Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Hit Man

Hey, it's nice quiet weekend while we await the Buccos efforts to trade someone by Monday morning to open a spot on the 40-man for Kevin Correia. So we figured hey, it's been awhile since we ran a bio of an old timey Bucco, like Mike "The Hit Man" Easler. So...

Mike Easler was born on Wednesday, November 29, 1950, in Cleveland, Ohio; he turned 60 last month. He spent six of his fourteen major league seasons in Pittsburgh between 1977-82.

And it was a challenging task to reach the show. Easler spent ten seasons in the minor leagues with five organizations and his winters playing in Latin America to earn his daily bread before becoming a full-time major-leaguer at the age of 28.

He was drafted out of high school by the Houston Astros in the 14th round of the 1969 draft. His bonus was a $500 tuition payment at Cleveland State University.

Assigned to the rookie league Covington Astros, Easler hit .319, but fielded just .897 as an OF-3B. He spent the next two seasons with the Class A Cocoa Astros. The Hit Man had a very so-so 1970, but found his stroke in 1971, hitting .293/11/68 and earning a spot on the Florida State League All-Star team.

It was a really good year: he married his wife Brenda, the sister of Cliff Johnson, in 1971. Not only was she his mate, but during Easler's minor league years, she threw BP to him (he was quoted as saying that "she never had much of a breaking ball." He's lucky he didn't get a high hard one in the ear for that crack!)

In 1972, he was sent to the AA Columbus Astros and batted .269. 1973 was much stronger; he hit .310 in Columbus and moved up one more step to the AAA Denver Bears, where he hit .284.

It earned then 22 year old Easler a September call-up to Houston. A full-time gig in the bigs was just around the corner, it seemed.

Well, maybe not. But his power jumped dramatically in AAA. Astro coach Bob Lillis helped Easler develop his stroke. He batted .283/19/63 at Denver, and collected his first big league hit as a late season call-up.

He made the roster in 1975, but was quickly 0 for 5 for Houston as a pinch hitter and 1 for 27 in his short career. He asked to be sent back to the minors to play regularly, and it was off to AAA ball again.

Easler was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in June for a PTBNL, RHP Mike Barlow. Between the two organizations' AAA clubs, he hit .313/15/69 and was named to the American Association's All-Star team.

In 1976, the 25-year-old OF played for the Cards' AAA Tulsa club. Easler hit a scorching .352/26/77, leading the AA in average and OBP while second in slugging percentage. He even topped all AA outfielders with 16 assists, and came in second for the league MVP, losing to Roger Freed. But that didn't seem to impress St. Louis very much; he didn't even get a September cup of coffee.

In early September, St. Louis dealt Easler away to the California Angels for another PTBNL, career minor-leaguer Ron Farkas. Easler hit .241 in 21 games for the Halos.

On April 4, 1977, California dealt Easler to the Pirates for minor league RHP Randy Sealy. Easler reported to AAA Columbus and again drilled the ball, hitting .302/18/75. He had 8 hits in 18 at-bats in September with the big club, but was sold to the Boston Red Sox during the off-season. They traded him back to Pittsburgh in March for farm hands George Hill and Martin Rivas, plus cash.

Easler had another yeoman's season in 1978 for the Clippers, batting .330/18/84. He didn't get a call up, caught in a numbers game among Al Oliver, Dave Parker and Omar Moreno in the Pittsburgh outfield. But Easler was picked to the International League All-Star team, and his days as a major leaguer were fast approaching.

The 28 year old was making $22K, and he made the team when the Bucs released pinch-runner Matt Alexander and kept him. He batted only 54 times for the "We Are Family" Bucs in 1979, but was effective, putting up a .278/2/11 line, and stuck for the season as a bench stick. Easler was on the post-season roster, too, batting three times and drawing a walk, the only playoff action he would see in his career. It was enough for a ring.

Easler became a semi-regular for the 1980 Pirates, platooning with Lee Lacy. He had a line of .338/.396/.583 with 21 homers and 74 RBI in 445 at-bats. He also hit for the cycle in June and put together a sixteen game hitting streak.

