"Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits." — Tommy Edison
Tom Hoffarth is a sports journalist in Los Angeles, born and raised (reared is the correct phrase, but it just sounds wrong) and specializing in the sports media business. A USC graduate from the School of Journalism (it still exists, somewhat) in 1984, he is also available for service at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomhoffarth/
Given a chance to pick up a title that, by those who do such things, categorize it as both literary fiction as well as women’s fiction, we know this to be fact: We don’t often get the pleasure to read enough fiction. Especially baseball-related fiction. Maybe one title jumps out per season.
When something comes flying toward us, we take a most direct path to flag it down.
The New York Times gives this one some fair ground, we’re caught up in the synopsis:
Writers have forever used objects as a tool by which to tell their stories — Hawthorne’s letter, Maupassant’s necklace, Hammett’s falcon. … The literary object, at its most effective, is a powerful revealer of character — telling us about the people who possess it and those who covet it; those who are drawn to it and those who are repelled by it; those who deem it meaningless and those who endow it with outsize importance. In Alison Fairbrother’s warm and funnydebut novel, “The Catch,” the revelatory tools are a baseball and a tie rack. … The importance of the baseball is linked to James’s most famous poem, ‘The Catch.’ And in both the poem and the novel, the title’s meaning mutates as the truth about the baseball, and therefore her father, continues to unfold.”
You had us at baseball. And for some reason, something called a “lucky baseball.”
Where do we go from here? The main character, Ellie, has a 10-year-old step brother named Van who wears at Orioles cap and loves to “pour over our father’s baseball magazines.” The father, James, loved to gather his family around the holiday table (celebrating Thanksgiving in the summer when he had custody) and emotionally recite Lou Gehrig’s famous speech (with modified echo): “Today, I consider myself, the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
And then we get to see the famous poem he wrote, “The Catch,” recited by the daughter at his funeral, which goes:
but, if time could kneel, as a catcher shifts to his knees when the pitch is wild For the summer we played in ruffled green grass, or indoors if the sky shivered with rain, Tossing the ball from end to end in dusty store aisles. Would the solid walls still echo with the hollow slaps of our hands to leather mitts, Or would I leave you there your arms outstretched as if to receive me.
Pause to ponder …
The author, we’re also told, is an associate editor at Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House (which publishes Meg Wolitzer, Elizabeth Gilbert and Brit Bennett), worked as a journalist in Washington, D.C., before getting her MFA at Stony Brook University. She lives in Brooklyn.
In her acknowledgements, she also mentions her late father’s name is James.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the lead character is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and her deceased father is named James.
Our progress through the season to date (April 15 to June 24):
Day 23:“The Catch: A Novel,” by Alison Fairbrother for Random House. You had us at baseball. And for some reason, something called a “lucky baseball.” … Definitely best suited for a younger woman with these sorts of life issues, considering all the things touched upon. But we can roll with it as far as need be to find out – why is this baseball so special? But what do we know about uncomfortable truths clashing with things we just don’t talk about?
Day 22: “Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played” by Jeff Fletcher for Diversion. Fletcher had already started to write an Ohtani tome in 2018. But things derailed when and Ohtani’s UCL issues flared up and his already brief MLB career could have been doomed. But after what Ohtani did a season ago, it was time to pick up the project, and not just as a rehash mashup.“My goal was to go beyond a surface-level description of what he did in that amazing season, providing the context that explained it,” Fletcher writes about why he pitched it all again. To everyone’s benefit, he does that and then some.
Day 21: “Mexican American Baseball in the South Bay” edited by Richard A. Santillan and Ron Gonzales. The latest edition of the Latino Baseball History Project at Cal State San Bernardino appears to be the most prolific, an oversized book that dwarfs the projects printed previously by the Arcadia Publishing Company/Image of Baseball over the last 10-plus years. The editors also call this book “a forward-looking game-changer” for the series, with a “wealthier narrative” that also incorporates the cultural and community roots. It has emerged from an hiatus during the COVID-19 shutdown with a renewed look on the commitment to documenting the game from its Mexican-American prism.
