Hondo

September 30, 2008

One of my favorite all time characters of the game is Frank Howard. We crossed paths when he was the first base coach and I was one of the catchers for the 1996 New York Mets. “Hondo” played like 15 years in the big leagues, won the rookie of the year in 1960, hit about 400 homers in his career, and later went on to manage and coach several teams. First off, this guy was one of the biggest human beings I ever saw. He was about 6′8″ and at least 275lbs. A big, giant, larger than life, lumbering man. A true gentle giant and super funny. The stories about him are endless.

  

My favorite Hondo story is we when we were on this 2 week road trip that took us at some point up to Montreal. Now usually as a big leaguer, you don’t go through airports or handle luggage, but since we were coming back to the States from Canada we all had our luggage and were trudging through customs at about 2 in the morning. So we’re all standing in line and I look over to the other side and there’s Hondo leaning against a wall smoking a nail. No luggage, no waiting, nothing. I looked behind me and asked Todd Hundley “what’s with Hondo? Why isn’t he waiting in line, and where is his luggage?” Hundley looked at me like I was crazy and said, “you don’t know?” And I said, “don’t know what?” Apparently Hondo didn’t use luggage because he didn’t bring anything. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Two week road trip and no extra clothing. No toothbrush, nothing. Basically he would get to the field everyday at about 10 in the morning. He would then strip down into a jock (seeing this old man/giant parading around in the clubhouse in a jock is a whole different story) and give his suit to a clubhouse kid to dry clean. He brought an extra pair of underwear in his suit pocket which he washed in the sink of the hotel and he had dentures, so I guess he didn’t need a toothbrush. Classic Frank Howard, I love that guy.

“Now I can kind of believe those white seats a little bit more.”     –   Nationals third basemen Ryan Zimmerman after standing next to 6 foot 7 former Washington Senator Frank Howard. RFK Stadium has white seats in spots in the upper deck to commemorate home runs that Howard hit while a Senator.

“How can you wheel that lumber tomorrow if you don’t pound that Budweiser tonight?”   –    Frank Howard speaking to his players after a game.

Cool Coaches

September 25, 2008

What’s the deal with the coaches in southern California? Is it something in the water? Between the Lakers, Dodgers, and Angeles, we’ve got to have the most mellow, zenned out skippers on planet earth. Its debatable whether or not these guys have a pulse. I love it. Just like you, I’ve never played for any of these men so everything I say here should probably be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, I wish I would have played for them. I did play for a few good leaders, but without offending anyone and without naming names, I played for some dogs too. I mean, from a baseball perspective, how hard can it be? (Take all of this with a grain of salt too because I’ve never managed…but I did play.) I mean over the course of the 162 game schedule, the manager’s strategic decisions probably win or lose the team MAYBE 10 games.  It’s definitely a little different in hoops, but for baseball, I’m saying 10 games. And as far as actually teaching, everybody at that level can play and doesn’t need a whole lot of guidance. Most of the job, seems to me, is managing personalities. Getting everyone on the same page and extracting the best out of each individual.

From a player’s perspective, all I really wanted was for the boss to tell me the truth. Let me know what’s expected of me and tell me in general how much I was going to play. Thats it. Then it was up to me to deal with it. From my point of view, I wasn’t getting paid to make the decisions, I was getting paid to deal with them and perform to the best of my ability. So, all I wanted was to be told the truth, whether I agreed with it or not. Now I ask you, is that too much to ask for? Apparently so. Around here we’re paying Scioscia, Torre, and Jackson a whole truckload of money just because they’ve got good social skills! And they deserve it because there aren’t but a handful of guys out there who can do what they do. And what do they do? They tell it like it is and then get the hell out of the way. They don’t over manage, they don’t try to take credit, and they seem to genuinely care about their players and want the best for them on and off the field. They haven’t forgotten what it was like to be a player and treat their flock like they would like to be treated. Simple social skills. Not that hard. And because they can do that, they get to live in a mansion. Lucky dogs.

