Talking ball with Steve Braunby Bruce Markusen
July 15, 2011
Sometimes fans mistake him for being the father of Ryan Braun, but Steve Braun is no relation to the Brewers’ All-Star left fielder. He’s also not related to the Steve Braun whom the Brewers signed as an amateur free agent in 2008. This Steve Braun made his own name by compiling a .371 on-base percentage over a 15-year career in the major leagues. In 1975, he batted a career-high .302 for the Twins, his original organization.
But he hated the penny-pinching ways of owner Calvin Griffith, and eventually asked to be left unprotected in the expansion draft. Braun played for the original Mariners in 1977, and then the Royals and the Blue Jays, before finding a second life as a part-time player and pinch-hitter with the world champion Cardinals.
After his playing days, Braun became a batting coach with the Cardinals before gaining a reputation as a highly respected minor league hitting instructor, first with the Red Sox and then the rival Yankees. While working the minor league circuit, Braun tutored several future standouts, including one current American League All-Star.
I talked to Braun at length during his recent visit to Cooperstown to participate in the Hall of Fame Classic. Well spoken and personable, the 63-year-old Braun talked about playing with legends, coaching future stars, his love of yoga, and his current involvement in the game.
Markusen: Steve, you had the privilege of playing with two men who have been in the news for far different reasons this year, Harmon Killebrew and Bert Blyleven. Let’s talk first about Harmon. What kind of a teammate was he, he being in his later years and you coming up in 1971? What was the relationship like?
Braun: Harmon was just a tremendous individual. And I’m just very sorry to hear that he passed as early as he did. I did get a chance to see Harmon in spring training this past year. I don’t normally go to spring training, but I did this year, and had a chance to visit with him for awhile. I didn’t know how sick he was.
My first time I met Harmon was in spring training (in 1971) as a 23-year-old coming out of A-ball. And I remember he came right over to me when he saw me and introduced himself. He said, “I’m Harmon Killebrew and you’re Steve Braun.” He knew a little bit about where I played the year before, welcomed me to the team, made me feel comfortable.” He said, “Just enjoy yourself while you’re here and let your talents come out.” He said, “Relax and enjoy yourself.”
When he said those words to me, it just relaxed me enough that I had a great spring training and I made the team. It’s really important when a guy like Harmon, a superstar, comes over to you and introduces himself. Your talents can really come out.
Markusen: Did he talk to you much about hitting?
Braun: No, he was a very different hitter than I was; he was a power hitter and I was an on-base guy. So we really didn’t talk too much about hitting.
Markusen: How about Bert Blyleven? The best curveball you’ve ever seen?
Braun: No doubt. Undoubtedly the best curveball I ever saw. I had a chance to play with Bert in the minor leagues also. What I remember about Bert was this: At 19 years old, he was in the Instructional League, the fall league, and he had a 9-1 record. Nobody could touch him and that curveball. Of course, he made it to the big leagues the following year and went on to have a long career. I’m just happy to see Bert get the recognition that he deserves. It was a long time coming.
And we do, unfortunately, have some guys like Tony Oliva, who played for the Twins in the Midwest, and don’t quite get the recognition as some of the Eastern players. It’s great to see Bert get the recognition. But the curveball he had was unbelievable.
Markusen: Did you have a sense when you were playing with him that this was a Hall of Fame player?
Braun: Oh, no doubt about it. No doubt about it. He had a good fastball, too. He had a mid-90s fastball, but the curveball was what he was noted for. I can remember going to spring training, nobody wanted to hit batting practice off of him. We knew the curveball was coming; he used to let us know the curveball was coming, and it was still unhittable.
Markusen: He was quite a prankster from what I understand? (Blyleven used to wear a T-shirt that said, “I Love to Fart.)
Braun: Yeah, he had a great sense of humor. He really did a lot of fun stuff, sitting on birthday cakes, stuff like that. He was a real prankster who kept you loose. And he also had that Netherlands’ Olympic team that he managed really well. I was glad to see him do well in that, too. Bert’s a great guy.
Markusen: Steve, I was looking around for you earlier and thought you’d be in a Twins uniform, but you’re wearing the colors of the Cardinals, and it must be because of the 1982 world championship. Was that the highlight of you career?
