The Batman of Evergreen
Sunday afternoon, the phone rings. Troy Slinkard picks up the cordless. It's David, calling from Lakewood. "I was wondering," he says, already knowing the answer, "if me and Charles could come up for a while." Troy, of course, says sure. "About a half-hour?" David asks. "Sure," says Troy.
A half-hour later, David and Charles pull into the driveway. "We first came up in October, after hearing about Troy from a friend," David says. "I was a little skeptical at first. But now, after I've seen it, I'm convinced. I was a believer after the first session -- just amazed. Troy is the man."
"It's just irrefutable," adds Bill Farrell, who comes with Justin. "Troy could've just said, 'Ah-ha! I've discovered something! I've invested a huge amount of time and money, and I'm only going to tell my son.' But he hasn't done that. He's said that anyone who comes up here is welcome; all he asks is that they don't waste his time."
So for the past couple of years, David and Charles and Bill and Justin -- and a dozen or so others -- have made a pilgrimage to the mountain town of Evergreen. Sometimes they arrive on a slow weekend, but often it is on a weekday, late in the afternoon or in the evening, long after dark. Some come several times a week, others once every couple of weeks. Most are fathers and sons, and it costs nothing.
They have been drawn by word of mouth to the home of a 47-year-old general contractor who -- it is said among those who have seen it and really understand it -- has discovered the answer to a timeless secret. When the veil is finally lifted, they say, it can breed unheard-of successes, nurture personal growth and, maybe (although it is still too early to tell), even bring untold riches. It can have a profound impact on lives. It is the key.
They come to have their boys learn how to hit a baseball.
"Troy has helped me far more than any of my baseball coaches ever did," says Kevin Kousmanoff. "He's studied the baseball swing more than anyone I know, and he's able to explain it in detail." Kousmanoff is speaking from his room in Little Rock, where, after a summer taking thousands of cuts with Slinkard, he was offered a full scholarship to play Division I ball.
"If the right person picks up what Troy is doing at his house, it would go nationwide," adds Kevin's father, Mark. "It's that good."
In all of team sports, there is perhaps no single physical motion as painstakingly studied -- nothing as minutely and intimately dissected -- as the swing of a baseball bat. To watch a bat sweep across a torso and connect with a ball is to view the act as simplicity itself. To truly study it, though, is to understand that arranging a meeting between a wooden or aluminum dowel and a five-ounce projectile hurtling at you faster than a Porsche on the Autobahn is more complicated than quantum physics.
There have been people who have professed comprehension of the arc of a baseball bat ever since Abner Doubleday first figured out that balls and bats posed interesting possibilities. You cannot consider yourself a student of the swing unless you have read Ted Williams's The Science of Hitting -- at least three times. If you do not have The Art of Hitting .300, by guru Charlie Lau, or The Mike Schmidt Study, or Tony Gwynn's The Art of Hitting on your shelf, you are only dabbling, dipping your toe in the waters.
That's just the beginning of the journey, though: Hitting sages litter the landscape like peanut shells in the bleachers. The Denver area boasts a half-dozen schools that profess to teach young players the secret of reliably reversing the trajectory of a thrown ball: places such as Slammers, in Lakewood, MVP Baseball Academy, in Arvada, the Yard, in Aurora, and Ultimate Training, in Littleton.
"This is our busy time," says Andy Zavaras, manager of Slammers. "Our guys are jam-packed." The facility's two batting instructors -- Andy's brother Clint, an ex-Seattle Mariner, and Billy Cassidy, a former Kansas City Royal -- are scheduling more than a week out. Half-hour lessons go for $35, and both men work without breaks from early afternoon, when kids start getting out of school, until late in the evening. Most of their clients are eight- to fourteen-year-old boys who come once a week. Some have been taking regular lessons steadily for years, with only a few weeks off every year. "It's good business," says Andy.
And that doesn't even begin to take into consideration the hundreds of men who, as league and school coaches, both paid and volunteer, claim that they, too, understand the very specific mechanics of putting wood to horsehide. Because when it comes to mastering baseball, hitting is the Grail quest. Most anyone can learn to catch and throw well enough. But to bat well -- to direct a ball a mere third of the time to a location where nine other players are not -- this is what makes a player ready for the Big Time.
