reformation would come in the fall, when he returned to a Tribe team that only returned three starters from a squad that finished under .500 the previous season. Leoni needed leaders, and Bower hoped to fill that role.

But the coach made clear to his sophomore first baseman that he would have to earn the right to call himself a leader.

“He wanted me to prove it,” Bower said. “He wanted me to prove mentally that I could handle it,” Bower said. “Last year, I wasn’t necessarily there. I wasn’t ready for a lot of stuff — I got frustrated a lot easier. But we needed guys to come in and help these younger guys who are doing really well right now.”

Multiple players have helped the Tribe to a surprising 16-8 record and wins over North Carolina and Maryland to atart the season. But no single player on this year’s squad has been as important offensively than Bower, who leads the Tribe in most major offensive categories including batting average (.387), hits (36), doubles (10), homeruns (4), and on-base percentage (.482)

Both Leoni and opposing coaches know if Bower does not hit, the Tribe lineup will struggle on any particular day.

The pressure for Bower to produce in the middle of the batting order every day leaves him unfazed, as he relishes the role of being counted on every day.

“I like to be the guy who, when he comes up, people want to win the game,” Bower said. “The guy who comes up in the sixth inning or whatever and hits the double in the gap to score two runs. I love being in those situations.”

Recently, Bower has begun to see the challenges of being a marked man. After doubling off the right field fence Saturday to conclude a 5 for 6 day against Delaware, Bower got very little to hit Sunday and was intentionally walked once.

So far, Leoni has liked the way the formerly stubborn Bower has made adjustments this season.

“It’s difficult to be a marked man — so to speak,” Leoni said. “But that is how great players rise to the occasion. And Tadd is a great player, and he’s been rising to the occasion more times than not.”

***

Now come back to Frank Leoni’s office this season after the Tribe’s 4-3 win over Delaware Sunday. This time, the scene is different. Leoni is smiling. His team has won its first conference series of the year. His daughter is running around the locker room playing with the assistant coaches.

Someone asks Leoni about Bower, about whether the head coach believes his first baseman’s turnaround is for real.

Leoni pauses. Never one to mince words, especially in the privacy of the locker room, he speaks.

“I often thought coming back from the fall, ‘Oh, is this a smokescreen, is this just an act I’m getting?’ And I just was waiting for things to go wrong,” Leoni said. “But man, has he stuck to it. He’s matured, he’s matured very quickly.”

Leoni stops, as if to play his last statement over again in his head. He then smiles:

“Man, I’m really enjoying being around him this year.”

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