PEORIA, Ariz. — First it was rubber bands and an oversized bat; now a “swimming pool noodle” is helping Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders maintain his newfound hitting career.
It was just over a year ago that Saunders, 26, rescued his baseball fortunes through a rather unorthodox training regimen designed by private hitting instructor Mike Bard. But after a solid 2012 season as a regular, Saunders returned to Bard’s training facility in Colorado this winter and added the polyethylene foam noodle — typically used as a pool float by children — to the quirky kit of tools designed to keep his swing compact.
“I just want to get this to come naturally for me, so I’m trying to beat my body into submission,” Saunders said. “Swinging is all muscle memory. And that’s the goal, to critique myself and be hard on myself and keep doing this over and over until I get it right.”
The noodle has actually been cut down to a small, straight foam tube, with a rubber strap attached at both ends. During batting practice, Saunders slides the contraption on over his head, with the foam coming to rest under his left armpit and the strap running tight across his chest and around the outside of his right arm.
“I call it ‘The Lifejacket,’ “ Saunders said. “Brendan Ryan likes to call it ‘The sushi roll’ or ‘The spicy tuna roll.’ “
The idea behind the device is for the foam to block his left elbow from getting in too tight against his body and “stalling out” when he swings. Instead, the foam forces his elbow to stay on its path in a stronger hitting position.
His opposite arm is held tight to his body by the rubber strap so it doesn’t “fly open” and make the swing longer and slower.
Saunders and Bard added a pitching machine — one that throws sinkers, change-ups and curveballs — to his daily workouts this year. Despite his 2012 successes, Saunders endured his share of slumps before finishing with a .247 batting average, 19 home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .738.
“It was a good season,” he said. “It wasn’t a great season by any means, but it was a good season. It definitely got me headed in the right direction.”
And Saunders lays it at the feet of Bard, 43, a former college coach whose younger brother, Josh, was a journeyman major-league catcher — including two years with Saunders and the Mariners — before retiring last year. Bard runs Bardo’s Baseball Academy in a Denver suburb and was introduced to Saunders late in 2011 by his brother at a time the Mariners outfielder had, conveniently enough, just moved to Colorado.
“He’s taught me so much,” Saunders said. “Not only what to do with the bat, but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Not just about the game. It’s really helped me out.”
Bard’s work with Saunders took on mythical proportions a year ago when the outfielder arrived at spring training and took batting practice wrapped tightly in two rubber bands and wielding what he said was a 60-ounce bat. The idea was that the ultraheavy bat would force him to swing “under control” while the bands would keep his body from flying open.
“I may have overstated how heavy the bat was,” Saunders said Wednesday of the bat, which he still uses. “I told everybody it was 60 ounces and I thought it was. But it was really only 48 ounces.”
Back in Colorado, his tutor, Bard, disagreed in a phone conversation.
“It’s actually 52 ounces,” Bard said. “Regardless, it’s pretty heavy.”
Bard didn’t want to comment directly on his work with Saunders, or other major-leaguers. Nor did he want to take credit for his hitting.
“I don’t approach working with a major-leaguer any differently than I would with a 10-year-old kid,” he said. “They come to us to work on things and to get better, and we try to help as best we can. But in the end, if they succeed, it’s because of what they did. Not me.”
Bard’s own career saw him land All-Big-8 and Academic Big-8 honors at the University of Kansas. He lasted one season as a third baseman in the independent Northern League. He then got into coaching as an assistant and later a head coach for various Division I schools.
In 2007, he served as an assistant to hitting coach Alan Cockrell with the Colorado Rockies when they went to the World Series. Bard threw batting practice, worked with hitters in cages and generally helped Cockrell during homestands.
Bard credits those experiences and conversations with hitters over the years for helping devise some of his techniques and contraptions.
“We’re running 1,600 kids a week through here,” he said of his hitting facility. “So, you’ve got to figure we were bound to pick something up off of all that. A lot of it’s just seeing things, and then you go through a lot of trial and error.”
Saunders went through plenty of trials before hooking up with Bard, who he now calls “a close friend” and considers part of his family.
Now, after a 2012 season spent mostly in center field in place of injured Franklin Gutierrez, Saunders figures to start this season in left or right. Mariners manager Eric Wedge plans to use Saunders in both outfield corners as well as spelling Gutierrez in center.
That’s fine with Saunders, who will represent Canada in the World Baseball Classic and hopes his work with Bard further solidifies his status with the Mariners.
“We were trying to take it to the next step,” Saunders said. “I revamped my swing last offseason, and now that we laid that foundation, we were looking at ways to critique me and really be hard on me so we could take that step to a higher level.”