The January thaw is already happening. Obviously, writing from California, this has nothing to do with the weather. The warming trend we sense is spring training coming right around the bend. The winter meetings are done, large numbers of free agents have landed and the most cereberal of the blockbuster off season trades have completed. It is nearly time to head for camp. Every winter we survive the revelations, the retirements and the new rosters. Okay, Mark McGwire has sort of come clean. The motivation was health and anyone near the game recognizes the greatest challenge is staying healthy for the long eight months, over 170 games, lengthy road trips and infrequent days off afforded to major league baseball players. That being said, it must be admitted that performance enhancing drugs do not improve hand eye coordination required to hit successfully. McGwire claims he would have hit all of those dingers anyway. In reality, probably not. If the steroids restored health, then he was able to get back on the field faster and more often than he would have without the substance. This fact alone increases homerun numbers beyond what would have naturally happened without the substance assistance. One thing is for absolute sure: we will never know! While on the subject, when will one of these substance abusers come out and simply say, “I did it. I wish I had not done it. Steriods are aweful, terrible and dangerous stuff. Given the chance the juice will ruin your career and life.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I loved watching McGwire bash the ball, pick up his son at homeplate and embrace the Maris family. I just wish it had all been good, clean fun.
There is a reason the young Diamondbacks play so hard. Actually, there are several reasons, but one significant influence has gone unnoticed. Much attention has been given to the amazing array and develpment of draft picks, to the aggressive and successful front office team as well as the truly insightful leadership of the manager Bob Melvin. One of the least mentioned reasons for the quality play of such a young team has been the undeniable influence and impact of the D-Backs bench coach. Recently, Micah Owings headed up to the plate in a pinch hitting role and promptly took the first pitch deep for an opposite field homerun to tie the game. In the post game victory interview Micah indicated the last person he spoke to before heading up to the plate was “Gibby”. Arizona bench coach Kirk Gibson is a huge reason for the young D-Backs great success. The next time a TV camera scans the dugout take note of two things. First, young D-Backs are always standing near Kirk Gibson. In fact, the closer and more intense the game is, the more are standing near him. It’s all business and his presence seems to radiat focus and success. Second, notice how the faces of the young D-Backs reflect the Gibson “game face”. We can see it in Mr. Gibson’s eyes and the eyes of his apprentices. Manager bob Melvin’s cereberal, almost magical management skills instill confidence in every Diamondback while Kirk Gibson’s passionate intensity brings competitive greatness to this team. What better mentor to teach the right way to play baseball. Kirk Gibson is the significant influence from the bench!
Last month, on Easter Sunday, I sat in the bright Arizona sunshine with my son, Peter, at a Diamondbacks – Brewers spring training game. The Maryville ballpark is cozy, pristine and a terrific place to watch a game. It was a beautiful day. There was some irony involved with seeing a game on Easter Sunday. Without intending to be, that game was all about resurrection, new life and transformation. The winter had grown dark with the steriod hearings and Mitchell report, but somehow, that day in the cozy Maryville park, the light was shinning and baseball, the way it supposed to be played, was back. It is certainly true in the case of Major League Baseball that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” The winter seas were rough with all the Bonds to Clemens saddness, but that Easter Sunday the celebration of the colossial ressurrection of Jesus Christ was also linked to the phoenix rise of Major League Baseball. Look at the starrt of this season. Is there any team more fun to watcvh play the game than the young and talented Arizona Diamondbacks? This bolg, Laying Out is dedicated to those willing to give their all out effort. The Diamondbacks streaking start is a statement that last year was not enough. They are driven. The heart of the D-Backs is more important to me because it signals the resurrection of real baseball in MLB. No one more epitimizes the Laying Out heart more than Doug Davis. No public self pity, no grand standing and no whinning. Doug simply did his job, helped his team and went absolutely as far as the doctors and his body would allow. No selfishness, just passionate team play! Happily, baseball is back and we all look forward to the healthy return of #49!
This one is going to hurt. The Mitchell Report will pop the cork on Pandora’s box and we will need to ride out a horrific storm. In the end we hope the ship realigns and courage to do the right thing replaces the passive and expedient thing. Professional baseball is going to struggle to maintain equilibrium. The lethargic approach to banning and testing for performance enhancing substances is boomeranging back. It is going to get ugly. Cheaters need to go. Some million dollar athletes will find out that the rest of us do not make that kind of money … and neither should they if they cannot do it cleanly.
