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l"Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle": Highlights from My Phoenix Trip + Reflections on Ailing Tom Seaver

A week ago in Phoenix waiting for a return flight to NYC, I noticed a great saying on the back of a fellow's jacket: "Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn't Hustle."

 
I told the man I liked the sentiment.  Best I had seen since a Tampa Bay Rays athletic trainer working for their Hudson Valley Renegades farm team wore a T-shirt that said:  "Champions Are Made When Nobody Is Watching."

 
Turned out my new friend was from Green Bay, Wisconsin, now living in Phoenix area. We shared our mutual love of the UW Badgers. The cagers were blowing out Ohio State on the TV as we chatted eating some of the good food at Matt's Big Breakfast diner in Terminal B at Sky Harbor Airport.

 
The game turned out to be an overtime nail biter that Wisconsin won. Fortunately I missed the agony because was on the flight east. Badgers will limp into the NCAA tourney on Friday against a hot Oregon Ducks team eager for revenge on Wisconsin that knocked them out twice in recent years.

 
Back to my new friend with the nice jacket quote.  He has a son playing on an U-12 baseball team called the Scottsdale Dirt Dogs. They play travel ball more than grade school ball, but the dad assures me they have pitch limits enforced on pitchers. 

 

Sure hope they keep sticking with that policy because all those Tommy John operations have roots in overuse by young kids who should know better. But of course they don't because they are young and fired up to compete. It's up to parents and coaches to set the right guidelines of caution while their kids' bodies are still developing.

 
I was in Arizona for the 26th annual conference sponsored by "NINE: A Magazine of Baseball History and Culture".  Retired White Sox organist Nancy Faust got things off to a rollicking start opening night with tales of her career at the late lamented Comiskey Park.  She entertained us by bringing an organ keyboard to illustrate her stories.

 
Among the stimulating presentations were the NINE debut of Jim Gates, librarian and all-around vital honcho at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He delivered a fascinating paper on the origin of baseball cards.

 
Until the 1950s, we learned that baseball cards were only 10% of the market. They took off early in the 20th century to sell tobacco. They featured many kinds of subjects - food, inventors, gems, and especially actresses and goddesses, known quietly in the more discreet early 20th century as "girly" cards.

 
In my paper, I talked about the too-infrequent times of cooperation between college baseball and MLB.  Before I started my research, I knew how important Ohio Wesleyan U. was to the life and career of Branch Rickey, but didn't realize how big a role the Illinois Wesleyan Titans played in the college game.

 
In one dramatic instance, Bobby Winkles, the great coach that made Phoenix's Arizona State Sun Devils a late 1960s powerhouse, came to play for IWU when the Yankees relinquished their rights to him.

 
The Titans had just lost catcher Cal Neeman to the New Yorkers after his sophomore year. The amateur free agent draft was still 15 years away and IWU officials, led by the amazing man-of-many-sporting-hats Fred Young, insisted that Winkles was not ready for the pros. And that the Yankees had taken away one too many player.

 
I concluded my introduction to this meaty subject by telling the story of how veteran Red  Sox scout Bill Enos helped to administer MLB's cooperation with the Cape Cod Baseball League in the early 1980s.  Before his retirement, he had the rare privilege of naming Ray Fagnant as one of his successors.    

 

Closing night NINE speakers were Jane Leavy, author of the new biography of Babe Ruth "The Big Fella" (who accepted SABR's Seymour medal), and prolific author Curt Smith who has written many books on baseball broadcasting.

 
Turns out that Denny Matthews, who played second base for Illinois Wesleyan in the 1960s, is one of Smith's favorite broadcasters.  I like him too but because he covers the KC Royals, coastal Americans don't get to hear often enough the pipes of a man comparable to Vin Scully.

 
Before I close this post, I was saddened by the news of Tom Seaver's dementia and the announcement that he will no longer make public appearances. He contracted Lyme's disease while still living in Connecticut and picked up a second case, probably in his vineyard in the northern California wine country. 

