By STEVE KRAH
LaTroy Hawkins began his professional baseball playing career at 18 and wrapped it up at 42.
The 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate pitched 21 seasons in the big leagues, racking up 1,463 innings in 1,042 games.
There’s just no telling how many baseballs the 6-foot-5 right-hander might have thrown.
On the same day Hawkins became the 189th inductee into the Indiana High School Baseball Association Hall of Fame he talked to 2018 IHSBCA State Clinic attendees about pitching and more.
When Hawkins was selected in the seventh round of the 1991 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins and made his MLB debut in 1995, he was a rare commodity — an Indiana-born big leaguer.
There are many now.
“Baseball has definitely taken a step in the right direction in our state,” says Hawkins, who retired as a player after the 2015 season and now works with the pitchers in the Twins minor league system. “It’s because of (coaches) helping guys get better and pushing them to the next level.”
As a player, Hawkins worked out often to stay in shape. He kept his arm and shoulder sound by doing his “Jobe exercises” (arm raises and rotations with light weights of no more than five pounds) after he threw and then applied ice.
He never did any band work and only a little bit with a weighted ball.
While techniques have changed, Hawkins credits the industry for getting smarter about how to keep arms fit.
“At the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do — keep pitchers healthy,” says Hawkins. “When they’re around, they’re productive. When they’re sitting around in the clubhouse or the trainer’s room like I was my last two years in the big leagues, they’re not helping anybody.”
Hawkins had to have labrum surgery in 2010.
“I had two suchers put in my shoulder,” says Hawkins. “I didn’t think I’d ever pitch again. There’s a lot of guys who don’t come back from shoulder surgery.
“You’ve got to take care of your shoulder. The shoulder is much more complicated (than the elbow).”
Hawkins stresses the importance of pitching mechanics.
“The key is to have strong foundation,” says Hawkins. “Stand tall on that back leg. I still want you to have a slight bend in your knee so you can have something to push off with.
“Anything you do in sports, you want to be in an athletic position.”
Hawkins also saw value in having some rhythm to his mechanics.
“Everything is about timing and being in rhythm,” says Hawkins. “If you can dance, you can pitch.”
When his front leg went up, the ball was already coming out of his glove. If he held the ball too long it threw off his timing.
Hawkins sees so many pitchers today who want to tuck their glove under their lead arm during their delivery.
This tends to get the body going into a “carrousel” motion.
“You can’t pitch like that,” says Hawkins. “You’re fighting yourself all the time. You’re opening up way too soon
“I was always taught to be on the ‘ferris wheel’ (with the motion going toward the plate).”
To be able to repeat his delivery and stay relaxed, Hawkins kept his motion as simple as possible.
“I wanted to make it like I was playing catch,” says Hawkins. “I wanted to make it look like I didn’t have a care in the world — like it was second nature to me.”
He recalls learning from current 6-foot-10 Twins right-hander Aaron Slegers that he was taught at Indiana University to keep his motion compact as if he was throwing inside a phone booth (for those who know what one of those is).
With his height it is best for Slegers streamline his moving parts.
But it’s not a cookie-cutter world and Hawkins knows his way of thinking is not for everybody.
“Some are going to max effort guys,” says Hawkins. “I get that. But, at the end of the day, when I tried to throw hard I threw softer.
“When I was in my most relaxed state, that’s when i threw my hardest fastball. I’ve been trying to explain that to kids. They think if you muscle up, you’re going to throw hard. That’s not true. It’s not always about brute strength.”
While most hurlers stand on the same spot, Hawkins was known to move around on the pitching rubber looking for an advantage.
“I stood all over the mound,” says Hawkins. “It depended on who was hitting. If I’ve got a right-handed hitter, I’d stand on the third base side (of the rubber). I wanted a right-handed hitter to feel like I was on top of them.”
The hitter had to pick up a release point that was behind him and they had less time to see a fastball.
“It makes a huge difference,” says Hawkins. “I knew I could control my body and command my fastball so moving a few inches didn’t bother me.”
Hawkins learned these lessons over time. While he threw fastballs on more than 70 percent of his pitches, he also came to appreciate the change-up.
“The change-up is the best pitch in baseball,” says Hawkins. “Now everything is about velocity.
“We can’t throw the ball past guys anymore. Guys are seeing 100 mph everyday. They see it on the amateur level, in college, in he minor leagues. When you’re sitting on 100, you cannot hit (a good change-up).”
But an effective change is tough to develop. A pitcher must throw it all the time.
“I didn’t have a change-up my first 12 years in the big leagues,” says Hawkins. “But I knew one thing: If I didn’t work on it, I was going to be out of the game sooner than I wanted to.
“My last five years, I probably threw 100 change-ups to right-handed hitters.”
The idea is to deliver every pitch so it looks the same. When they were teammates with the Chicago Cubs in 2005, Hawkins remembers watching Hall of Famer-to-be Greg Maddux throw in the bullpen.
Maddux would use his peripheral vision to see that his release point was consistent.
With the change-up, it’s about selling it.
“You want your arm speed to look like your fastball,” says Hawkins. “You let the grip take away the miles per hour.”
At the beginning of his career, Hawkins threw daily and was amazed when he learned that Cubs teammate Mike Remlinger would take days off.
“He told me to save your bullets for the game,” says Hawkins of the left-hander who went on to log 14 MLB seasons. “I started doing that. It gave me life.
In 2017, the Twins acquired former Hawkins teammate Matt Belisle — someone who used to insist on throwing each day. Hawkins met up with him at the park.
Belisle: “Hawk, I’m saving my bullets.”
Hawkins: “Good, that’s why you’re still pitching.”
“You don’t have to throw everyday,” says Hawkins. “You won’t forget how.”
One thing that Hawkins wishes today’s players would not forget is their relationships with their teammates — the all-important cameraderie.
Hawkins knows what they’re thinking: “They’re so loud. What’s wrong with them?”
He recalls the fun of being around these guys day after day for months at a time.
“We didn’t have cell phones and iPads and stuff,” says Hawkins. “We had to talk to each other. We got a chance to know each other.”
When LaTroy and Anita Hawkins’ teenage daughter, Troi, has friends over to the house, LaTroy gathers all the cellphones so the teens can enjoy one another’s company.
If parents need to contact their child, they are to child LaTroy’s phone.
When Hawkins was with the Twins, teammates knew the names of each other’s children. They were in each other’s weddings. They went out to dinner together.
“We were friends,” says Hawkins. “It’s not like that now. When you’re with your teammates, you enjoy your teammates. You have to bond with your teammates. You have to know this guy has my back and I’ve got his back. We’re all pulling on the same rope.
“It’s all me, me, me. There’s no team mentality anymore and that’s killing baseball.”
LaTroy Hawkins, a 1991 Gary West Side High School graduate, delivers a pitch for the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins pitched 21 years in the big leagues and was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 2018. (Minnesota Twins Photo)