Day 20: “Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original,” by Howard Bryant for Mariner Books/HarperCollins. On page 407 of the index, we come upon “Henderson, Rickey, character traits. There are topics logged: “charisma,” “ego,” “forgetting names,” “as hot dog,” “intelligence,” “love of gambling,” and ” ‘Rickey being Rickey’.” But we’ve been instructed not to get too absorbed with much of that, because Bryant is almost as much the headliner for this piece as Henderson. Bryant speaks from a depth of experience, research and a need to mythbust.
Day 19:“The Umpire Is Out: Calling the Game and Living My True Self,” by Dale Scott with Rob Neyer for University of Nebraska Press. “Scott’s appearance at the Dodgers’ upcoming Pride Night lines up nicely with the release of a gratifying autobiography about his life and career that is one of the more enjoyable and poignant reads of this baseball season. We much we appreciate the education and entertainment, context and comedy, and true human feelings spread out along the way.”
Day 18:“Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and The Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever” by Dan Good for Abrams. “Good isn’t asking us to do what he hasn’t already done for the greater angst: Look at this player, this man, this husband and dad, for what he did, who he was, and what legacy he left the game. Honest to goodness. It is worth the journey. It isn’t easy, but it’s good for the soul. Thank you, Dan. We feel your pain.”
Day 17:“Swing And A Hit: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me,” by Paul O’Neill with Jack Curry, for Grand Central Publishing. “We’re supposed to, what, buy this one, read it and ponder the wisdom it imparts? Because … ? Because, he’ll forever be known as a Yankee Great, with a capital ‘Why’ and an understated ‘Gee.’ … And you’re still in the media of NY spotlight, so you’re entitled to impart whatever you can be paid for.”
Day 16:“The Real Hank Aaron: An Intimate Look at the Life and Legacy of the Home Run King,” by Terence Moore for Triumph Books. In a lineup of books already done by and about Aaron, documenting all that happened from various angles and perspectives, we embrace as well Moore’s Hall of Fame-worthy contribution adding another layer of introspection. It’s a personal touchstone we’re grateful he decided to share.
Day 15:“Grassroots Baseball: Route 66,” photos by Jean Fruth, with Jeff Idelson, Mike Veeck, Johnny Bench, Jim Thome, George Brett and more. A photo spread that executes and excites, having a narrative fleshed out by the photographer who experiences the trip and conveys it with visual artistry. It makes it personal, professional and prolific. Get your kicks with this picture-perfect portfolio that captures more than the essence of the game and its long and winding journey. Bring your best baseball friend, and don’t forget Winona.
Day 14: “Remarkable Ballparks” by Dan Mansfield for Pavilion Books. (With 67 ballparks included), there are only 24 of the 30 MLB parks … That leaves more stunning vistas of ballparks we often don’t get to see in Japan or South Korea (three each), Mexico and Cubs (two each) and one in Germany, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan and China. For those, the book serves a heartwarming and globally significant purpose.
Day 13: “Stumbling Around the Bases: The American League’s Mismanagement in the Expansion Eras” by Andy McCue for University of Nebraska Press, and “A Brand New Ballgame: Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck, Walter O’Malley and the Transformation of Baseball, 1945-1962” by G. Scott Thomas for McFarland.
If we adjust our compass for more encompassing MLB movement in the future, will it learn from its past? For those who love to reconstruct baseball history, wonder what would have happened if some things fell differently, and why franchises ended up here, there and everywhere except when logic came in play, here are two more viable entries to pour through and try to reconnect the dippin’ dots of days gone by.Bill Veeck, enjoyably, is all over it in both editions.
