From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with hitting coach James Rowson

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The unmistakable sound of maple meeting cork, string and leather reverberates around the empty, cavernous Wrigley Field grounds.

Hours before the Cubs are slated to take on San Diego in an early-May tilt, the position players are jumping in and out of the massive, blue-padded hitting cage and spraying white projectiles along the outfield grass. Each player gets a dozen or so pitches from third base coach David Bell, who is standing about 40 feet away.

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

Watching and analyzing it all, arms resting on the chest-high bar that stretches around the back of the cage, is hitting coach James Rowson. The 36-year-old seems to have a perpetual grin on his face as he watches the hitters take their cuts and chats with other coaches, upper management and players. In fact, he looks surprisingly comfortable and relaxed, especially considering the inconsistent Cubs attack and the myriad pressures baseball can heap on a coach.

But that apparent ease belies the countless hours of work Rowson has already put in watching video, working with players individually and formulating a game plan with the coaches. Like every member of the Cubs staff, Rowson is a baseball rat. He loves the game and loves the art of hitting—even if it can keep the most optimistic of baseball men up at night.

Pounding baseballs didn’t come as easily for Rowson as it did for the players he works with on a daily basis. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native was a career .204 hitter in three minor league seasons and one year of independent league ball. On the advice of some notable baseball figures, including slugger Ken Griffey Sr., Rowson decided to make the move into coaching when his brief playing career was over.

After more than 11 seasons as a minor league hitting coach with the Angels and Yankees, Rowson became the Cubs’ minor league hitting coordinator at the start of the 2012 season. He was named interim major league hitting coach on June 12, 2012, when the North Siders dismissed noted swing guru Rudy Jaramillo, and had the interim tag removed prior to the 2013 season.

Vine Line caught up with Rowson as the weather was starting to heat up to discuss the pressures of professional baseball, the advantages of having an assistant for the first time, and what the restoration of Wrigley Field will mean to him and the team.

Vine Line: A lot of people don’t understand what goes into being a professional hitting coach. What does your daily routine look like?

James Rowson: [There’s] a lot of preparation. You’re starting early in the morning before the series starts, you’re watching video on players, you’re watching video on opposing pitchers. And [I’m] breaking down some of the numerical stats, things that might be important to help you win the game. The goal is to have your players prepared in every way possible.

VL: What made you want to move into coaching after your playing days were over?

JR: It was the love of the game and understanding how difficult this game is. As a player, I struggled offensively, struggled to figure out how it all worked. But I was fortunate to be around good organizations and good players and good teachers. I just had a knack to want to learn how to make this game work. … Ultimately, that turned into coaching and being able to now help players figure out some of the things I couldn’t figure out as a player.

VL: The organization removed the interim tag from your title in the offseason. What did that mean to you heading into 2013?

JR: What it does is it gives you the ability to pick up where you left off last year. That’s the way I look at it. It doesn’t change a whole lot because what we came in doing last year is the same thing we’re going to preach. And obviously as the players get more comfortable doing it and more comfortable with me, hopefully we can speed up that progression.

VL: Did having a full offseason versus jumping into the position midstream like last year add any more pressure to the job?

JR: No, it’s about winning. It’s about creating a winning atmosphere. So from Day One last year, it was about winning, and from Day One this year, it’s about getting to that ultimate goal of winning a World Series. I think if you don’t feel pressure, something’s wrong. This is a “win” business.

VL: Did the success the rotation had early in the season make the offensive struggles harder to deal with?

JR: No, because what you do is stay with the process. As an offense, you’re really trying to get those guys [wins]. That’s our goal. When [the starters] leave the game, hopefully we have the lead, and they have a chance to win a ballgame. But at the end of the day, it’s about the team winning, and you want your offense to understand we’re going to play 27 outs. At the end of those 27, we want to have more runs than they have. We want to manufacture more runs, we want to get big hits with runners in scoring position, however they come.

VL: This season, the Cubs made Rob Deer the first assistant hitting coach in club history. How does that impact the way you go about your job?

