Baseball’s Sluggo, Don Slaught
"We get out there... and Jim Leyland is just sitting there in his underwear smoking a cigarette."
Oof the best compliments you can give someone in a professional setting is that they were ahead of their time. Jimi Hendrix and I Love Lucy were ahead of their time. So were Gayle Sayers, Nikola Tesla and Groucho Marx.
If you can do anything in life to make someone say that you were ahead of your time, you’re in good company.
Former Major League catcher Don Slaught was ahead of his time and he joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’ to discuss.
As a 16-year veteran, Slaught intersected with baseball history on more than one occasion. He was the Royals catcher during The Pine Tar Game and was the righty half of a catching platoon with Mike LaValliere on the great Pirates teams of the late 1980s.
He was the victim of a hit by pitch to the face at Fenway Park from an Oil Can Boyd fastball in one of the most gruesome beanings you’ll ever see.
Slaught was an All-American at UCLA before his stint in the Majors and was the hitting coach for Jim Leyland’s Tigers team that made a miracle run to the World Series in 2006.
As impressive as that all is, it’s not what puts Slaught ahead of his time.
After his playing career was over, Slaught founded RightView Pro, the first video analysis system for baseball and softball licensed by the Major League Baseball and the MLBPA.
Two decades ago, Slaught was pioneering technology and coaching theories that are now prevalent in Major League Baseball and he has kept the software relevant by expanding, innovating and adapting with the times.
Slaught and RightView Pro continue to make breakthroughs in coaching technology and he now he has expanded his reach as a partner with OnBaseU, an educational organization dedicated to the study of how the human body functions in relation to baseball and softball.
If all of that isn’t interesting enough, Slaught is also a volunteer coach for the defending National Champion UCLA softball team.
Lucille Ball wasn’t available, and neither was Groucho Marx, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Don Slaught.
“I broke my eye socket, my cheekbone, my nose and I lost a tooth.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Slaught. I want to get into your work with OnBaseU and RightView Pro, but let’s start with your own career. You were an All-American at UCLA for legendary head coach Gary Adams. How did you end up there and what was it like playing for Coach Adams?
In high school, I was third string when I started out. But I was on varsity by my junior year and did well enough to get into UCLA by the time I was done. I was fourth string there though and I wasn’t going to get to play, so I transferred to El Camino Junior College- but I got hurt there and had shoulder surgery. I went back to UCLA as a junior though and all of a sudden, I was good.
I won the PAC 10 batting title at .426 which broke the school record for average. I got drafted as a junior, but I went back to school. I didn’t have as good a year as a senior, but I got drafted five rounds higher.
You made it to the Majors pretty quick, after just two years in the minors. What was that like to be a young kid coming onto that great Royals team with those stars of the 1970s and ‘80s?
I mean, Holy Cow, those guys were something. You had George Brett, Frank White, Amos Otis, Willie Wilson. All of them. I think I was one of the first guys to break the lineup that had been together all those years. You had UL Washington, Willie Aikens, John Wathan was the catcher. Wathan did something to his ankle in 1982 about half-way through the season, so they called me up pretty quick.
I actually would have gotten called up sooner. I was in AAA in 1981 and they told me I would be going up to the Majors on September 1 when they expanded the roster. On August 25, I slid into second base and got a knee to the head. I went to the hospital but got out and played the next day. There was a guy on third and a grounder in the infield. The guy tried to score, and the throw was high. He slid while I jumped and broke my leg. Five days before I was going to get to the Big Leagues, I broke my leg.
That’s terrible. But you stuck around and were around some great teams, players and managers in a long career. You had a number of games that stood out too.
Yeah, I had a few games I played in that you’ll see on ESPN Classic. Like a game that had three grand slams or the Pine Tar Game, of course. I watch those games and tell my kids when they’re on.
I’ll tell you a funny story, I was coaching at a high school and they were showing this old extra inning game on TV. The principal calls me up and tells me the game is on. He asks if I do anything that game. I asked him what inning and he told me the 12th. I told him to keep watching.
I had the chance to turn it on for my son in time for me to hit a double up the gap in right center to win the game. My son just looked at me and said, “Daddy, everybody likes you!”
Another game that gets talked about a lot was when I got hit in the face in Boston. That was in 1986.
I wanted to ask you about that, but if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand. It was such a horrific injury.
Well, it was a two-strike pitch from Oil Can Boyd and I just lost it in the background at Fenway Park. I just lost the pitch in the white shirts in the stands and to this day, nobody sits in centerfield during a day game. I think Rocky Colavito had also got hit there the same way.
What was the extent of your injury?
