SALISBURY, Md. - Beneath the third base stands at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, the sound of bat meeting ball is keeping beat with Waka Flocka Flame’s epithet-rich “50K Remix.” Before each swing, Dan Radison’s right arm snakes around a screen, feeding a pitch to a waiting batter. Over and over, Radison simulates a low, drivable offering, and over and over, faux line drives are sprayed across an oblong cavernous chamber surrounded by a mesh screen that offers little in the way of protection.
“Keep moving,” Radison cautions a visitor. “We don’t want you getting hit.”
Serving as the hitting coach for a low Single-A team is the last place the 69-year-old thought he be this summer. But here he is, imparting wisdom, challenging what hitters think and dodging the occasional bullet that threatens to puncture the screen in front of him.
No, after finishing up as a fundamentals coordinator with the Astros last summer, Radison figured he’d be back in Deerfield Beach, Fla., dancing with his wife and getting their son ready for college. He played in the minors for two seasons, coached and managed in the minors, spent a few seasons on major league staffs and settled into a variety of roles into the background of the Astros’ rebuild that resulted in a World Series. Radison had given so much to baseball, it was time for him to kick back and relax.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The Orioles hired Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias to be their new executive vice president and general manager in November. One of Elias’ first hires was Sig Megdal, the sabermetric analyst he’d known in his days with the Cardinals and Astros, to serve as his top assistant in charge of analytics. Over the winter, Elias and Megdal set the Orioles’ minor league staffs. Or so they thought.
Matt Trate, hired to serve as Delmarva’s hitting coach, bailed on the gig shortly before the season began. The Orioles needed to fill the position in a hurry, and the new regime reached out to a guy with whom they were very familiar. Who promptly said no.
“Mike and Sig called me right before spring and said the guy who was supposed to come here quit and will you bail us out?” Radison recalls in the Shorebirds dugout before Game 2 of the South Atlantic League semifinals. “I said, ‘No, I’m not going to Delmarva for five months.’ They called me back and said, ‘How about three?’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll go there for three.’ “
Thomas Eller began the season in Delmarva, then joined short-season Single-A Aberdeen as hitting coach. When Eller left a couple of months into the South Atlantic League season, Radison took over, interjecting energy into a team headed for an historic season and connecting on different levels with different players of different backgrounds.
The Sally League can be a challenge, since it’s often the first exposure to full-season baseball for young players. It’s not unusual to have them hit a wall in the dog days of August when their bodies tell them it’s time to stop but the schedule says there’s still a few weeks of games left. And as he started imparting wisdom on his charges - some of them joining the Shorebirds after being drafted in June - Radison walked a fine line between effectively coaching and overloading his hitters with information.
“Toughest thing about A-ball level, because I haven’t been at this lower level, it’s how much can I give them and how can I do it?” Radison says. “There’s information I want to give them, but I don’t want to overload them. That’s been the challenge. I’ve been here long enough to get that sorted out. I feel like I know who can handle some stuff and who can’t.”
Radison’s teaching methods run the gamut from in-depth personal instruction that’s been part of baseball for a hundred years to integrating biofeedback into traditional coaching. Earlier this season, he and Megdal attended OnBase University, which studies how the human body functions in relations to baseball’s activities. For a team building its analytics department from the ground up and incorporating all sorts of new metrics into its performance evaluation processes, having teachers at the lower levels of the minor leagues is critical familiar with the new technologies is critical.
“Sig and I went to the OnBase University and we spent three days there going over all the K-Vest (biofeedback) and all the ways you measure people’s bodies, the kinematic sequence of the swing and all that,” Radison says. “Blast Motion (wearable technologies) is going to be very much a part of what we do here. All of those things. So that was already introduced in Houston before it got here. I saw that in Houston, what they did with it, and it’s still getting sorted out. Nobody’s really sure what all those numbers mean just yet. We do know the sequence is important, so the K-Vest is important, but we can’t use it during the game. But can you trust your sequence in batting practice? Lot easier than doing it in the game. But I think all the technology eventually is going to make us a lot better.”
Radison has spent time on the major league staffs of the Padres, Cubs and Nationals when Jim Riggleman managed those clubs. He’s skippered in the minors for the Mets, Cardinals and Yankees, and spent time in the Astros front office and on their field staff. So when he speaks to a young hitter, his vast experience and knowledge of emerging technologies carries a lot of weight.
“I’m telling Sig and Mike, we’ve got to figure out a way that they understand how they’re being evaluated so they know what we’re trying to emphasize,” Radison says. “Right now, they’re thinking their OPS isn’t enough. Well, OPS in this ballpark? There’s no OPS here because nobody can hit a homer here. So they’re talking OPS+. There’s so much information coming to them, you’ve really got to be conscious about how you keep all this stuff from inundating them.”
Radison accomplishes that gargantuan goal the same way he’s always approached coaching: connecting with his players on their level, then helping them learn and understand.
“The No. 1 thing about communication is to remind yourself: Do not avoid the conversations you really don’t want to have because they just get worse,” he says. “I’m confrontational and I’m going to be honest. ‘This is bothering me about you, so tell me why this is happening.’ They want to hear the truth and they want to get unconfused.”
Something must have clicked this season. The Shorebirds won both halves of the South Atlantic League schedule, posted the first 90-win season in the league since 2006 and are in the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
The parent Orioles’ rebuild may be in its infancy, but what’s happening at the lower levels of the minor leagues may portend better times in Baltimore, Radison believes.
“The strength of Mike and Sig is the draft,” he says. “You can add all the other stuff to it, but the strength, what really separated them in Houston, was the decisions they made when they drafted. The evidence is here again. It’s amazing how good they do in the draft. Those kids are going to be ballplayers.”
Some of those players taken in the June First-Year Player Draft are key contributors for the Shorebirds. Outfielder Johnny Rizer, a seventh-rounder out of TCU, joined the Shorebirds from Aberdeen and slashed .310/.359/.401 in 36 games. The No. 1 overall pick in June, Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, is getting a taste of playoff baseball in his abbreviated first pro season. Infielder Adam Hall, a 2017 second-rounder out of a Canadian high school, reminds Radison of Astros All-Star Alex Bregman with the explosiveness of his bat.
The bats sometimes get lost on the pitching-rich Shorebirds. But not to Radison, whose club has the fifth-highest average in the league.
By the time those players reach the majors - or even jump a level next year - they’ll be getting tips from someone else. Florida is calling, and Radison’s half a season with the Shorebirds was only supposed to be a one-off, a favor for friends in need.
“I really have a heart for Mike and have a heart for Sig,” Radison says. “Those guys, when they called and asked if I could help them out, how could I not? But it’s time. Time for me.”
He’ll leave having made an impact beyond the batter’s box.
“You’re not going to find anybody in the game more passionate about the game in all phases than Dan Radison,” says Shorebirds manager Kyle Moore. “I’ve benefited probably the most from anybody else because I bounce things off him every day at all hours of the day. ... But Rad-Dog has been a tremendous asset to these guys. Not only from the hitting approach standpoint, but just from the experience. The guy’s got a resume you’re not going to find. For me to lean on that, and for the other coaches and players to lean on that, has been a tremendous value.”