One Pack. No Turning Back.


Miles driven today: 43

Total miles driven: 303

Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts? Starbucks still clearly dominant in West Coast stronghold

Number of speeding tickets: 0 (are you proud of me Mom?)

High temperature: 103

Number of times My phone shut down on its own because it was too hot: 1

Odds that Visalia is actually Hell? 5:1

Odds that my cousin Josh and I beat my brother-in-law Offers and cousin Nic in next month's family fishing derby? 1:1

You can sleep naked in Visalia in the middle of summer and still have too many clothes on to feel comfortable. That's how I felt when the wilting heat forced me out of bed at 6 AM today.

I found a local dive gym called "Iron Grip" to get a quick workout in before meeting up with Rance at his new baseball academy. Spoiled by the sterile air-conditioned spaciousness of 24-Hour Fitness back home in Oakland, it actually felt really good to work up a sweat in the trenches of a gym that time forgot. The workout floor looked like a garage in the middle of a move, with machines and old weights strewn everywhere and leaving little room for walking. Stainless steel ceiling fans that belong in a Crate and Barrel whirred overheard, providing little substitute for AC. In the corners of the gym, 2 small boxy Zenith TVs played soccer with Spanish commentary. I felt like Mr. T training in a dungeon in Rocky 3. The similarities between me and Mr. T pretty much end there. My only company were a couple of stout Hispanic guys lifting in work boots and flexing full-sleeve tattoos, probably wondering what me and my dainty physique were doing in downtown Tulare on a Saturday morning.

After the first Muscle Milk of my life (which tastes like drinking a chocolate shake right after brushing your teeth), I sought out Rance Mulliniks in his new baseball academy, an airplane hangar in the middle of farmland. I drove past a Romney/Ryan campaign sign in an empty and lot and turned into the hangar lot. Rance was there to give a lesson to a new pupil, a 16-year old local with small size but a lot of promise. It turned out that the kid's elbow was bothering him, so rather than risk injury, the always-prudent and cautious Rance shut him down. 

After he left, I stepped into the black mesh net batting cage and asked Rance for a brief hitting lesson. All we had to work with was a Wiffle bat (Rance never carries his own bats with him), so I stepped into the batter's box and channeled my inner 10-year-old, shades of my days in the Smithfield, RI Little League. I took a hard swing, striding forward with my front foot as I was taught to do, and whipping the bat around in a flawless arc of core muscle and coordination.

I looked at Rance for approval.

I didn't get it. His chin dropped a couple of inches, and he said patiently, "OK, now just wait a second. Go back to the very beginning. Don't even swing, just stand there and show me how you set up."

I was reminded of why I never played a day past Little League as Rance completely broke down my swing.

"It doesn't really matter what your stance is like--some guys are up here (picture Julio Franco's stance), some are down here (think Rod Carew), just do what feels comfortable. The key is, that wherever you start, when the pitch comes, you're set and you step your lead foot forward."

Here is where I was completely off. 

"You see, when you swung, you shifted your weight forward and you drifted so your whole body was way out in front. You don't have any balance like that, so, see, I can just push you over," he said, doing just that.

"So when you plant that front foot, keep your weight back a bit and then swing through," demonstrating with the yellow plastic bat, which looked ridiculous in the hands of a one-time .300 MLB hitter.

Rance learned these mechanics of hitting from guru Charley Lau, who counted George Brett and many others among his disciples. 

I heard a lot more about Rance's approach to hitting, especially the mental aspect, and left convinced that he needs to be a hitting coach at the Major League level. We then drove to the Visalia Nazarene church that he and his wife Lori and kids Seth and Shaylee attend, where there was a rummage sale to raise funds for Seth's youth group, including a stop at McDonald's along the way where Rance had to navigate the intricacies of ordering a Happy Meal. 

We grabbed some ribeye steaks and headed back to Rance's house, where he gave me a tour of his trophy room, a shrine to his baseball career that Lori put together (my favorite piece: his framed 1992 World Series jersey). Rance was the most gracious of hosts, a true gentleman and a wonderful ambassador for his sport that simply wants to give back at the point in his life and career.

After parting ways, I headed to downtown Visalia where there was a free summer concert featuring the band Leaving for Austin, who sounded great and reminded me how poor my music IQ is.

A Side of Rance

Day 2: Visalia, CA. 6.20.15