Rambling on About My Glory Days – Greatness Comes in Big and Little Sizes
I usually get these questions from my students “Who did you play for?” or “What position did you play?” Adults usually follow up with “Who was the best pitcher you ever faced?” and “Who was the best player you ever played with or against?” I assume all former major league players get the same questions.
At least, lesser known players like me receive these questions because people usually know all about the star players. I guess it is also a sign that the years have passed, especially when I get this from my student”s parents, “I’ll have to look through my old baseball card sets to see if I have you.” Every once in a while I get the “I remember you,” from parents and the “My grandpa remembers you,” from my students. Ah, “Thanks, I guess.” Sometimes, it gets worse than that, “What was it like facing Bob Gibson?” Wait a minute, do I look that old? (No offense, Bob, I suppose I should say Mr. Gibson, knowing his reputation for knocking batters down). And sometimes, it gets better, “Did you play with Ken Griffey Jr. on the Mariners?” No, do I look that young? I wish though.
As for the best pitcher I ever faced? Jack Morris. There may have been better ones on a given day (Nolan Ryan, Ron Guidry) but consistently, I felt like Jack Morris was the best. Of course, I faced many great ones either before or after their prime, so I could not consider them. My answer to the best player I ever played with or against usually settles on George Brett and Eddie Murray, with Don Mattingly following closely behind. Of course, like the pitching category, there were many that I played very few games against or didn’t see them in their prime.
However, there is one player that fits the bill on both accounts, ” he was one of the greatest pitchers and greatest players that I ever saw or played against. Why he stands out, besides his great talent and career of course, was how unlikely it is that he would ever enter this conversation. Let me start at the beginning. If you have followed my blog at all you may recall my writing about the great Albuquerque Duke teams that I played for in the late 70′s, early 80′s and 1987. Of the 4 years I played for the mighty Dukes, only one of those years did we not win the Pacific Coast League championship.
One of those years that we were in the playoffs there, our team felt like our parent club did not give us much help to win - or so we thought. It is often customary for an organization to promote a few players to help the playoff team. One of our playoff years we received only one player and he was a relatively “chubby,” Latin player. I don’t recall if I even knew if this guy was a pitcher or hitter at the time and he never played in any of our playoff games. “Some help,” thanks a lot Dodgers.”
Of course, you know the rest of the story. Yes, that player who we knew nothing about and didn’t get into a game, was the great Fernando Valenzuela. Was he ever something and I am so honored to have played with Fernando. Just goes to show you that you never know in sports and you should never count any one out until they’re out. (Take that, Yogi).
It reminds me of another player who I came in contact with in the instructional leagues in 1977. This player was so skinny and slight that you could knock the bat out of his hands when he batted. I figured that he had no chance of making it to the big leagues and fellow teammates and I wondered why they would let this skinny, 14-year-old-looking kid on a professional field. Of course, when he was in the field, you could not take your eyes off him - amazing, and of course, the great Ozzie Smith.
Just goes to show you that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes.
Postscript: I faced Fernando in the Mexican winter league in 1980.
Former major leaguer Jack Perconte is the author of The Making of a Hitter (http://jackperconte.com) and has a baseball instruction blog that can be found at www.baseballcoachingtips.net. He has published his second book Raising an Athlete: How to Instill Confidence, Build Skills and Inspire a Love of Sport