Professor Pentland and the Homer's Odyssey
Jeff Pentland played with Reggie Jackson and has tutored Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Carlos Beltran and Matt Kemp, to name-drop just a few. He has advanced degrees in biomechanics. His playing days were on both sides of the chessboard; pitcher and hitter. What he doesn't know about the art/science of hitting may not be worth knowing.
No wonder the Dodgers fired him as their hitting coach last year.
It's not like there wasn't a precedent. But gurus like Pentland are never out of work any longer than they care to be. This year he signed on with the Seattle Mariners (again) as the hitting coach for their Triple A affiliate, Tacoma of the Pacific Çoast League. The Rainiers hit only .235 in April but this month they're banging away at a better than .300 clip and carrying a 13-game homer streak as Pentland settles in. He stepped away from the batting cage while the Rainiers are in Des Moines taking on the Iowa Cubs and talked with TCR.
Pentland said he's still occasionally in touch with Bonds but has no contact with Sosa. In fact, he parlayed his history with Bonds, dating to Arizona State where he coached while Bonds played, into a breakthrough with Kemp when Pentland was trying to establish a rapport after joining the Dodgers.
"I just mentioned something I'd once worked on with Barry," Pentland said. "Matt's eyes lit up. He said, 'You worked with him?' I had instant credibility." With Kemp maybe, but not enough with the Dodgers when the brass went looking for a scapegoat despite the breakout success of the latest Pentland protege.
Ask Pentland if any of his former star pupils got carried away with experiments in home remedies for slumps like brainiacs who cheat on exams without needing to and he gets circumspect. Inasmuch as he didn't blow any whistles when investigators interviewed him for a couple of hours during the compilation of the Mitchell Report it's no surprise that Pentland didn't confide anything while he sat and spat there in the confessional of the visitors' dugout at Sec Taylor Field. Whatever personal suspicions he may harbor are kept to himself.
"I didn't make judgments one way or another," he said when asked specifically about Sosa's power surge. "He was a grown man and I treated him that way." Read into that what you will.
Pentland joined the Cubs midseason in 1997. Over the following winter he had a heart-to-heart with Sosa, convincing him to swing easier to make more contact. The following summer Sosa and McGwire mugged Ruth and Maris in what's since become a dark alley of the record book.
"Sammy had very big, very strong hands," Pentland recalled. "He liked to use a bat that was thicker-handled than sluggers usually use." And lighter-barreled?
Pentland was gone from Chicago by the time Sosa's infamous corked bat incident occurred but he seems sympathetic about it, recalling that equipment used to come at Sosa in bunches during his seasons in the sixties.
"I used to check out his bats because he got 'em all the time from manufacturers and I never found one that was altered. You can tell a corked bat just by the sound the ball makes coming off of it," Pentland said, adding that if he'd found a suspicious weapon in Sosa's arsenal he would have pointed it out to him.
He brought up the juiced balls conspiracy theory during the discussion of enhanced performance.
"I remember George Brett at that time saying how the balls bounced twice as high as they used to," he said.
Pentland's been in the game for decades now. He says the same approach doesn't work for everybody and believes players are generally more sensitive than formerly due to the increased pressures that come along with increased paychecks. Besides PEDs and turbocharged gear, Pentland notes the modern player has tools at his disposal that are completely legit and equally accessible to pitchers and hitter alike.
"All of the videotape and the computerized spray charts and tendency data are so sophisticated now," he said. "You really have to take advantage of that stuff. I tell the guys here about guys I know in the big leagues that got there and stayed for 10-12 years, more by working hard than raw talent."
He may look and sound like just an ol' country batting coach spouting his accumulated wisdom like tobacco juice but it's more complicated than that. He's a biomechanic who tinkers under the hoods of living, breathing machines. Just picture him talking applied physics to Sammy Sosa and try to imagine how many bombs Einstein might have hit with a database, juiced balls, weight training and a good video tech backing him up.
Baseball might have been very, very good to him, too!