Day 12: “Classic Baseball: Timeless Tales, Immortal Moments” by John Rosengren for Rowman & Littlefield. It’s logical to seek out Rosengren’s new collection of baseball-related pieces he has written over the years for a worthy Father’s Day gift this June … But may we also suggest it’s a nice thing for mom to settle in with on Mother’s Day and enjoy it all, too. So here’s to you, mom. And, yes, dad can read it too. But you first.
Day 11:“I Am Not A Baseball Bozo: Honoring Good Players who Played on Terrible Teams: 1920 to 1999,” by Chris Williams for Sunbury Press. Love the concept, appreciate the fun cover and all the research that was put into it, enjoy the random asides and comic relief from this member of the Central Pennsylvania chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. … But at some point, this runs out of steam, and substance, and we can’t put our finger on just why. …
Day 10:“The Science of Baseball: The Math, Technology and Data Behind the Great America Pastime” by Will Carroll for Skyhorse Publishing. Carroll may not only know what a slide rule is for, but he’ll cut to the chase as to the benefits of the revised “Utley Slide Rule” when it comes to protecting the game’s stars from a change of further injuring themselves. Stay healthy, everyone.
Day 9: “Stolen Dreams: The 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars And Little League Baseball’s Civil War” by Chris Lamb for University of Nebraska Press. A big-league reminder about how the game reflects and can magnify a cultural wound.One of the few authors best positioned to do this book is Lamb.
Day 8:“Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook up The Game and Changed America” and “Major League Rebels: Baseball Battles Over Workers’ Rights and American Empire,” both by Pete Dreier and Robert Elias, for University of Nebraska Press and Rowman & Littlefield.
Is there irony in how, rather than an act of rebellion, we see one of conformity and convenience to find two publishers willing to carry their material on overlapping topics and expecting someone to pay $80 for the complete set? Any way to get a coupon toward 50 percent off the purchase of the second one once you prove purchase of the first?
Day 7: “Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams” by Brett H. Mandel for Globe Pequot/Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield. Where else on the planet would you rather be this Earth Day? Does Dyersville, Iowa sound too cornball?Someone had to dig up some dirt about how this whole Field of Dreams thing went from Hollywood movie set to stand-alone tourist attraction.
Day 6:“The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of Sam McDowell” by Sam McDowell with Martin Gitlin for Rowman & Littlefield. They call these things cautionary tales. They are better reads when you sense there will be a positive outcome. As this appears to be.
Day 5: “Whispers of the Gods: Tales from Baseball’s Golden Age, Told by the Men Who Played It” by Peter Golenbock for Rowman & Littlefield. Two chapters alone on Jim Bouton? We’re in. If only we could hear the audio instead of just read the stenography. And talk it up now with your dad to make sure he’s good for this as his upcoming Father’s Day gift, lest there be any doubts he fits the demographics of this.
Day 4:“Valentine’s Way: My Adventurous Life and Times” by Bobby Valentine with Peter Golenbock for Permuted Press. It not be an accident that a publishing company that touts itself as one that has pushed out “hundreds of works as an industry-leading independent publisher of sci-fi, fantasy, post-apocalyptic and horror fiction, as well as pop-culture and historical non-fiction” has taken this one on. The official list of genres on their website also include coloring books, military non-fiction, supernatural, paranormal romance, zombie, thriller, humor, reference books and dystopian. Valentine’s tome surely permeates many permutations as well as checks a lot of boxes for them.
Day 3:“Red Barber: The Life and Legacy of A Broadcasting Legend” by James Walker and Judith Hiltner for University of Nebraska Press. To someday tell the story of Vin Scully, we need first know Barber’s. Barber, like Scully, made his baseball listening audience more intelligent. So does this book. Forever we are thankful for both, as this monumental effort makes us feel even more enlightened. Still, Barber valued the concise nature of telling a story. It’s an awful huge ask to get a reader to commit to this dense, expansive documentation of his life, no matter how much information can be excavated by today’s modern methods.
