I like it. †It’s real cool Joe took his team to play pool. A lot of times what happens on team
is you’ll have team parties or a team get-together†at the end of the season and you say, man, I wish
I had hung out with these guys a little bit more. †You get to know your own teammates.† But by then the season’s over and you’ve gone into your winter
so to do this early is great.†You’re alone and talk about personal things and form a bond
with certain guys on the club. †This is particularly good for the Yankees who brought in all
these new guys. This is a good time to really get to know
Managers looks for opportunities to
get you away from thinking about baseball all the time. †When I was playing for Dick Williams one season in Seattle, we were getting blown out of a game – something like 10-0 in the 4th
inning – and I had been playing every day. He comes down and says “…go ahead, take a shower and go see a
“If I come in there in another half inning and you’re there, I’ll never take you out of another game.† Go watch a movie.”††I remember driving down the road on 90 in Seattle heading
towards Issaquah listening to the game on the radio, it was the weirdest thing
Team get togethers are very rare. †This type of
stuff you do in the minor leagues or in college – its great – and more people need to do
it.† To have lunch and be able to
play pool and sit around and talk trash with each other while no one else is around, that’s how
you eliminate 25 players, 25 cabs.†
The thing that is unique about the minor leagues and college compared to the major leagues, you
get everyone on one bus and you ride off together.† That’s why when you ask guys what their most fun seasons were, everyone remembers their minor league years because you did everything together – you sat on a bus
for 14 hours and you didn’t sit there with your headphones on the entire time. †And that was all summer long.†
So maybe someday
these guys will look back and remember spring training ’09 and say “remember when we went to play pool?”
In 1986, I was a young second baseman in the Seattle Mariners’ system fighting to stay in the big leagues. I had already achieved one of my goals of playing in the Major Leagues a few years earlier when I was called up at the end of September 1983. In 1985, I reached another personal goal when I made the Opening Day roster for the first time. You would think I would have been on top of the world! Not the case. I would struggle through that season, playing part-time and hitting only .144. Miserable, frustrated and unsatisfied with my performance, I considered quitting baseball at the end of the season.
Many people would say I was living the dream, but for me, I couldn’t live with being mediocre. I knew I was better but just couldn’t put it together. I had been an All-Star at every level in the Minor Leagues and didn’t understand why I was struggling in the big leagues while others I outperformed in the minors wasn’t. In the fall of 1986, a conversation with Casey Treat, a pastor friend of mine, would change all that.
Casey challenged me to “stretch my goals and stretch my vision.”
“Big goals produce big results and little goals produce little results,” he would say. “Your problem is not in your ability but rather in your thinking. How you see yourself determines who you are and what you will become.”
He continued, “You need to renew your mind (thinking) and see yourself as God sees you — as a champion.”
“A true champion,” he would say, “responds to the challenge, not the problem.”
Quitting, as far as he was concerned, was not an option.
“You need to have bigger goals and bigger vision! Playing in the big leagues is nice but you should be an All-Star player. Stretch your goals and challenge yourself. Dedicate yourself to being the best you can possibly be!”
He gave me an earful that day and I’m grateful for it. Now don’t get me wrong, the conversation set me back at first, but he did get through to me.
As I examined myself, I started thinking back to when first I started competing in baseball at age five. That first year in Little League, I performed so well I was picked to the All-Star Team even though I was the youngest kid in the league. In fact, it didn’t stop with Little League. After that summer and every year going forward — high school, college and the Minor Leagues — I would become an All-Star at every level. An All-Star in every sport I participated in: football, basketball, track and even wrestling.
1. Be willing to make adjustments
I went back home to Oregon to work out in January before the 1986 season with a renewed fire and a fresh perspective. I knew Greatness does not come by osmosis; you have to work at it. Working is the easy part. The tough stuff is being willing to make adjustments. I knew I needed to make some changes in my swing and approach at the plate but was unsure of what to do. I was lost and needed to find the stroke that had made me an All Star at every level. When I got to the big leagues, I had been given so many confusing messages from coaches.
“Hold your hands high.”
“Hold your hands low.”
“Swing at the first fastball you see.”
“Don’t swing until you get two strikes.”
I heard it all! I was too coachable. I listened to too many coaches and tried to incorporate all of their instructions. It seemed every time I got around big league coaches and discussed my hitting problems, they all agreed on one thing as a solution — that I should “hit the ball on the ground and use my speed”.
I had heard that crap from the first day I signed a pro contract. “Hit the ball on the ground”. Hitting the ball on the ground does not automatically result in base hits. They pay guys millions of dollars to field ground balls. If the defense positions themselves correctly, you should be able to throw out a batter hitting nothing but ground balls every time. This isn’t Little League, where you find the weakest link to hit the ball to. This is Major League Baseball! I have yet to see a player outrun a throw from a Major League infielder on a ground ball hit hard right at the defender.
