There's something been troubling me about the Cleveland Indians for the last couple years. During the on-field regime change before the 2014 season, Terry Francona selected his subordinates that would help him spread his message of joy, winning and gross blends of gum and tobacco. To counsel the offense he selected Ty Van Burkleo as his hitting coach, former baseball player. I've read this name many times since then, but I don't think I've ever actually seen him.
I'm beginning to think Ty Van Berkleo simply doesn't exist.
This sounds silly, yes. It's sat in the back of my mind for a while, an odd unsettlingness that I couldn't quite pin down for a couple seasons. People don't often seek out hitting coaches, but they usually are at least seen.
Then, a couple weeks ago there was a shot during a game of the Tribe Brain Trust joking about in the dugout. There was Francona. There was Mickey Callaway. There was Sandy Alomar Jr., possibly eating a plate of food. But nowhere did I see anyone resembling the man alleged to be Ty Van Burkleo. Could he have been below decks, discussing something with a hitter in the batting cages? Sure. It was a five second shot. It told me almost literally nothing. But it seemed all too convenient. Why is Callaway never doing anything but joking with Francona and putting his arm around Danny Salazar or studiously avoiding Trevor Bauer? Why wasn’t Van Burkleo sharing that delicious plate of, I don’t know, pulled pork with Alomar?
After extensive research, meaning a Google Image Search and a reading of a WIkipedia page, my theory only feels more real. The pictures that came up of Van Burkleo just didn’t seem to match up. Look:
Compared to the guy above, is that really the same person? I am just not so sure. Or this:
That could be anyone from the 80’s. That is a “Generic Man” template if ever I saw one.
And after playing he coached for the Angels, Mariners and Astros, three teams that might have formed five years ago for all the pub they get. They play out there on the west coast, or in the “other” Texas place, late at night so only weirdos and insomniacs have the chance to see them play, and scores are reported as happening the next day. Who’s to say if it actually occurred. For all we know the games available on MLB.tv are just high-end CGI, and teams who “travel” to Anaheim are just given a randomized number of wins and losses. After all, Mike Trout can’t be that good. It’s inhuman. So his coming to Cleveland could have just never happened. Because, again, he is not real.
His playing career is incredibly nondescript, too. He played for the Angels in the ‘80s an utterly nondescript decade of baseball and an utterly nondescript team. Then his contract was purchased by the Seibu Lions of the Nippon Baseball League. So basically, we’re to believe this supposed real person played for a forgetful team in America, then left for Japan for another utterly nondescript couple of years? Then he came back and coached in the DIamondbacks minor league system? This is the kind of history you create for someone in the witness protection program. There’s no way you could possibly verify any of this. Between grainy video and the vague near-nothingness of Orange County in the mid-80’s and Japanese baseball until the mid-90’s, it’s all just question marks.
Even if he does exist, how would we know Van Burkleo is doing anything? Jason Kipnis has been four different hitters since he got to the majors. There’s no consistency of message to be read. Michael Brantley hasn’t done anything different since he showed up back in 2011, he just grew up and got Dad Strength. Carlos Santana has always been what he is. All three of these men predate Van Burkleo, if one can predate a phantom. Of the younger guys, only Jose Ramirez has had the outsize breakout, and I suspect that’s all Juan Uribe’s doing more than anything. Heart to heart father-son talks and all that.
I have a hard time assigning credit to hitting coaches anyway, because I never assign blame to them if their hitters suddenly slump. Coaching hitting is much harder than pitching, simply because you are teaching reaction. Whereas pitching coaches have the luxury of schooling the guy who starts every event in baseball, and thus has immense control, hitters are in an innate disadvantage. The grand majority of them would likely succeed without the presence of any kind of “hitting coach”. Now and again you get a Jose Bautista, but you can’t expect that. Kind of like the bullpen coach, a hitting coach is just there because an authority figure is needed for tradition’s sake. That’s why I think the Indians could get away with not having a real person.
As a small market team, it makes sense for the Indians to approach this novel method of cost-cutting . I don’t actually know how much a hitting coach would make, but it’s probably at least a couple million or something. So basically, the salaries of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor last year, among others. If we’re all being hoodwinked by a fake human being, that’s more than worth it. Plus it’s probably a sweet write-off.