Ahead in the Count

Larry Legend

NFL receivers catch a lot of flack, most of it rightfully so.  They demand the ball notwithstanding whether it is part of their team’s game plan.  They are sulky and divisive when they don’t get their touches.  They celebrate touchdowns (or even just first downs) with contrived, self-centered dances or gimmicks (although I must admit enjoying some of the more harmless, creative efforts on this front – not that a celebration’s humor makes it any less self-centered).  So while most NFL receivers don’t deserve the attention they so desperately seek, Larry Fitzgerald deserves the attention of all aspiring young athletes. 

For a couple of seasons, I’ve admired Larry Fitzgerald and how he plays the game.  Most receivers celebrate routine catches.  Larry does the opposite: he reacts to making incredible circus catches on a weekly basis with humility and indifference.  Do your job – and act like you’ve been there.  Fitzgerald’s touchdown celebration?  Flip the ball to the ref and either (1) run straight to the sideline (particularly if his team is still losing after the score) or (2) congratulate his teammates. 

Fitzgerald burst on the national scene last week when he scored 3 TDs in the first half of the NFC championship game.   That said, I thought that Larry’s best moments came in the fourth quarter, on two plays in particular where he never touched the ball.  With about four minutes to go and the Cardinals down by two, the Cardinals got a huge first down inside the Eagles twenty yard line.  Larry Fitzgerald was on the field, but they ball did not go his way.  Understanding the significance of the first down, Fitzgerald leaped in the air in a way usually reserved for eight-year-olds who win little league games.  His celebration was even more demonstrative a few plays later when teammate Tim Hightower scored the winning touchdown.  Despite the fact that he did not score, Larry exploded frantically into the air over and over again, jumping up and down with unadulterated excitement at the notion that his team was Super Bowl bound. 

That sort of legitimate, spontaneous excitement on the field was great to see, particularly from a superstar wide receiver.  Simply put, Larry Fitzgerald is a breath of fresh air in professional football.  His talent is now widely celebrated.  His attitude should be as well.

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January 25, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by John Bramlette | Leave a comment

8th Inning…..Leaving it all on the Field of Play

No one that I know enjoys, or enjoyed, the thought of their playing career coming to an end.  In fact, over the next year and a half, I had no thought of it happening.  I signed a Minor League Free Agent contract with the Toronto Bluejays in the winter of 2005.  I went to Spring Training and had a very successful 6 week stint with the Big League club in camp.  I was optioned to Triple A Syracuse to start the season, and continued to throw well; eventually getting a call up in mid May.  While that didn’t go very well, or last very long, I was optioned back to Triple A a month later, it still fed my fire to keep reaching for the golden nugget.  2006 saw me go to Big League camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Camp was fine, but I was sent to Minor League camp early.  Once the season started in Triple A Indianapolis, the pitching staff was 12 deep.  The problem was that we had 13 pitchers.  The organization came up with an ankle injury for me, that if I agreed to, I would be put on the “Disabled List”.  That should have been a sign of things to come. Over the course of my 17 year career, I had missed only 2 weeks due to injury.  An odd occurrence, but it was an ankle injury that happened while covering first base. I had a very tough time accepting a “Phantom Disabled List” position, knowing full well that I was healthy, and had worked my tail off throughout my career to be healthy. I decided to take the high road.  I showed up early and stayed late.  I sat in my usual spot in the bullpen, charted pitches on opposing hitters, advised the younger staff members, and held my position on the Kangaroo Court Jury. Basically, I was a coach, who had a sick feeling in his stomach.  I knew the reason I was chosen for the Phantom DL spot was because I was 39 years old and in Triple A.  3 weeks into the season, and with my “ankle” feeling better, I was activated.  I eventually worked my way into the closer role and for the next two months did a fine job.  The sense of accomplishment, from sticking out a tough situation couldn’t have tasted better.  Then the unthinkable for me happened.  My forearm began to hurt!!  Mind you, I have had soreness and some pain before, but never anything to keep me from doing my pregame routine, which included a long, long toss program.  I vowed a “little” forearm thing would not deter me either.  So for two weeks, I pitched in excruciating pain, and continued to follow “my program”.  What I essentially did was, Throw my self back on the DL.  The MRI’s showed nothing, but the Bone Scan showed a stress fracture in the forearm.  A fracture, that was continuing to get worse with each pitch.  I was shut down for the remaining month of the season.

