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Ben Smith

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Hooton prepared to pitch in

OK, first things first: The man can still bring the knuckle-curve.

Sometimes, that is. Occasionally. When his arm, you know, lapses into a coma and forgets it’s 63 years old.

“If I can get my hands on it, I can spin it,” is how Burt Hooton puts it, in his summer-breeze Texas drawl. “My dexterity is not as good as it once was, though.”

And, well, no surprise there, all things considered. It has, after all, been 41 years since he unleashed his signature pitch on those poor Philadelphia Phillies, little wings of hair curling from beneath his blue Cubs cap. He was 22 years old that April day in 1972, and he was making only his fourth major-league start. And he gave the Phillies zip.

The no-hitter landed him on baseball’s radar for the first time, and he stayed there for a while, winning 151 games and ringing up 1,491 batters across 15 seasons. The highlight was 1981, when he went 5-1 with an 0.82 ERA in five postseason starts to help the Dodgers win the World Series.

Now it’s all these years later, and here he is again, driving up from his home in San Antonio toward Fort Wayne, where he’ll be the TinCaps’ pitching coach this season. He’s seen a few towns like it. Since 1988, three years after he threw his last major league pitch for the Texas Rangers, he’s been a pitching coach, teaching kids how to educate their arms. He’s seen Salem, Ore., hunkered down in the Willamette Valley a long cutoff throw from Portland. He’s done time in San Antonio and Albuquerque and Round Rock, Texas. He even coached at his alma mater, the University of Texas, from 1997 to 1999.

The last three seasons he’s been in Oklahoma City, working with Triple-A arms for the Houston Astros. Now he heads north again, this time to the brittle early spring of Indiana.

So what’s he bring with him after all that time, in all those cities?

Perspective, for one.

“Pitching’s pitching anywhere,” he says. “Probably what I teach most is the discipline of mastering what they throw. You know, a lot of guys learn how to throw all their pitches, but they never take the time to master what they have. Getting them to understand the command of what they throw is the key to success at any level.

“If you want to be real good, it’s not like you have to be able to do a whole lot of things. You have to be able to do a few things and do them real well.”

Which is what happened here last summer, by and large. Quality arms were a big part of the TinCaps’ run to the Midwest League finals, and there are more quality arms awaiting Hooton this time around. He’s got four first-round picks on his staff, plus the short-A Northwest League’s 2012 leader in saves in Roman Madrid.

Rich ore to mine for a man who, truth be told, sort of fell into coaching.

“When I finished playing, I went back to school and got a broadcast journalism degree,” Hooton says. “Didn’t really know what I was going to do, and then the Dodgers called me and asked if I’d be interested in coaching in a short-A league in Salem, Ore.

“My only professional experience as a player was two months in Triple-A and the rest in the big leagues, so as far as coaching was concerned, I was very inexperienced. I still look back at those two summers I spent (in Salem) as kind of the foundation for my being a coach, because where I was as a pro and where those kids were as young pros there was a big gap there. I thought I was going to set the world on fire as a coach, and they taught me something different.”

And now? Now it’s 25 years since that first coaching gig, and 32 since they fitted him for a World Series ring, and 41 since he no-hit the Phillies. And the teachable moments, for both himself and the kids in his charge, continue to pile up.

“Time’s flying,” Hooton says. “And it goes faster every year.”

One more lesson.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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