Hard to put into words the powerful impact that sports have had on my life, and the life lessons that were instilled in me that I utilize even today.
Growing up in Southern California during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, I played every sport imaginable and my favorite sport was whatever we were playing that day. From base-ball to basketball, football to tennis, surfing to golf (yes I said surfing), sports filled up my afternoons and evenings during the school year, and consumed my weekends.
We had the benefit of good weather year round, so it didn’t take very long for the screen door to slam, and I would be in the driveway throwing that shaved down tennis ball into the garage door. I struck out Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in that driveway.
We rode our bikes to practices and games, and created our own games on the streets and yards of our neighborhood. No matter what sport I played, I always dreamed of playing in MLB, the NBA or the NFL. I played in plenty of Super Bowls in my front yard, and my Mom even let me put chalk lines on our lawn.
After playing baseball in my first two years of high school, I switched to tennis, and then went on to play college tennis at Long Beach State. Midway through my first year of college, I decided to play baseball again and transferred to a small college in North-ern California, and walked on.
Made the team as a middle infielder, and after some shuffling around, became the starting second basemen. Then one day, our team ran out of pitching, and my college coach asked me if I could pitch. That was the last time I played second base.
Transferred back to Long Beach State, pitched and played shortstop in the summer league, and for the first time, hurt my arm. Over the next year and a half, I struggled to get healthy, and finally was cut from the team.
It was the first time I was no longer a player.
A year later, I was waiting tables at a local restaurant, and the staff would play softball on the weekends. For some reason, my arm felt good, but I didn’t think much about it. Then my best friend read about a major league baseball tryout camp being held in a couple of weeks at Cal State Fullerton. He said, “your arm feels good, so why don’t you go and see what you can do.” Needless to say, my life was about to change…
I wasn’t able to attend the Friday session because of work, but showed up on Saturday looking completely out of place. There were hundreds of high school and college players there trying to get signed and have a chance to chase their dream. I still didn’t get it.
After my name was called, I was told to go warm up, and then I would throw ten pitches for the scouts. I got loose, threw my ten pitches, and then figured I was done, so I headed to get my stuff and leave. Then, here they came, a handful of scouts asking to talk to me.
A major league scouting bureau representative got in between the scouts and me, and said that they wanted me to come back Sunday to pitch in a game situation. I said ok, but I still didn’t get what was happening. My elbow was tender, but I iced it a few times and went to the restaurant to work the dinner shift.
The next day, it was just me and two other pitchers facing hitters. I struck out five of the six hitters I faced and one popped out to the second baseman. And again, I walked over to get my stuff and leave, but now a larger contingent of scouts approached me. Turns out, I was the only pitcher that threw over 90 miles per hour, and it was beginning to set in that my life was different now.
After a number of phone calls and meetings, Bob Wadsworth, the Atlanta Braves scout offered me $5,000 and said they would pay for my remaining college. I signed my first professional contract in the Bake and Broil Restaurant in Long Beach, California. I then went back to my apartment, and received a call from Susan Bailey, Hank Aaron’s assistant. Susan said congratulations, that I would be reporting to the rookie league team in Bradenton, Florida, and that Mr. Aaron was looking forward to meeting me.
Twenty-four hours later, I arrived at the Bradenton-Sarasota airport to start my journey to the major leagues. A long way from the driveway and garage door.
More to come…