GLENDALE, Ariz. — The long days at the ballpark on the backfields of Camelback Ranch actually are pretty nice, to Kyle Russell anyway.
The morning stretching, the fielding drills, batting practice are only half the day, with an hour break for lunch thrown in before a scheduled 1 p.m. exhibition. It’s usually 4 or 5 before he gets out of here.
Then again, he could do without that alarm clock that startles him from his sleep every morning.
“Yeah, you’re like, ‘Ahhhrg,” Russell was saying Sunday. “But once you get in that locker room, there are no worries in the world. As we say here, a bad day in baseball still beats a day sitting in a cubicle.”
Of all the Dodgers’ recent draft picks experiencing their first spring training, no one could possibly be more enthusiastic than Russell, a former Texas Longhorn and one-time NCAA home run champ who hopes a slightly tweaked batting stance and swing will turn him from a free swinger to burgeoning slugger.
His stance is now more upright and, though his hands remain stationed behind the right earhole of his helmet before he loads, Russell will attack pitches differently. That is, with a much more level swing as he tries to rid a worrisome uppercut.
The change came last fall in instructional league shortly after the lefthanded hitting outfielder finished a tour at short-season Ogden with a line of .279/.365/.534 with 11 home runs, 13 doubles and 46 RBIs.
“Kyle Russell’s made great strides,” Dodgers hitting coordinator Gene Clines said. “We worked on his swing plane because he was such an upper-cutter. We smoothed that out, and he’s using his legs more. His overall approach now is more balanced than when he signed.”
Russell gained a reputation as a power hitter for the Longhorns in 2007 when he led the NCAA with 28 home runs as a draft-eligible sophomore. The Cardinals tried to sign him as a fourth-round pick that June, but he reportedly turned down a $800,000 offer.
He then signed last June as a third-round pick for $410,000 after hitting 19 home runs in college and setting Texas’ career record (57).
But last fall, following a whirlwind summer from college to the Pioneer League, Clines had Russell turn to an old standby: Hitting off a tee.
It’s made a world of difference. Russell now looks much more polished, an encouraging sign as the 6-foot-5, 190-pound outfielder readies for his first full-season assignment with the low Class A Great Lakes Loons. His swing is much more fluid and authoritative.
A morning BP session showed he still has a tendency to upper cut on pitches that he wants to crush over the fence. But mostly, his swing stayed level so that he wouldn’t let his left shoulder fly open and drag his bat through the zone.
“I think with doing that (hitting off a tee), it shortened my swing up a little,” Russell said. “I’m hitting the ball real well. In college, I would swing and the ball would have a lot of top spin. I would get on top of balls and roll them over.”
That Russell spoke of all this as he dropped in a few one-lines was notable. At one point, in explaining he won’t fear the Midwest League’s likely cold April weather, he said he might play the outfield with his back to the infield and his head tilted back.
“I hope they don’t mind that,” he quipped.
What a difference a year makes. Russell acknowledged that he tried to live up to unrealistic expectations early last season at Texas before Longhorns coach Augie Garrido pulled him into his office and told him not to think about baseball for a week.
Experiencing a difficult stretch, Russell said, may have been a blessing in disguise. He experienced his failure—his words—before entering the minors and is optimistic that he will handle adversity through his first full year.
“I think (struggling) was me trying to meet expectations and trying to live up to myself,” Russell said. “I was pretty much under a lot of pressure and then one day I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing?’ I do owe it to my teammates and coaches for helping me through that.
“I still had a pretty good year. I hit 19 home runs. But, you know, I think I did need last year coming into pro ball. You are going to experience failures. In a way, it’s more gratifying.”