JR: I always say having more eyes on someone is good. The more eyes, the better. Sometimes you’ll get locked into one thing, and you may not see something else—something that may be critical to helping that guy that night. Rob’s great with helping guys out with [opposing] bullpen guys coming into the game. Maybe a reliever is coming in, and he’s watching some video downstairs during the game, preparing those guys to come out for pinch-hit at-bats and things of that nature.

We’ll split some things up, but he has his own ideas, and we try to keep it as a team. The same way a team would work together, our goal is to work together and just kind of do our own homework, do our own research and find out at the end of the day when we put everything together if he came up with something a little different than me or if I came up with something a little different. It’s a team effort.

VL: You’ve said in the past that swings are very personal. How conscious are you of that when tinkering with a player’s approach?

JR: You have to work with [hitters] as individuals. You do have to find out what they are comfortable doing, and you work from there. These guys have had success to get to this level, so it’s usually not wholesale changes. But every once in a while, you’re going to have to make some changes. The biggest thing is you keep the player in the loop as to what you’re trying to do, and you let him know what you’re searching for. You allow him to have input into what’s going on with his swing. It’s definitely a two-way street when it comes to making adjustments.

VL: Why is it so important to allow players to have input into swing adjustments?

JR: At the end of the day when they’re facing that pitcher, they have to believe in what they’re going up to the plate with. So if I’m telling them something and they have any doubts or it doesn’t feel good or something’s funny, it’s hard to believe in that with a 96 mph fastball coming at you. At the end of the day, it’s a combination of both [me and the player], and they understand that.

A lot of times, we’ll go through two or three things and say, “Hey, how does this feel?” If that one doesn’t feel so good, we’ll find another way. Executing the job is being able to make adjustments. We ask players to make adjustments, so as coaches we have to make adjustments as well.

VL: It seems like teams are using defensive shifts more than ever before. Should a player’s approach change depending on the defensive positioning?

JR: It’s important that [a hitter] maintains his approach. Sometimes you see the visual shift, and you try to do something that you don’t normally do. You were successful getting here being yourself, so you don’t want to play into a shift because now you’re trying to be successful being someone you’re not, which is pretty hard to do at this level. [Managers] played a lot of shifts against Barry Bonds, and he played pretty good against them.

VL: Anthony Rizzo looks like a guy who is constantly tinkering with his swing. Is that something that gets talked about, or is he just improvising by feel?

JR: I think it’s a feel. Rizzo is a loose guy, so he likes to feel nice and loose at the plate. Sometimes you may see the bat waggle a little bit—that’s a feel for him. I’m always watching those things just to make sure he stays in timing, he stays in rhythm—that those things don’t throw him out of whack. But you would never change those things because that’s part of his feel and his rhythm, which allows him to hit.

VL: There has been a lot of talk this season about the Wrigley Field restoration, which will include new batting tunnels off the clubhouse. How grateful will you be for the added resources?

JR: It’s going to be awesome. We’re going to love it. We won’t take that walk out to right field [to the current batting cages] anymore. We’ll have everything in the clubhouse. So that will be a great added plus for us. It will make it a lot easier for players to get down there. It can only help.

VL: Do you think not having those resources has been detrimental to the team?

JR: I think it’s tough, honestly. Obviously we’re working right now with what we’re given and what we have to do. But I think sometimes we’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, just because there are some other things available, and other teams have them available to them. So it will be really nice when the new facilities are built to feel like it’s an even playing field.

VL: You are in charge of something a lot of people think is the hardest thing to do in sports. It has to be moderately frustrating, right?

JR: It’s funny. It’s the job I chose to do, so it’s exciting. There’s nothing more rewarding than when a guy who works really hard comes through … in a ballgame. So for all the times that are tough and all the times you grind, it’s always rewarding when you see a guy realize what he was trying to do or what that purpose was. When it comes down to it, it’s more rewarding than it is tough.

—Phil Barnes

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