[Part 1 in a Series]
My 7-year-old cousin was in town with my aunt and uncle a couple weeks ago. Like a lot of kids, he likes baseball, and like a lot of 7-year-olds he plays Little League, and like a lot of my relatives his favorite team is the White Sox.
I was talking with him at a family picnic and he was asking me a lot of questions about the game. He wanted to know what kind of hits he should try to get, what positions were good, what teams were good. Things that a 7-year-old wants to know, you know?
I asked him who his favorite player is. Without hesitation he replied "Joe Crede."
Good choice, I told him.
"Who's your favorite player?" he asked me.
Hmm. Good question.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up. And I think I could've done it, except for the fact that becoming a professional athlete requires a lot of dedication and a lot of athletic skill. I, unfortunately, had none of the former and very little of the latter.
I didn't know yet that it wasn't going to happen, but what I did know was that my all-time favorite, coolest-guy-ever, I-wanna-be-just-like-that-guy player was Sox pitcher Jack McDowell, who came through and kicked no small amount of ass around the same time that I was playing Little League baseball.
The guy, in my pre-pubescent mind, was as awesome as they got. He struck guys out despite having relatively weak pitches. He won games day in and day out. He went after batters. He threw inside and he threw inside hard. He was tall and skinny and had this evil goatee and looked like he had no business being a star.
How could I not look up to him?
On the off-chance I got to pitch in any actual games, I would try my best to emulate "Black Jack" out on the mound, and to some degree succeeded. I threw right-handed. I had the long leg motion down. I had an evil goatee made up of exactly three whiskers. I had very few pitches and what pitches I could throw, I threw inside.
That last part actually led to me increasing my arsenal, adding the infamous "Hit the Batterball" to my already-dangerous arsenal including the "Walk On Four Pitchesball," "Serve Up a Homerunball," and "Bounce One Off the Plateball."
I remember once when a kid who went to my school - a kid I wasn't exactly fond of - came up to bat and stood watching as I threw five pitches right past him. Full count, and the kid hadn't even swung the bat. I stepped off the mound and raised my arms up to him in this kind of half-shrug, as if to ask him what the hell he was doing up there.
"Throw something good already Reilly!" he shot back.
The next pitch hit him square in the back and knocked him down to the ground. The other team's coach was screaming at the ump to toss me from the game (as were the kid's parents in the stands). He didn't, but it didn't matter because my own coach took me out before the next batter came up.
"What are you doing out there?" coach asked me.
"What do you mean?" I asked him.
"Don't hit guys on purpose, Andrew. You could've really hurt that kid."
"I was just doing," I told him curtly, "what Black Jack would've done!"
I thought I was right, but coach disagreed. It would be a while before I was asked to pitch again, but what did he know? McDowell won 20 games that year; our entire team won 4.
Pretend you're me in that situation: Who would you listen to?
In 1994, Jack and I went our separate ways, so to speak. The strike ruined what was at the time the Sox' best chance to win the World Series. Black Jack wanted more money and went to the Yankees, and after hearing what some of my relatives had to say about the sport I took a few years off of watching.
That was also the year I quit playing. At that age, players essentially fell into two categories: those who were really good, and everyone else. It didn't take a genius to realize that I, with my wild pitching, spotty defense and streaky hitting, fell squarely into the latter category, although I was getting pretty good at pissing off kids on other teams and was easily leading the league in getting into fights with my teammates.
But, as luck would have it, there's no "designated jackass" position in baseball. So that summer, at the tender age of 14, I hung up my spikes forever.
Getting back to my little cousin's question: No, I don't have a favorite baseball player. Not anymore, and I won't ever again. The game has changed; the players have changed; I've changed.
It still gives me a little chuckle to think back to those days though. Stand tall. Be aggressive. Let 'em know what's yours. Stand by your decisions. Don't be afraid of anyone. And never, ever back down.
Life's lessons as learned from the far end of the bench and from the backs of baseball cards.
It's true what they say: the most important things really are taught outside the classroom.