I broke my eye socket, my cheekbone, my nose and I lost a tooth. My eye still sits on plastic to this day. The only time you could really see it though is if I work out. That area will still turn bright red. But the worst part was that my dad was watching the Dodgers game and they cut in to show it, so he was a little panicked. My wife was listening to the radio and the announcers were saying stuff to keep her from panicking.
Meeting of the Minds: Slaught, Dallas Green and Tommy John (from l to r)
How do you come back from something like that? I have to think there’s that little thought always there about it and you can’t have any doubt as a hitter on that level.
You know, it wasn’t hard at all. I had gotten out of the way of that pitch a million times before. This was just a fluke thing. I totally lost sight of the ball because of the shirts in the stands. But seven weeks later I came back wearing one of those extended face guards on the helmets. I think I was the first one to wear that and a lot of guys are wearing them today.
It was the Fourth of July when I came back and I got a standing ovation. I went up there against Jack Morris and struck out on three pitches. I was so fired up. He threw me three split fingers in a row and it was right back to the dugout.
I give you a ton of credit for that and also the fact that you came back and got better. You went to the Yankees for two years and then on to those great Pirates teams. I don’t want to bring up bad memories, but three years in a row you lost in the NLCS. As a player, how disappointing is it to get that close three times and miss out on the World Series?
It wears on you. I think we had the best record in the league two of those years too. We had the best players, but we just couldn’t afford to keep them. We lost players, but we kept winning. We lost guys like Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley. Jim Leyland was the key to all of this though. Not only was he the key to everything there, but also when I coached with him in 2006 with the Tigers.
That Tigers team is really an incredible story and was your only season in the Majors as a hitting coach. How did you get into that position?
I was at the 2005 All-Star Game with RightView Pro. That’s where I film all the Major Leaguers from different angles. Jim Leyland walked up to me and asked what I was doing, so I explained it all to him. That was in July. In December, he called me up and asked if I wanted to coach. I told him I would, but he said, “Call your wife and ask if you can coach.”
I called home and my wife and oldest daughter answered the phone at the same time. I said, “Jim Leyland just asked me to coach with him.” Before my wife could even say anything, my daughter said, “Dad, that’s what you do! You gotta do this!” So, I said yes to him.
He told me that he didn’t know what team we’d be coaching, but he was putting a staff together. He got Gene Lamont and Andy Van Slyke and put us all together but didn’t tell us where we were going.
Slaught closes the pickle jar
I am sure with that staff and his track record he had some teams that had to be interested.
There were a few different jobs out there and I was thinking he’d take the Cubs or Dodgers. Well, he calls us up and says, “We’re going to Detroit.” They had something like 13 straight losing seasons, but that’s what he wanted to do.
I guess he liked the challenge of it. He doesn’t seem like someone who would back down from a challenge.
There was young talent. We got to Spring Training and right away he says, “I’m not going to bring up these young guys like [Justin] Verlander and [Joel] Zumaya, they need more seasoning.” But by the end of Spring Training, the coaches had talked Jim into bringing them all up. If we’re gonna go down, let’s do it with what we think is the best.
We got off to a great start. We had the best record in baseball through the first couple months and broke home run records for the first two months of the season. Jim Leyland took that team that hadn’t had a winning season in forever and turned it around to make the World Series in one year.
What was it like finally getting to the World Series after coming close so many times?
Well, we had a week to sit around. We beat the Yankees in four in the first round then swept the A’s, so we had to wait for the National League. I wanted to keep the guys competitive and sharp. I asked Jim if we could play a live game. I got everybody to chip in $75 and we split them into three teams. We faced our own pitchers and we’d try to get well-hit balls. We had a point system and Leyland was the judge.
It was great. It came down to Pudge Rodriguez and he came through, so they won all the money. I said, “Jim, we gotta do this again. We gotta do this for like three days to keep our edge.” He didn’t want to though. He was worried someone would get hurt.
I can understand that. It must have been great to play for Jim Leyland and then serve as one of his coaches on a World Series team.
I’ve got a story that will tell you what it’s like. We were playing in Dodgers Stadium years ago and I brought a fraternity brother to the stadium. We get out there at like 1 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game and Jim Leyland is just sitting there in his underwear smoking a cigarette.
My friend asks Jim, “So what kind of player is Don Slaught?” Now, you don’t ask Jim any questions you don’t want a direct answer to. So, I was like, “Oh gosh,” and just put my hand over my eyes. Jim says, “Well he’s an alright player but a great guy.” I said, “Jim, that’s the way I’d rather have it.” He said, “Not me, I’d rather have the great player.”