 

When I left Columbus Ohio, the town we had our last road trip in, for St Louis, Mo., I had a feeling come over me that I had not experienced before in any aspect of my life.  I don’t know how to describe it, or have the words to express it.  It was a bitter sweet feeling.  I had the hallow, empty feeling you get when you have done something for the very last time that you absolutely love, combined with the absolute peace of mind that you have when you know you gave everything humanly possible to achieve a goal, or dream.  So, those tears that rolled down my face for the 6 hour drive home had a bitter taste of salt, the soft, soothing texture of cotton candy, and the robust exciting, uniqueness that comes with a newly opened bottle of fine California Cabernet.

 

My first appointment, when I arrived in St. Louis, was with the renowned Cardinals Physician, Dr Gary Palletta.  His group did more of the same tests, and confirmed the findings of the original Bone Scan.  Dr. Palletta said he could do surgery that would place metal pins in my forearm.  The fractures would eventually heal, and I could most likely pitch again.  The healing process would take a while, and, not many teams are in the market for a 40 year old, over achieving, right handed hurler coming off surgery like that.

 

My hope, in writing about this experience, is that it will motivate people young and old to have industriousness, enthusiasm, self control, intentness, and initiative, as the great John Wooden put it, in striving for a goal.  I guarantee that if you do, you will have achieved, and exhibited, friendship and loyalty, while attaining a peace of mind that comes from knowing that you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.  I hope you all are so passionate about something, that when it ends, you are able to experience the same heart wrenching, calming feeling, that I did, which comes from knowing that you literally “left it all on the field”!!!

 

 

January 22, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, Overview / Background, written by Matt Whiteside | 1 Comment

Heading to Texas

I’m flying to Austin tomorrow morning for my buddy Jordan Tata’s wedding.   Jordan and I were teammates and roommates with the Tigers and while our careers went in very different directions (he made his Major League debut in 2006 while I was already coaching full-time by then), we’ve remained very close friends. 

 

My wife and I got married in October and packing tonight to get ready to attend Jordan’s wedding got me thinking about my own wedding a few months ago (I promise this is about baseball and not floral centerpieces or seating charts).

 

As Marissa and I put together our invite list, I realized that just about every one of my close friends became a friend through baseball.   God knows how many baseball games I played between the ages of 5 and 23, but I can tell you with confidence that I only remember the specific details of a handful. 

 

(For those of you who care, my top 3 on the field memories are, in no particular order: 1) Little league teammate Shooter Starr throwing a perfect game in our 12 year-old All-Star tournament 2) High school teammate Brendan Sullivan hitting a walk-off grand slam against league rival Georgetown Prep trailing by 3 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the last inning 3) Tata throwing an 8-inning no-hitter in our pennant-clinching game in Oneonta only to be pulled before going back out for the 9th inning because he had reached his pitch count – our closer successfully complete the no-no.) 

 

Besides a few standout performances and a couple of high school league championships, what I remember most about my playing days are my teammates.  I remember the great teammates who always worked as hard to make me better as I worked to make myself better (and hopefully they felt the same way about me).  I remember the horrible teammates who were selfish and arrogant.  I remember the teammates who would come home to play at my house after little league practice and the teammates who I’d have a beer with after games in college and pro ball.  I was fortunate to have the great teammates in my career far outnumber the lousy ones and baseball has given me my best friends in the world.

 

I never felt more thankful or aware of this then when I looked around at my wedding and saw I was surrounded by former teammates and coaches.  Co-blogger Brendan Sullivan was there.  The aforementioned grand slam Brendan Sullivan was there (different family, same name, both standout right handed pitchers at St. Albans – there are some great stories there).   One of my first coaches and mentors John McCarthy was there.  Tata was there.  And former coach, current Spring Training summer camp co-director, guitar muse/band mate, and life-long fellow Pearl Jam junkie Sean Flikke officiated over our ceremony as a special 24 hour legal deputy justice of the peace.  There were about a half-dozen other former teammates in attendance there as well.

