Two decades before he was coaching in the White Sox farm system, Tim Laker was a well-regarded catching prospect for the Montreal Expos, working to take the reins from the outgoing (in more ways than one) Gary Carter.
You can watch the transfer below. On Sept. 27, 1992, Laker took Carter's place as a pinch runner after Carter delivered a game-winning double in the last at-bat of his Hall of Fame career, which nearly blew the roof off Olympic Stadium in the process.
"Going into it, it was the last home game of the season, and everybody knew it was his last game," Laker said over the phone from Hawaii, where he's watching his stepson play for the University of Oregon in the Ducks' season-opening series.
"He had a lot of ties in Montreal," he said. "There was a ceremony after the game, and he had learned enough French to do part of it in French. He embraced the city, and they embraced him."
That's evident in the three-minute standing ovation Carter received after his line drive carried over the outstretched glove of his former teammate Andre Dawson. Laker jogged onto the field to pinch-run for him, and they hugged near second base before Carter returned to the dugout. Simply put, Laker said the same thing we did: "It was really cool that he could get that moment."
After a pause: "It was a really cool moment."
The substitution was symbolic of their positions at the time, as their paths converged at their opposite ends. Carter had logged nearly 2,300 major-league games at the time, whereas Laker received his first big-league promotion a month earlier. Felipe Alou mainly used him as a late-inning defensive replacement to get his feet wet, and Carter offered help along the way.
"What really struck me was that he’d taken the time to talk to me about catching – just little things in passing, going out of his way to say, 'Nice job.' Knowing that he was done, to take the time to give to a younger guy meant a lot to me. I think it spoke volumes about the type of person he was."
After his trip to Hawaii, Laker will head to Camelback Ranch wearing his second title in two years. He is now the White Sox minor league hitting coordinator after spending last season with the Charlotte Knights as their hitting coach. In 2011, he watched three very different hitters -- Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers and Alejandro De Aza -- all graduate to the majors.
Viciedo was a massive, mashing presence for the Knights during the first half of the season, and Laker likened him to Vladimir Guerrero, saying "he can go down and get a ball six inches off the ground and hit it off the wall to the opposite field." When Viciedo reaggravated the thumb he injured in spring training, his ability drive the ball suffered.
However, his walks skyrocketed:
- April-June: 18 walks over 335 PA
- July-August: 27 walks over 169 PA
I asked whether he thought Viciedo saw more pitches because his thumb problems made it more difficult to swing. Laker didn't think that was the primary cause, because the strike zone was basically the only aspect of Viciedo's game that required emphasis. When Viciedo returned to the dugout after a poor PA and asked Laker what he saw, Laker said he often answered a question with a question:
"Where was the pitch?"
"It was probably a ball inside."
"Well, there it is."
For what it's worth, when Viciedo rejoined the Sox for his second stint, he quadrupled his 2010 walk total (two to nine) in roughly the same amount of plate appearances. His 3.75 pitches per plate appearance fall between Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham on the 2011 leaderboard.
Flowers, in contrast, needed a mechanical overhaul to get rid of bad habits that hampered his hit tool. In particular, he found his base in a bad position when trying to get around on (and stay through) inside fastballs, and it took a lot of hard work to improve his coverage of that part of the plate. Ozzie Guillen and Greg Walker could see the changes, as they praised Laker for the progress when they got a look at Flowers in August.
De Aza, the oldest of the three, was a finished product by comparison. "He has the same routine every day in the cage, and he has a good understanding of his swing," Laker said. "If he feels it's a little off, he knows what to do to get it right back. He took that same exact swing in Triple-A to the majors."
Now he'll be tasked with overseeing hitters with varying degrees of polish, one of which is Jared Mitchell. Buddy Bell has thrown a ton of support behind Mitchell, and he's not alone in his optimism. Laker spent time this winter watching Mitchell in instructional league, and laid the foundation for what hopefully will be a beneficial relationship.
"We hit off real good in instructional league, exchanged texts ... he’s excited. His swing felt more like it did when he got drafted."