Day 2: “How to Beat a Broken Game: The Rise of the Dodgers in a League on the Brink” by Pedro Moura for Public Affairs Publishing. You may not find a more important explanation about how the game got here and where it could be going next, based on how the Dodgers want to set an example. It can be something one will reference back to years from now when trying to explain why most have lost any sense of loyalty. A typical “three outcome” AB now a days ends up with either a walk, strike out or home run. Moura’s book adds that rare consequence when someone hits a pitch off the opposing team’s “opener” into the exaggerated shift and finds wild success simply by putting the ball truthfully into play and benefiting from the consequences.
Day 1:“True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson” by Kostya Kennedy for St. Martin’s Press. On Jackie Robinson Day, one can’t ignore this 75th anniversary, and another opportunity to open up the lens for scholarly interpretations, public reflection and, of course, some shared profits along the way. Thankfully, it is with a regal prose and elegance storytelling that Kennedy comes up with a new framework for interpreting Robinson’s impact and legacy.
Also: “Not an Easy Tale to Tell: Jackie Robinson on the Page, Stage and Screen,” edited by Ralph Carhart for Society of American Baseball Research.
And, for openers: What got us through the winter pandemic of ’22: “The Baseball 100,”by Joe Posnanski. An 880-page volume released last September that took what he once posted on The Athletic. Longer than Homer’s “The Odyssey” but no where near JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” it made it into book form and Spitball Magazine, the literary baseball publication, gave this its CASEY Award for top baseball book of 2021. It has more than 900 five-star ratings on Amazon for good reason.
Just a lot of the same hard-to-get-your-head-around-it stuff.
For what it’s worth, we’re 44.444 percent into Shohei Ohtani’s 2022 season. In just the last two games, we’ve been told again — warned, actually — that what we’re watching is nearly unimaginable on a Major League Baseball diamond. We still have a hard time believing it.
A night after a career-high eight RBIs, including the second of two three-run homers in the ninth sending the game into extra innings, Ohtani throws eight shutout innings and posts a career best 13 strikeouts, ending another Angels’ losing streak. After the first two Royals hitters connect on singles, Ohtani strikes out two of the next three and doesn’t allow a hit the rest of the way, with just one walk. He retires 16 in a row at one point and the last seven batters he faces, at one time touching 100 mph in the seventh inning. In the process, he’s the first since Babe Ruth to record 100 career home runs at the plate and 300 strikeouts on the mound.
In between those games, there’s ESPN’s Olney on the air during a chat show warning that the Angels face a “looming crisis” ahead of Ohtani’s free agency at the end of the 2023 season – and the New York Mets with their GM Billy Eppler, who helped orchestrate Ohtani’s landing in Anaheim when he worked there, could be a favorite landing spot.
Let’s not panic or anything.
So already this season, we enjoyed this a story last May from The Athletic about how “One Moment at Fenway Perfectly Captured the Shohei Ohtani Experience,” most notably how he went out to the mound one inning to pitch against the Red Sox and forgot he still had his batting gloves in his back pocket. That was the game he struck out 11 with no walks in seven shutout innings of an eventual 8-0 win — and also hit a line drive so hard to the opposite field that he knocked his own No. 17 number of the pitcher’s slot in the manual scoreboard on the Green Monster. That’s the stuff of “The Natural.”
In early June, we had Ohtani ending the Angels’ franchise record-setting 14-game losing streak almost single-handedly – throwing seven one-run innings against Boston and hitting a well-timed home run to spark a 5-2 win.
Then on June 15, Ohtani, extending his hitting streak to 10 games, ropes a triple down the right field line with one out in the top of the ninth to break up a no-hit bid by the Dodgers’ Tyler Anderson. He then scores one pitch later to end the Dodgers’ shutout bid. It happened on the Dodgers’ Japanese Heritage Night with taiko drummers pounding in the distance. No matter how this publication in India seemed to mangle the translation of the story.