 

While the kids we coach will have baseball careers of varying length and success, we would be remiss not to encourage them to value their teammates not only as athletic peers, but also as friends.  Whether they grow up to be in each other’s weddings or only hang out during practices and games for one season, I promise that most young athletes will remember their teammates (good and bad) for the rest of their lives and I think that everyone on this blog would agree that our friendships formed on the diamond are among the strongest bonds we have outside of family.

 

-Spring

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Thoughts from DC on January 20, 2009

 

ncb_ap_unc_obama_3001

Obama takes it to the Tar Heels

I’m writing from a Starbucks in Washington DC’s Tenlytown, about an hour or so before heading downtown to catch some of the inauguration festivities. This isn’t a political blog and I have no expertise in that area however as a former athlete I know that a little momentum, enthusiasm and confidence can go a long way. The energy here in DC is pretty remarkable — it’s like the entire city is hopped-up on performance enhancing drugs. Exciting times. I hope everyone enjoys this historic day.

January 20, 2009 Posted by | written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

The Impact of Recession

Most of the writers on this blog make their living through the business of youth and high school sports. While the “business” side isn’t the primary motivator for any of us, it does put food on the table so we are very aware of the economic environment and it’s impact on our respective companies.


For several months now we have been swamped with news of the [insert your oft cliché here] global financial crisis. It isn’t pretty. I don’t work in finance but I’ve had a unique perspective since I live in Lower Manhattan and could hit a fungo to Wall Street from the roof of my apartment building. If you hang out in my neighborhood at around 6pm on a weekday you’ll see bankers and traders headed to the subway looking like they just got sent to the showers after giving up seven runs on twelve hits in one and a third innings. I wish I could say I don’t know how that feels.

 

 

President Herbert Hoover, throwing out the first pitch for a Senators-Athletics game in 1931, was often showered with boos.

President Herbert Hoover, throwing out the first pitch for a Senators-Athletics game in 1931, was often showered with boos.

The media coverage has been comprehensive to say the least. The perspective of every industry has been taken — housing, auto, finance, education, retail, etc. — and the numbers are staggering. The NY Times recently ran a piece by Ken Belson about baseball in the depression era . It’s worth reading, especially for the sports history buffs out there. Both the optimistic and the pessimistic viewpoints are taken — the former highlighted by the Yankees free agent singings (“CC” is apparently short for cha-ching) and the latter by the now familiar saying of “we haven’t seen anything quite like this.” The impact on pro sports has been covered in that piece and others. But what about youth and high school sports?

 

My initial reaction is that youth sports – and really any spending around kids and their development is relatively recession proof. (By relatively I mean that I expect that these expenses will be cut last).  In addition I feel like recessions encourage a re-concentration on family values. Lastly, I think that youth sports instruction has some expensive competitors – namely, video games and vacations – that may get cut from the budget before a parent decides not to have their child take an after-school hitting lesson or go to an additional week of summer camp.

 

These are all hunches so I decided to reach out to my fellow bloggers to see what’s happening in the business of youth and high school coaching. A few noteworthy replies from three coaches in three very different parts of the world:

Tal Alter wrote from South Africa regarding the impact on non-profits:

In the short term, it’s not helping us. We have had to cut our budget for the remainder of the fiscal year by 25%, which means that we are essentially cutting the size of our program in half – reaching half the number of kids we were planning on reaching.

Much of the sports-based youth development world (non-profits, specifically) relied heavily on the US financial firms for funding. Their downfall has meant that pledges are going unmet and funds that were budgeted for prior to the fiscal year will not be coming in, as people on Wall Street have either retreated inside their shells until things improve or actually don’t have the money that they would have contributed otherwise.

In the long-term, the bright side is that it forces the organization to look at local sustainability more closely so that each of our sites is more responsible for raising the money to fund their specific program with primarily logistical support from the U.S.

 

Dan Spring coaches on the opposite side of the world (literally and figuratively) in Orange County, California. His response:

“Knock on wood, I’ve seen no signs of Spring Training slowing down due to the economy.  I had a waitlist at winter break camp last weekend and already have more lesson requests than I can handle. I should qualify that statement by reminding you that my fields are in once of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country.