I would not have expected any other type of response from him! Moving on to your company RightView Pro. There has always been technology in baseball, and it’s more prevalent today than it ever was, but you have doing this with RightView Pro for two decades. How did it come about?
To me, baseball has always been behind technologically. Golf and Formula One racing are probably the most technologically advanced sports. They have the manufacturers behind them to spend money on research and development.
I was coaching high school baseball and I thought the kids weren’t understanding what I was saying. I was spending two hours a day talking and thought I needed to develop a way for coaches to communicate better. Using video analysis and pictures, I could show the guys what I was also telling them.
You use it with softball too, correct? As a volunteer assistant with UCLA softball, how does this all tie in?
I kind of got involved in a weird way. Back in 2003, my daughter wanted to play softball and I wanted to coach the team. They wouldn’t let me though because they said I was a baseball guy and they thought I’d teach a baseball swing. I told them that the swings were the same, but they didn’t want to hear that. So, I called [Hall of Fame UCLA softball coach] Sue Enquist and asked her to call the President of the softball league to tell him that softball and baseball swings were the same. She said to me, “No, they’re totally different.”
I told her about the software I built back in 2001 where I can take all the Major Leaguers shot at high speed at exact angles and put them side-by-side with her Olympians and All-Americans and could prove it.
She said, “OK, I will be at your house tomorrow at nine.” The next day, she showed up exactly at nine and didn’t leave until 6 PM. She didn’t even go to practice. She said, “Don, they all do exactly what you said they do. This is just what I teach my players.” Then she introduced me to [Hall of Fame Arizona softball coach] Mike Candrea. I brought Mike and Sue on board and they presented it to the softball world.
That’s really interesting stuff. You hear a lot of varying opinions on the differences between baseball and softball swings, but the videos don’t lie. Now you’re involved with OnBaseU, can you tell us about that?
Well I guess the simple way to put it is we try to take the guesswork out of coaching. We’ve tried to use video, but video will only answer certain questions. So, we use 3-D motion analysis like you see in video games. We use it to tell us how energy is moving through the body and how efficiently you use it.
In other words, if your core isn’t strong enough, it’s not getting all the energy from the ground through your legs and hips and into your upper body. There’s a million ways to hit, but there’s one efficient way that every hitter can hit based on what their body can do.
This is what I missed the first ten years I was coaching. I’m telling them what I want them to do, but if they physically can’t do it, it’s a very frustrating lesson. So for example, at UCLA, on day one we screen the women to see if there’s any physical limitations.
We see if they can separate their arms far enough and things like that. We power test them to see how strong they are in the legs with vertical jumps, sit ups to test the core, chest passes with medicine balls to test upper body. We do shotput throws from both sides to see how well they can transition into rotation.
Then we’ll go look at the video. Maybe we’ll see something wrong between the upper body and the core and we can address that.
Then the next question to answer is whether it’s something they need to work on physically or is it something we can coach around. Then we get into the kinematic sequence and motor learning.
Don Slaught gets in front of one
There’s that connection with golf. Kinematic sequence is always important there. That has a lot to do with muscle memory, right?
Yes. Motor programs never go away. It’s like riding a bike. It’s not like cognitive learning. It’s different than passing an Algebra test you took 20 years ago. That goes away, but the motor programs are always there. What we try to do is build a new motor program that puts things in the way we want. That’s what we’ve done with half of the Major League teams and probably about 2,000 people over the years.
Amazing. I’m sure you didn’t even scratch the surface on what the capabilities are. I’ve been on your site and it’s really fascinating high-tech stuff, but relatable to instruction. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about that, but now one last stop back to your career. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
Well, I look back and the reason I started RightView Pro and the reason I got involved in education is because I became a better player as I got older. My first eight years in the Majors, I batted .269. My next eight years I hit over .300 and my final five years I hit over .310. I found ways to get better despite being older and slower.
To me, that meant the education of throwing out bad information and filling it with good information was what was most important. I do these seminars and I talk about the conversations that changed my career, and none of them were more than five minutes. They were with guys like Bill Buckner, Lou Piniella, George Brett and Don Mattingly. Guys like that. And they were literally just five-minute conversations that made me think clear and made me a better hitter.
Don Slaught spent 16 years in the Major Leagues, catching 1,237 games. His is a partner in OnBase University, an educational organization dedicated to how the human body functions.
According to their website, www.onbaseu.com, “OnBase University’s mission is to educate baseball and softball players and industry professionals on the Body-Baseball Connection™ or the Body-Softball Connection™ through its one of a kind ‘OnBaseU Certified’ educational program.”
Follow OnBase University on Twitter @OnBaseU.
Learn more about RightView Pro on their website, www.rightviewpro.com.