The current issue of Sports Illustrated even devotes six pages to his sense of humor. In “Goofball” (compared to the print edition that refers to it as “Funnyball”) writer Stephanie Apstein explains how that while “Ohtani’s English has improved, he still relies on (translator Ippei”) Mizuhara for nuance. But the language barrier is less imposing than it might seem, and besides, many gags require no interpretation: the weightless ball prank … his laughter — often directed at himself — is childlike and infectious.”
They said the same once upon a time about Fernando Valenzuela.
And this is all pre-2022 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. The drum keeps beating for Ohtani. Who wouldn’t just want to shake his hand, after shaking their head?
“I hope you don’t start taking that for granted. Like it’s old hat,” former Angels manager Joe Maddon once said about all this. “It’s just so unusual. It’s otherworldly, on this level of this game.”
Not to worry. We’ve also got 2021 to remind us what’s going on here.
So, once upon a time, Time magazine carried prime-time gravitas in the media world.
When it put Shohei Ohtani on its April 25/May 2, 2022 double issue cover, declaring he is “what baseball needs,” it definitely stood out — like something out of GQ.
This Time magazine story with the “Sho-Time” screamer on the front also needed Ohtani’s image to carry the back end.
Inside the back cover, there is a full page glossy ad with Ohtani, in generic baseball apparel, promoting another aspect of his abilities. He hits, pitches and “trades .. he does it all” on the “official crypto exchange partner of MLB.”
Ohtani is currency these days. In dollars, yen, tickets, ratings, and whatever other stuff people are just making up.
It all makes dollars and sense based on what happened in The Year of Ohtani 2021. He performed as if he was as easy as playing in a video game. And he just continues to baffle and bedazzle.
The 2021 American League MVP, the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, the MLB Players Association Player of the Year honor, a Sliver Slugger award, and participating in the All-Star game as the starting pitcher and lead-off hitter a day after nearly winning the Home Run Hitting Contest are just among the things allowed to be placed on the display shelf at this point.
Here’s a book to go with it.
Jeff Fletcher, who has been covering the Angels for the Southern California News Group the last 10 years and on the MLB beat since ‘97, had already started to write an Ohtani tome in 2018. But things derailed when and Ohtani’s UCL issues flared up and his already brief MLB career could have been doomed.
But after what Ohtani did a season ago, it was time to pick up the project, and not just as a rehash mashup.
“My goal was to go beyond a surface-level description of what he did in that amazing season, providing the context that explained it,” Fletcher writes about why he pitched it all again.
To everyone’s benefit, he does that and then some.
If Chapters 10-through-15 ultimately provide all the nitty and gritty of that 2021 season — from spring training, the first half, the All-Star Game, the second half team collapse and the assessment of experts about what just happened — it’s the necessary chapters one through nine that thankfully take all this from its beginnings to where it all makes a lot more impact.
That’s all the important stuff of Ohtani’s time playing in Japan, the negotiations to get him with the Angels, his arrival and first spring training in ’18, a couple of surgery issues with his arm and knee, the challenges of ’19 and ’20 (including the death of his locker room neighbor Tyler Skaggs, who shared the same agent, Nez Balelo), and the successful rebuilding of his workouts and regime through the advanced technology available at the Driveline Baseball organization.
We also get an historical sense of what other Japanese players did in American in previous careers amidst overhyping, which made Ohtani “the most fiercely pursued player to come on the international market in the history of baseball,” Fletcher writes.
The season before Ohtani’s ’21 breakout comes as he was more in tune with his body, what needed to be done, and about 100 years after “Babe Ruth stepped into former boxer Artie McGovern’s gym to get in shape with sprints and medicine ball throws and more, a concept that was just as cutting-edge at the time,” Fletcher reminds us.