    

Living in So. Cal

September 22, 2008

Make no mistake about it…living in southern California is a challenge. And I don’t even live in LA – I’m south a ways in Orange County. But don’t let the lack of tall buildings or taxi cabs fool you. It’s all morphed into one big blob and every bit as intense as a New York or Boston or Chicago. Maybe more. At first I was a little miffed by the Angels changing their name from Anaheim to Los Angeles. Now I feel like who cares? Whats the difference between Anaheim and LA anyhow? Its all the same sprawl. This is not the same place full of orange groves and mellow people that I grew up in. Anyway, I digress. What I was trying to say is that it’s intense here and if you’re not careful, it’ll eat you alive. Before you know it you’ll be living in a house you can’t afford, working 18 hours a day, eating in your car while on the phone while driving 85 while taking the kids from swim lessons to soccer, you won’t have time to meet the neighbors, you’ll be voting Republican no matter what, and you’ll be divorced. No kidding. Don’t get me wrong, I like where I live. We’ve got options up the ying-yang, healthy food, great waves, and the best weather. Let’s face it, every place has it’s positives and negatives and the whole world is going through growing pains. So here are a few things I do to stay sane (or at least partially sane) while living in the city. Make sure to ride the bike (and bike only) at least one day a week. Spend as much time as possible at the beach and make it a priority to get out of town once in a while for a little perspective. Limit the kid activities, limit the cell phone use, and no eating in the car. Drive the speed limit. Sometimes it works, but most often I feel like I’m swimming against the current. I will leave you with some images of an escape I made this weekend with my wife out to the clean open desert. Adios amigos.

      

    

Pressure

September 19, 2008

Since we’re getting down to the end of the baseball season and things are heating up, I think it might be an appropriate time to share my thoughts on playing in pressure situations. Dealing with the stress, tension, butterflies, sweaty palms, elevated heart beat, and shallow breath that comes with the territory of participating in sport. There’s no escaping it, if you’re an athlete, you WILL find yourself in these situations and it will be up to you how you handle them. It’s part of the reason we love athletics. There is something truly special about performing or watching people perform in these situations. I get the same feeling watching Tiger Woods sink a 20 foot double breaking putt to win a major as I do when I look at a Gauguin or Picasso in person. Its’s awe inspiring, its like the best that we can do as humans. When I’ve personally performed in these situations it’s almost like I’ve stepped outside of myself and when I come back, I’m forever changed. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s great entertainment if we’re watching and can be life changing if we’re participating. By getting familiar with these situations, dealing with them, thriving in them, looking forward to them, we can transcend sport and improve our lives. By learning how to excel on the field we might be better equipped to deal with the pressure of tests in the classroom, or the anxiety of going on a date, or speaking in front of people, or taking your driving exam. Pressure is pressure and it’s part of life, like it or not.

We’ve all heard the saying, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Fight or flight. We used to have a saying in the big leagues “if you’re scared, get a dog.” At the highest levels, everyone can perform. Not everyone can perform when the game is on the line. I don’t have all the answers, all I can do is relay my experience and share how I dealt with these moments. Maybe it will ring true and help you deal.

The first thing I want to say is these pressure situations – the feelings, the sweaty palms, elevated heart beat, and butterflies – NEVER go away…no matter how long you play. You would think that after 15 major league opening days the butterflies would go away. Wrong. You would think that after the hundred and fiftieth time of coming up to bat with the game on the line my heartbeat wouldn’t be pounding. Wrong. You would think that after speaking in front of people thousands of times I wouldn’t be nervous. Wrong. For me, these feelings never go away. And that is the main point of my message. You see, I always took these elevated feelings as “wrong”. I figured that the elite either didn’t have these feelings or were strong enough mentally to push them down. I really felt deficient because no matter how hard I tried or how many times the pressure situation came up, I STILL FELT THOSE DAMN FEELINGS! Was I ever going to be the athlete with “ice-water” in his veins? Every time I came up with the game on the line, It was like a little Vietnam in my head trying to calm down. Then finally one day I gave up. I just gave up and said to myself screw it. It finally dawned on me – what was I fighting for? What exactly is the problem with a little extra sweat on my palms and a few extra heart beats? What expert said you can’t perform with this condition? And maybe, just maybe, these butterflies in my stomach don’t have teeth. Maybe they’re nice butterflies. Maybe these feelings are here for a reason. Instead of trying to get rid of them, maybe I can use them for my benefit! Maybe they’re a natural response that will actually help me by heightening my awareness. Maybe God didn’t make a mistake! And come to think of it, I thought, I’ve never actually heard any elite athlete say that he/she didn’t have these feelings…I just assumed.

So there it was, that was the turning point for me. That was the point where I stopped being scared and intimidated by these inevitable situations and finally began to thrive in them. That was the point where I went from wanting no part of the “game on the line” situation, to frothing at the mouth to have a chance. I simply accepted that these situations were part of sports, and the feelings that came with them were natural and something that I had no business fighting. I made friends with them, became familiar with them, and actually looked forward to the times when they would knock on my door.

