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Old Dog With New Tricks
Jim Kaplan
August 23, 1982
Luke Appling, the Braves' 75-year-old minor league batting coach, sure practiced what he preaches when he hit that big homer
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August 23, 1982

Old Dog With New Tricks

Luke Appling, the Braves' 75-year-old minor league batting coach, sure practiced what he preaches when he hit that big homer

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" 'How can I do that?' I said. 'The bat wouldn't come through.'

" 'Yes, it would,' Luke said. 'Just lead with your hands and lay the head of the bat back.' Well, I went back to the campus and practiced at a backstop. I took batting practice and, sure enough, the ball shot off the bat, with authority, to rightfield. And a couple hit the fence, which I never used to do."

At the end of batting practice in Anderson, Appling went into the outfield to watch calisthenics. The players had been taught well—not only in baseball fundamentals, but also manners. There was much good-natured name-calling, belching, spitting and swearing. "That kid," Appling said, pointing out a player. "Nobody plays harder. You'll see him break up the second baseman. That's what's wrong with the game—six million doves flying around.

"The kids don't get paid enough and don't get enough meal money [$11 a day on the road] to eat right. They save it for a big meal after the game instead of before. [A few minutes later one player told another, "I didn't get to bed until 1:30, and I was still stuffed."] If you play hard, your stomach muscles tighten. I'll have a beer in the clubhouse and take my time before leaving. Today's major-leaguers are always in a hurry—they're used to plane travel instead of train. And I like to have a cocktail an hour before eating. You've got to relax when you play hard. I never let anything bother me. People would get on me, and I'd say, 'I can't hear you: Talk louder.' "

"He points out all kinds of little things we don't notice," said Anderson Second Baseman Ralph Giansanti. "Hairline things." Indeed, though he was careful to defer to Manager Brian Snitker, whom he much admires, Appling was constantly talking to players during the evening's 7-5 win over Charleston. Sitting next to Appling in the dugout was like taking a course in baseball minutiae. After Hatcher started running to first on a 3-0 pitch that was called a strike, Appling warned him, "Stand up there and let them call it. If you run right away, they'll call it a strike every time." The catcher wasn't sufficiently skilled in umpire-baiting, Appling maintained. "He isn't aggressive enough. You can look forward and still talk to the umpire. If you look around, he's liable to chase your butt." To Giansanti and Shortstop Kenny Clark, Appling had the following counsel: "Twice that inning their guys overran second and you threw to the wrong base. The backup man should yell it out. It's a lack of communication." Rightfielder Keith Street took a 2-0 pitch for a strike. Appling didn't like that at all. "With a man on second and nobody out, you don't take a pitch like that," he said.

"We pitchers listen in on him, too, because he's been around long enough that he knows more than most pitching coaches," said Mark Smith. "He's even taught me some things," said Trainer Tim Alexander, "like painting over a jammed thumb with iodine. Do that and a guy can hit the next day. I sure didn't learn that at Florida State." Snitker believes Appling's presence enlivens the whole team. "No matter how bad you feel, you've got to feel better around him," says the manager. "You come dragging off the field, and he looks like he's been on vacation a month."

After a leisurely beer and a big cigar, Appling started to dress. He donned his underwear first, then his socks and shoes, then his pants and shirt. When MacKay kidded him about his procedure, the great man had some more wisdom to pass on. "You don't get your feet wet this way," he said. MacKay protested that his pants wouldn't fit over his shoes. Appling laughed and slipped on his trousers. "If you don't wear them tight-assed britches—see that, they slid right through—you can get 'em on."

"Ever since I was knee-high to a duck, I played ball," Appling said on the way back to the hotel. "In pastures and vacant lots. We had a farm in Douglas County, Georgia, and I chopped wood with a double-edged ax and plowed the fields behind a mule. That's how my arms got so strong. I played football secretly for Oglethorpe College before my father read my name in the papers and made me quit. I played 126 games in Double A and came up to the majors as a home-run hitter. As soon as I got to Comiskey Park I realized I'd have to change. It took me three years to learn to hit to right." Appling went on to become a contact hitter extraordinaire—one who once deliberately fouled off 14 pitches while looking for one he liked.

It was nearly midnight now, and Appling's guest was thoroughly exhausted from a day in his wake. Luke, though, was contemplating a two-hour drive to his home down on Lake Lanier. He has three grown children, six grandchildren and half a dozen dogs, all, presumably, panting to keep up with him. "They say this is a young man's game," Appling said with a hearty handshake. "Well, it's keeping me young."

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