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Van Slyke brings intensity to Mariners practice

First-base coach focused on speeding game up to help elevate outfielders' defense

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As a five-time Gold Glove outfielder, when Andy Van Slyke speaks, his new Mariners pupils listen.

But the Mariners outfielders are doing more than listening to their new position coach this spring. They're running through difficult drills, making challenging catches against the wall, running down drives in the gaps, avoiding coaches flashing cards that require them to look down and call out the number they see and then look up again and relocate the ball on high popups in the wind.

"I have a pretty simple theory about playing the outfield," said Van Slyke, a three-time All-Star with the Pirates during an outstanding 13-year career. "I try to make practice faster than the game."

Van Slyke, 53, is one of the interesting characters on Lloyd McClendon's new coaching staff in Seattle, coming out of a four-year absence from the game to rejoin McClendon after the two worked together on the Tigers staff from 2007-09.

When Van Slyke called McClendon and told him he was interested in reuniting, there was no hesitation. Van Slyke will be the first-base coach and also work with the outfielders and oversee baserunning drills.

"When we talked about putting a staff together, Andy fit the mold," said McClendon, who also played with Van Slyke in the Pirates outfield from 1990-94. "He's passionate about what he does, he's passionate about teaching and he's very knowledgeable. This guy has a tremendous track record behind the name and I think it adds instant credibility to what he's trying to accomplish. Our guys listen and I think are very excited about working with him."

Van Slyke's approach is straightforward. He believes the way to get better is to make the hardest outfield plays routine by practicing them over and over, and he wasted no time throwing that theory at his new crew this spring.

"Why practice a routine fly ball?" Van Slyke said. "I can pull anybody out of the stands to make those catches. They win prizes [in pregame contests] for catching routine fly balls. So I don't practice routine."

Van Slyke compares practicing fast to driving on the freeway. Zip down the highway at 70 mph and when you pull off the offramp, suddenly 35 mph feels very slow. He wants to push his protégés at freeway speeds now so that come game time, everything feels slower.

"You take the hard play and make it an average play," he said. "You take the great play and make it highly probable. You take the impossible and make it possible."

Center fielder Michael Saunders, in his sixth Mariners camp, said the approach is definitely different and welcome.

"Andy's resume speaks for itself," Saunders said. "He had an incredible career and is certainly somebody you can learn from. Not only in the outfield, but all aspects of the game. So I'm excited to have him as my outfield coach and he's certainly pushing us right now.

"The drills are tough, but we have fun doing it," he said. "The more you practice difficult situations, the easier and more natural it comes in games, where you don't have to think about it, it just happens."

Left fielder Dustin Ackley, who converted from second base to the outfield in midseason last year, is finding the approach particularly helpful. In one of his first games in center last season, Ackley hurt his wrist diving for a low liner because he rolled awkwardly trying to make a catch he clearly hadn't practiced much.

Van Slyke intends to make those plays natural for all his outfielders. The only one holding back in some drills right now is right fielder Corey Hart, who missed all last season with two knee surgeries and is being cautious per the trainers' orders.

Hart is a nine-year Major League veteran with 793 career games in the outfield, but he too says this is a different approach than he's seen before.

"It's a new philosophy, but it's a good philosophy," said Hart. "He's intense. He actually reminds me a lot of when we had Robin Yount [in Milwaukee] as a coach. Just old-school, aggressive guys. I've been around, but these young guys will learn a lot from him. I can learn plenty, too, but I'll obviously have to take a back seat once in awhile just because I need to save my bullets. But it'll be really good for these young guys to see a guy like that and see what he has to offer."

Van Slyke, who played in the 1985 World Series for the Cardinals, adopts his style from athletes he admired as a youngster and then employed in his own development.

"Even when I was winning Gold Gloves, I still practiced at a faster rate than game speed," he said. "I wanted to get better. I saw how Ozzie Smith used to practice. He practiced ground balls that were harder in BP and Spring Training than during games, and I watched all the greats practice at a real high level.

"I remember reading about Michael Jordan, he was legendary about the intensity of their practices being almost higher than a normal NBA game. Any time you can slow the game down, it helps, especially this game. Baseball is the hardest of any game to practice because it's just so hard to duplicate the situations."

So Seattle's outfielders will continue to work this spring in order to prepare for the toughest moments of the summer.

"Taking your eye off the ball, spinning away from the ball, moving in the opposite direction of the ball, understanding what your body can do and your limitation to what you can do to get the ball," said McClendon. "When outfielders understand that, they become better outfielders.

"Unless you get out there and work at it and extend yourself, you'll never know what you can do. Andy brings that to the table and I think he'll make our guys better."

Van Slyke spent the past four years working part-time as co-host on a St. Louis radio station and coaching amateur baseball. Two of his sons were drafted and Scott, 27, is an outfielder with the Dodgers.

But the bug to get back to coaching Major Leaguers struck about the same time McClendon was hired by Seattle, creating what appears to be an interesting reunion.

"There's a satisfaction that you can only get from coaching, that you can't get even as a player," Van Slyke said. "When you help somebody in some capacity to get better and have success, whether it's with relationships with somebody or their work or financially or whatever the case may be, I think you've found one of the secrets to life. When it's not always about you, life becomes more enjoyable."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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