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MORRISSEY: ‘K’ king Rob Deer telling Cubs to do as I say not as I did

Rob Deer left Dale Sveum talk as The Chicago Cubs get ready for 2013 seasduring their spring training Fitch park

Rob Deer, left, and Dale Sveum talk as The Chicago Cubs get ready for the 2013 season during their spring training at Fitch park in Mesa, AZ on Monday, February 18, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:43AM

MESA, Ariz. — Rob Deer understands the chuckles. Hell, if he listens hard enough, he might be able to hear the year 1987 laughing.

That was the season he struck out 186 times, one of the four years he led the American League in whiffs. That was also the season he became the first player in major-league history to have more than 100 more strikeouts than RBI (80). He holds the career record for fewest at-bats per strikeout (2.75).

The punch line is a fastball over the fat part of the plate: Deer is the new assistant hitting coach for — wait a beat for effect — the Cubs.

Of course, he is. Who else would the happily hapless Cubs hire but a former feast-or-famine hitter known for prodigious homers and strikeouts that came with wind-gust warnings?

But if you can get past that, you’ll find substance. You’ll find a guy who even discourages his players from trying to hit home runs during batting practice. If that sounds like a former drinker with a prohibitionist’s axe in his hand, well, so be it.

“I was struggling one year in Milwaukee, and Reggie Jackson came into our locker room,’’ Deer said. “He gave me the best knowledge I ever learned. He said, ‘For the rest of the season in batting practice, I want you to think about hitting the ball off the wall, not over the wall.’ I’ll never forget that. I talk to our hitters about that. We want them to think about hitting line drives.’’

From 1986 to 1993, mostly with the Brewers, Deer averaged 27 home runs and never struck out fewer than 131 times. The ball normally was either high in the air or resting in a catcher’s mitt. He was Adam Dunn before Dunn struck out for the first time as a Little Leaguer.

But now? He’s another person.

“I share what I’ve learned, not what I’ve done,’’ said Deer, who played with Cubs manager Dale Sveum in Milwaukee and was a former roving hitting instructor in the Padres’ minor-league system. “Hitting’s always been a passion of mine. I always wanted to hit .280, .290, but I just couldn’t do it because I did things wrong. Subconsciously, I teach and I talk about the things I couldn’t do.’’

That makes perfect sense. Bob Knight was a poor defender as a basketball player at Ohio State but a stickler as a coach when it came to defense.

“I know Hall of Fame hitters that were so good, they can’t teach hitting because they didn’t have to think about it,’’ Deer said. “I was constantly trying to find an edge my whole career. The highest I ever hit in the big leagues was .252. Now, does that qualify me to be a hitting coach? Well, I know a lot of great hitting coaches that never stepped in the big leagues.’’

Rob Deer the hitting coach would have loved to help Rob Deer the batter, a right-handed pull hitter who only wanted to do one thing: “Hit the ball where the grass doesn’t grow.’’

“I believe in using the whole field,’’ he said. “The things I know now — I wish I would have been my own hitting coach when I was 18. There are a lot of things I did wrong. I got to play in the big leagues a long time [11 years]. They paid me to do something that a lot of people couldn’t do, and that’s drive in runs and hit home runs.’’

One of the players getting plenty of Deer’s attention is center fielder Brett Jackson, a talented kid who struck out 59 times in 120 at-bats with the Cubs last season. That 49.17 strikeout percentage is the second-highest in baseball history for a position player with at least 100 big-league at-bats. Jackson also found time to lead the Pacific Coast League with 158 strikeouts in 2012.

“He had a real bad habit of picking his back elbow up, which was causing his swing path to be a two-piece type of deal,’’ Deer said. “If your swing path is long to the strike zone, it’s almost like the old saying that, ‘I’m going to start swinging before he even throws it.’ Now he’s just reacting because his swing is shorter.’’

Said Jackson: “Rob Deer knows a lot about hitting. I can assure you of that.’’

The Cubs hit .240 as a team last year. Let’s see Deer take a swing at that.

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