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Published: Friday, 8/1/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Dave Hackenberg: Hens go to Durham for hitting help

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Mud Hens’ infielder Wade Gaynor, who has been scuffling around the Mendoza line of late, was in the cage late Thursday afternoon when the batting practice pitcher stopped throwing and started preaching.

Leon Durham, the Hens’ hitting coach, told Gaynor his swing was off kilter; his bat was on the wrong path. There was something about opening a car door, which is not what a baseball player wants his swing to imitate. There was something about side-spin and backspin. It was baseball talk.

Then Bull Durham, as he has been known to all for about 39 years, ever since he arrived in professional baseball, went back to pitching. And on his next swing, Gaynor drove the ball high off the wall in left-center field.

“Yeah, baby,” Durham yelled.

Bull celebrates all small victories. And he’s had a bunch of them, and some big ones too, as the longest-tenured coach in Toledo baseball history. He arrived in 2001. He has been wearing the cap with the silly bird on it for 14 seasons.

On Thursday night, the Hens celebrated the Bull on his 57th birthday, honoring him with, facially and otherwise, maybe the best bobblehead doll ever produced.

“It’s him,” said Hens manager Larry Parrish, “from the cutoff sleeves on his T-shirt to the sweatband, to the towel around his neck. It’s a man who’s ready to work. And that’s Bull. He’ll put in all the time the players want. He definitely deserves this tribute.”

Durham, a Cincinnati native and resident, was drafted in 1976 and was in the big leagues by 1980. He spent 10 seasons there, the best of them with the Chicago Cubs, and was a two-time All-Star selection, who finished his career with 147 home runs and 530 RBI. The man could hit, probably still can, and he’s been teaching others to do it ever since.

“A bobblehead; how about that?” Bull said. “Nothing like that has ever happened for me. The way I see it, it’s just a privilege to put the uniform on every day.”

Parrish and Durham agreed that 14 years in one minor-league city is an awfully good run and, said the manager, Toledo has been lucky to have the Bull this long.

“It means that I have a job and somebody likes me,” Durham said. “It’s a matter of how you carry yourself, I think. I try to give my knowledge about hitting to the younger guys, try to get them ready for the next level, and when they get an opportunity, when the phone rings from Detroit, that’s my reward.”

He got one of those paybacks Thursday when, after the Tigers traded Austin Jackson, the call came for Ezequiel Carrera, who was having his best minor-league season (.307, 6 HR, 68 runs) under Bull’s tutelage.

Nobody was more bullish on Durham’s help than Marcus Thames, who came to the Hens as a broken prospect in 2004. Two months and 20 homers later, he was up for good and had an eight-year major league career.

“He’s a dedicated baseball man,” Parrish, who has had Durham on his staff for eight seasons. “He just wants to see guys get better. He’s good; really good. If there’s any surprise that he’s been here for 14 years, it’s that it’s unfair the phone has never rung for him.”

And that’s no Bull.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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