"I spent a lot of time being mentored by the late, great Willie Stargell. He was my hero."
If you factor in the science behind pitch speed, pitch recognition and hand-eye coordination, hitting a baseball consistently on the Major League level is damn near scientifically impossible. Yet there are guys who could seemingly roll out of bed and hit line drives before having their morning coffee.
Mike Easler was one of those dudes and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
If you mention the name Mike Easler to any fan of 1980s baseball, their first reaction is just about guaranteed to be unanimously, “That guy could hit.”
Easler may have had that natural talent, but it was the hard work and perseverance that made him into the hitter and coach he became.
Although Easler made his MLB debut in 1973 at just 22 years old, he didn’t stick in the Majors for a full season until 1979 and wasn’t given a chance to be a full-time player until the following year.
Easler spent ten years bouncing back and forth between the Majors and minors before he stayed up for good and all the while, he kept developing and learning about the science of hitting.
Easler played in parts of five Major League seasons between 1973-1977, yet still retained his rookie status going into 1979.
On the 1979 “We Are Family” Pirates, Easler served as a key pinch hitter, playing in 55 games but only registering 54 at bats. He batted .278 and in addition to his World Series ring, he earned a larger role for the 1980 season.
“I watch the game today and these guys can really play the game. They’re so athletic. But there’s something about our era. We were not only good athletes, but we were smart ballplayers.”
Easler played 132 games in 1980 and hit .338. Because he platooned with Lee Lacy, Easler fell short of qualifying for the batting title by a handful of at bats. He did, however finish 20th in the National League MVP voting.
He became an All-Star for the first time in 1981 and when all was said and done, he played with six teams over 14 years and batted .293 for his career.
He also made short pit stops playing for the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan and for the West Palm Beach Tropics in the Senior Professional Baseball Association.
When his career was done, he became one of the most highly regarded hitting coaches in the game, working with some youngsters who would go on to become the biggest stars in baseball.
Sure, Don Mattingly and Thomas Hearns went by the nickname “Hit Man”, but here at BallNine, we like to bring you the originals, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Mike Easler.
Thanks for joining us today Mr. Easler. I loved watching you play in the 80s and it will be great to talk to someone who was just a pure hitter. Let’s start in your childhood though. How did you get your love for baseball as a kid?
Growing up in Cleveland, the Indians were the team I listened to on the radio. It was my dad’s team. My dad got me into baseball. He played fastpitch softball and baseball, so he used to take me to games, and I just fell in love with it from a young age.
My dad used to play catch with me all the time in the driveway. He worked two jobs, but he always found a way to work with me quite often and when I got to high school, it didn’t seem like he missed many games.
Was there a time that you thought you were good enough to go after a professional baseball career?
I went to a good all-boys high school called Benedictine High School. My coach was Augie Bossu. It was a pretty big sports school. Once I got to high school, I thought I had a chance to get signed. I made the team as a sophomore and my dad used to tell me that scouts would come out and watch ballplayers.
My dad planted that seed in high school. Every time I got on the field, I was looking up in the stands for guys with clipboards and straw hats. I was on the lookout for the scouts and always wanted to be at my best when I played the game.
You got drafted by the Astros in the 1969 Draft. What was it like to get that call?
When I got signed out of high school that was a big thing. I made All-State and All-City as a sophomore and junior and then I made everything as a senior. I was praying that I got scouted. I came home from the All-State Game in Columbus, Ohio and my dad said, “Well, you got drafted by the Houston Astros. I said, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” I was a happy camper.
I am sure you were! Then you went right to the minors as an 18-year-old. What was your first experience like in pro ball?
Actually, I didn’t sign until a month and a half after. The scout came around July 4th and told me they didn’t think I was good enough to make it and that I wouldn’t last a week in Rookie Ball. I said, “Well then why the hell did you draft me?” My mom kicked him out of the house and said, “Don’t you come here and insult my son. We know he’s one of the best players in Cleveland!”
He came back and apologized to my mom. They signed me and I went to Covington, Virginia to play for the Covington Astros. That’s where my journey began, and it was a journey. I played ten years in the minor leagues.
That’s one hell of a story of incredible perseverance. What was it like spending so many years going back and forth between the Majors and minors?
I promised my dad that if I signed that contract, I could make it to the Majors in three years and then anything can happen. I got called up in 1973 for a cup of coffee. It took me quite a while to stick though. I played ten years in the minors and ten years of winter ball too. I played six winters in Mexico, three in Venezuela and one in Panama.
I had all kinds of baseball under my belt. I just needed to get a break, which I finally did in 1979. Even though I came up in ’73, 1979 was my rookie year. That was the first time I made the Opening Day roster and stayed there until after we won the World Series.
