Gary Ward: a strong, talented young hitter who is finally reaching his potential

Gary Ward of the Minnesota Twins is one of major league baseball's best kept secrets - a winner who plays for a chronic loser. However, most of Ward's offensive statistics this year are right there with those of Dave Winfield of the Yankees, Jim Rice of the Red Sox, and Cal Ripken of the Orioles. And on the defensive side, Gary currently leads all American League outfielders in assists.

Ignored in baseball's June 1972, free-agent draft by every major league franchise, Ward's link to the future for a while consisted of no more than a couple of paragraphs in the notebook of Minnesota scout Jesse Flores. Jesse patrols the California area for the Twins.

Mostly those notes dealt with a rugged, 6 ft. 2 in. Compton, Calif. high schooler who seemed to have all the makings of a future big leaguer. Two months after that June draft, Flores had Minnesota convinced that Ward, a right-hander all the way, could run, field, hit for average, hit for power, and throw well enough to discourage any runner from taking liberties with his arm. Jesse also suggested that Gary, who was a pitcher-shortstop in high school, be shifted to the outfield in the pros.

Although Ward was up briefly with the Twins in 1979 and again in 1980, he didn't become a permanent member of Minnesota's 25-man roster until 1981.

Even then, Gary didn't see much everyday action, his appearance in 85 games consisting mostly of pinch-hitting roles or late-inning mop-up assignments in the outfield. In the departments that really mattered, Gary hit only three homers and drove in only 29 runs.

So you can imagine everyone's surprise when Ward became a regular in 1982, played in 152 games, hit .289, blasted 28 balls out of the park, and drove in 91 runners. In fact, those numbers take on even more significance once you know that most of them came after June 16, the day he stopped being a swinger and became a hitter.

''At that time I don't think there was anyone in the Twins organization who didn't like Gary's potential as a hitter,'' said Minnesota Manager Billy Gardner. ''He looked like a kid who had the tools to handle all kinds of pitching. But he also had a problem: he wasn't getting the job done. Basically all we knew at the time was that he wasn't picking the ball up after it left the pitcher's hand the way he should.

''Finally Jim Lemon, our hitting coach, decided to open up Ward's stance a little so that he could see the ball better,'' Gardner continued. ''Well, it worked. I don't mean that Gary began tearing up the league right away, but there was definite improvement. By the July all-star break, pitchers who had been getting him out consistently were looking for new ways to handle him.''

Ward, who says he rarely talks to reporters because he usually ends up getting misquoted, has become an all-fields hitter like California's Rod Carew and Kansas City's George Brett. Although Gary doesn't have their kind of bat control yet, he's still pretty good at hitting the ball where it's pitched or, when a runner has to be moved from first to third base, pushing the ball into right field.

''One of the things I've learned in the past year as a hitter is to control the things you can control and not worry too much about the rest,'' Gary told me. ''By controlling things, I mean my attitude, my swing, and my emotions. I give Jim Lemon all the credit for improving me as a hitter because it was Jim who got me to open up my stance. Until he changed me around, I wasn't really seeing the ball with both eyes.''

Gardner, who has at least one player on his roster in Ward that he can write onto his lineup card everyday and forget him, says that Gary can hit a home run to any part of the ballpark. However, his natural power is mostly to right center.

''Once a hitter gains his confidence, the next step is disciplining himself not to go after pitches he knows he can't handle,'' Gardner explained. ''Oh, he might get fooled once in a while, but basically he'll wait for a ball he knows he can drive.

''That's where Ward is right now, and he's going to get better,'' Billy continued. ''I don't know how many multiple-hit games Gary has had this year, but he's had a few and he's also taken advantage of some pretty good pitchers by going to right field with balls they probably would have gotten him out on two years ago.''

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