In 1981, he hit .286/7/42 in 349 at-bats, and somehow earned a spot on the only All-Star team he made during his career. Easler was solid the next two seasons, hitting .276/15/58 and .307/10/54.

But his value as a Chuck Tanner player was limited. He was used in a platoon role with Lacy and Bill Robinson or as a pinch hitter, and the slow-footed and iron-gloved Easler was often removed late in games for a defensive sub.

So it was a no-brainer when Easler was traded to Boston for LHP John Tudor, a deal that was considered a steal at the time. And it would have been, except after a year as a Bucco, the lefty was dealt to St. Louis for George Hendricks. *sigh*

But the Hitman could hit. Easler had the highest slugging average (.472) and second best batting average (.301), behind only his platoon mate Lee Lacy's .304, of any Pirate of the eighties with 1,000+ at-bats.

Boston and Easler was a match made in heaven in 1984. He became a DH, and hit .313/.376/.516 for a 140 OPS+ and had a 20 game hitting streak. Easler was top ten in the AL in average (.313), slugging (.512), OPS (.819), hits (188) and total bases (310), not to mention mashing a career-high 27 homers.

For the 1985 Red Sox, he hit .262; that follow-up got him shipped to the Evil Empire for Don Baylor. Easler hit .302 for the 1986 Yankees but was traded that winter with Tom Barrett to the Phillies for Charles Hudson and Jeff Knox.

Easler hit .282/.316/.345 for the Phillies but his power was going, going, gone at age 36. He was returned to the Yanks for prospects Keith Hughes and Shane Turner, and hit .281 in NY. It was his last hurrah.

Overall in the majors, Easler hit .293/.345/.454 with 118 HR's and 522 RBI in 3,677 at-bats during parts of fourteen seasons.

Easler signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters partway through that 1988 season and returned in 1989. He came back to the states to play in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association.

He managed the independent league Miami Miracle in 1990. He was the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1992. His hitters had the second best average in the league, but he felt that other coaches were giving them contradictory advice on hitting.

So it was on to the Boston Red Sox for 1993, where he bonded with Mo Vaughan, who called Easler "the doctor." But when he refused to work with replacement players during the 1994 strike, the Boston FO canned Easler.

He was manager of the Nashua Pride in the independent Atlantic League in 1998 and 1999 and returned to the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2000, but Mitchell Page replaced him as the hitting coach on July 14, 2001.

Easler declined a job as a roving instructor and filed a suit against the team (he was to swap spots with Page, the minor-league hitting instructor, after missing a nine-game stretch because of health issues), but later retracted it.

In 2002, Easler was elected to the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame.

He was the hitting coach for the Jacksonville Suns in 2006 and the Las Vegas 51s in 2007, both in the Dodgers’ minor league system. The Hitman knew his stuff; at Vegas, he worked with Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andy LaRoche, Tony Abreu, Delwyn Young and Chin-lung Hu.

In January of 2008, he stepped in to become the hitting coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, replacing Don Mattingly, who resigned for family-related reasons (he ended up getting divorce).

Easler was dumped the next year when Mattingly returned sans wife, returning to his former role as a minor league hitting instructor for the remainder of the season. Then it got ugly.

After the season, the Dodgers offered him a position as the Class A hitting coach. He declined the demotion and asked for a scouting position. The Dodger FO said there weren't any to offer. Easler filed a grievance, and we assume there it still lies.

But The Hitman is still coaching, even if it's not Dodger prospects. He co-authored a book with Brandon Smith called "Conditioned to Hit: How to Become a Dangerous Hitter." Easler operates a "Lock and Loaded" hitters camp; his website even offers Hitman gear.

So the story of the Hitman continues.


Anonymous said...

Tudor for Hendrick should be considered the worst trade ever.

Used to go to Angels games just to boo Silent George.

Ron Ieraci said...

Anon - if it's not the worst, it's sure on the short list.