I guess if that’s gonna be a year to stick in the Majors, you couldn’t ask to do it for a better team. What was it like being a part of that “We are Family” Pirates team?
It was like a miracle. It was a blessing. I got traded to Boston in the offseason then the Pirates traded back for me in March. I made the club out of Spring Training and the rest was history. That had to be one of the greatest times of my life. I only started three games that year, all the rest were pinch hitting appearances. I spent a lot of time being mentored by the late, great Willie Stargell. He was my hero. I hung around him at batting practice, in the clubhouse, all over the place. He taught me baseball etiquette. He taught me how to act in the Major Leagues, how to carry myself and how to practice.
There were so many great ballplayers on that team. Just great hitters all over the place.
Willie, Manny Sanguillen, Grant Jackson, Dave Parker. People now don’t realize how good Parker was. He was one of the best all-around players. He could play defense and had a great arm. Bill Madlock, John Milner, Bill Robinson, Tim Foli, Phil Garner, Omar Moreno. These guys were warriors. I had a great time learning how to play the game and be focused on the game and getting the most out of my ability.
I watch the game today and these guys can really play the game. They’re so athletic. But there’s something about our era. We were not only good athletes, but we were smart ballplayers. We knew how to bunt, get a guy over, hit with two strikes, hit the cutoff man and run the bases. We played the game of baseball a little better than they do now.
Coming from someone who has been in the game as a player and coach for decades, there’s nobody better to get that perspective from. I totally agree. What was it like getting a couple of at bats in the 1979 World Series?
It was like I was walking on air. It was like I was in heaven. My first at bat was against Tim Stoddard. I hit a line drive to left field and just missed a home run. I had another at bat against Jim Palmer. He was over the top bringing gas and had that big ol’ curve ball. When you’re in that situation, your body kind of goes numb. You don’t think about it, you just have to do what you do. I was a hitter, so I got in that batters’ box and was totally focused on the baseball. I just wanted to get the bat head on the baseball and hit it as hard as I could.
What was it like to spend so long in the minors and then come up and win the World Series, almost win a batting title and then become an All-Star in your first three years?
When they gave me the chance to play in 1980, I ended up hitting .338 with 21 home runs. I was lacking about 25 at bats from winning the batting title. Chuck Tanner used to take me out for defense around the sixth inning, so I lost a lot of at bats. Bill Buckner won the batting title hitting .333 and I hit .338, I just didn’t have the at bats.
In 1981, we had the strike-shortened year. Dallas Green picked me as an extra outfielder for the All-Star team. To me, along with winning the World Series, that was the happiest and most memorable moment of my career. Playing in the All-Star Game in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
That’s right! I didn’t make that connection. You mentioned a lot about your family having an influence on your career as a youngster, did they get to go to the game?
My father, all my siblings, everybody came. We had about 70,000 people at that game. It was the first game after the strike, that’s how they came back. Boy, that was crazy. My dad was my everything. He taught me everything I knew about baseball. He practiced with me in the driveway, took me to games, coached my Little League team. He pushed me and encouraged me, and I just loved the game.
I feel like I played half my career for him, I just wanted to make him happy. Finally, after I made it, I had to forget about that. I had to get my game together because sometimes when he came, I got the jitters because I wanted to do well for him. I said, “Dad, I love you much but I gotta think about this game!” My dad was my everything and I was happier for him that I made the All-Star team than I was for myself. The World Series too. Him and my mother, they were beautiful parents.
That’s beautiful. I love that connection between the generations that baseball has. I grew up watching Yankees and Mets games with my dad and uncle almost every night. What was it like playing for the Yankees?
I got traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1986. It was Lou Piniella’s first year managing. Let’s put it this way, I felt like I reached the mountain top of baseball. I finally reached the big time. I had played with the Pirates, won a World Series, played in the All-Star Game, but playing with the Yankees was like a whole other league. There I was wearing the Pinstripes with the NY on my hat. I couldn’t have picked a better place to end my career. It was the end of my career and I was ready to retire, but I had a chance to do some boppin’ with the Yankees.
You did have a solid couple of years there and they had a great lineup too; one of the best in the game. What did you think of that lineup?
We outhit the whole league, but we didn’t have the pitching that they had in the past. We had some guys who could hit. [Dave] Winfield, Rickey [Henderson] and [Don] Mattingly. Even [Mike] Pagliarulo and Claudell Washington. George Steinbrenner made sure they had a good lineup on the field. If you didn’t do your job, they’d bring in someone else just like that.
You played with so many Hall of Famers and great hitters and you’re so knowledgeable about hitting. Who do you think were some of the best pure hitters you played with?