I’m not saying that by adopting this attitude you’re gonna succeed more than you fail. Sports, especially baseball, are all about who fails the best. (If you can ONLY fail 7 out of 10 times YOU can hit .300 and be a millionaire!) I AM hoping these words and experiences will help you understand more and have more fun playing the sport you love. Good luck…have fun and play hard.

Steroids/HGH/Sports Enhancing Drugs

September 17, 2008

I realize this isn’t THE hot topic on everybody’s minds right now, but I get enough inquiries about it to share my thoughts on the steroid subject. This way, if anyone asks my opinion, I can just say “read my blog from Sept. 17th 2008, it says everything I have to say on the subject.”

So where to begin. The most popular question I hear is “how many people are doing it?”. Well, I’ve got to be honest, I’m not sure. Especially in today’s game, since I’ve been away from it for a few years. I can say with reasonable confidence that in the era I played (1990 – 2004) it would be a solid 85%. I know that sounds high, geez it even sounds high to me as I write it, but I sincerely think that’s about right. Trust me, the Mitchell report was just scratching the surface. There were a number of guys on that report that I was pretty sure WERE NOT using, and it turned out that they were (Paul Byrd, really?). Combine those guys with the billion guys I know WERE using and you’ve got my big number.

I first began to notice the effects of steroids around 1993 with the Texas Ranger teams. In 92 they looked regular, in 93 it looked like you had stuffed 2 guys in the same uniform. I still didn’t realize what was going on…all I knew was that their arms were twice the size of my legs and I needed to get on their off season training program.

Then it was the Detroit and Oakland teams, and by the mid 90’s it was like the wild west in baseball…everybody was doing it, EVERYBODY. It was fairly out in the open and talked about and there was a general feeling of invincibility and lawlessness in the clubhouse. You would be hard pressed to find a player who ranked in the top ten of any offensive catagory who wasn’t doing it during the years I played. Ditto that for the pitchers. No lie. This is the era of baseball that I played in.

The second most popular question I hear is “did you ever do steroids or HGH?”. Well, first of all, I have to make sure that the person asking the question can see. If they can, I just show them my baseball cards and that pretty much takes care of that question. No, I didn’t. Never tried them. I was liked the last of the Mohicans, especially in the position (catcher) that I played. I was one of the handful who didn’t partake. Didn’t inhale. And I’ve got to say that competing against a whole league of guys doing it was frustrating. I played against a lot of guys who went from being fringe, borderline big leaguers to living in a mansion in ONE year.

I saw the speed and power of the game take a quantum leap over the course of an off season. Guys who normally threw in the 80’s now lived in the 90’s. Matter of fact EVERYONE, regardless of position, threw 90 mph. Guys who normally hit 10 homers now hit at least 30. Everything seemed upside down and I can remember feeling how wrong it was and wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.

To be honest though, the speed, inflated statistics, and money that was being thrown around to the guys putting up such huge numbers wasn’t the most frustrating aspect of the whole thing. The thing that pissed me off the most was their ability to bounce back day in and day out. You have to understand that the Major League baseball season is a grind. Grind with a capital G. I suppose its a lot like war in that if you haven’t actually experienced it, there is really no way to accurately describe it.It’s hard – take my word for it and we’ll leave it at that.

Over the course of the 162 game schedule I personally felt 100% in about 15 games. And most of those were in the first month. The rest of the season I hovered somewhere between 85 – 90%. Thats just the way it was, and if you ask any pre- steroid era player how they felt they’ll probably give you the same numbers. Contrast those numbers with the guys enhancing and THAT is what really pissed me off. These guys showed up to the park everyday like it was the first day of the season. Mentally and physically. That was hard for me to stomach.

Now I want to state that I’m not passing judgement on the players who did these drugs. I’ve got many good friends and teammates who did them and they’re all fine human beings. And nobody’s going to nominate me for sainthood either. Lord knows I’ve made my fair share of mistakes.

Here’s the reality. For most of us, all we ever did was play baseball. That’s what we know how to do. Alot of players reach a point where their back is against the wall. Either he puts up the numbers or some guy behind him in the minors is gonna. “Lets see here, I can either take the drug and live on a yacht in the off season or go home and pump gas. Ship Ahoy, matey!” Its not a terribly hard decision to make.