The great ray of hope is the purest game of baseball. Watch a little league, high school, college or even a Men’s Senior Baseball League game and the game is played in a tidal wave of joy, honor and sportsmanship. Hopefully, the Mitchell Report will drive a stake in the ground and professional baseball will go an sin no more.
The National League West leaders are rounding 3rd and heading for home! Here it is September 1st and there is only one percentage point separating the leaders. The Diamondbacks and Padres are pounding each other like heavyweight prize fighters in the late rounds while the Dodgers and Rockies are lingering within more than reasonable striking distance. So here comes September as the doorstep to post season October.
In the midst of this season’s awesome and intense competition one thing is for sure: the Diamondbacks are for real. Taking a look at why they are so much fun to follow starts a the top and trickles all the way to the ground crew. Everyone I have met or observed with the D-Backs has been first class. The management team has done more than change the colors, they have radically changed direction. It is an organization with a winning attitude from the top down. That is why the Diamondbacks remain the favorite in the West and beyond. Derrick Hall, Josh Byrnes, their staff and certainly the managing partners have set the pace. On the field the strongest contribution to a strong September is Bob Melvin. His demeanor is steady, intelligent and intuitive. Manager Melvin has this team positioned for a strong September.
There are great kids on this team, but the veterans are anchors. Tony Clark, Orlando Hudson, Livan Hernandez and the soul of this club, Eric Byrnes consistently provide a passion and platform on how to play the game right. Brandon Webb,Micah Owings, Stephen Drew and the refreshing Mark Reynolds and the talented Chris Young are all high caliber, mentally tough, great attitude team players. The whole roster is made up of men who are willing to lay out for the team. It is no accident the Diamondbacks are rounding 3rd and heading for home in the burning hot NL West!
The 2007 season is well underway. Other than the weather in the East, which I am sure has the global warming community more than a little puzzled, the promises of Spring and baseball are being fulfilled pitch by pitch, inning by inning, game by game and series by series. What is it about this game that brings such joy? Why does it bring a sence of well being inspite of the striking out, failing to score the runner from 3rd with less than two outs and the losing? Is it the hope of seeing how fast not-so-good things can turn around? This week Stephen Drew, the Diamondbacks’ outstanding young shortstop who is off to a "slow start" at the plate, went deep on the Padres’ ace closer Trevor Hoffman for a walkoff, come from behind two run homerun. Stepping up to the plate with shakey courage, leaving the past failures, helping the team be successful and forging in a new direction are all important principles of life played out in baseball everyday, all across America at every level from T-Ball to the MLB! Somehow baseball stirs our hearts, contributes to our faith in a God who is really there and can add to our quality of life. To be sure, baseball, like life, can be full of disappointments and certainly, at times, down right discouraging. It is, however, the bouncing back, the renewed opportunity, the next inning, at bat or day in baseball that is such an encouraging metaphor of life.
We all like it when someone says something good about us. One of the most enjoyable athletic comments made about me came from a local sportswriter while I was a high school football running back. Writing a preview article of an upcoming Westchester High School (Los Angeles) football game, he referred to me as a "break away threat" at halfback. I enjoyed that comment. One of the highest compliments paid to a baseball player at any level of play is to say that he is the type of player who will "lay out" for his team. "Laying out" is a reference to going horizontal, diving, being willing to give the maximum effort and bodily sacrifice, if need be, for a team victory. It is also a strong metaphor for those who are willing to go the extra effort for others. There are those who, regardless of their role, who can be identified as one who is willing to "lay out". Those who have a well nurtured passion for the game of baseball appreciate, applaud and honor those who "lay out" as a way of life. These are the ones who inspire us the most. They challenge us, in a positive way, to increase our effort at living well.
There are four individuals inspiring me to write Laying Out. Two I only know from a distance and two I know well. We move from the least known to the most known with the recognition that all are deeply respected. Many of us will attest to a great love for the game of baseball. I am always more than a little uncomfortable with using the same word, love, when describing a game, food and my wonderful wife, Christine! In English we say we "love hamburgers" and we "love grandma". It seems shallow and silly. The ancient Greeks had a solution built into their language. They had at least four words for "love". Therefore, the ancient Greek would never say he "loves" the Olympic Games with the same word used to express his "love" for his family. In fact, the "love" for family and spouse are even distinguished! Respect is a significant component of love, so deep respect for the game is a form of loving baseball. It is clear to me that my "love" for baseball is also relational. It is the people in the fabric of the game giving the whole experience such passion and significance as well as the dymanics of the game itself.