 

Seaver will be absent in June when the Mets celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mets' 1969 World Series triumph.  I worked with Tom on THE ART OF PITCHING (that came out in 1984 and in paperback in 1994).

 

When I started taping his incisive thoughts on his craft, he urged me to visit him before the exhibition games started in St. Petersburg. Once, after a day's taping, he drove me past a building in Clearwater that he thought might be the biggest or widest in the world -  maybe two blocks long and two blocks wide.

 
He was very entranced and knowledgeable about architecture and art. He scoffed at teammates who made fun of his going to museums when on the road. Marty Noble, in a moving reminiscence posted early Sunday March 17 on the website "Murray Chass on Baseball," caught very well Seaver's scoffing as well as very thoughtful side.

 
I think he had a lot to live up to as the youngest in his accomplished family. He had an artist brother and a father Charles who was a great amateur golfer who beat his Stanford teammate the renowned Lawson Little in 1932 for the school title. Later that year Charles led the US to victory in the Walker Cup. (The Seavers were related to the Walkers and also President #41 George Herbert Walker Bush.)


I met Charles Seaver on the day that Tom won his 300th game, pitching for the White Sox at Yankee Stadium in late August 1983. It was Phil Rizzuto Day, when an actual "holy cow" was given the Scooter and it knocked Phil over.

 
After the game, Charles told me that competition in baseball was similar to that in golf. You want the opponent to do well but yourself to do better, he said. Tom certainly epitomized that ideal on the field.  I hope he continues to stay with us on this earth, however impaired, for as long as he can.

 
That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it! 

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On Miracles in Football and Baseball (updated with report on 50th anniversary of Columbia's 1968 championship cagers)

Thanks to an excellent game story on the Super Bowl by New York Times sportswriter Ben Shpigel, I read this morning that victorious Eagles coach Doug Pederson put up a sign this season in the Philadelphia clubhouse:
“An individual can make a difference. A team can make a miracle.”

It was no miracle that the Eagles ruined the Patriots’ attempt at a repeat Super Bowl title. It was some great offensive football led by backup quarterback Nick Foles that did the trick. A huge sack and fumble then cemented the victory late in the fourth quarter. (I wonder if horses born in Philly today will be named Foles' Foals!)

As a U. of Wisconsin graduate, I was pleased that former Badger running back Corey Clement - from south Jersey so playing near home - was a key part of the offense. Glad also that James White, another back developed well at Wisconsin, did his part to almost bring the Patriots back to the winner’s circle.

Early Super Bowl Sunday I was involved with a real miracle by sitting in on a baseball clinic in Newburgh, New York sponsored by Chicago White Sox scout John Tumminia’s Baseball Miracles project. Newburgh is just 65 miles north of NYC with rolling Catskills foothills serving as a lovely backdrop to this Hudson River town.

Talk about giving back! Brooklyn native Tumminia has lived in Newburgh since the end of his playing days as a St. Francis College-Bklyn and minor league outfielder.
His project has sponsored baseball and softball clinics all over the world.

“We strive to reach out especially to the youth who have never the played the game,” the mission statement explains. “At no cost, we provide instruction, gloves, bats, hats, shirts, and memories.”

Baseball Miracles traveled to Argentina late last year and previously put on clinics in Honduras, Kenya, South Africa, and Ireland. Domestically, they have brought the joy of baseball to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, to underprivileged areas in Kentucky and New Orleans.

An impressive array of baseball scouts and coaches from big league organizations was on hand Super Bowl Sunday morning. Among them was White Sox scout/assistant Bronx Monroe H.S.coach Jose Bautista Jr. whose father pitched in the big leagues and is no relation to the free agent slugger Jose Bautista.

There was a chorus of boos from the youngsters when they thought Jose Jr. was related to the swaggering former Blue Jay slugger. Our Jose is also an assistant coach for the Bronx Monroe H.S. powerhouse team.

