Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Baseball Fan?

It seems to me there are plenty of people around who want to be arbiters of who is a true fan. In Chicago you hear the true fan discussion a great deal.

"If you don't sit out in the frozen Tundra of Soldier's Field and like it, you are not a true Bear's fan."

"If you haven't sat out in the bleachers at Wrigley field all summer, you are not a true Cubs fan."

"True Sox fans don't just come when the team's in first place."

On and on it goes. I am not sure why, but people like to exclude people from groups at one time and include them at other times. Everyone has their own ideas.

Growing Up Baseball

When I think of being a baseball fan, it is often without thinking of a specific team. I believe I became a true baseball fan growing up. When I was growing up in Chicago, we would walk up to Kennedy Park and play baseball hour after hour, day after day in the long hot summers. Only swimming and meals would interrupt our play.

In the early morning before all the neighborhood kids gathered, my brother and I might play catch in front of the house. When a third kid showed up, we'd play running bases. After all the guys got together, we'd head over the park and play baseball until lunch then go back and play until dinner. We'd head back over to the park after dinner and play some more, but if we didn't have enough players for a game, we'd play home run derby or "500."

The only activity that competed with baseball was swimming -- especially in the dead of summer. We were lucky to have a pool at Kennedy Park, so many times we would swim and then play ball--or play ball and then swim.

Little league was fun. You had uniforms, coaches and a nicer field to play on plus there were always enough players for all the positions. But the Little League season was short and the games were not nearly as much fun as our regular "sandlot" games.

When we were kids, we never excluded other kids from our games, but we expected guys to play regularly because there was a certain chemistry to those games. We knew each other in every way and we knew the fields, the grass, the trees, the base paths, and the water fountains. We played in the same corner of the park for many years and for us that little corner was our natural setting. Between games, we would sit on the grass under a tree and talk about everything from astronauts to our neighbor's Studebaker. We'd kid each other, tell stories and just "goof around."

In our neighborhood, our baseball rules were so well known and accepted that we seldom argued over a play. If you were out and didn't believe it, every kid on the field would tell you so regardless of whose side they were on. Most of the time we had about 8 to 12 guys to field two teams, so we played "right field out" and when a lefty came up, we'd play "left field out." We pitched slow so everyone could hit the ball. We made spectacular catches that will never be seen on video tape. When we pulled the ball down the line, pounded the ball over the outfielders or poked the ball into the holes it was all for that one moment in time.

When we went home, we went home to a modest existence. Most kids had a bedroom that was so spartan it looked like a monk's cell. It was often shared with other siblings. You had a small bed or bunk bed, a few pairs of underwear, three or four T-shirts, one pair of sneakers, and maybe two pairs of jeans. In a closet you had a few games. No bedroom TV, no stereo, no computer. You could find everything you owned in about 30 seconds. It was easy to find your baseball cap, mitt and bat -- your "equipment."

We loved our equipment and often it was among our most treasured possessions. We knew our mitts about as well as our pillows. Our bats and baseballs were sacred. If a bat cracked, we taped it until it split apart. If a cover fell off a ball, we had white surgical tape or black electrician tape that we wrapped it up in - over and over. We hunted up extra balls on Saturday mornings by the railroad tracks closest to the baseball diamond where sometimes foul balls would land and get lost in the deep grass at practice the night before. Kids got new bats and balls for birthdays and special occasions. Most kids had maybe two mitts in their lifetime.

We played baseball seven days a week and never got tired of it. We all collected baseball cards and on days when few kids were around, we would listen to our heroes on the radio and play "off the steps" out in front of my house. We'd call the play by play as we threw the ball into the worn down angles of the wooden steps in front. The ball would most often shoot out as a "grounder" towards the street at the opposing player. Once in a while the ball would arc up over the fielders head onto the other side of the street for a home run. Some days it was Ernie who hit it. Other days it was Billy Williams or Ron Santo. We'd sit down for a tall glass of Kool-Aid after the game just long enough to catch our breath before the next game.
When we got much older, we would sit on the same steps after a softball game and drink a cool beer.

When someone asks me whether I am a baseball fan, I never know exactly what to say. My connection to baseball is more personal than being a fan. I don't follow the teams as well as many people or attend games as often certainly, but I am one of those people who is linked to baseball for life. It will always be a part of me because in many ways, baseball was a very good friend to me. You don't forget your friends.
Copyright 2009 by Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nobody Ever Became a Ballplayer by Walking After a Ball by J. D. Thorne


Joe McCarthy holds the highest winning percentage of all Major League Managers and he used his 10 Commandments as the principles to guide him and his players. Most of his commandments are baseball principles that have been adapted by coaches for many years, but few people know their origin. McCarthy wrote them in 1921 while he was managing in the minor leagues -- years before he coached legendary stars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

“Nobody ever became a ballplayer by walking after a ball” is Joe McCarthy’s First Commandment of Baseball. To understand the concept, think of two players playing catch to warm-up in practice. A ball is thrown poorly, ending up fifty feet or so from one of the players. At first it may seem a nuisance to spend the extra effort to go pick up the errant throw. However, an individual wanting to be known as a “ballplayer” does not walk to the ball to pick it up, but hustles after it to resume the game of catch. One’s natural inclination is to walk – but a “ballplayer” runs.

