If you’re the sort who rates teacher effectiveness by the syllable, Bill Madlock is not the man to teach you—or your kid—the art of hitting a baseball. It turns out that if a coach watches closely, he doesn’t have to say so much. Here are the 15 words overheard as the 62-year-old Madlock conducted a recent lesson at the Dugout, a no-nonsense, fan-cooled batting cage near Sunset Park: “Stay back. Get them hands out there. Don’t lunge. You got quick hands. Use ’em.” Hmm. What just happened here? What is this friendly bull of a man—this fellow who won four batting championships in a 15-year major league career—telling you?
Let’s review: The first two words set the precondition for hitting a curveball. The next five outline the necessary action. The following two give a warning. The four after that recognize the particular abilities of the student. The final two are pure inspiration. Then the percussion of bat on ball takes over. Madlock—who has mellowed from his fiery days as the “Mad Dog” of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1970s and early ’80s but retains a coiled authority—watches, pitches, keeps you honest, utters a sudden “uh-uh-uh!” that tells you exactly what you shouldn’t be doing. By then, you’ve already recognized it yourself.
“With Bill, you learn without realizing you’re being taught,” says Larry Smith, who owns the Dugout, where Madlock is an independent contractor and a constant presence since 2006. “If he was in the business world, he wouldn’t micromanage. Some guys try to outcoach and overthink.” In a sport in which would-be gurus regularly emerge from the bleachers with fixed formulas, Madlock works with what’s in front of him. “If you’ve got a coach who says, ‘It’s my way or no way,’ you have to leave him,” Madlock says. “If you look at the big leagues, very few guys hit alike.”