It is why dads who have heard the stories drive to Evergreen.
The first thing that sets Troy Slinkard's ranch-style house in the mountains apart from his neighbors is the driveway -- or, rather, what used to be the driveway. Two-thirds of the semicircular blacktop path is currently occupied by a corridor composed of fifteen-foot-high netting, roof and lighting included. On both ends of the enclosure are pentagonal home plates. In the center is a chair protected by an L-shaped net barrier that permits a baseball to be thrown to a batter from behind it without risk of the pitcher getting hit when the ball rockets back.
But a personal suburban batting cage is the least of it. Just inside the basement door is the training room -- better-equipped than many college facilities. There is the Swingaway, a baseball held in a frame at strike-zone level by a series of cords and pulleys, that allows students to take hundreds of full cuts without chasing a ball.
Set up next to it is the bat-speed radar, which measures, in miles per hour, how quickly a bat passes by it; nearby is the reaction trainer, a tube that sits in front of the batter like a rifle. Using a series of lights that descend along its shaft toward the batter, it simulates a pitcher's throwing, thus allowing the hitter to more precisely time his swings. Together, the machines measure, in thousandths of a second, whether a hitter is swinging too early or too late.
There are also many low-tech tools in Slinkard's basement: a heavy punching bag set in front of a mirror, to allow kids to take cuts while watching their form; a Hula-Hoop to hold over a youngster's shoulders to make sure he is swinging in a perfect plane; a stick with red laser lights on both ends, so a batter taking shadow swings can watch the arc of the lights on a white wall, making sure that the path of the barrel follows the trail blazed by the handle -- again marking a level plane; dumbbells and an all-purpose fitness machine for strength.
But the real key to Slinkard's arsenal -- the thing that makes him not just a coach but a scholar -- is just up the hall, in his computer.
Slinkard played baseball as a kid in Illinois, stopping forever after his junior year in high school. The reason? "I couldn't hit the ball," he says. "In my day, there was no instruction. You showed up and caught and hit the ball, and that was it."
Like most people who grow up, he forgot about what it feels like to play the game. He moved from Chicago to Denver to build houses a quarter-century ago, making a life -- until one day four years ago. By then, Slinkard had a baseball-crazy son (his daughter, now a college freshman, played tennis). By his eighth birthday, Corey already had been playing organized ball for several years. One day, after another unsatisfying session with a Denver batting instructor, Corey said, "Dad, I want to be really good."
Most fathers would have been sympathetic but would have seen the line as a typical complaint from a frustrated third-grader. Slinkard grabbed ahold of the sentiment. "I said I'd do my best to learn about it," he says. "I decided to approach this as a student."
He bought the books, of course, and later, one at a time, the machines. But true enlightenment didn't really come until he started his taping project and began downloading the clips onto the computer.
Initially Slinkard filmed simple videos of Corey and the boys he played with while standing behind the backstop -- tiny batters swinging. After viewing the childish cuts for a while, however, Slinkard began to wonder what the pros did. Of course, there were libraries full of opinions. But as a natural obsessive, he decided to find out on his own.
He had a satellite dish -- he and Corey watched games every night anyway. So Slinkard began by taping the great hitters as they came to the plate, making short clips, a few seconds at a time, of the crucial moments when the batter settles into the launch position, prepares to swing, and then does.
The clips added up -- Bonds and Olerud and Garciaparra and Gonzalez and Sosa and Gywnn and Giambi. He bought more videos of history's greatest hitters -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams -- and taped other spots from shows such as those on the Sports History Channel. Each segment was catalogued.
Over time, Slinkard's video library grew to include hundreds of the greatest hitters of all time, doing nothing but swinging the bat. His compulsiveness proved useful: He studied them every night for hours at a time, breaking down the short clips into even shorter stills, peering at the pictures one frame at a time, until he had memorized and catalogued what he saw.
Some of what he discovered was obvious. For instance, "It's very hard to tell the difference between the best major-league hitters," he says, "but it's easy to tell the difference between major-league hitters and everyone else. It is very quantifiable."