A ballplayer acquires the all-important habit of hustling without even thinking about it. To the player on the field, and sometimes in life, what may seem a nuisance – like fetching the loose ball – actually becomes a joy. We learn it is more fun, and more productive, to hustle. Through repetition, hustling in all aspects of the game becomes a habit. When a player is on the field, running and hustling all the time can be the difference that separates one player from another. It shows attention and mental discipline to always run, not walk, after a ball. Which player would a manager want playing on the team? Hustling can be an antidote for cynicism and it can still be found in baseball at every level.

The Hustling Georgia Peach

There are many professional baseball players known for their hustle on the field. Ty Cobb and Pete Rose come to mind for many baseball fans; both fearsome base runners and phenomenal hitters. Many consider Ty Cobb, the “Georgia Peach,” to have been the greatest baseball player of all time. In 1936, Ty Cobb was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, earning 222 out of a possible 226 votes. Cobb played for 24 grueling seasons where his hustle and determination to win was legendary. Cobb owns the highest lifetime batting average in baseball history at an incredible .367 and he is the leader in runs scored at 2,245. He also held the record for most hit until surpassed by Pete Rose in the 1980s. Cobb stole home 54 times.

Hardest Working Baseball Player

Political columnist and baseball author and fan, George Will, called Willie Mays “the hardest working baseball player you ever saw.” Mays was famous for his hustle in every aspect of the game, but his fielding was what astonished fans. In the 1954 World Series, May’s New York Gaints were up against the Cleveland Indians in the Polo Grounds. In the eighth inning of the first game the score was tied at 2-2 with Cleveland up to bat. Larry Doby led off the inning with a walk and was advanced to second when Al Rosen beat out an infield hit. Vic Wertz then faced reliever Don Liddle and whacked the first pitch way out about 450 feet into right center. Mays at once ran full steam towards the wall with his back turned on the hitter looking over his shoulder as he pursued the ball. In one movement, Mays caught the ball over his shoulder as it sailed within 15 feet of the wall and spun around throwing it directly the relay man. Not only did he rob Liddle of what would have been a triple it if not an inside-the- park home run, but he held Doby to one base. Mays play set the tone for the Giants to weep Cleveland in four games.

Enos “Country” Slaughter

The epitome of all around hustle in the major leagues was Enos “Country” Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals. But he didn’t start out that way. When in the minor leagues in 1936 playing for the Columbus Georgia Redbirds of the Sally League, he was rebuked for not hustling by his manager Eddie Dyer. He vowed never again to walk while on the playing field. He rose through the minor leagues to become the leader and top hitter on the 1942 Cardinals World Series Championship team. He was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Slaughter is quoted as saying, “I think the game of Baseball is like any other sport, in that you have got to keep your legs in shape. I was able to play for so many years because I took care of my legs.” Despite losing three years of his prime serving in the armed forces during world War II, he still hit .300 six times in the decade of the 1940’s, and ten times overall in his career. He is said to have been told by a doctor prior to game six of the 1946 World Series that his arm was so badly injured he risked having it amputated if tried to play that day. His response was, “Doc, I guess we’ll have to take that gamble.” In that deciding game of the series against Boston he made an electrifying mad dash home from first base on a hit by Harry Walker, scoring the winning run.


You Can Hustle in Many Ways

When playing amateur baseball in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the Milwaukee County “Langsdorf” League, it was not uncommon for me to spend time on the bench. But, a player who hustles is never an observer. I had formed a habit of seeing if there was anything I could do to help the team when I wasn’t in the game. For example, if we needed a player to coach first or third base, I would jump up to do it. After an inning where the catcher made the last out or was left on base, I would grab his glove and warm up the pitcher for the next inning until he finished putting on his catching equipment. I would make sure all the bats were put away and ready for the next at bat. I would gather the infield and outfield balls as they were thrown to the dugout after the between inning warm-ups. I would put them in a place where I could easily give them to the first baseman and an outfielder coming in from the field for the next at-bats when the time came for it. They would ritualistically put the warm-up balls in their gloves immediately. It being already in their glove, they would not be wasting time looking for a warm-up ball when they returned to the field. I would keep track of the outs to remind the players on the field of the next situation. If a new pitcher might be needed, I would warm him up on the sideline. If everything was done, I might run a lap around the outfield fence to keep loose and stay in shape. If necessary, I would keep the scorebook. In other words, by hustling and being alert to every opportunity, I could always find something to do to help the team, even when I was not in the game itself. When the game was over, I helped put away the equipment and carry it to the Coach’s car. It was always appreciated. Usually I would pick up some conversation about the game just played or the next one coming up. I always found that on my teams the guys who hustled had the edge and it helped give us life-long good habits.