I knew I had to hit line drives and balls in the gaps to have success. I did it in the minors and knew I had to do it in the big leagues. As long as they kept preaching ground balls and I didn’t make the adjustment to hit line drives, I was never going to stay in the majors, let alone be an All-Star. I changed my swing and approach at the plate that winter. It took a couple years, but the hard work and adjustments I made paid off.
2. Be realistic: set reachable goals
In 1981, my first season in the Minor Leagues, I was named the Midwest League Prospect of the Year, playing for the Wausau Timbers in Wausau, WI. That season, I hit .296, stole 69 bases and hit 12 home runs, but I also committed 30 errors at second base. The following spring training I sat with my infield instructor, Marty Martinez, to set defensive goals for the upcoming season, I said to him, “I am only going to make five errors all year.” He laughed and said, “Hold on–what are you going to do after the first week and you have already committed five errors? Let’s be realistic! Set reachable goals. If you commit 25 errors in the season, that’s a positive improvement from last year.” Goals should be something that you get excited about, not something that makes you feel depressed and inadequate! They should motivate you to get out of bed in the morning and look forward to what the day might bring!
3. Assess the competition and stay within yourself
I looked at the second basemen in the American League and the talent was rich. Their accomplishments were just as impressive. Several were already All-Stars, Gold Glove Winners, Silver Slugger Award Winners and World Series heroes. Frank White in Kansas City was the smoothest fielder of the group, and in my opinion, the best defensive second baseman in the history of baseball. Willie Randolph in New York could do it all — an incredible combination of power, speed and toughness. Lou Whitaker in Detroit had tremendous power. Vance Law in Chicago was a great hitter. Damaso Garcia in Toronto had unlimited potential, Jim Gantner in Milwaukee was a great situational player and Bobby Grich in Anaheim was way ahead of his time–a 6’2, 200-lb stud.
You didn’t have g
uys of Grich’s size playing second base in those days. He hit for power, average, could run and field his position. When I finished assessing the group, my first thought was, “I have no business in this group.”
I had to look for something positive that made me realize I could compete with these men. I knew I wasn’t going to be the type of player who hit 25 home runs or drove in 100 runs. I was going to catch the ball and make contact. When I looked at the physical stature of each man, outside of Bobby Grich, we were all basically the same size: 5’11”, 165 pounds. That was it. The common denominator I needed.
When I was able to reduce them from the giants they were in my head, to the same size of the man I saw in the mirror, the vision came alive. They all had a special skill that stood out amongst the group, but once I set that skill aside, it cleared my vision and I realized not only were we similar in physical stature, but we basically all had a similar style of play — catch the ball, hit for good average and don’t make mistakes. After assessing the competition, I concluded that if I could play within myself, which meant catching the ball, putting it in play and stealing bases, why couldn’t I be an All-Star too?
“As a man sees himself, so is he.”
When we all look back on the 2007 season history will show that it was quite simply the last great season for individual milestones in the history of baseball. When will we ever see a 31-year old all-time home run record broken like the night Barry Bonds did it? Will his final number really stand for another 30-plus years?
This same season has seen Alex Rodriguez — the guy who may one day break Bonds’ record — become the fastest player in the history of the sport to hit 500 home runs.
Meanwhile, we witnessed another guy who switched positions hit a milestone that all but assured he will be enshrined in Cooperstown. Craig Biggio started his career behind the plate for the Astros, who moved him to second to protect him from injury. Several Gold Gloves and many hit-by-pitches later, we watched as he collected the 3,000th hit of his Hall of Fame career.
Frank Thomas a.k.a. "The Big Hurt," a nickname he was given during his football days while playing tight end for the Auburn Tigers, not only changed positions, but also sports. I played against Frank and marveled how this 6’6" former tight end could be so patient at the plate. He would pick out a pitch and then put a "big hurt" on the baseball. He, too, hit his 500th career homer this year.
Then there’s Tom Glavine. Who would have thought in the early years of his career the words "Cooperstown" and "300 wins" would describe Glavine’s career accomplishments? After all, We are talking about a former hockey player who in one season in Atlanta finished that year with a 7-17 record. He reinvented himself, using his great athletic ability and a mental toughness he learned from hockey. He focused on the positives, not the negatives, learned how to pitch on the corners with pinpoint control and to contribute at the plate. By beating the Cubs on a Sunday night in Chicago earlier this year for his 300th career win, Tom Glavine might have become the last pitcher that we ever see reach that number.
We saw Sammy Sosa
become just the fifth player in history to reach 600 homers, and Ken Griffey Jr.
is just nine away himself. Jim Thome needs seven homers to make it three players
to reach 500 this season, and Manny Ramirez needs 11.
