About halfway between Shreveport and Houston in East Texas, just him and a tee and a couple dozen baseballs, at a high school batting cage in a town of 33,000 folks, Brandon Belt(notes) would swing his bat and disappear.
On the hot afternoons when the sweat would seep into his eyes, on the chilly mornings when he'd dress in layers, he'd hear the hitting coach's words in his head, the words Bob Mariano had borrowed from Barry Bonds himself.
Swing the sledgehammer, pound the nail.
Belt had been a fifth-round draft pick by the San Francisco Giants in June 2009. He'd signed in mid-August, too late for summer baseball. In the fall he reported to Arizona, for the Instructional League.
"The Illy," he called it.
There, he met Mariano, a former minor league hitter, a professional hitting instructor for 13 years, the previous five for the Giants, and a baseball lifer.
Mariano put a wood bat in Belt's hands and stepped back.
He liked Belt's size, 6-feet-5, better than 200 pounds. He loved his hands, so quick and strong from the left side. Belt had batted .323 and hit eight home runs in his final season at the University of Texas, so he could hit.
But, his mechanics. They'd need work. Mariano could tell him how to set up, how to hit, what to think, and show him, too. The rest would fall on the 21-year-old, what he absorbed, how hard he'd work at it.
Mariano telephoned Dick Tidrow, the organization's vice president for player personnel and general manager Brian Sabean's right hand.
I like him, Mariano told him. He has good instincts, good pitch recognition. Here's the thing, he continued: His stance is too closed, his front foot almost at the shortstop, his back foot at least a foot behind the front. His hands are down, buried behind his chest. He's crouched. When I'm throwing to him, I can't even see his hands. So he's got no hitting lanes on the inner half. They'll kill him on the inner half. Away from an aluminum bat, he can't hit like this.
Tidrow gave his blessing, and Mariano began working on Belt's stance.
The Giants hadn't produced much in the way of hitters out of most of a generation of drafts, and yet on the heels of Buster Posey(notes) comes this kid Belt, another set of broad shoulders and clear eyes. Posey had pushed through the minor leagues in 631 at-bats, the last 150 or so probably superfluous. The Giants maybe wouldn't be so lucky with Belt, but still there was something special about him, and so Mariano began to build a big league hitter.
"I trusted the coaches," Belt would say. "I let it happen."
Rather than angle his front foot to the left of second base, Belt allowed Mariano to nudge it to the right, toward the second baseman. His hands were naturally freed. He stood taller in the box. Mariano left Belt's trigger, a back-leg load and front-knee tuck, but he'd created an inside path to the baseball, a way to hit the inside pitch without excessive topspin or pulling it foul.
"Hitters can see it right away," Mariano said. "The ball doesn't lie. And he picked it up real quick."
Suddenly, Belt was putting tight backspin on balls that carried further to all fields. And he knew which pitch to put where.
I look back and that's the hardest thing to teach guys," Mariano said. "Partly it's mechanical and the other is vision, picking up release point and vision. Belty's always has that innate ability to see the ball."
After five weeks inside Mariano's laboratory, Belt was back in East Texas. He'd drive to Hudson High School, to the field where he'd been district MVP, All-State and All-American. With him, a couple pairs of batting gloves, some unmarred wood bats and a new swing.
Swing the sledgehammer, pound the nail, just like Bonds had once described to Mariano.
Sometimes he'd practice with the high school team, but mostly he'd let himself into the outdoor cage, alone with a tee, lessons from the Illy, and his hard, short breath.
"I love taking swings off a tee," he said. "It's a feel thing. And I've been a feel guy my entire life. Then, once I did everything they wanted me to, I made it my own."
Thousands of swings – tens of thousands of swings, even – later, and after 492 minor league at-bats, Belt debuted for the Giants last Thursday. Safely in the seven hole, he was the kid with the open stance, the slow and early load onto his back leg, and the open swing path to the ball. He scratched out a single against Clayton Kershaw(notes) that night, and homered to center field against Chad Billingsley(notes) the next night. Backspin carried the ball another 30 or 40 feet.
After six games, Belt is batting .182, but seeing pitches, taking walks, putting the ball in play. His at-bats are sound, what Mariano might call instinctive.
"He's going to struggle like they all do," Mariano said, "but, with his aptitude, I'll put my money on Belty any day. He absorbed everything, stayed real humble. He's a great kid you'd want to have even as a son. I couldn't ask for a better kid to teach. Guys like him and Posey, they don't come around too often."