During Matt Adams' first major league spring training camp in Jupiter, Florida back in March, I asked the St. Louis Cardinals first base prospect who has been the most influential individual in his career development.
The reigning Minor League Player of the Year in the system had a quick reply: "My hitting coach from back home, Justin… Hazelton."
Even before he was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 10th round of the 1996 draft, Hazelton was the biggest baseball star to ever come out of Phillipsburg-Osceola High School in Pennsylvania. Over the last decade, Hazelton has played a major role in grooming the man who has replaced him on that pedestal.
|Adams in 2009|
"We're from the same home town, Phillipsburg," the 33-year-old Hazelton noted. "I knew Matt through Little League. I was older than him, obviously. I started doing hitting lessons and he came to them when he was 13 and pretty much we have been hitting ever since."
From the start, Hazelton sensed this student was different.
"He could always hit, from when he was in Little League," the coach said. "He could really hit."
When asked what sets Adams apart at the plate, Hazelton did not hesitate before responding.
"His hand-eye coordination is heads above anyone else I have ever seen," the coach said.
Still, baseball success did not come to Adams without hard work, lots of it.
"Matt is intensely focused," Hazelton said. "He has goals and really commits to his goals. He does whatever it takes to get it done. He is a hard worker. It is top of the line when it comes to work ethic and it has obviously shown now."
As Adams grew up, always being large in size, he had appeal to coaches in other sports as well. Despite their urgings, the youth refused to let anything draw his attention away from his only love – baseball. It was an atypical choice.
"In high school, all he did was baseball," Hazelton recalled. "Other coaches tried to get him to come out for football and other sports but he was baseball, baseball, baseball. A lot of kids today do a lot of sports. It is a great thing, but all he did was baseball.
"I didn't lead him that way. That was a choice he made. He loves the game and to take a chance playing only one thing and having no regrets doing it, it paid off for him," Hazelton said.
From one home-towner to another, the hitting coach shared more than baseball lessons with his student. For example, there were the challenges presented by living away from home for months at a time in far-away places like Batavia, New York and Davenport, Iowa. Having played five years of minor league ball himself, Hazelton could relate to the mental grind.
"I went through it." Hazelton acknowledged. "I was up and down. We chatted a lot about what to expect. I obviously wasn't at the level that he is, but it is just simple things like being away from home, what it is like. Sometimes it is heart to heart talks that this is a commitment you have to make. Nobody likes to go away from home but you've got to do it. Obviously, he stuck it out and it has been a great thing."
Establishing and maintaining that blue-collar work ethic is an important part of how Hazelton helps Adams prepare for each long season ahead.
"The mental aspect is huge," the coach said. "It is just as important - or perhaps more important - than the physical aspect. It is having the confidence all winter long. I try to preach, ‘Hey, if you get your work done and work hard, you can trust everything you did all winter and that is going to pay off in the season.'
"I think that Matt has bought into that where, ‘Hey, I've got to get my work done. I am going to have some ups and downs, but I can always go back and say I have done my work.'
"Mentally, the challenge of going every single day is a tough thing, but he is focused and he maintained that focus. I think when he felt a little success - a little bit of confidence - that is where it leads to a mental edge that not all people have. He has definitely got it," Hazelton noted.
Adams readily acknowledges the sacrifices his coach has made for him. Hazelton is married with a young family and teaches full-time.
"I take advantage of all the limited hitting resources available in Phillipsburg," the first baseman said. "The ‘Y' has an indoor training facility and cages. Justin has the key so he would work with me in the evenings after he put his kids to bed."
In terms of their winter schedule, the two have a fine-tuned routine.
"Through the off-season, we work at least four times per week," Hazelton said. "Once he gets closer to spring training, it is an everyday thing. It is just trying to get the swing fine tuned, maybe work on certain pitches.
"He would do a workout with Rob Oshinskie at Victory Sports in the morning and again in the afternoon. We would work at night. I would say maybe an hour. As it got closer to spring training, they might have been a little bit longer," the coach noted.
Even though Adams was the Most Valuable Player of the Texas League in 2011 and one of only two minor leaguers with a .300 average, 30 home runs and 100 RBI, he knew he still had work to do this past winter.
"Matt came home and one of his goals was to understand the strike zone a little better – swing on pitches inside the zone and not get fooled on pitches outside," Hazelton recalled. "We really tried to work on different things on that end. They are not going to throw fastballs down the middle and he has to be ready to hit everything."
Adams can't make it being a one-dimensional hitter, so Hazelton worked with the first baseman on his defense as well.
"After hitting, we would do some agility work, fielding, do some footwork around first base and try to clean up some of that footwork. He has gotten better at it every year.
"This was the best off-season he had – by far," is his coach's assessment.
|Adams in Arizona|
"I think he got a little taste, a little bit of hunger, out in the Arizona Fall League," the coach said. "He thought, ‘I am really going to bear down and get this done.' I don't know what it was, but it just seemed like it was different this year."
Despite his singular focus, Adams found time to help area youths who are in the same place he was a few years earlier.
"Matt would come some nights when I was doing lessons with other kids," Hazelton recalls. "He would jump into those groups to get some extra swings. The kids were real receptive. With him being around, it is a great opportunity for them to learn. Here is a guy who was on the cusp of being in the major leagues so they pay attention."
All good things must come to an end. When Adams headed off to Florida in February, Hazelton's entire routine changed.
"I like to tease him about it," the coach said. "I go through Matt Adams withdrawal. I have a big chunk of time that I am home with nothing to do."
Though the primary responsibility for working with Adams' hitting shifts to the Cardinals staff, of which Hazelton is extremely complementary, the coach and player remain in touch.
"We correspond during the season," Hazelton said. "We text message and phone calls. Just basically, how things are going. Not really tuning up his swing. Just, ‘Hey, keep swinging, have fun and do your thing.'
"It is a great relationship. Obviously, we are friends. I feel like he can always come back and ask me something and I will shoot straight. We correspond most of the time weekly," Hazelton said.
Adams calls upon all the resources available to him and was suitably impressed by what he experienced in the bigs.
"During the season, I will call Justin if I am going through a rough stretch, but I use my coaches, too," Adams said. "Having two hitting coaches with St. Louis, Mac and Mabry, was nice. The video preparation allowed me to see how a starting pitcher does against left-handed batters. I would also check out my own at-bats from previous days."
|Adams debuted in LA|
"That Sunday morning, I was out on the baseball field throwing some batting practice for some young kids," Hazelton recalled. "Matt called me and said, ‘I got called up to the major leagues.' It was an emotional thing. I felt like I was fighting back tears all day long. It was unbelievable.
"I talked with his Dad and went to his house to watch the game with his parents. I was emotional to see him on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. It was a surreal experience," Hazelton recalls.
The home-town hitting coach seemed taken aback a bit when I told him of Adams' singling him out as his most influential factor.
"It is flattering," Hazelton replied. "I have helped a lot of kids and Matt is really special. For him to say that is a great thing. I would never expect anything in return. It is just a flattering thing. It is a great relationship. I am proud of him for working so hard.
"He is going to continue to work on it and I know he will do what it takes," concluded the coach.
Coming up: In part two, we will meet Adams' performance coach, Rob Oshinskie of Victory Sports Performance and Fitness in State College, Pennsylvania.
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