I joined the
Savannah Braves on the road in Chattanooga. I walked into the clubhouse all
smiles. But nobody smiled back at me. I soon found out why. It seems the guys
liked me in spring training because they thought I was joking about a comeback.
Now that I had replaced someone in the pitching rotation, I was a bad guy. The
stiffest competition in the minors is never the opposing team. It's players on
your own team. I had been to the big leagues once, so why didn't I stay home
and give someone else a chance?
This kind of
thinking was strange to me. These guys were clearly different from the players
years ago. These kids believed someone owed them a chance. I grew up thinking
you had to earn it. Do I sound like an old fogey?
The spring I made
the Yankees, my competition was Robin Roberts, who was 35 years old, had 14
years in the big leagues and was a guaranteed Hall of Famer. It was down to me
or him. At no time did the thought occur to me that he should step aside. Never
entered my mind. If he beat me out, congratulations to him. I'd better go to
work on my curve.
That's not the
only thing about today's players. All summer long I saw hitters get called out
on strikes with alarming frequency. There were more called strikeouts than
swinging ones. Naturally, they said the umpires were blind, lazy, incompetent,
retarded, without fathers, or all of the above. What amazed me was, after a
player would scream at an umpire, during his next at bat, with two strikes,
he'd take a close pitch again and leave it up to that same ump.
Why, back when I
played, boys and girls, hitters swung that bat. Nobody got called out on
strikes. If a pitch was close, it got swung at. A hitter took matters into his
own hands. He didn't stand there with the bat on his shoulder waiting for a
I remember Ralph
Terry protesting when he had to pitch spring training games against
minor-leaguers. They always bombed him. He said borderline pitches meant
nothing to those free-swinging kids. They wanted to hit their way to the big
leagues. Today's player is content to walk there.
Or walk out. One
of my teammates last summer, an infielder, quit baseball because he wasn't
called up to AAA in midseason, as the Braves had promised him. He was batting
.173. I couldn't believe it. What's more, other players sympathized with him.
It's an epidemic.
Players complained about the condition of the fields. A Southern League ground
crew consists of one old man with a rake, so the diamonds are always in bad
shape. Hitters went 0 for 4 because the batter's box had footholes bigger than
the Grand Canyon. Runners were thrown out stealing because the base paths were
about as easy to run on as a beach. Pebble Beach. Balls were always taking bad
hops. Yet nobody ever did anything about it.
Years ago, I
remember players coming out four hours early to pick up stones at their
positions or level out the batter's box. My Savannah teammates thought I was
nuts when I rebuilt the mound each time I pitched. At home or on the road, I'd
go out the morning before a game with a shovel and rake, dig up fresh clay and
build myself a big league mound. I didn't want to lose even one ball game
because the mound wasn't right. I once asked the fastest man on our team why he
didn't shovel some clay between first and second base, make a firm running
track and steal an extra 10 bases. He just smiled at me and walked away.
Why are today's
players like this? Maybe they learned it in college. A minor league team used
to be a very diverse group. There were kids right off the farm, high school
dropouts, ghetto dudes, a few older guys just out of service, and one or two
college boys who always got nicknamed Professor or Harvard. Now it's all
college guys except for a few imported Latins. Scouts won't sign anybody else.
The minor leagues are being phased out for a simple reason. It's cheaper to let
colleges develop players. And college kids with more experience are easier to
evaluate and less of a gamble to sign. Plus, a college draft cuts down on
bidding for players. Baseball owners learned these things from NFL and NBA
owners. In colleges, the instruction is better, too. They have coaches running
around with stopwatches and videotape machines. Lower minor league teams used
to have no coaches. Just an old alcoholic manager who threw a bag of balls on
the field and said play.