Jeff Pentland has been involved with baseball for more than 50 years. This year Pentland, now 66, is the Rainiers’ new hitting coach, replacing Alonzo Powell – who held the position for four years before becoming the San Diego Padres’ hitting coach. Pentland has worked with five Major League organizations (Marlins, Cubs, Royals, Mariners and Dodgers) and two Minor League organizations (Padres and Mets), including a brief time as a player in the Padres’ system (pitcher, catcher, first base and outfield.) He’s been a scout, assistant athletic director, and done some writing about the craft of hitting. In addition he has coached at several levels. He was the Mariners’ hitting coach from 2005 to 2008. Pentland recently sat down with Tacoma Weekly baseball writer Karen Westeen to discuss his long and storied career.
TW: It’s a pleasure to meet one of the true Renaissance men of baseball.
JP: Jack of all trades, don’t think I was master of any of them. I could pitch, hit a little bit. It was a battle every year to make a club.
TW: You were born in Hollywood, Cali. and grew up there. Now you and your wife live in Mesa, Ariz. Where did you attend college?
JP: I went to Arizona State University. I got my BA in 1968 and my masters there a couple of years later.
TW: What were your degrees in?
JP: My undergraduate major was biology and PE and my graduate emphasis was in biomechanics.
TW: Was that something that you could apply to baseball?
JP: I think it helped make me a better hitting coach. It helped me understand better about leverage and how the body works.
TW: You were on the national championship team in 1967 and are still among the top ten pitchers at ASU in low ERAs, at 2.25. You’re also in the university’s Hall of Fame. After you graduated, you played three seasons (1969-1971) in the Padres’ Minor League system. How did playing multiple positions help you when you went into coaching?
JP: I think pitching helped me understand what a pitcher does, which helps you as a hitter. But I look at a player’s strengths and weaknesses and try to develop a game plan from that.
TW: Did you go into coaching right after you quit playing?
JP: No, I spent a year and a half as an assistant athletic director at Wichita State University, then I was an assistant coach at the University of California, Riverside for nine years under Jack Smitheran. That was a great program. We won two national championships during that time.
TW: You coached for teams in both leagues. Did you notice a lot of differences in pitching and hitting styles between the leagues?
JP: Absolutely. In the National League, the pitcher can pitch around hitters to get to the pitcher, but there are nine hitters in the American League so there’s not as much strategy. You can’t walk people, you have to go right after them.
TW: A pitching coach gets to make occasional visits to the mound during the game, but hitting coaches can’t do that. Do you have any signals you can send to a batter during an at-bat?
JP: No, but I like being in the dug-out where I can talk to the batters after at-bats and make corrections. (Instead of coaching on the field, Pentland has an assistant who does that.)
TW: Is your philosophy of hitting the same working with veterans and with someone just starting out?
JP: The older guys tend to understand what you’re saying a bit easier. With the younger guys the communication factor is huge, especially with the different nationalities you have now. You get all walks of life and it’s a challenge. Hitting is kind of a universal skill and they understand demonstrations much easier sometimes than words.
TW: What’s the best thing you learned as a player that you can pass on to your hitters?
JP: I tell them to separate practice from the game, square up the bat and hit the ball squarely on the barrel, and help them recognize pitches. Some of the process is physical, but a lot is mental— they are held accountable for their actions during the game.
TW: Several nights ago the Rainiers got 22 hits. Was that among the most any of your teams have gotten?
JP: I don’t think so. I remember a few times in the Major Leagues when we got 24 or 25.
TW: When you came to Tacoma this year did you know any of the players?
JP: Only Adam Moore from my time in Seattle (2005-2008.)
TW: Didn’t you know Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik also?
JP: I met him when I was with the Mets (as Minor League hitting coordinator in 1997.) He was the farm system director. We developed a close relationship.
TW: Was he in Seattle when you were hitting coach there?
TW: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?
JP: There have been several. Working with Sammy Sosa in Chicago during his MVP year in 1998, watching him develop, seeing Carlos Beltran develop with Kansas City, having Seattle players hit .287 in 2007 while I was there, and watching Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and being with Joe Torre and Don Mattingly on the Dodgers.
TW: Have you ever been on a championship team?
JP: I went to the playoffs with the Cubs, and lost twice to the Phillies with the Dodgers in the championship games.
TW: Do you have any hobbies in the off-season?
JP: Well, my hobby is landscaping, and irrigation was my specialty. My dad loved gardening. I used to work at that in the offseason.
TW: After over 40 years as a player and coach, have you given any thought to what you might do after you leave baseball?
JP: No. I’ve been at this since I was 14, it’s gone by so fast. There’s been a lot of great moments and of course some disappointments.
TW: Thanks for sharing this time with our readers, Jeff. I’m sure the fans here will be very impressed to learn about your baseball career.