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Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is a man of many adages and aphorisms. “Attitude is a decision” caught my eye last year, coined by the sport psychologist Ken Revizza who is a consultant for the Rays. My grad students in the Columbia sport management program really latched onto it. (And as someone who has followed all his life the uphill battle of Columbia football and basketball, positive thinking is an essential attribute!)

When Maddon spoke to the students earlier this week, he shared another saying that he printed on a T-shirt when he was working in the minor leagues for the California Angels: “Tell Me What You Think Not What You’ve Heard.” Hard-bitten baseball lifers may scoff at these one-liners but as a man of a thousand sayings myself I think they have a place in a game of such difficulty and mystery. “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All” was the title of one of Earl Weaver’s books and that’s another gem that I like.

It must be said that despite the sayings and positive outlook of manager Maddon, the Tampa Rays continue to spin their wheels, losing 4-3 to the Angels last night. It was their third defeat in a row and they fell two games under .500. They are finding that repeating as champion is the hardest thing to do in sports but they are playing close games and that is a sign that a turnaround may be near.

The late Dick Howser, major league shortstop and successful big league manager with the Yankees and Royals, liked to say that a team that plays close games will ultimately win close games. Another piece of practical optimism that I think students of baseball should keep in mind.

Speaking of Howser, the annual College Player of the Year award is called the Dick Howser Trophy and it will be awarded on July 2 at the annual Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Lubbock, Texas. In honor of his successful coaching career at Ohio Wesleyan and the University of Michigan, Branch Rickey will be inducted into the shrine this year and I will be attending the event. Will file some posts on that experience early next month.

High school baseball is not exactly a hot ticket in New York City but don’t tell that to the enthusiastic crowd of a few thousand who watched the Public Schools Athletic League championship at Yankee Stadium last night. On an unseasonably cool evening when the predicted rain miraculously stayed away, Manhattan’s undefeated Norman Thomas Tigers came from behind to beat the many times-champion James Monroe Eagles of the Bronx, 5-2.

Pro prospect Mariel Checo, Thomas’s outstanding right-hander who stands 6’ 2” 195 pounds and is still growing, threw a 7-inning complete game. After giving up two runs in the top of the first, he was in total command. In baseball scout lingo, he is an “efforts guy,” meaning that the ball doesn’t glide easily out of his hand but he seems to exert great effort throwing each pitch. Yet to my semi-tutored eye Checo looked smoother last night, especially as the game wore on.

Norman Thomas High School is a feel-good story. They have no home field but must play all over the city. School principal Steven Satin raised money on his own to build a batting cage and a pitcher’s mound in the school gymnasium for winter workouts. Located in the posh neighborhood of Park Avenue and 33rd Street, Satin wryly observes that no one from the nearly 80 percent Hispanic student population lives near the school. The baseball roster is almost 100 percent Dominican, and many hail from Washington Heights in northern Manhattan including Mariel Checo who has been in this country for less than two years. “He has a 85 average in school and will get a regular Regents diploma,” coach Nerva Jean Pierre says proudly. We’ll know by later today or tomorrow if Checo was drafted by a major league team. If not, junior college is certainly in his future.

This year Thomas dethroned perennial contender George Washington, where Manny Ramirez played though never graduated. During winter break coach Nerva Jean continued his practice of taking his team to Florida. Some of the better-funded schools fly their players south but given the limited resources of the Thomas players Nerva Jean arranged for a Greyhound bus. He is a passionate man who addressing the team after one victory proclaimed, “We’re rude, raunchy and crazy but we don’t care because we’re Norman Thomas.”

Principal Satin told me that two years ago Evan Thomas, the Newsweek columnist, biographer and grandson of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party of America candidate for President, spoke at Commencement exercises and the students loved it. “They saw a living, breathing embodiment of their school’s namesake,” Satin recalled.

I’m always glad to give grassroots baseball folks a shout-out because remember that Jacques Barzun’s oft-quoted saying about understanding the American “heart and mind” through baseball ended, “do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams.”

Ciao for now!

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