There were also surprises: "A lot of what you read is wrong. If you read it and then look at the clips, they don't match up."
Eventually Slinkard was able to break down the classic swings into several dozen common elements. Next he began comparing the videos side by side with clips of Corey. Then it was back to the Swingaway, and the batting cage, and the reaction trainer. Then back to the videos. Last year, Corey reportedly hit over .700. (Slinkard himself declines to give out numbers: "That's not what's important.")
People noticed. Soon fathers began to approach Slinkard, telling him that Corey sure had a sweet swing, and where did he learn that? He invited them up to his house -- no charge, no problem -- to show them what he was doing. So far, about a dozen have come up regularly, others less often. They call all the time, and Slinkard rarely says no. "He drops everything when you come up," says Farrell.
Most of the visitors just want results, never mind the specifics. "This is not terribly interesting, even to dads," Slinkard says. "They just say, 'Make my kid a better hitter.'"
He has met other prospects because he remains a perpetual student of the motion, a batting scholar forever doing research. A couple of years ago, while watching an Evergreen High School game (he's always looking for the perfect swing), Slinkard spotted a big kid with a smooth, level arc pounding the ball. This was Kevin Kousmanoff.
Kevin stopped by Slinkard's house a few times, and the two stayed in touch as Kevin went off to play at Cochise Junior College in Arizona. By the end of his freshman year, he was back. "My first year, they were teaching me a downward swing, which is the opposite of what Troy had told me about," Kevin recalls. "I was hitting only about .240."
Discouraged, Kevin returned to Troy that summer, begging for help. First, Troy made him a personal poster showing several big hitters -- Mantle, Ruth, Sosa -- at that crucial moment, after all the ceremony and pre-bat ritual is over and they have loaded their bodies like springs, the energy coiled into their hips and back and legs, ready to swing. Kevin put it in his bedroom.
Next, Troy had him take hundreds and hundreds of swings without ever touching a ball, getting the motion down until it was as reliable as a train on a track. He pulled up video clips, comparing Kevin's cuts frame by frame with the pros. After that, it was time to work, on the bat speed, taking three sets of fifteen cuts each with four bats of different weights. By the end of the summer, Kevin's bat speed had shot up by fifteen miles per hour.
By the time Kevin returned to Cochise for his sophomore year, he was primed. That year (last spring) he hit .360, with twelve home runs -- eleven more than the previous year. Soon after that, he was recruited by the University of Arkansas.
Such a regimented process was more difficult for Justin, Bill Farrell's son and a league player since the age of five. "Three years ago he had a typical Little League swing -- dragging the bat, high shoulder, a ton of head movement, stepping and swinging at the same time," Bill recalls. Bill had met Slinkard at games, and Slinkard had already begun a video catalogue of Justin's batting. The two talked, and Slinkard invited the Farrells to Evergreen.
At first it was difficult for Bill to watch. "It was so painstakingly hard," he recalls. "Troy broke down the mechanics of Justin's swing. For months he didn't swing at a single ball -- just thousands and thousands of cuts into the air or the heavy bag. He couldn't move to the next step until he'd gotten the first ones down."
The first season with Slinkard was tough. "Under pressure, in games, Justin went backward," Bill says. "It required a lot of patience. As a parent, my role became mostly psychological: I told him it would be okay, to hang in there. At the start of the season, Justin barely squeezed out a .200 average.
"Then, suddenly, he went forward," Bill continues. By the end of the year, he was hitting well above .700.
Slinkard says he has no illusions of creating a group of super-players; if a few of his boys make it to play college ball, he'll be more than satisfied. He insists that he only pushes as much as the boys want. "I love baseball, and I want my son to love baseball, and he's more likely to love it if he's good at it," he says.
You could argue that there are more important things in life, better ways to spend a dozen hours every week than learning to swing a bat. You could certainly make the case.
But you'd have a hard time convincing a twelve-year-old boy on the cusp of another baseball season that there is anything more worthwhile. "Sometimes, if we do it too long, I get tired of it," says Corey. "But generally speaking, I never do. I want to play baseball as long as I possibly can. I don't ever want to stop."
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