Others serving as clinicians yesterday included Alex Agostino of the Phillies, Kyle Bamberger of the Orioles, John Ceprini of the Reds, Ray Fagnant of the Red Sox, Cesar Presbott and Kelly Rodman of the Yankees, and Dennis Sheehan of the Diamondbacks.

I hadn’t seen Fagnant since a high school all-star game at Yankee Stadium several summers ago. In a great show of collegiality Red Sox and Yankee organizations cooperate on bringing national players to a mid-summer clinic that ends with a game at Yankee Stadium.

I attended this game years ago when Arizona high schooler Cody Bellinger, now reigning NL Rookie-of-the-Year, homered into the right field Stadium stands.
Fagnant told me that no one had done that until last year when six were hit, including three by a northern Ohio slugger Northcott now attending Vanderbilt who should be a high draft pick by his junior year.

Before the clinic began, Toronto Blue Jays executive Ben Cherington gave an introductory talk. He reminded the youngsters of three basic facts:

1. Have fun while learning. Afer all, the first three letters in fundamental are fun.
2. Learn how to practice. He recommended going to You Tube and putting in “Derek Jeter Practicing” and “Steph Curry Practicing”.
3. Learn how to be a good teammate even if you have a bad day.

And then the clinic of over two hours began. I’ve been to the long-running winter BeTheBest clinic in Atlantic City and this Baseball Miracle Clinic was run with the same efficiency and elan as the older one for the big boys and college players.

A couple of nine-year-olds really impressed me with their quick bats on wiffle balls soft-tossed by coaches. They also showed good speed around the bases.

One was wearing an Aaron Judge #99 jersey but he said he wasn’t a fan of any team. He just loved to play. Something I love to see!

A huge tip of the cap goes to 91-year-old Newburgh native and philanthroplst Bill Kaplan. A few years ago he funded the conversion of the old Newburgh Armory Unity Center that had been used mainly for storage of antiquated military equipment.

It is now an impressive modern facility. Much of the clinic took place on a field turf playing service that is set up for soccer but can also be used for baseball. There is an adjoining gymnasium, and a dining room.

Every Saturday the Armory Unity Center hosts Enrichment Programs for academics and sports. For more information, call 845-245-4035 or e-mail info@newburgharmory.org

In early August, Baseball Miracles plans a clinic at Yankee Stadium. For more information on this and other Baseball Miracles projects, e-mail: baseballmiracles.org

Before I close, I want to add a word on a celebration the night before the Super Bowl of my undergraduate alma mater Columbia's 1968 Ivy League championship basketball team. They won their only Ivy League title (so far), were nationally ranked finishing 23-5 and playing deep into the NCAA tournament.

All-time great Columbia forward Jim McMillian passed away last year but his widow attended as did two McMillian children. Both played basketball for Wake Forest in the late 1990s, daughter Eron attending the Winston-Salem school at the time of Tim Duncan.

Jim McMillian went on to a solid pro career, He was a starting forward on the great LA Laker team in the early 1970s that won 33 games in the regular season and the NBA title.

Another star on the '68 champs Heyward Dotson attended the Saturday event, but the other bulwark on the '68 team, seven-foot center from Brooklyn Dave Newmark, couldn't make the trip from his home in the SF Bay area.

To make the evening even more celebratory, Columbia completed a weekend sweep by holding off Dartmouth in the second half en route to a 77-74 victory. On Friday night the Lions handed Harvard its first league loss with a stirring come-from-behind 85-78 victory.

In a league where there is now a post-season tournament of the top four teams, Columbia is now 3-3 with four more weekends ahead. The Ivy League is the only league that plays on Fri. and Sat., a grueling test of stamina and talent.

Penn is undefeated, Harvard has only the Columbia loss, Princeton has two losses, but it is wide open for the last spot among Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. Tough luck winless Dartmouth will not be easy pickings for any of the contenders. All hail a very competitive underrated league.

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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