I was fairly fortunate that I was able to slip through the cracks. I played maybe the one position (catcher) where you didn’t need to hit 30 homers or throw 100MPH. I could hold down a job by playing good defense. So I chose to skip the yacht and do what I thought was right. My main reason for not using (outside of the unpredictable health risks) was that I could not sleep at night knowing that I cheated and took someone else’s job. Those last few days of spring training are a bitch. Seeing guys get sent out to the minors or cut all together is tough enough knowing that I honestly beat him out. To sit there and watch them go out the door knowing in my heart that they were better than me and I won the position because I had an unfair edge…well, I just wasn’t prepared to go down that road. I’ve got enough mental problems as it is. I didn’t need to pile that guilt on top of it all.

Again, just because I felt that way doesn’t make it right. I’m just sharing my opinion. I tried very hard to not to let my opinions effect my relationships with teammates or make me into a bitter idiot. It was what it was. I chose my path and fully realized that when the dust all settled, it all boiled down to putting up numbers and competing. No general manager was going to give me a contract because I chose to do the right thing. Bitching about it wasn’t going to help my cause either. Regardless of the beast on the mound, I needed to hit him. Period.

In my opinion, this was the reality. Nobody cared if I did the right thing or the wrong thing. The fans didn’t really care. They want to see 500 foot home runs and 100 mph pitches. That’s what we’ve become accustomed to. The players themselves don’t care. How did you feel at 25? You certainly weren’t thinking about your long term health and I already mentioned the pressures and decisions involved in throwing up the big numbers.

The owners and front office don’t care. Trust me, their main concern isn’t the welfare of the youth or the purity of the game. They’re businessmen and money is their game. They simply want to put butts in the seats and for you to turn on the TV and wear a Yankee hat when you do. For them to lead on like they were unaware of what was (is) going on is a crock of it. These guys are the some of the best business people in the world and know where every last one of their pennies are. For them to make a 150 million dollar investment into a guy they don’t know every last thing about is ludicrous. They know how many times a day the guy goes to the bathroom, trust me. 

So where does that leave us? Well, let me just start out and pop everybody’s bubble by saying that in my opinion, the day of the pure athlete is LONG gone. There is just so much more money in the taking side of drugs than in the catching side. The drugs will always be about 5 -10 years ahead of the tests to detect them. Like I said, nobody really cares, they want what they want and they want it fast and big and right now. In some lab in the hills of San Francisco they have probably have a rat bench pressing 200 pounds for crying out loud. And its in every sport, not just baseball. Even the pro surfers are doing it! I can’t wait till they catch a golfer.

So where is the problem you might ask. After all, the fans are happy, the owners are raking in the glue, and the players are indestructible in their own minds. Well, I’ve got a couple problems with the deal. The first problem is I’m a dad and my son likes baseball. Now he’s only 9 and I’m not saying he’s gonna be a grande leaguer or anything, but I would love to see him compete on a level playing field where excellence depends on skill and hard work rather than how good a chemist you are. Call me crazy, but I’m not thrilled about his hat size changing from a 7 1/8 to a 8 1/2 in an off season. A red flag goes up in my brain right there, it just doesn’t seem healthy for some reason. I really don’t want him to get to the crossroads where he has got to chose between hitting the industry standard 40 homers or going home.

The second problem I see is all those great players who have come before us. What happens to them? How do you compare the game of today with the game back then? After all, this is as Ken Burns says “a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all those who have gone before.” Tell me, how are you going to measure Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron? Sorry folks, can’t do it.

We’ve only got a couple options when it comes to comparing players the way I see it. One, we clean the game up (impossible for many different reasons, a few of which I stated above). Secondly, we just accept that there is no longer a pure athlete and get on with it. Thirdly, we lock the doors of the Hall of Fame and throw away the key. Because really, who the hell is going to get in there now that wasn’t, or isn’t partaking? Maybe Derek Jeter, maybe Jeff Kent. But remember I was the guy who was sure Paul Byrd WASN’T doing it and I was a teammate of his for years. Maybe Jeter and Kent are users, I don’t know. The point is, NOBODY is above suspicion and how are you going to prove it. Are you going to keep McGwire out and let Jeter in when you don’t REALLY know about either?  It’s a mess and I’m glad that I’m out of it for the time being.

So actually, I don’t know how to end this commentary other than to say that I can sleep with the decisions I’ve made. We all have choices to make and I’m equally fine with the players who used and those who decided not too. (Well, that isn’t exactly true, there were a few guys I could have done without, but that didn’t have anything to do with the drugs.) I understand where the owners are coming from and I understand where the fans are coming from. I just hope for my son’s sake, for the sake of all the baseball youth, and the sake of players past and present, that somehow there’ll be a happy ending. Anyway you slice it, baseball is still a great game. And that is just one guy’s opinion. See ya next time….