One of the attractive things about sports for me has always been what it reveals about people. Whether it’s a team sport like football or an individual effort like golf, playing it, and observing others playing has always been as much of a mind game for me than a physical challenge.
I still enjoy going to the gym, running, riding my bike and other forms of exercise but the real fun is in the playing, and competing when it comes to sports. I’ve encouraged my kids to get involved with sports, not from a “crazed sports-dad” perspective (although some who have observed me at my kids games over the years could accuse me of that) but rather to keep them active and occupied and learn some of the things about life that sports can supply.
“Sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it,” is a slogan that rings very true, especially when your “playing” days are over.
“I can tell the people who never played a team sport,” one of my children said to me when talking one night about a real life experience. “They have a different outlook on problem solving and how to get from the start to the end of a project.” They said this without malice or judgment, but rather as an observation of how different people manage their lives, personally and professionally.
I’ve had great success and pitiful failure on athletic fields. I’ve been exalted and embarrassed for things I’ve done in sports. But I’ve tried to take something positive from all of it each time.
For a few years in a row, my friends Lex and Terry and I attended several baseball fantasy camps. It’s called a fantasy camp because usually it’s the players’ fantasy to mingle with their childhood heroes. I doubled off Mickey Lolich the first time I faced him on the mound.
Hanging around the batting cage with Hall of Famers Al Kaline talking about the science of hitting could be considered a fantasy come true. But there is the playing of the games that’s also a part of the experience. Some guys are very serious, other couldn’t care less. They’re either there to make up for some deficit they perceive from their younger days or just looking for an escape to green grass and the chance to wear a uniform again.
I always enjoyed being on the team. The banter in the clubhouse, the observations in the dugout (not always about baseball) and the winning and losing as a group. I played for Darrell Evans one year at Tigers camp. He could have cared less about the baseball but was very engaging when it came to off the field activities.
Tom Pacoirek was always fun to play for. He knew what we were looking for and provided the right blend of fun and inside baseball knowledge that you can’t get in a five-minute conversation. Ralph Garr watched me backhand a ground ball behind third base and throw a guy out by five steps while telling me, “You’re not that good anymore!”) And then pulling me aside to tell me what a great play it was.
John Shoemaker worked on my balance in the field while a major league hitting coach whose name I can’t remember told me to drag the butt of the bat through the hitting area before rotating into the ball. (That really worked!)
In those camps, the one guy that really stuck out though was Clint Hurdle. Hurdle kicked around the majors for a while, after being tabbed as “The New Phenom” on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the cover as a kid, and Clint broke it out on the first day of camp, giving himself some credibility while explaining that sometimes it doesn’t all work out that way.
Hurdle told me to quiet my body in the batters box, but also explained that I had to make the routine play in the field if we wanted a chance to win. He encouraged guys who looked like they never played the game as if they were major leaguers. He’d talk about the technical refinements of hitting or the stupid baseball blunders he’d witnessed in his time in baseball.
And the more you got to know him, the more you realized that he cared about the game, but he cared about you as well. He wanted your experience to be what you were looking for and created an atmosphere that you could succeed in.
He’d been a coach for a while when he started running the Braves camp but you always had that feeling that he’d soon be a major league manager. He understood the complex relationship between being intense and relaxed all at the same time that is necessary to be a baseball player. And it shows now on his Colorado Rockies team.
“Sometimes, I just try and stay out of the way,” Hurdle told some reporters the other day.
I’m glad I’m getting a chance to write this because I thought that the Rockies might get rid of Clint because he hadn’t won enough in his first few years in Denver. But they knew he didn’t have the talent he needed, but was creating an atmosphere of success. So they kept him around to continue the process.
The Rockies were out of it in mid-August, but their late season and now post-season run is unprecedented. I mean it’s never happened before in Major League history. And I think a lot of that is how Clint puts things in perspective.
After this run and the national publicity the Rockies and Hurdle will get, he should never have a problem getting a managing job in the majors again. Can you tell I’ll be rooting for the Rockies?