 

My predictions: 1) the first product that parents will cut back on is lessons. I haven’t seen it yet but I’m definitely prepared in case it happens.  2) Summer camp attendance will be UP.  Instead of spending $10k for a week in Hawaii, families out here will stay home and send their kids to camp for a few hundred bucks.  For families that still have disposable income in June ’09, $300 bucks for 30 hours of camp seems like a pretty good deal (I’m fairly certain you can’t get a high school kid to babysit your kids for less than that).

 

My concern for families not in the top 1% of the tax bracket is that video game play, etc will actually rise.  Compared with quality afterschool programs, private lessons, tutors, piano lessons, etc that run in the neighborhood of $40-$100 an hour, one $60 copy of Guitar Hero has the ability to keep their kids occupied for weeks and months on end (until they get sick of the game in which case another $60 bucks buys another few months of “babysitting).

 

Interesting stuff. I also got some comments from Matt Whiteside regarding the impact on his All-Star Performance business in St. Louis, MO:

 

I have seen a slight downturn in cage rentals in the months of November and December.  However, January is getting packed.  If two pitching instructors( yours truly is one) doing 90 -100, 20 minute lessons over a 5 day span a week, with waiting lists for both, and hitting instructors rather full as well, is any indication, lessons have remained steady.  I have had this conversation with a few people, and the comment is always the same.  Your kids betterment/interests are the last thing people cut back on. 

 

I have reached out lately to youth organizations/leagues lately, and am doing a series of free coaching clinics on pitching, hitting, fielding, and how to run a team practice, to get people in the door.  Then we hand them a coupon with discounts on cage rentals to get them back in.  It could be that this is the indoor time of year,or maybe this actually is helping, but we have had several new clients recently…..

 

In regards to our Gamers (travel team) program, 160 families, our final installment for the year was due January 15th, we extended an offer to pay the last $500 on February 15th to try to help out…..currently we are close to having 100% paid in full….we have 10 players on full scholarship that we raise/generate funds to cover their costs.  These families were targeted for this prior to the tryouts in August though…..

 

This isn’t the whole story but it’s a broad perspective – and a global one at that. The market may be struggling on Wall Street, but pitchers and catchers are still reporting in Florida and Arizona next month. Mom and Dad: if you do go on vacation, take your kids to catch some Grapefruit or Cactus League action. 

January 20, 2009 Posted by | Media Commentary, written by Ted Sullivan | 1 Comment

Haywood JaStopRecruitingMe

by Brendan Sullivan

1/17/08

The NCAA Division I Legislative Council recently passed “emergency” legislation http://www.ncaa.org/wps/ncaa?ContentID=43882 aimed at prohibiting seventh and eight-grade boys’ basketball players from being recruited before they enter high school.

The Legislative Council was forced into action by a current recruiting landscape that features, among other atrocities, national rankings of players as young as 10 years old and prospects making oral commitments to play at top schools before they’ve completed their freshman year of high school.

Double-Dribble

Billy Haywood,#4 Ranked Three-Year-Old in Pacific Northwest. Toilet Training Pending, Verbally Committed to USC

As with many problems in amateur and youth sports, this senseless and aggressive expansion of the recruiting process can be easily traced to a pervasive win-at-all-costs culture that exists in many corners of the sports world. The pressure to win basketball games and take teams deep into postseason play in many Division I conferences has created an atmosphere where coaching staffs choose to spend more and more time  on the road searching for their next star, meanwhile leaving their current student athletes, many in desperate need of constant coaching, mentoring and guidance, behind. How would you feel as the parent of a student-athlete who is struggling to stay eligible, knowing that the men who promised to care for him were spending their time watching middle school hoops?

Recently, the coaches at both Kentucky and Southern California recruited and secured verbal committments from future players while they were still enrolled in ninth grade classes. Ninth grade!! Meanwhile, both teams made the 2008 NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats marched into the Madness sporting a graduation rate of 23% (9% of their African-American Players). The Trojans did much better: 29% overall and 22% African-American.

But those 14-year-old recruits that the coaches are text messaging every 15 minutes can really play!  Just wait until they hit puberty.

