Friday, May 2, 2003 | 10:25 a.m.
Asked recently about the impact he has had on the 51s, first-year hitting instructor and first base coach George Hendrick backed up a step or two, then pointed to a bunch of players working out at Cashman Field.
This is about them, he said, not me. Ask them.
Asked about a stormy relationship he has had with print media for more than 30 years, and Hendrick opened up.
He said it stemmed from an incident from his third season in 1973, when he played for the Cleveland Indians and said something about teammate Lloyd Allen, a pitcher, to a newspaper reporter.
His quotes, he said, came out disparaging and misrepresented what he meant. Journalistic liberties, he said, were taken, and he was asked about, and forced to defend what he'd said, in many other cities that season.
"I said something," Hendrick said, "and had to apologize to the entire league."
That's when he vowed never to say another word to the print media. He declined to elaborate about that incident in 1973.
For the rest of that year and 15 more, Hendrick growled, shunned and made it abundantly clear in every other way that he was not to be approached by writers before or after games.
He would like to keep that distance.
"I think we have a good man here," said 51s manager John Shoemaker. "He's one of the favorite guys in the clubhouse, I know that. He keeps everyone positive and loose, and he has a good work ethic. I'm really happy with what he's done for the organization."
Hendrick brought 18 years of playing experience, and 10 as a coach, to the 51s.
A four-time All-Star, he hit .278 in his career, with 267 home runs, for six teams. Oakland (in 1972) and St. Louis (in 1982) won the World Series when he played for them, but he hit only .256 in those games and he never collected an extra-base hit in 23 postseason games.
A Las Vegas resident before coaching here, Hendrick gave up a managerial post at Single-A Fort Wayne to join the 51s in January, a few weeks after Shoemaker was promoted to manage the squad.
Hendrick, 53, looks like the same 6-foot-3, 195-pounder who last swung a bat for the California Angels in 1988.
Since then, he has served as a roving hitting and outfield instructor in the St. Louis minor-league system, a hitting instructor for the Cardinals, a first-base coach for the Angels and then a roving minor-leagueg hitting instructor in San Diego's system.
Last season, he managed the Padres' Single-A team in Lake Elsinore to the California League championship, where it lost to Stockton.
"He doesn't try to mess with your swing too much," said 51s first baseman Larry Barnes. "I like a guy who isn't going to totally change your swing if you're struggling a little bit. I'm still getting to know him, but he's a great guy and a good hitting coach."
In the 16-team Pacific Coast League, Las Vegas is 11th with a team batting average of .257. However, it has made the most of those hits by scoring 134 runs, fourth-best in the league.
The 51s have also swatted 26 home runs. Only Sacramento, with 30, has more in the PCL.
Outfielder Bubba Crosby, second in the league with a .416 batting average, said he thinks it would be difficult to adjust to being a manager or a first base coach in the minor leagues after spending 18 years playing in the Major Leagues.
"But he's done a great job," Crosby said. "He's a good addition to the ball club. He's a funny guy, and a fun guy to be around. He knows how to be serious when he needs to be serious, and he can be one of the guys.
"The manager has this job to do, as a manager. The first-base coach, he can kind of get in here with the guys more. I think he really knows how to do his job, and he knows when it's a good time to play around and hang out with the guys and be funny."
Barnes said that quality is important.
"He's like one of the players," Barnes said. "That's a good compliment for a hitting coach."
After providing some background about his often-caustic relationship with writers, Hendrick slinked away and eventually shuffled down the third-base line, singing along with "Movin' On Up" -- the theme song from the hit '70s TV show "The Jeffersons" -- that blared on a loudspeaker.
He smiled away the late-afternoon sunshine as he played pepper with four 51s.
"He understands that these guys, at this level, don't need a lot," Shoemaker said. "They already know a lot. But there are some finer points, a few things, that he shows them."
Barnes has a team-best seven home runs and said Hendrick has been instrumental in showing him how to be selective.
"Get a pitch to hit, and don't think too much," Barnes said of what he has learned from Hendrick. "At the same time, know what the pitcher is trying to do with you. Just have fun. He's a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and he keeps it loose with the hitters.
"That's what you have to be ... it's a long season."
Brings up an interesting dilemma, too. The guy who seems to communicate so well with players might one day catch the eye of an owner, or organization, who seeks such a person to manage the parent club.
That's a scenario in which major-league managers are required to be available to the media, especially the print variety, before and after every single game.
Every ... single ... game.
The question was posed to the man who so despises talking to newspaper writers.
"Haven't thought about it," said Hendrick, turning around in a blink and cruising to the mound to throw batting practice.