The first important person on the Laying Out list is Mr. John Jordan "Buck" O’Neil. I first "met" Buck O’Neil through Ken Burn’s phenomenal video history on baseball. Mr. O’Neil’s genuine smile, keen insight and compassion for others were apparent. From the video series I began to read more and more of Buck O’Neil. His life and story woven into the fabric of the game of baseball is inspirational. A talented, motivated and passionate baseball player, Buck O’Neil was excluded from the major leagues simply because of his race. One would expect that kind of cruel exclusion would leave a man bitter. Not Buck O’Neil! He said on many occasions, "I was right on time." Reading his story of life in the Negro Professional Baseball leagues is inspirational. We all need to be more like John "Buck" O’Neil when it comes to baseball and people!
The next individual was recently characterized by Tony La Russa as the "toughest player" he has ever managed. That is an incredible comment! David Eckstein has made professional baseball a successful career already glittered with two World Championship rings by his consistent laying out. Eckstein gives 100% all the time. Watching David Eckstein play reminds me why I enjoy the game so much. He plays it right. The fact he was released by the Angels and then became the World Series MVP makes me wonder about the soul of major league baseball. Eckstein reminds us how important whole heartedness is, no matter what the endeavor! I actually had the privilege of meeting David Eckstein while he was playing SS for the Angels. We were introduced by a mutual friend at a coincidental meeting in a restaurant in San Francisco. Already an established major league player, David jumped up and enthusiastically shook my hand with grace, sincerety and class. I was the one who had to tell him to please be seated and finish his lunch! David Eckstein is a first class professional and gentleman who will always lay out for his team. He is the type of grown up man I want my son to become!
The next initial inductee to the Laying Out web blog is an young man I am proud to call a good friend. Daron Sutton, a former radio and TV announcer for the Angels and Brewers, has recently come on board with the Diamonbacks. Having known Daron since his own playing days in high school, college and the minor leagues I can personally testify to his passion for playing the game right. In the present tense I have observed first hand how Daron "lays out" in diligent preparation, careful insight and sincere respect for the game he reports. Daron cares deeply about his family, but he also cares about the people in baseball and the fans. He earns the respect of the broadcast team working behind the scenes. Daron treats people with genuine honor, regardless of their rung on the ladder of life and thus has become a vital link between the game of baseball and those who enjoy it. Diamondback fans are in for a terrific treat when Daron goes to work because he makes a habit of laying out to bring his very best to his constituency.
The last tribute of this posting goes to my favorite of all. As a matter of fact, he is my all time favorite baseball player! If he plays, I am there. Peter Zippi, my eleven year old son, is my favorite baseball player of all time. Petey is the most singular inspiration for this column. He throws right, hits left and has a genuine heart and enthusiasm for the game of baseball. Of course my deep affection for him goes way beyond baseball. Peter has always been a well of enthusiasm when it comes to hardball and we enjoy something special about the game. Last Spring, in a crucial game determining second place in our local Templeton Little League with the extra incentive of staying in the hunt for first place, Peter went horizontal in two consecutive innings making diving catches in centerfield with two outs in both innings and the go ahead runners on base. Although one of only two ten year olds in Templeton’s Major League, Peter laid out twice and help secure his team’s victory. Laying out says something special about his character. I am always proud of him, but that day is forever etched in my heart. Peter and Daron are the reasons I picked the D-Backs header to the web blog. Daron will announce for the D-Backs and Peter will once again this Spring play for the Templeton Little League Diamondbacks. Baseball has contributed to the well being of fathers and sons in America for decades. It is more than a game, it is about important relationships with the one I am blessed with between me and my all time favorite baseball player!
Four distinct individuals, each one different. A wonderful African – American man who recently went to be with his Lord, a much younger man who will take his familiar place at shortstop this Spring to help his team defend their World Championship, a dedicated man who will step in front of the camera and behind the mic to bring us the game we enjoy and an eleven year old anxiously awaiting the next time he can put on the uniform to play the game! What do they have in common? All that is good, beautiful and true in the game of baseball and life. Bitterness has no place in the game, heart and determination still rings the bell of achievement, people are important and enthusiasm makes a great teammate! It is not just the the game we love, it is each other!
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Jesus of Nazareth