Chattering

When I was 14 years old in “Pony League” I had a coach that had been an infielder when he had played. He taught me how to “chatter.” Chatter is something that practically all kids do and is important because it keeps your attention, and that of your teammates, in the play of the game. It’s another way to hustle; at least verbally and mentally.

In baseball, it seems nothing happens for long stretches – then everything happens all at once! Most young players are normally reluctant to talk. No one wants to sound foolish. But chatter is different – although it is usually a little foolish sounding. It may be very repetitive. I learned it did not really matter what came to your head to say, as long as it was positive. For example:

“Come on two-two (the pitcher’s uniform number, #22), rock and fire, smoke ‘em, let’s go, let it fly, give ‘em the hard one, he’s yours, let’s go, one out, the play’s at second, get the easy one, let’s go, one out, let’s see that hummer, throw that pill, rock and fire, go get ‘em two-two, let’s go, let’s get two if we can get it, . . . .”

The idea was just to talk. It would keep your head in the game. Usually the chatter was
contagious, and soon the shortstop would pipe in: “I’m coming to you (pointing to the second baseman) on a ground ball” or “I’ve got second on the steal” or “I’ve got the throw on a hit to left” or whatever conceivably might happen on the next play. In the business world today we call it, “communication.” This means sharing the strategies for success with your team members, and sharing your losses as well. This way we all learn together as a team.

The best chatter is never directed at the opposition. Saying “easy hitter” or “number nine in the order” might fire up the batter. I saw this lesson come to fruition when pitching in a City of Madison championship game for Coach Ernie Bruns. It was a tight game, and in the last inning with a one run lead, the bases were full against me. Up to the plate stepped a new hitter. In amateur baseball, sometimes the uniforms were not exactly up to par. The pinch hitter had on the team’s jersey, but had arrived late to the game not expecting to play. He was still wearing his Bermuda shorts. He did not care, and stepped up to the plate anyway. Our shortstop chattered, “He can’t hit, he’s wearing shorts.” Two pitches later however he got the barrel of the bat around on a tough slider, hitting a hard line drive over the shortstop’s head driving in the two winning runs. Ouch, that one still hurts.

Playing Hungry

My baseball coaches also talked about “playing hungry.” When you play hungry you are ravenous in your play. In the field, no one else is going to beat you to a ball that you can catch. In hitting, you are swinging hard. On the bases, you are running as fast as possible to reach every base you can, and advance to another base if there is any miscue by the defense that allows you an opening to take it. If the ball gets away from the catcher on a bad pitch, you are already at the next base or threatening to score. Being “aggressive” is the best way to play.
Of course, hustle works in life too. Going the extra mile to organize your day; “chattering” some encouragement to those around you; working to communicate better; and maintaining enthusiasm for everything you do. It helps everyone get the job done. It is also more fun. Play hungry. Put your heart into everything you do.

Adapted from The 10 Commandments of Baseball by J. D. Thorne, Copyright 2009 by Sporting Chance Press, Inc. Order your copy today at www.sportingchancepress.com/

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jim "Catfish" Hunter Had the Midas Touch

Jim "Catfish" Hunter had the Midas touch after signing a contract with the Yankees that drove baseball salaries to new heights. His performance on the field was golden as well. On May 8, 1968, Jim Hunter pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins. He won the American League Cy Young award in 1974 and overall won 224 games while helping his teams to five World Series Championships -three with Charles Finley's Oakland Athletics (1972, 1973, 1974) and two with George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees (1977 and 1978). He played nine seasons for the Athletics of Kansas City and Oakland (1965-1974). He finished out his career in Yankee pinstripes (1974-1979). He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987. Charles Finley gave Hunter the nickname "Catfish" and concocted a story for the papers stating that he got it as a young boy. Those who knew Hunter outside of baseball never used the moniker. Sadly, Jim Hunter died in 1999 from ALS, the disease that took Lou Gehrig's life in 1941.
(References: Catfish: My Life in Baseball, McGraw-Hill and National Baseball Hall of Fame web site)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Midas Touch Athlete: Quiz Number Two

Just prior to New Year's Eve celebrations and hours before the start of 1975, this pitcher signed what at the time was the highest contract in Major League Baseball. The multi-year deal valued by many at over $3.5 million -- included provisions that insured the financial security of the star's wife and children. He had become a free agent due to actions that were ruled a breach of contract by his old team's cantankerous owner, but he was now going to play for another owner who was also known for his quarrelsome headstrong ways. Known for his simple country ways, wants and wisdom, this star was no one's fool regardless of the silly nickname he had been given when he joined the professional ranks.