Career swing

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Bill Hall had two more hits Saturday afternoon, and a run-scoring fly ball, and generally spent three more hours confirming baseball isn't won in a day or a season or even a handful of seasons.

For most, and especially for Hall, the game comes in pieces. It's a stride shortened in Beloit, hands quieted in Huntsville, bat speed gathered in Indianapolis, then all of it reworked in Milwaukee.

There are people, coaches, moments that mean little separately, that amount to a place in the big leagues when fit together. It's hundreds of conversations with minor-league hitting coordinator Jim Skaalen, a bond found with hitting coach Butch Wynegar (since fired), hours watching a teammate, Jeff Cirillo, in batting practice, a plane flight to Japan alongside Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter.

It's an organization – the Milwaukee Brewers – willing to admit it was wrong to forget about Hall as a handy little utility player and see him now as a franchise cornerstone, as someone who worked and sacrificed and became something more.

Nine years since he was drafted, 2,160 minor-league at-bats followed by 1,606 major-league at-bats later, Hall, 27, will open this season as the Brewers' center fielder and cleanup hitter. And that's where they intend to leave him.

He hit 35 home runs last season, three more than he had in four previous – not all full – seasons in the big leagues, and one fewer than he did in seven minor-league seasons. He stood in for an injured J.J. Hardy at shortstop and played it well. When the season was done, he was rewarded with the largest contract – $24 million, over four seasons – ever given to a Brewers position player, and this spring his manager, Ned Yost, has called him a developing MVP candidate.

On Saturday, shielding the sun at Phoenix Municipal Stadium with a straw hat, General Manager Doug Melvin said Hall's career arc reminded him of Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young's.

"Very similar," Melvin said. "He's probably like Billy Hall, a lot of people had him labeled as a utility guy. Mike came up an outstanding second baseman. The Rangers got Alex Rodriguez. They moved A-Rod, they asked Mike to play short, and he did it. Same thing. It's all about their attitude and how they handle the situation. They're very similar in that way. I think Billy could take off this year and have the same kind of career path Mike Young has. It all comes down to attitude and work ethic. There are guys who will fight it or their agents will fight it, or somebody will tell them, 'You shouldn't have to do that.' They're man enough to stand up and say, 'Hey, that's my decision. I'll do what it takes for the team.'"

Hall stood in the corner of a clubhouse that was nearly empty this week, the Brewers barely two weeks out from the regular season. He stood where thousands of at-bats and years of commitment and a single opportunity meet.

"It's definitely a jump from where I came from," he said, just above the hum of a vacuum cleaner, "from being a utility player to everybody telling me I had a number of tools and you just need to relax and everything will fall into place to what I've become now. I kind of take it with a grain of salt. I just try to stay as humble as possible."

He paused and then confirmed, "I do want to be one of the best."

There are, of course, potentially concrete explanations for Hall's new power. From 2005, when he hit 17 home runs, to 2006, his batting average fell from .291 to .270 and his strikeouts rose to a slightly unpleasant 162. He batted just .239 with runners in scoring position.

So, he swung harder and more often.

Except, Hall said, the opposite was true. His 63 walks led the team, for one. And, he said, he came closer to his power potential when he accepted that balance and control were better than effort and violence.

Wynegar, who was fired in September because of things other than Hall, had told him, "Don't try to show your pop. Just let your pop show."

Two years in, Hall got it.

"Everybody knew I could hit home runs eventually," he said. "I used to try. Last year I stopped trying and started letting it happen."

The too-long stride and the jittery hands Skaalen once saw are gone. Hall now stands quietly in the box, his stance slightly open, his weight over his back leg. At the same moment, at-bat after at-bat, he draws his hands back, preparing for the pitch. He trusts his hands, his swing, so that he allows the ball to carry further into the strike zone than he ever has, speaking to his tremendous power to right-center field.

Hall's 27 home runs as a shortstop last season led the major leagues. Had he hit those 35 overall as a center fielder, his new position, he would have trailed only Andruw Jones' and Carlos Beltran's 41.

"He's always had tremendous bat speed, true power potential," Skaalen said. "But you see a lot of guys like that in the minor leagues."

Some of them stay. Some, like Hall, keep going. And they don't stop there.

"There's still a lot left in me," he said, "a lot better numbers I can produce."

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