Richie Hebner lingered late into the night in the home clubhouse on Friday. The Bisons had lost their fourth straight game. Hebner, the hitting coach for a struggling offense, had work to do.
But he had another reason to hang around. Hebner couldn’t miss the end of the Western Conference finals. He was riveted to the TV as Buffalo’s Patrick Kane led the Blackhawks to a 4-3 win over the Kings.
“I stayed here, right to the end,” Hebner said Saturday morning. “I watched it in the clubhouse. I didn’t want to go home.”
Hebner hasn’t quite recovered from his beloved Bruins losing to the Canadiens in the conference semis. He grew up in Norwood, a small town just outside Boston. There was a time, in fact, when he thought he might play for them.
As a kid, Hebner was a hockey legend. Oh, he was great in baseball. He went on to play 18 years of Major League baseball. He hit 203 home runs and appeared in nine postseason series.
But people who remember Hebner as a high school star will tell you he was even better on the ice. A paper boy once approached Hebner’s father, who was working on a car engine, to gush about Richie’s rookie exploits in Pittsburgh.
“Aahh,” his dad said, waving his blackened hand in the air. “He could have played with Bobby Orr!”
Half a century later, Hebner doesn’t dispute the notion.
“I was a better hockey player than baseball player,” Hebner said in a thick Boston accent. “Back home, we’d get 3-, 4,000 for a high school hockey game. At a baseball game, we’d have maybe 10.”
Boston offered him a contract. Hebner would have played junior for the old Niagara Falls Flyers, with Bernie Parent, Derek Sanderson and Glen Sather. He turned it down and signed with the Pirates for $40,000.
Milt Schmidt, the Bruins’ GM, told Hebner that if baseball didn’t work out, he could come back to the Bruins. Hebner never went back. By age 21, he was the regular third baseman for the Pirates.
“I got called up at the end of the ‘68 season,” Hebner said. “I’m sitting in Forbes Field going, ‘(Roberto) Clemente, (Willie) Stargell, what the hell am I doing in this clubhouse?’ I was two years out of high school.”
Hebner says timing is everything. The Pirates wanted to mix in young players. They had an opening at third. Hebner became a fixture on a team that reached five NLCS in six years from 1970-75. In fact, Hebner played in the NLCS eight times in an 18-year career with the Pirates, Phillies and Cubs. But he only got past it once – when the Pirates won the World Series in 1971.
Hebner was a clutch hitter and free swinger who hit .284 in those eight LCS. He says he loved to go after the first-pitch fastball. He hit .276 with 890 RBIs in a pitchers’ era, and is proud to say he had nearly as many walks (687) as strikeouts (741).
He has spent the last quarter-century bouncing around baseball, as a minor-league manager and hitting instructor. He was a big-league hitting coach with the Red Sox and Phillies, but hasn’t been back up since 2001.
“In this game, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” Hebner said. “It’s like life.”
Coaching is a grueling, nomadic existence. Hebner has had more than a dozen jobs. Getting fired is part of the deal. As a hitting coach, you hand out technical advice and encouragement and watch young kids try to perform the toughest task in sports – hitting a baseball.
“I can have pom-poms in the dugout rooting for you,” he said, “but I don’t have the bat in my hand. Ted Williams could come back from the grave and get fired if he got a crap team.”
Hebner has a simple, old-school philosophy. Look for a strike to hit. If you don’t miss the fastball, there’s less chance you have to deal with the curve.
“Obviously, get a strike to hit,” he said. “Soft front foot, and use your back leg. A lot of the guys play golf. I say, ‘Take a golf swing, it’s a lot like hitting.’ You can’t hit off your front foot.”
It gets back to hard work, which was never a problem for Hebner. For 35 years, he went home to Norwood every offseason to work as a gravedigger in a cemetery run by his father and brother.
“The Gravedigger” was digging long after he was a famous ballplayer. Hebner dug graves until he was 58. It kept him in shape, was great for his arms. He says he misses it.
“Thirty-five years,” he said. “Pick and shovel, no back hoe. I tell you what happened. This is unusual. I had three sister-in-laws die within 17 days. I tell people, ‘It wasn’t a car accident.’ ”
Two of his brothers’ wives died of cancer, a third from a lengthy illness. Dennis, his youngest brother, was running the cemetery at the time. He was left with four motherless children. So the cemetery business, which had been started by his grandfather, closed in 2006.
Richie called his old pal Jimmy Ginley, who owns three funeral homes in Boston, and got an offseason job with him.
“I tell people, I guess I love being around stiffs,” Hebner said with a laugh. “I drive the hearse, take the casket down. It gets me out in the morning for four hours. Most of the funerals, they don’t know who I am.”
“Here’s a great story. It was 2010, I got a funeral, driving the hearse. Priest didn’t go with me. My phone rings. The cop’s in front of me. I’m about five miles from the cemetery. I’m like ‘Hello?’ He says, ‘This is John Stockstill from Baltimore. We’re going to let you go.’
“I looked back and said, ‘You think you’re having a bad day back there. I just got canned.’ I got fired driving the hearse!”
Hebner had been the hitting coach in Norfolk for one year when the axe fell. He spent two years out of baseball. He could have quit for good.
But before the 2013 season, Blue Jays president Paul Beeston called. Hebner had worked in the Toronto organization twice before. Beeston, an old pal, offered him a Double-A job in New Hampshire.
“I said, ‘I don’t know. I cut my own grass, I have my own place at the Cape’,” Hebner said. “Paul said, ‘We want you back.’ So here I am.”
He never played with Bobby Orr. But he played with Clemente and Stargell, against Pete Rose, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. His first hit was against Bob Gibson. He talked hitting with Ted Williams. The players tease him, but he says hitters were better in his day.
“The average batter last year hit .251,” Hebner said. “Imagine hitting .251 and making $12 million. That’s pretty good gimmick. I was born a little too early, wasn’t I? But I’m still in it, and I’m glad I’m back.”