Braun: Well, that was. The World Series, undoubtedly. That’s what every player wants ultimately is to play in the World Series and get a ring. And I got one after 15 years. I’m happy that I got a chance to play in St. Louis. Whitey Herzog was a great manager that I played for both in Kansas City and St. Louis. He brought me over to the Cardinals, where he built a great team. And I was able to get the World Series ring.
But the Twins’ uniform, I wish I had one! I think I had a Twins uniform, but my name wasn’t on the back. No number, no name. So I just decided to take the Cardinal route.
Markusen: You were an excellent pinch-hitter; that was one of your roles with the Cardinals. Pinch-hitting seems to be a lost art. Guys don’t have a lot of success pinch-hitting anymore. You did. Why?
Braun: I think the main thing about pinch-hitters, is this: You have to accept your role as part of the team? Because you’re not going to play much. I think that a lot of older players are successful pinch-hitters because they accept their role. They’re toward the end of their career, after playing every day earlier in their careers, and they accept the role the manager gives them. And they don’t make excuses for failure. You know you’re not going to play much, the manager knows that, and he’s not giving you much time, and they don’t expect much from you, really, when you’re a pinch-hitter.
I worked hard. Another reason I did well, I prepared very well. I just really worked and was ready to go. Whoever I was going to face that night, I knew what they threw and how they were going to try and work me. I just prepared real well. That’s the other most important thing.
Markusen: Were you thinking about the relief pitchers for the other time because you were probably going to pinch-hit late in the game?
Braun: Of course. Yeah, because I was always hitting against their toughest guy (reliever). That was one of the fun things about pinch-hitting, being able to put your skills against the best (relievers) in the game. You were facing the Gossages and the Reardons and the Garbers, and all of the great relievers of my time. Facing these pitchers, with the game on the line, was something that really I lived for, especially playing in St. Louis for five years.
Markusen: Steve, I have to mention that you look terrific. You don’t look like you’ve gained an ounce from when you last played in the '80s. How do you keep in such good shape?
Braun: I work at it. I walk the golf course during the summer, and work out with the weights a little bit, and do yoga, and just stay very active. It’s just something that’s inbred in me. I feel a lot better. Physically, I’ve had some back problems, and doing yoga really helped me out, keeping my core and my back strong, and really just maintaining them. We’ve all been through bangs and bruises during our career, not only in baseball, but I played basketball and football early on, so I got my share of nicks and bruises. You’ve really just got to try to maintain (what you have).
Markusen: Now you’ve been a batting coach, too. You worked in the Yankee organization, you worked in the Red Sox organization. Quick thoughts on three guys that you worked with as minor leaguers: Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, and more recently, Robinson Cano?
Braun: Garciaparra, I worked with him in Double-A a little bit. I was a roving hitting instructor, so I wasn’t his actual (fulltime) coach during the year. But I came into town and saw him. I never thought that he would reach what he did. I knew he’d be a great hitter, but the power, the opposite field power, really surprised me. But he had a great career; it’s just sad to think that his health problems shortened his career a little bit.
It’s good to see Cano do well. I just had him for a short time in Trenton. I tried to get him to hit with a little more power. That low pitch, he tears up that low pitch, and needs to lay off the high pitch, just little things like that. But you don’t mess with guys that have natural swings like he had. He’s got great tempo and rhythm in his swing.
The other guy you mentioned… Mo Vaughn, I didn’t work with Mo that much. That was Carl Yastrzemski’s job, he’s the power hitter. I didn’t work with Mo as much as the other two.
Markusen: With Cano, did you have a sense that he would be this good?
Braun. Yeah. I had Cano scouted to hit 30 home runs, have 100 RBIs, and hit in the .310-.320 range. I scouted him pretty good. That’s what I predicted he would do, and he’s pretty much done that.
The only thing that I tried to get him to do—he’s a great low ball hitter—instead of hitting that ball between first and second for a single, I tried to get him to lift the ball for that short porch in Yankee Stadium. Obviously, he’s picked up on that. I think he’s got a little more discipline at the plate than he did in the minor leagues. So he’s matured as a hitter and it’s great to see him have that success. A great guy, a fun guy, good to be around.
Markusen: A final question for Steve Braun. What are you doing these days?
Braun: Well, I’ve got my own hitting school in the Trenton, N.J., area. I work with kids in the wintertime, hitters, pitchers, and I do camps in the summer.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.