He also notes that the Angels “treated him like a fragile artifact for most of his first three seasons in the big leagues, and you couldn’t blame them … Even when Babe Ruth did it in 1918 and 1919 he said the physical demands were too great” as he transitioned from pitching to hitting. “Ohtani by contract came to the majors specifically to be a two-way layer and it was up to the Angels to ensure that he could handle the workload.”
If not now, then when?
Also keep in mind, in the less-than five full seasons, Ohtani has already had four managers and two general managers, so the disappointments he had in the two seasons prior landing on blackjack in ’21 can’t be discounted.
Those previous two seasons, Ohtani once said, were what he described as nasakenai, which translates to, among other things, “pathetic.”
Now, it’s the fourth game of the regular season, at Angel Stadium, with only 13,000-plus in attendance because of COVID restrictions, the Angels faced the Chicago White Sox in ESPN’s first prime time Sunday Night contest.
Within the first 15 minutes of the game, the 26-year-old Ohtani touched 100 mph on the speed gun from the mound and hit a ball 115 mph for a home run at the plate (that traveled some 450 miles). It was also the first time he pitched and hit in the same game.
“No one else in the big leagues accomplished both those milestones in the season,” Fletcher notes, also pointing out that only six percent of pitchers have reached 100 mph in ’21, and only five percent of hitters produced contact of 115.2 mph.
This, after Ohtani gave up seven runs in 2 1/3 innings with five walks in his final exhibition tune-up against the Dodgers a week earlier.
“Let’s stay out of his way, let him play baseball and see what happens,” said Maddon, whose job this season couldn’t even be saved by what Ohtani has been doing.
Non-spoiler alert: Even if the reader knows what happens next, next, next – the Angels suddenly have no room for Albert Pujols, the “reverse double-switch” game Ohtani played some right field after he was done pitching so he could stay in the lineup, a go-head homer with two out in the ninth at Boston in May, the whole Colorado All-Star game break-out moment – the content feels fresh and important.
Such as a reference to how baseball researcher Eric Fridén tracks a stat he called “reserve power,” which measures the way a pitcher’s velocity increased with the pressure of the situation. Ohtani’s average fastball in 2021 increased from 95.3 mph with no runners in scoring position to 96.8 mph with runners in scoring position. Fridén said he had been tracking the statistic since 2008, and by his measure Ohtani’s reserve power over the course of the 2021 season was surpassed by only future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander and reliever Andrew Miller. Miller had done it just once, and Verlander had done it for seven seasons.
That is from June 8, 2021 — my 60th birthday – when I decided that COVID messiness or not, I wanted to go to Angel Stadium to see Ohtani play. He wasn’t pitching, but was the DH and would be batting second.
Just listen to the sound of the ball hitting the bat in his first-inning plate appearance:
On page 176, it is duly noted:
“The Angels faced the Kansas City Royals and former top prospect Kris Bubic … In the first inning, the twenty-three-year-old lefthander threw Ohtani a 2-and-2 changeup that ended up over the heart of the plate. Ohtani blasted it 470 feet — the longest homer of his career. The ball landed in the seats just a few feet from the fence alongside the green batter’s eye.
“ ‘That’s the farthest ball I think I’ve seen hit here,’ said Maddon, who had spent twelve years as a major league coach or manager with the Angels. ‘I’ve never seen one hit there before’.”
Nor had we.
We sent a text to Mark Gubicza in the Angels’ broadcast booth, and he texted back the same sentiments — which he said live on the team’s broadcast. And we recall seeing some majestic Reggie Jackson blasts in that facility, as well as one that Barry Bonds seemed to hit into no-where during Game 1 of the 2002 World Series.
We had seats on the top deck nearly behind home plate. It was like someone teeing up a golf ball and launching it toward the 57 Freeway, aiming at the Honda Center. The height was as impressive as the distance.