Finally, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken drew a record 70,000 people to Cooperstown for their induction.
Will we ever see such greatness again in one season. Baseball is on a terrific roll, and I decided long ago I’m going to enjoy the game I love. I’m going to let everybody else worry about things I can’t control, like who’s on what drug and who’s dating whom. Besides, unless they tell us, will we ever really know?
I was watching the Giants and Dodgers play on Wednesday night and rookie Rajai Davis did something in the game that used to be commonplace: HUSTLE.
What made it even worse is that everybody I was watching the game with and the broadcasters noticed it. His hustle going from second to third and rounding third base so hard, looking like he might go home, stood out like a sore thumb. Shame on us!
Has our level of accepted lack of hustle fallen so much that a rookie made people take notice by doing what used to be the norm? Ernie Harwell, the Hall of Fame broadcaster once said to me "Harold, a good umpire is like a good driver in traffic. You never notice he’s there."
The year was 1975. I was in the eighth grade and just starting to really get into baseball. The Reds were the "in vogue" team to watch. They had Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, you name it. Stars across the board.
As the oldtimers would say, "Now that’s a team that played the game right." They stole bases, hit and ran, hit for power, hit for high average and played great defense: the perfect five-tool team.
One player personified what they were all about, and that was Pete Rose. He had all the five tools like the rest of the Hall of Fame cast. The one thing that separated Charlie Hustle from everybody else was his hustle.
Not just sprinting to first after a walk or stretching a single into a double, but rather the head-first slide when he went from first to third on a single or diving head-first stretching a double into a triple with hair flopping and helmet flying for effect.
Every kid wanted to go first to third like Pete or dive head-first with helmet flying, only two things were required: get on base, then hustle. How difficult is that?
Isn’t that the way the game is supposed to be played? It’s a shame that we praise a rookie for playing the game right. If others would play the game the right way, maybe we wouldn’t notice them in traffic.
My grandmother used to always say practice makes perfect. If you practice right, you play right, if you practice wrong, you play wrong.
In 1979, my senior year in high school, I accepted a recruiting trip to visit San Diego State University. Tough
choice, huh?! Anyway, my hosts on the trip were former Yankee shortstop Bobby
Meachem and former Mariner farmhand Vic Martin (they were both sophomores at
SDSU). Their job, outside of convincing me to attend college there in the fall,
was to introduce me to Tony Gwynn, the best hitter in the nation according to All-American shortstop Meachem. I was excited and I couldn’t wait to meet this so-called "great hitter." The way I saw it, I had a great junior year, I was All-State and I knew I would be a high draft pick that spring. (I would hit .594 in my senior year and be drafted by the Padres in the fourth round.) A little cocky? No, bring on the greatest hitter in the nation, I can’t wait to see him.
We got in the car and headed straight for the arena. The arena?? They don’t play baseball in an arena, they sure don’t. No, I was going to meet this great hitter after his basketball game. You see, Tony Gwynn was the All-Conference point guard on the basketball team at SDSU. Not only could he hit, but he could also hoop. The next year he was drafted by the San Diego Clippers
of the NBA. I watched in awe that night as Tony, with his afro, picked apart the defense. I kept thinking to myself, "If he’s this good in basketball, he must really be something special on a diamond." He had the ability like most great point guards to read the defense on the fly and make the adjustments. It wasn’t until years later that I saw that same thing perfected by him on the diamond.
It was 1982 and I was in Arizona at instructional league for the
first time with Tony and Darnell Coles. Tony would come to the plate, look around surveying the infield then hit a five-hopper through the infield for a single. After this would happen two or three times, Darnell, playing shortstop, and I, playing second, would look at each other and say, "He’s the luckest hitter in the world." We
would then start moving all over the infield to try and defend him, two steps to the left, three steps to the right and he still would dribble one through. "Lucky chump." "Hit the ball hard." Gwynn: four hits! Gwynn: three hits! Every time we played him he would find the hole. Practice makes perfect.
In 1994, I signed with the Padres, and I finally got to see how this "lucky chump" does it. He had me meet him in the cage every morning at 7 during Spring Training. While most players are still asleep, Tony Gwynn would be hitting in the cage. First off the tee for 30 minutes, then off the machine for 30, all before anyone showed up. Long after Darnell and I had fininished our major league careers, 15 years for him and 12 years for me, we watched from different places in the country as Tony got his 3,000th hit. Shortly after the hoopla, the man who was the best man in my wedding called.
"How ’bout that Tony Gwynn? 3,000 hits — that’s amazing," Darnell said.
I replied: "He’s special."
Darnell said with a laugh: "He’s lucky!"
Practice makes perfect. Congrats, Tony!