Watching Reese practice his craft is like attending a clinic. "If I want to hit grounders, I hit the ball while it's between my waist and knees," he says. "If I want to pop one straight up for a catcher to work on foul flies—and that's the toughest fungo to hit—I have to throw the ball over my head and come under it. And if I'm hitting flies to the outfielders, the ball is only slightly above my head so I can get distance. If you want line drives, it's out to the side so that you can strike it good."
Because Reese only hits to the pitchers, probably the best all-purpose fungo hitters today are Bobby Knoop, another Angel coach, and Dave Garcia, the manager of the Indians. "During spring training, I keep extending the fielders gradually so that they begin to realize how far they really can go," says Garcia. "But before a game I never try to cross up the infielder. I try to make him look good, give him a ball he can handle."
Like playing the oboe, fungo hitting is a difficult art, and not every coach masters it. The Yankees' Yogi Berra, for example, readily admits he's inept. He considers it a chore just to get the ball in the vicinity of the fielder, so he doesn't worry about such subtleties as speed and spin. "Yogi really is bad," confirms Yankee broadcaster and former teammate Phil Rizzuto. "He's broken his finger twice hitting fungoes."
Pitchers traditionally have been the best at hitting fly balls with fungo bats, probably because it gives them a chance to accomplish in practice what they can seldom do in a game: smash the ball a long way. As a result, they are the leading experts at busting balls over fences or into the stratosphere, altogether useless skills that Reese considers bastardizations of the art.
When it comes to muscle flexing, few players can jerk a ball as far or as high as journeymen relievers Joe Hoerner, who played from 1963 to 1975, and Ed Roebuck (1955-66). Both hit tape-measure shots in numerous parks, but they are best remembered for reaching the highest part of the Astrodome roof, the ultimate test in power fungo hitting.
When fungo hitters visit Houston they invariably try to reach the roof. Most fail. The only current player who can drive a fungo that high with any regularity is San Diego Reliever Rollie Fingers.
The fungo may have been as important in determining the height of the Astrodome as the calculations of any engineer. Roebuck recalls that during spring training in 1963 the late Dodger owner, Walter O'Malley, approached him early one morning with a challenge: Could Roebuck hit a fungo 200 feet straight up in the air? O'Malley wanted the information to assist in the design of the Dome. Certainly the pitcher was a logical choice for the experiment because he had once hit a ball out of the Los Angeles Coliseum, a prodigious shot that cost him a $75 fine. Roebuck told O'Malley he was up to the task, so that afternoon he and O'Malley took the field with a fungo, a bag of balls and various measuring devices. The rest is architectural history.
" Mr. O'Malley never told me how high the balls went," says Roebuck, "but they must've been close to 200 feet because a few days later, while I was sitting in the bullpen during a game, a bat boy delivered a sack stuffed with $75 in quarters." And, sure enough, the design for the Astrodome called for the roof to be 208 feet above the field at its highest point. Though the roof remains a favorite target of fun-loving fungoers, it has never been hit during a game.
For all its importance, fungo hitting remains an unappreciated phase of baseball. This circumstance is no doubt attributable to its tarnished reputation. The 1886 edition of Art of Batting warned ominously, "There's no worse habit for batsmen to indulge in than batting 'fungo' balls."
But there is no better habit for coaches who want to hone a player's defensive skills or whip him into shape.