Gammons: MLB Mentors Make all the Difference
On Tuesday night in Portland, Maine, a 24-year old lefthanded pitcher with a million dollar arm, stretches of wildness and a pending court date threw a shutout for the Red Sox Double-A Sea Dogs. Somewhere in Los Angeles, while his teammates battled the Diamondbacks, Josh Beckett smiled.
Back on March 2, Drake Britton was involved in an accident in Fort Myers, Fla. sometime after midnight. He was charged with excessive speed, a DUI, and immediately moved from the major to the minor league clubhouse.
The next day, he received a call from Josh Beckett in Arizona.
“I’ve known Drake since he was 11, when he was playing little league (in Spring, Tex.),” Beckett said weeks later. “I want him to do well. I asked him if he were hanging out with some of the bad elements in Ft. Myers, and he said he wasn’t. I gave him a little lecture, but I offered to help. John Lackey and I later told him if something happened and he lost his drivers license that we would arrange a car service to get him to the park and back, providing he stayed out of trouble.”
“I’m still blown away by all Josh and John have tried to do to help me,” says Britton. “They’re established major leaguers, yet they care about me. John checked in after I went to the minors. The entire organization has been great to me, all things considered. But to have people like Josh Beckett and John Lackey at my back, to help me grow from what happened, is something I’ll never forget.”
The shutout Tuesday night left Britton—whose stuff has been compared to that of Jon Lester by Pedro Martinez—with a four-start stretch in which he’s allowed one earned run. In his last three starts he’s walked only three batters. “To shut out the same team in back-to-back starts really shows something,” says Sox Assistant General Manager Mike Hazen. “Drake has made a lot of progress in terms of throwing strikes, making adjustments, just plain pitching. He’s been really good.”
In Britton’s mind, with a major hand from Beckett and Lackey. “There’s a lot in this game people don’t know or understand,” says Britton.
Which is why two dimensional analysis of a three dimensional game that is a business is so often incomplete. It is why a psychologist like the late Harvey Dorfman was so vital to the careers of people like Roy Halladay, Kevin Brown and Al Leiter. Why that chain that connects Darryl Kile to Chris Carpenter to Adam Wainwright to Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly has provided a bonding link for the Cardinals pitching for the last decade, pitching that leads the National League in earned run average and whose starters—who combined make less than Johan Santana is collecting from the Mets—lead the league with a 36-13, 2.74 record through Tuesday night.
“No one understands the process of going from prospect to big league responsible teammate and player better than Buck Showalter,” says Mets VP J.P. Ricciardi. Indeed, in Showalter’s last season with the Yankees, he brought Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada to the majors, which prepared them for 2006 and the run of four world championships in five years. “It never worked have worked the way it did if Don Mattingly weren’t in that clubhouse,” says Showalter. “Those guys got to Yankee Stadium, looked at Donnie in the room and all said, ‘that’s the way you’re supposed to act.”
Last year, Showalter made the decision to bring up Manny Machado for the run to the Orioles’ first post-season appearance since 1997. Showalter had the minor league staff work him at third. “But I think what really made it work was having J.J. Hardy right next to him. J.J. adopted him, showed him how to play and what to do.” To this day, Hardy and Machado warm up and stretch together.
When Adam Jones, who has reached star level in Baltimore, was with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, he expressed how pleased he was that Willie Bloomquist was chosen for the team.
“I owe a lot to Bloomquist,” Jones said. “When I got to Seattle, I thought I was something special. First draft pick. Big money. You wouldn’t have liked me. I didn’t hustle the way I should have on a couple of ground balls and Willie got all over me. I mean, he killed me. I watched the way he played, hustling all the time, and learned from him. If he hadn’t cared enough do it, I wouldn’t be here in this tournament.”
Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson took heat this winter for trying to fill out a 25-man roster with team guys. Martin Prado, one of the most popular and respected Braves. J.J. Putz. Eric Hinske, even if he’s hitting .174.
Miguel Montero makes sure he catches every bullpen session of every starting pitching in spring training. “Baseball teams are not rotisserie teams,” says Towers. “There are a lot of down periods during the season that teams that have talent, especially pitching, and the right mix of 25 players can get through.”
When Dustin Pedroia got to Boston in the second half of the 2006 season, Alex Cora was a .238 hitter with .609 OPS and 0.3 WAR, blogger target. He was also called “the smartest baseball player in the game” by Paul Lo Duca and Jim Tracy when he was with the Dodgers.
gPedroia was the scouts’ punching bag. But at Arizona State, he was considered by coach Pat Murphy “the best leader I’ve ever been around,” and, in fact, the year after he signed with the Red Sox and the Sun Devils finally made the College World Series, all the ASU players wrote “Pedroia” on their caps.
Cora and Pedroia were a perfect mix. Cora got Pedroia and other young infielders to take infield practice every day at 3:30, not having to duck BP line drives. It still carries. When Jose Iglesias arrived for his first spring training in 2011, Pedroia worked with him every day, and when Iglesias didn’t get to the right spot in drills, Pedroia would take him aside and say, “Here, I’m Fidel Castro.”
Last September, Pedroia and Mike Avila gave Iglesias a 40 minute lecture about showing the second baseman the ball before making the throw to him on the double play.
Pedroia had Iglesias to his house for cookouts two or three nights a week. Then in April, after a road trip, Pedroia called Iglesias out in front of a media member by asking, “What would you think if I told you Iggy took the bus to the park in Oakland rather than getting out early?” Lesson learned.
Joe Maddon has said that the three key players in going from a team that had never won as many as 71 games through 2007 to making the World Series in 2008 were Jonny Gomes, James Shields and Dan Wheeler. “They pulled the kids through,” Maddon has said.
Reds pitching coach Bryan Price has said that Bronson Arroyo has been a huge factor in the development of young pitchers like Homer Bailey “because he’s shown them that no matter what he has on a particular day, he’ll sacrifice anything to get into the seventh inning and save the bullpen for the team.”
Braves officials cite David Ross’ influence on Brian McCann in becoming an All-Star, and are not surprised about his influence on Jared Saltalamacchia in his 2012 emergence as an All-Star level catcher.
Rockies people will tell you that part of the preparation for Nolan Arenado’s ascension to Colorado was Troy Tulowitski having Arenado live with him in spring training and pushing him to understand what he has to do.
Granted, the Indians have slowed down in the last ten days, but Terry Francona contributes a chunk of the early turnaround to Jason Giambi and what he has brought to players, some young, some, like Mark Reynolds, experienced. Giambi makes everyone around him relax, telling them “fix it tomorrow.”
“Jason’s leadership begins with his self-confidence, humility, authenticity and consistency,” says Indians GM Chris Antonetti. “He is able to relate to nearly every player in the clubhouse because of his personal attributes as well as his wealth of experiences. Peer leadership can have a more profound impact on a major league clubhouse than leadership from coaches or managers. In our situation, he compliments Tito’s leadership perfectly and sets the standard for professionalism within our clubhouse.”
In turn, Giambi has never forgotten about Mark McGwire and his mentorship and leadership when Giambi first got to Oakland. Jason remembers an MVP award, a big contract with the Yankees, and says “I don’t think it happens without being taken under his arm by Mark. Veteran leadership means something. Maybe it can’t be qualified; maybe it will never make sense to someone who never played. But it made a lot of sense to me.”
Cents, as well.