January 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized, written by Brendan Sullivan | 1 Comment

Stop the Insanity

I am extremely distressed about some the developments in youth baseball pitching rules.  When I was playing in New York City’s Harlem-West Side Little League in the late 1980s, pitchers in the 12 and under age group were not permitted to throw more than seven innings in a week.  Without getting into too deep a discussion, suffice it to say that this rule was, at least, reasonable.  While it is certainly a good thing that our consciousness of the need to protect and build young arms has increased, these new concerns now manifest themselves in rules that not only fail to protect our young athletes, but frequently INCREASE the risk of injury.

Example: The 16U Headfirst Gamers team entered a tournament in Rockville, Maryland last summer.  The pitching rules:

1. No pitcher may throw more than four innings in one day. 

[No more rules]

This rule required that pitchers be removed after pitching four innings (regardless of pitch count), but permitted pitchers to throw multiple innings on consecutive days.  Whitey, Teddy, B Sul and Springer:  please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here…. but it seems to me that risk of injury is much higher for a sixteen year old who throws four innings on back to back days as opposed to throwing six innings in a single outing, and then resting the following day.

Our team did not have any pitchers throw multiple innings on consecutive days – but I noted with concern and disdain for this rule that several other teams did so.  To me, this rule is simply the result of innovation for innovation’s sake without considering the actual outcome.   In other words, some administrators without any baseball expertise decided to flex their rulemaking muscles.  The idea that kids will likely get hurt as a result is sad.

I will be very curious to read the rules for this year’s tournament and see whether sanity has prevailed in Rockville…

January 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

One of the Good Guys

On New Year’s Day, millions of Americans participated in the decades old tradition of nursing their hangovers from the night before while watching the Rose Bowl on TV.   The Rose Bowl is always a big deal to Southern Californians, but this year’s game certainly drew extra attention in our area as USC trounced legendary coach Joe Paterno’s Penn State.   As you know, Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team so for football enthusiasts in our area, USC is where it’s at (apologies to my UCLA friends).

 

To be honest, I’m not even a moderate fan of football.   I never watch football on TV (that includes the Super Bowl), and probably couldn’t name a dozen active NFL players, except for the guys who end up on CNN for shooting themselves in the leg at a nightclub.   Earlier this season, my wife and I were lucky enough to receive tickets as a gift – excellent seats to this season’s USC/Berkeley game. While we thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere at the Coliseum, the experience did not turn me into a football fan.   I am, however, now a huge fan of USC Head Coach Pete Carroll.  And here’s why.

 

What most people know is that Carroll is one of the premier coaches in the NCAA (and possibly in all of football) with a list of accolades that include numerous Pac10 titles, two National Championships, etc, etc.   What most people don’t know is that his biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, has come off the field through the work he does in the extremely dangerous neighborhoods of South LA.

 

Pete drives into some of our country’s most violent areas a few times a month to meet with both local activists and gang leaders in the hopes that his presence will encourage those in the gang community to find worthwhile alternatives to violence.

 

You can read a more in depth article about what he does here: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/20/sports/sp-streeter20

 

After browsing around Pete’s website (www.abetterla.com), I stumbled across another article telling the story of the U13 championship football game in rapper Snoop Dogg’s Pop Warner league. 

 

You can read that article at: http://www.abetterla.org/Newsletter/Detail.asp?ArticleID=29

 

What struck me most about the article was not that, before the game started, one of the California Cowboys’ coaches said that the season was a great success; many coaches say that before a championship game.   This particular coach declared the season a success because he “didn’t have to bury a single one of them [his players].”

 

Not only should youth sports act as a platform to teach important life lessons, but it should also serve as an escape for kids who might be struggling through a less than ideal home life.   I had a pretty easy childhood growing up in Washington, D.C., but I still appreciated my time on the diamond, on the basketball court, and on the soccer field as an opportunity to forget about whatever was going on at home or in the classroom and just enjoy the competition of the game and being around my teammates. 

