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Fit for a King

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Hank King at his Kingplex facility in LimerickAnyone who knows Hank King didn’t expect he’d sit still. Not after keeping on the move—and the road—for 34 years in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, a tour of service that ended after last season. Though he tries to get a grip on the reality of retirement, it eludes him.

“Every day, I say, ‘Where are we today? Retired!’ I want to be involved. My main job has always been baseball.”

And it still is, really. An Upper Merion High School graduate, a decades-long advance scout and former batting practice pitcher for the Phillies, King has delved more deeply into the sport he loves at his Kingplex. He opened the training center for youth and advanced players a decade ago in his Limerick backyard. This spring, he was the assistant baseball coach at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, where he’s long-helped as a recruiter. He’s speaking and making appearances at camps and clinics, plus coaching an American Junior Legion team in Pottsgrove.

With as much as he threw a baseball in the 1970s and early ’80s, it’s a wonder King can still throw at all. He’s often asked how many pitches he threw in his career. “What if I had a dime for each?” he jests. “What if I had half a penny? In spring training, I’d throw three to five times a day. Tony Taylor would take a stopwatch, and we figured, if I could throw 12 pitches a minute, we could really get a hitter loose and get through four rotations at 15 minutes a group. But then, we always had less time on the road.”

Raised in King of Prussia, King signed with the Baltimore Orioles right out of Upper Merion in 1962. His first roommate in rookie ball was Mark Belanger, who spent his major league career as a shortstop for the Orioles. King blew out his elbow in his third year. Five years later, he reunited with a former minor league coach, Billy DeMars, who was coaching with the Phillies. King signed on to throw at batting practice for the team for $15 a day. “After the first day, they told me to come back tomorrow,” he says. “I did for 34 years.”

That was long enough to be with the 1980 and 2008 world champions, though King doesn’t wear either ring. “They’re in the house,” he says.

From 1984 to 2008, King was the team’s advance scout. That put him on the road all season, watching opposing teams. The reports he’d file helped prepare for the games ahead.

The longest tenured advance scout in professional baseball, King was on the road so much that he’s still only attended seven games at Citizens Bank Park—most of them during the 2008 championship run. Before each World Series game, without another team to scout, he met with the coaching staff to share his opinions and observations from the previous outing.

That off-season, King was presented with the 2008 George Genovese Scout of the Year Award in Los Angeles. He shared a stage that night with George Brett, Whitney Herzog, Rich “Goose” Gossage and the Alou family, who all won other awards. King chose former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick as his presenter.

“In all the years, he was the guy who treated me the best,” says King. “He was the one who began having 11 a.m. conference calls on Wednesdays, where he opened it up and asked for everyone’s opinion. All the other GMs just read the reports. He wanted to hear it from you.”

Last year, King was promoted to pro scout. It involved less travel and fewer reports. He crafted his own schedule and followed specific players under evaluation for possible trades or minor league deals. But after a serious illness and a five-day hospitalization in September, he missed the 2009 World Series run, retiring as the season ended.

“It was awfully strange not going to spring training and not having a job,” he says of this past spring. “But I stepped away as advance scout after we won it all. I guess it was the best time to get out.”
 

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Inside the Kingplex, you’ll find a row of nine seats salvaged from Veterans Stadium, along with memorabilia, posters, pennants, a Ryan Howard growth chart, awards, jerseys and photos. Almost everything is signed. “Most of this stuff I found in my basement and attic,” says King.

The wall-to-wall AstroTurf he bought from Bob Boone, the former Phillies’ catcher and now assistant GM and vice president of player development for the Washington Nationals. The closet door has a baseball for a doorknob. “When you walk in here, I want it to feel like a clubhouse atmosphere,” King says.

He ushers in three students with helmets. “Can you hit this guy?” poses King. “Don’t give me this ‘maybe’ stuff. Yes or no? He’s not throwing that hard. Just think, ‘He’s trying to throw a pork chop past a hungry wolf.’”

The Kingplex has always been lucrative in the off-season, though for 41 years he also refereed high school and small college basketball. He’d been doing baseball lessons at Valley Forge Military Academy, and then Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville until he built a pole barn in his backyard. Amish builders erected it in three days.

Now, maybe he can expand beyond his off-season hours, which have been booked with lessons. “I live for these kids,” King says. “I’ve never forgotten that I was a kid, but we never had all of this.”

At any given time, a half-dozen players end a session, and another group begins one. Sessions last an hour or two, depending on whether there’s a group of three or six. Everyone pitches, catches and hits. Hitters use wooden bats and no batting gloves. “When we do something wrong, we either break a bat or sting our hands,” King says. “This is how we correct flaws. We hit off live pitching, not machines, therefore we see different arm slots.”

Thus far, 53 of his students have played into college. Two signed professional contracts. The current crop isn’t anywhere yet. That’s why he’s teaching three of them a drill that forces them to field four stationary balls while extending their arms in front of their bodies and not off to the side. “You don’t eat in here, you eat out in front,” he tells them. “We’re not in a hurry to do it. We’re just in a hurry to do it right.”

After they do the same with their backhands, King pulls out a tall, rectangular frame and positions players in the corners to move a ball in a prescribed pattern. The object is to throw the baseball through the center of the frame.

King has been around too long to be void of pet peeves. Now that he has some time on his hands, he plans to address all of them.

For one, why does Little League Baseball end the first week of June unless a player is an all-star? The youngest boys of summer don’t play in the summer. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “How is anyone going to get better?”

Also, a kid gets lost in the shuffle when his father insists on being his coach from Little League up until high school. Then, he doesn’t make the school team. “It’s because his father isn’t the coach,” King says.

There are eight local facilities like his, but some, King says, have senseless monopolies on certain schools or youth organizations. Others are run by guys who read about the game in magazines, or who specialize in videography. “I don’t know everything, but I strapped it on,” King says. “And if I don’t know the answer, or can’t fix something, I call [Larry] Bowa or G.G. (Greg Gross). If I have a pitcher with a problem, I call Claude Osteen. I do whatever it takes for kids to get to the next level. I treat every one of them like he is my own.”

As for player development, King, who had 70 kids under his wing this past off-season, has this complaint: “This area is small-ball heaven, which is anti-development. I told my kids on a fall team, ‘No one will bunt.’ Around here, they play the game backward, and the kids lose out because no scout is looking for a guy who can bunt. Around here, they use and abuse kids to win when they’re supposed to be developing them to play at the next level.”

King never teaches a pitcher a curve-ball until sophomore year in high school, and only the over-the-top version that spins down—and better protects a tender elbow. He also shuns weight lifting to develop upper-body muscles. “You need to be loose up top—not restricted—so you can throw a baseball,” he says.

Pride resonates in everything King says, with not much regret—other than putting his wife, Carol Ann, on the back burner. And King’s options are still open. He hasn’t even drawn on his Major League Baseball pension because he remains restless with retirement.

“The best thing about the game is all the professionals I met, and all those who imparted knowledge to me that I now instill into youngsters,” says King.

To learn more, visit kingplex.com.
 

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