Dwight (Dewey) Evans of the Boston Red Sox has always been able to get to fly balls that most outfielders couldn't reach if they were jet-propelled. Evans handles the sun field at Boston's misshaped Fenway Park (what many consider the toughest right field in the American League) with all the confidence of a man reaching into his closet for his favorite suit.
What has always stopped Evans just short of the superstar label has been his hitting -- good but not great; occasional flashes of power but mediocre for a man who goes 6 ft. 3 in. and weighs 205 pounds. In fact, after eight years as a Red Sox regular, Dwight had the grand of 128 home runs and a .262 lifetime batting average.
For most of his career, Evans has never used the same hitting stance twice in a row. If he wasn't shifting his feet, he was moving his head. Occasionally, if he didn't get a hit his first two times up, he'd chang what he was doing right in the middle of a game.
Mired in one of the worst batting slumps of his career just prior to the 1980 All-Star game (he was hitting .190), Dwight went to Red Sox bullpen coach Walt Hriniak for help. Although Hriniak had gone to bat only 99 times during his own big league career, Carl Yastrzemski had given him an engraved watch in appreciation of what he had done for him as a hitter.
"Until Walter started working with me, I was always jerking my head around, and I seldom hit the same way twice in a row," Evans explained. "If I didn't hit the ball well, I'd change. If I hit the ball well but somebody caught it, I'd still change.
"Although I never had home run on my mind, I used to pull everything to left field anyway," Dwight continued. "Pitchers were getting me out the same way all the time, and I was just standing there letting them. My average also suffered from a lack of concentration."
The first thing Hriniak did to help Evans was to make him a more selective hitter.
Obviously, if you stop chasing pitches that are off the plate and just concentrate on swinging at strikes, you are more apt to hit the ball safely," Walter said. "Instead of trying to pull everything, I taught Dewey to take advantage of the whole field.
"My theory on hitting is that you should always try to drive the ball up the middle," he continued. "If you're ahead of the pitch, the ball is going to left field. If you're behind the pitch, the ball is going to right. But in either case you help bring the percentages over to your side because you are always going with the pitch and not fighting it."
For the final 80 games of last season, Evans hit .317 with 13 homers and 38 runs batted in. For the reason as a whole he led the Red Sox in walks with 64 and had a career high 37 doubles.
"I still get into bad habits at the plate sometimes, but now I've got somebody around who knows me and can straighten me out," Evans said. "I used to feel cheated when the opposition took a hit away from me with a great catch. I don't think there is anything more frustrating. But I also know that the good hitters make their own breaks, and that the best way to get out of a slump is not to change what has worked for you in the past. Eventually you'll get your timing back and things will start to work again."
When Hriniak began helping Evans, one of the first things he discovered was a flaw in Dwight's batting swing that was caused by not keeping his head still while waiting for the pitch.
"All that motion was taking away from Evan's concentration, because it wasn't letting him pick up the pitcher's motion until it was too late," Walter explained. "So we squared up his stance, anchored his front foot, and made him hit more off his backside which, in my opinion, is where most of a hitter's power comes from."
Because Evans was making such good contact in spring training this year, new Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk moved him from eighth in his batting order to the leadoff position, then later put him in the No. 2 spot.
The result has been an Evans who leads the Red Sox in walks, runs scored, home runs, and RBIs, and who earned a spot on this year's American League All-Star team. The great fielding, of course, goes on, although it isn't likely that Dwight will go another 191 consecutive games without making an error the way he did during the 1973-74 seasons.