The official statistics of 2021 recorded that Ohtani hit 46 home runs (third-most in the MLB), had a .257 average (above the league average of .245), a .592 slugging percentage and .965 OPS (fifth in the majors). As a pitcher, he was 9-2 record, 3.18 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings. His WAR numbers — 4.1 pitching, seventh in the AL, plus 4.9 hitting — added to a 9.0, more than one better than the 7.8 by runner up and pitcher Zack Wheeler.
Along with touching on how tourism jumped in Anaheim with Ohtani’s arrival and all the other domino effects of his success, one of the elements that could have been perhaps covered with more detail is how the ’21 season played out with Ohtani in the media – a platform that couldn’t always get a handle on the best ways to frame him.
There was plenty of misplaced attention given to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith mangling hot take about why Ohtani, on the eve of the All Star Game, might be bad for the game instead of good because he didn’t speak English in the media. As senior media writer Tom Jones said for Poynter.com: “He came off as the guy telling foreign players to ‘speak English’ if they wanted to be accepted and truly represent a sports league in the U.S. And that is simply unacceptable.”
The media was also more proactive in comparing Ohtani beyond Ruth — going as far as a FiveThirtyEight.com piece that shines a light on the exploits of the Negro League’s Bullet Rogan.
If any of this is mentioned, we must have missed it, but it provides another layer of where people are getting their most pertinent information and framing opinions.
All in all, among the media types who provide back cover blurbs to help give this book some juice — quick hits by the likes of the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Jason Stark, ESPN’s Buster Olney and MLB Network and Angels broadcaster Matt Vasgersian — the one that rings most true with us is from Gubizca:
I thought I knew everything about Shohei Ohtani because I had seen all of his games and interviewed him for the first time in Tempe in 2018, but I didn’t quite know the extent of everything he did to redesign himself on the physical and mental side until after I read (this book). I really appreciated learning about Ohtani’s dedication to be the best, starting from his days in Japan. I realized how much it took for him to get to this point, to have the best year in baseball history.
Using a Sharpie, protractor and some creativity allowed on an Auto Club fold-out map, the area to circle in Southern California that we’ve been calling the South Bay (as opposed to the one by the same name that also exists in Northern California) starts with anything in sweeping proximity of the Santa Monica Bay. Yet, you’re supposed to exclude the cities of Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey, whose neighborhoods preferred to be more aligned with “The Westside.”
The coastline south of LAX and Westchester hits El Segundo, and the beaches of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo. The Palos Verdes peninsula juts out with Rolling Hills and San Pedro at the Port of L.A., which goes right up Wilmington, Carson and Gardena. It surrounds Torrance, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lomita and Lennox, touching as far north as Inglewood. It can stretch East to Dominguez Hills and its Cal State campus, and it of course can wade into the Pacific Ocean to capture Catalina Island.
There are more than a dozen cities and boundaries of L.A. proper that claim it. And it’s baseball fertile, especially with youth teams, high schools and JCs.
The game’s royalty associated with the area starts with George and Ken Brett, George Foster, Garry Maddox, Mike Scott, Scott McGregor, Brian Harper, Jason Kendall and Alan Ashby. Dozens of MLB players are also connected to the area over the last 100 years.
Now’s as good a time as any to cast a bigger net when trying to record its history.
There’s the introduction to Raul “Bumble” Gonzales on the cover, in photo that appears to be hand-colored, highlighting the blue and white of his uniform of the Pan Pacific Fisheries.
In July, 2021, the New York Times’ Alex Coffey dove into the relationship between Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and the scout that signed and nurtured him, J.J. Guinn. The focus is on what Guinn saw of Henderson on one particular day:
“Guinn focused on his strengths: Henderson’s speed, athleticism and lateral range,” writes Coffee. “Where others saw impediments, Guinn saw possibility. …
“Only two M.L.B. teams were present for an American Legion game at Bushrod Park on that day in 1976: the Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers. After Henderson struck out in his first two at-bats, the Dodgers scout stood up. ‘I’ve seen enough,’ Guinn recalled him saying. ‘I have a plane to catch.’