 

I can’t fathom going through an entire season wondering which of my teammates might die, or worrying that I might get caught in gunfire walking home from practice.  It’s a shame that in a neighborhood where there are so many dangerous, illegal, and violent temptations for kids to fall prey to, even the kids who are making a good decision by participating in an enriching experience like a youth sports league can get caught in the middle and end up a victim of random violence.   That said, it really fires me up to know that Pete Carroll, who has absolutely nothing to gain personally from his visits to South L.A., is using his fame to try to make our town a safer place for kids.

 

So, while the only football program you’ll see me rooting for is still the Brown Bears (2 Ivy League championships in the last few years!), I’ll happily add Pete Carroll to my list of sports “good guys.”

 

Now if we could only get the football analysts on ESPN to dedicate 1/100th of the time they spend talking about how good USC’s run defense is to talk about the real good coming out of the USC football program, then we’d really be on to something.

Happy New Year!

– Spring

January 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

7th Inning…Set Up Man

posted by Matt Whiteside

 

The 7th inning, as you well know, is a point in the game where fans stand and prepare for the stretch run.  Players realize, for better or worse that this day’s battle is coming to an end.  It is typically a time when short relievers begin their routine prior to a late inning appearance.  As I reflect back, the 2004 season in Triple A Richmond, with the Atlanta Braves, was a little of all three for me.  I was 37 years of age, returning from Japan and back in an organization that I had a history with.  Often in Triple A, organizations sign veteran players to provide leadership, support and tutelage for their younger, upcoming prospects.  When the season began we had very few veteran type players on our roster.  The coaching staff gave me the closers role, and entrusted me with the bullpen and locker room chemistry.   

 

The season for me personally went great.  The season for the team was hugely successful as well. We played in the International League Championship Series, losing in 4 games. The success of the team is what I enjoyed the most.  Every year in baseball the make up of the roster is different. There are different personalities and egos to contend with.  At the Triple A level another issue to contend with is players expectations.  Young players are on the rise, knowing they are a phone call away from reaching their dream.  Veteran players have often times tasted that success, and have a chip on the shoulder, feeling they are too good for this level.  It can be an interesting mix for sure. 

 

One of several success stories from the 2004 season was a young, strapping Dominican pitcher named Roman Colon.  Roman is a 6’4’, 225 lb right handed pitcher who throws 97 mph, but did not posses a second pitch.  He was however, the owner of a quick temper, selfish attitude, and the ability to resist constructive criticism.  Roman had risen through the lower levels of the minor leagues with little resistance from opposing hitters due to his sheer velocity.  At the Triple A level that was not the case.  Often times our short comings become apparent when we face adversity.  Roman was no different.  He was used to being “the man”.  Now he was relegated to mop up innings to work on his second pitch out of the bullpen, and his ability to be a viable asset to the team. For whatever reason Roman sought me out numerous times during batting practice to ask me questions.  He felt that the coaching staff didn’t like him, that his teammates hated him, and that the best thing that could happen was for him to go back to Double A.  What I concluded from these talks was the Roman was as immature emotionally as he was developed physically.  It was also apparent that his ego and confidence had been shaken.

 

In baseball clubhouses a common, usually humorous, way of policing yourselves is Kangaroo Court.  This is an animated court system where the players file fines against their teammates for injustices that range from being late for stretch, to pitchers leaving the dugout after being pulled out during the middle of an inning, to being on their cell phones in the clubhouse. At no time however is ones performance on the field mentioned. The court is usually made up of veteran players, with one of the leaders being anointed Judge.  This particular way of keeping the clubhouse atmosphere light served two purposes for Roman. First, early in the process he had an in ability to laugh at himself, and took all good hearted ribbing personal. This led to some contentious moments for sure.  Second, the Kangaroo Court system forced Roman to be accountable to his teammates in regards to team rules, and conduct.  After about two months Roman made a transformation.  He had, through diligent work, developed a nasty slider, and either through a conscious effort, or the Courts persistent nature, became a reliable member in the clubhouse.  I never had the opportunity to ask which it was.  Roman was called up to the Atlanta Braves big league team not long after he learned to be, in one word, a Teammate.  His ability had never been a question with the organization, however his ability to fit in had.  Having learned this tough lesson, Roman was able to reach the pinnacle.


January 7, 2009 Posted by | On the Field, Overview / Background, Sports Around the World | 1 Comment