Dave Parker was great. He was one of the best all-around warrior players. He could hit the ball hard and hit for power and average. He ran the bases like a madman too. To me, nobody hit the ball harder than Willie Stargell. That ball came off his bat like a sonic boom breaking the sound barrier. I used to always love Reggie Jackson. He was always my hero. I studied his swing and had it in my mind when I went to home plate. Wade Boggs and Jim Rice were great; I played with so many great players.
But the best all-around hitter I played with was Don Mattingly. I think he was the most fearsome, greatest hitter I played with. He was a great first baseman and a great ballplayer in general. But I just loved my era. Look at that 1981 All-Star Game, there were 19 Hall of Famers in that game. Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, these guys were all great.
Damn right they were. After your playing career, you went right into what would be a long career as a hitting coach. How did you make that transition?
After I left the Yankees, my agent called me and asked if I would like to play in Japan. I said, “Yes, I still got some hits left in this body. Sure, I’ll go to Japan.” My first year I did really well and went back the next year, but that’s when I got hurt. My back started hurting and I had problems with my eyes. I started talking to coaches there about the art of hitting and studying hitters and I really started putting my mind on becoming a hitting coach right when I retired because I just loved the game so much. As soon as I got out, I got a job managing and I’ve been coaching ever since.
You have worked with so many great hitters over your career, who are some that stand out to you if you had to pick a few?
My first year in Milwaukee I got to work with Dante Bichette when he was young. He got traded from the Angels. Pat Listach was the Rookie of the Year when I was there, so I got to work with him too. Paul Molitor and Robin Yount were on that team. Some other guys I think of are John Valentin and Placido Polanco. I was even Albert Pujols’ hitting coach his rookie year. I worked with Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds. I could go on and on and on.
I spent time in Boston too and started working with Mo Vaughn and we’re still working together to this day. He has a baseball academy in Boca Raton, so I fly in and out to help with that.
That’s great you guys still have that relationship. I read you had a big influence on him when he was younger.
Mo was really the one who stands out. He was a young guy who didn’t have much direction. He had no idea how to hit. He was a big strong guy, but he struck out a lot. When I got there, I helped him create this mold and the rest is history. He was dangerous. That man was a strong human being. He sticks out in my mind as one of my greatest students.
Mo has really bought into coaching now. He has a son who is eight years old now. I am so proud of Mo Vaughn. I could never imagine that Mo Vaughn would be a coach one day. He was such a warrior type of a mean player. But off the field, he’s one of the nicest guys in the world. He’s just a super human being. He really knows and understands the game of baseball. We’re gonna do a manual about hitting, something like The Hit Man and The Hit Dog.
You have another book you’re working on too. Can you tell us a little about that?
I am working on something with a guy from Cooperstown named Bruce Markuson. We stay in contact and have been going back and forth for the past year and a half. It’s about everything I have been through in my life and career. It should be out within the next year. It’s about my career, dealing with the ups and downs, the managers I played for, the disappointments I had. Dealing with being in the minors for so long and some of the racial things I went through. It should be a good read.
Just a couple more questions for you as we wrap up. I have to ask where the nickname The Hit Man came from.
In 1979 I was used as a pinch hitter and we were playing in Atlanta. My older brother, Ted Easler, told me I had to get rid of my old nickname, Easy Easler. He said it was too soft of a name for baseball. We started talking and he came up with The Hit Man. I said, “Ooh, that sounds good. The Hit Man.” He said, you go in the locker room and start putting that on your clothes. He said, “The next pinch hit you get, you tell the press that you’re not Easy anymore, you’re The Hit Man.”
It so happened that I hit a pinch home run against the Mets and when I was talking to reporters, I told them, “My name used to be Easy, but now I’m gonna be The Hit Man. I’m the guy who is gonna get the big hit” A week later, I hit another pinch homer against the Mets and Chuck Tanner said, “Yea, he really is The Hit Man.” Then with that New York media, the nickname stuck. I got a lot of pinch hits that year and then in 1980 I hit .338, so you know the nickname stuck after that.
We’re here 30 years later and you’re still The Hit Man. This has been great, and I have one final open-ended question for you. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
Baseball has been such a great thing for me my whole life. I loved it from a young age because of my dad. People who play the game sometimes don’t realize how great a game it is. You learn so much about yourself and how to deal with other people. You learn how to compete and how to care for your body. Baseball has been the greatest game in the world for me, and I still love the game to this day.
Coaching has been really dear to my heart because I have a chance to pass on the gift that God gave me, and I am passing it on to other kids. I learned through Willie Stargell and other guys to enjoy the game of baseball. Willie used to say, “The umpire says, ‘play ball,’ not ‘work ball.’” Willie taught me how to enjoy the game, my dad taught me how to respect the game. Willie also taught me to pass on my knowledge to other people and I think I have done that in my career.