“Henderson homered in his next two at-bats and Guinn feverishly typed out a report to his scouting director. His advice: Sign Rickey Henderson ‘right away’.”
On page 34 of Howard Bryant’s book, now it can be retold with a few more pieces of info:
“The scouts who watched Rickey had no doubt they were watching a gifted athlete, but they were unconvinced about him as a baseball player. Doubt was baked into their DNA – scouts never missed a chance to emphasize what a player couldn’t do. Rarely did they see what a player was or what he could be. … So they were doubtful that 17-year-old Rickey would ever make it to the big leagues. Too many problems, they said.”
Yet this was an area that had not-too-far-back produced players like Curt Flood, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. As Bryant adds, “Oakland kids were defiant, wholly independent, creative outsiders with an irreverent style. Rickey’s generation was young, and they were imbued with the spirit of Oakland.”
Now it was Henderson, Gary Pettis, Claudell Washington, Dave Stewart, Von Joshua, Bip Roberts, Ruppert Jones, Glenn Burke … all-around athletes who might be lured to baseball for the right price and nurturing.
The Dodgers had two full-time scouts in the area – Dick Hager and Dick Hanlan — who had been watching Stewart, an up-and-coming catcher (before he would be drafted by them and converted into a pitcher). This time, the franchise’s scouting director, Bill Brenzel, had come to watch Oakland Tech against Skyland (a high school game, not an American Legion contest?)
Brenzel was an Oakland guy, himself a player who grew up in the area 50 years earlier.
“He showed up, sat right down and waited for Rickey to show him what he had,” Bryant writes. “Brenzel introduced himself to J.J. Guinn, who was seated next to him. Guinn would recall that Brenzel’s countenance said it all: Important guy. With the Dodgers. The Dodgers always created a buzz.”
Henderson strikes out his first two times up.
“As Rickey walked back to the dugout, Brenzel was done. He was a performance scout, and Rickey hadn’t performed. Guinn would remember that, as Brenzel stood up, he heard the scout mutter something to the effect of ‘I’ve seen enough’ and ‘got a plane to catch.’ Then he left.
“And that is how J.J. Guinn and the Oakland A’s got the inside track on signing Rickey Henderson.”
Henderson homersin his next two at-bats, the second one longer than the first.
“ ‘If he’d have stayed,’ Jim Guinn recalled (referring to Brenzel), ‘Rickey would have been a Dodger.’”
Guinn watched Henderson for 20 games, 140 innings in all, yet still didn’t write up all that impressive scouting report. In the one done prior to the June 1976 draft – using the 2 to 8 scale, with 8 being outstanding — he gave Henderson’s running ability a 7 (present, and future), a 5 for baseball instincts and aggressiveness and a 3 for fielding and hitting ability. Guinn also compared him to a Cleon Jones because he threw left and batted right.
All in all, Guinn still recommended the A’s draft the local kid. As a pitcher. They did.
At the end of the fourth round, long after the Dodgers had already drafted catcher Mike Scioscia in the first round (who would play more games at that position in L.A. Dodgers history than anyone else), shortstop Don Ruzek in the second round, outfielder Max Venable in the third round (an eventual big-leaguer) and, six picks before Henderson, pitcher Marty Kunkler.
(Kunkler, listed by his formal first name of George below, was a 20th-round pick out of high school by the Dodgers in ’73. Then he went to college. He lasted two minor-league seasons in the Dodgers organization.)
For what it’s worth, Jack Morris went to the Tigers two picks later after Henderson, in the fifth round, and Ozzie Smith went to the Tigers and Wade Boggs went to the Red Sox in the seventh round. All Hall of Famers as well. The California Angels weren’t any more insightful, but at least were looking OK taking L.A. native Ken Landreaux in the first round out of Arizona State plus a couple others who got to the big-leagues without much fanfare.