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COMSTOCK PARK – Considering where he’s been in recent years, John Vander Wal doesn’t care about a little traffic congestion.
Orange barrels and one lanes that pop up along the drive from Comstock Park to Ada are specks in the road compared to what he’s seen.
Vander Wal, one of Major League Baseball’s all-time greatest pinch hitters, is in his first season as assistant coach with the West Michigan Whitecaps. That’s like walking across the street after nine seasons as a scout driving around the county.
“My commute is usually about 15 minutes. I mean, how great is that?” he said.
Vander Wal joined the Whitecaps this season as a third coach, joining hitting coach Mariano Duncan and pitching coach Jorge Cordova on the staff of first-year manager Lance Parrish.
Before joining the Whitecaps, he was a scout four seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks after five seasons in a similar role with the San Diego Padres. That led to a lot of driving and flying around the country to be sitting and evaluating players from the seats of minor league ballparks.
So, Vander Wal welcomed the opportunity to become a coach. The benefit to come home made it special for the Hudsonville High School graduate.
“I’m fortunate enough to still be a part of the game and I get to go to my home after games half the time. I love that. That was the biggest selling card,” said the 52-year-old Vander Wal as the Whitecaps begin a seven-game homestand Tuesday. “It’s tough (being a scout). You leave three weeks at a time, home for a few days and then back on the road again.”
With the Whitecaps, Vander Wal has a myriad of duties ranging from positioning outfielders during games to assisting Duncan with hitters and offering his experience when called upon by veteran manager Parish.
“Between him and myself and Mariano, we have substantial big-league time,” Vander Wal said. “So, we try to have fun and teach these kids how to play at the professional level.”
“It’s quite a bit of transformation from playing college or high school ball to playing every single day,” Vander Wal said of most players on the Whitecaps. “It’s a learning curve. It’s tough to come out just about every day. They ask questions how to manage that, the mental grind of staying sharp and being successful every day as the season wears on.”
Vander Wal has experienced a lot in baseball. He went from Hudsonville High School to Western Michigan to the third-round pick of the Montreal Expos in 1987.
The first baseman-outfielder made his major league debut with the Expos in 1991 that began a 14-year career with eight teams. The left-hander found a niche as a pinch hitter, setting a league record for pinch hits in a season with 28 in 1995 with the Colorado Rockies. Vander Wal finished his career in 2004 with 129 pinch hits, seventh all-time.
Overall, he appeared in 1,372 games with a career batting average of .261. His best season came in 2000 with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he hit 24 home runs with 94 RBIs and batted .299 in 134 games.
MORE: Vander Wal’s stats
He was inducted into the Western Michigan Broncos’ Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
Now, with his son, Jake, a Forest Hills Central grad who is a sophomore outfielder at Central Arizona College, out of the house, it’s mostly Vander Wal and his wife, Debra.
“My wife is used to it. We get to see each other more now in the summer, but she gets it,” Vander Wal said. “She grew up in the game. When I was scouting, I was gone most of the summer. But that’s the way we’ve been. It’s baseball. But I’ll tell you, it’s nice to be home more in the summer.”