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White Sox hitting coach Walker is used to second-guessing, but not this early

Updated: April 20, 2010, 9:43 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Gordon BeckhamDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireGordon Beckham said Greg Walker helped him work through the toughest time of his career.
CHICAGO -- Standing outside the home locker room after the Blackhawks' playoff victory Sunday night, a contingent of Chicago White Sox players sure looked like a contented bunch. They had come directly from the airport, where they had flown in after a 7-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians had left them the victims of a weekend sweep. But Gordon Beckham, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski (a combined 1-for-13 with one walk Sunday) and their teammates were smiling and appeared relaxed, not one of them having to be talked out of doing a swan dive off the balcony of their United Center suite.

Perhaps they were just relieved they had scored four runs earlier in the day. More than likely, however, they were not exhibiting outward signs of panic because there is nothing to panic about.

The same, of course, cannot be said of many Sox fans who, in no particular order, would like to (A) abolish Ozzie ball; (B) abolish Ozzie Guillen himself and (C) erect bronze statues of Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome for Champions Plaza.

The Ozzie ball thing is silly because the Sox bats have not been potent enough to succeed or fail at any style. And lionizing Dye and Thome is silly because it just is and, as with everything else in this argument, it's way too early to consider throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Entering action Monday, the Sox were 28th in team batting average at .222, 25th in on-base percentage at .308 and 21st in slugging percentage at .379.

By the way, the Kansas City Royals, no one's World Series favorite, are leading the league in average.

This might be the earliest point of the season in which Sox hitting coach Greg Walker's job security has been discussed, with Guillen saying over the weekend, "I'm not going to fire a guy who has nothing to do with this thing. … They don't need a hitting coach. They need to get [bleeping] hits."

Walker put in an even fuller offseason than usual, meeting with players in Miami; Santa Barbara, Calif.; L.A.; Chicago; and his home state of Georgia after a disappointing 2009 season.

"Sometimes changes are made easier in the offseason than they are during the competition," Walker said when talking during spring training about his winter workload. "I just wanted to make sure guys were on the right track.

"We ended last season with some guys in a mental spot I wasn't happy with, so I wanted to make sure that was going right. And then we had a couple guys I felt like we needed to make some mechanical changes that were probably going to take place better in the winter than during the season, so we addressed that."

[+] EnlargeGreg Walker
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesGreg Walker worked harder this offseason than in any other, but the results aren't there yet.

Among those who worked with Walker on mechanics were Konerko and Beckham.

Konerko, who is batting .214, tailed off in the second half of last season, batting .243 with 12 home runs and 28 RBIs, down from .302 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs before the All-Star break. But Konerko is a tinkerer and certainly would have made some changes regardless.

"No question, sometimes on a daily basis," Konerko said. "It's an ongoing dialogue. If you're not talking about your swing, you're talking about situational stuff or about approach. There's always something. There's maybe that two weeks or a month during the season where you really feel like what you want to feel.

"But other than that, spring training and the rest of the year, you constantly have stuff to work on and thoughts on your mind that you want to talk about."

And Walker, part hitting coach, part personal life coach, is the guy to talk to.

"Wow, where really do I start?" Beckham said in an interview this spring. "I feel like Greg, since I've gotten here, has been like a dad to me, and I take his opinion and his knowledge of the game very seriously. He knows when to step in and say something, and he also knows when to sit back and let it play out."

Beckham, Sporting News Rookie of the Year last season after hitting .270, 14 home runs and 63 RBIs in 103 games, is currently hitting .240. But he credits Walker with helping him become a major league hitter with adjustments they made at midseason.

"We changed my swing," Beckham said. "If you go back and look at the tape, my hands were by my head and I was very stiff, and within a month, I had my hands shoulder level and was very relaxed at the plate and hit .330 [in July].

"[Walker] got me through hopefully the toughest time of my career at the start when I struggled so bad, and when everyone was saying I shouldn't be up there, I shouldn't be playing, I shouldn't be in the big leagues. He didn't believe that. He believed I should've been there and just got me through it."

Getting ready to swing the bat, he came to learn, was as important as his swing.

"I never understood that when I get to a certain spot, that's when I hit it, that's when I'm good," Beckham said. "And now I wiggle my hands a little bit to get to where I want to be. That's something he helped me realize, and it helped me drive through the ball and hit the ball the other way."

Walker worked on the young rookie's confidence just as he must now continue to work with his veterans' frame of mind, particularly as they struggle.

"Being a hitting coach is the toughest job in baseball, and it takes a special guy to do it," Konerko said. "If you think about a team of 13 hitters, maybe one or two are feeling good. So you're dealing with 11 people that are unhappy all the time."

Now in his seventh full season as Sox hitting coach after serving in the same post for Triple-A Charlotte, the former Sox slugger is one of Jerry Reinsdorf's favorites.

"We've all been together for so long, we're family," Walker said. "It might be dysfunctional in a lot of ways, but we care about each other. Sometimes it might not look like that from the outside, but we know each other pretty good, and I guess I've learned not to worry about a lot of things I used to worry about. I'm more focused on the players and my job of helping them on a daily basis."

As for his relationship with Guillen, who has not always been quite as openly supportive as he has been lately, Walker said their bond as former and current teammates supersedes everything else.

"No matter what hard times we've had, he's my brother," Walker said. "Brothers don't always get along and see eye to eye. Think about it, I was raised in south Georgia in a real rural farming community and he was raised in Venezuela. We have completely different personalities, but that's the beauty of baseball. …

"He lets me do my thing. All managers get frustrated with offensive baseball. Gosh almighty, if I was a manager, I'd get frustrated. But it's my job to keep plugging along and keep doing the work. I can't lose focus because 'Oh gosh, I'm afraid someone won't like me.' You go do the work and you hope it holds up, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't and that's just baseball."

It's also just April.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.