August 2009

Talkin’ football with baseball players

Just wanted to pass along a neat Clayton Kershaw experience today.  Clayton had a masterful performance against the Reds Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati, striking out 11 and allowing just 2 runs in 7 innings of work.  But what really impressed me happened before the game got started.

A couple of hours before first pitch I was in the Dodger clubhouse just hanging out getting a feel for what guys were up to.  A handful of guys were watching ESPN SportsCenter, others were reading the paper (George Sherrill), some doing crossword puzzles (Mark Loretta), some working out (Matt Kemp) while others were taking extra BP in the cage (James Loney) … pretty normal stuff.  But there was one conversation that really interested me.  Orlando Hudson and Juan Pierre were talking college football.

Juan is an LSU fan.  Goes to a bunch of games every fall.  While Orlando is a South Carolina Gamecock backer.  Orlando told me he had a football scholarship offer to play at “the other USC”, but left it on the table to play junior college baseball.

Anyway, the college football talk started to move around the room.  I ended up chatting up a number of guys and getting their National Champion predictions and Heisman favorites.  Some guys were predictable … Houston-native James Loney likes Texas to win it all and UT’s Colt McCoy to win the Heisman, while James McDonald, whose dad played at USC, likes the Trojans.

Chad Billingsley was one of the few guys thinking outside the box.  Chad has a good feeling about Notre Dame’s BCS chances.   

The entire time we were talking football … Clayton was standing around looking as if he wanted to get into the conversation.  But … there is a major unwritten clubhouse rule that no one talks to that day’s starting pitcher.  No one.  Everyone who walks into the clubhouse respects that one.

When I was finished in the clubhouse I walked down to the dugout and watched as the grounds crew set up for batting practice.  Who followed me to the dugout?  Clayton Kershaw.  He was dying to talk football.

So Clayton and I sat alone in the dugout and talked pigskin.  

Clayton told me about a Texas high school playoff game that he went to where his Highland Park classmate Matthew Stafford (now quarterbacking the Detroit Lions) defeated a Stephenville HS team led by Jevan Snead now at Ole Miss.  In the loss Snead impressed Clayton, that’s why he likes Ole Miss this year in the SEC.

He told me that he likes either USC or Ole Miss to win the BCS Title this year.    

Surprisingly the Dallas-native is not a big Texas fan.  Clayton told me that he will go to a college game every Saturday during the fall once the baseball season is over.  He and his buddies make trips to Texas, but also head out to Texas A&M, Baylor and TCU.

Clayton really knew his stuff.  He was dialed in and wanted to know my thoughts on the upcoming season.   We had a blast.

Eventually I left to head up to the pressbox.  I was convinced that Clayton would struggle and I’d get blamed for talking with him before the game.  I’d be accused of interrupting his pregame routine if he ran his pitch count up early and started walking guys.  I’d be the one to blame.

But no worries. Clayton pitched a fantastic game.  The Dodgers won in extra innings.  And I got a chance to talk with a 21-year old who’s got his head screwed on straight.
— Eric Collins  

A visit to the IE

With the Dodgers in Phoenix for the weekend I figured I’d check out the Inland Empire 66’ers.  Catch some Class A California League baseball.  Why not? 
Friday night I made the trip to Arrowhead Credit Union Park for the 66ers and the High Desert Mavericks.  I’d never been to the ballpark and figured there were a couple of Dodger prospects that I was curious about.
The guys I was interested in didn’t disappoint.  I’m no scout, but Trayvon Robinson looks like he’s got a chance to be pretty good.  He hit a home run, his 15th of the year to straight-away center field.  Very impressive.  Robinson is still just 21 years old.  He’s a switch-hitter who is also leading the Cal League in steals with 43.  The batting average is a hard .306.
The 66ers went back-to-back with their homers in the fourth inning.   Scott Van Slyke following Robinson with his 20th home run.  Van Slyke certainly looks the part of a prospect.  They list him at 6’5 220 lbs.  To me, in his uniform he looks more like Dave Winfield than his dad, Andy.  Van Slyke stole his 9th base during the ballgame as well.
A lot of times the numbers that players put up in the Cal League are a little screwy.  Most people will tell you its a “hitter’s league” … and you don’t really know if you can trust the stats.  (Koby Clemens, Roger’s son, is leading the Cal League in On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage while playing for Astro-affiliate Lancaster.)  But both Robinson and Slyke are having fantastic seasons.  Dodger fans can always hope.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that there are Dodger Dogs at Arrowhead Credit Union Park.  The hot dogs are just as long and just as good as at Dodger Stadium, but for some reason the buns aren’t quite the same.  I had planned to eat a couple (don’t tell my cardiologist) but the bun just didn’t do it for me.  It is a mystery.
I was excited to see that Charlie Hough is still kicking around in the Dodger organization.  The old knuckleballer is the Inland Empire pitching coach.  A quick check of Hough’s lifetime record shows that he was 216-216 in his big league career.  He’s got the most wins of any MLB pitcher that was officially mediocre.  If you ask me, despite a .500 lifetime winning percentage, Hough was anything but average.  When you can pitch until you’re 46 by floating up that knuckler … you’re not allowed to be called average.
All in all I had a good time at the ballpark.  The price was right and the 66ers even won the game in extra innings.  Now, if we can just do something about that Dodger Dog bun …
— Eric Collins

By George, It Wasn’t An Easy Road

Hall of Fame baseball writer Jerome Holtzman wrote a book called “No Cheering in the Press Box.”  I understand the sentiment … but sometimes something special comes along where you have to fudge the rules just a little bit.  For me, the exception to the rule is the Dodgers newest arm out of the bullpen, George Sherrill.

Sherrill is a talented big league reliever.  An All-Star with the Orioles just last summer.   A guy with 31 saves last season.

But it wasn’t always that way.

It was 8 summers ago, back in 2001 when I first heard of George Sherrill.  I was broadcasting games for the Schaumburg Flyers of the Northern League and Sherrill was playing his first season in the Northern League with the Sioux Falls Canaries.

Sherrill was 24 years old, undrafted out of Austin Peay University, and had already kicked around for a couple of seasons in the Frontier League (an independent league with an age-limit) and the Northeast League (another independent league).  Getting a chance to play in Sioux Falls was actually a big-time step up on the minor league baseball ladder,

Just to be clear.  Any form of independent baseball is a tough racket.  Indy ball is the very first step in the world of pro ball … or the very last step on the way out.  Indy ball is made up almost exclusively of guys (and occasionally a woman, Ila Borders) who have gone undrafted out of college or guys who have been released by teams in affiliated ball.   The goal?  To get out of independent ball and hook up with a minor league team that is affiliated with a big league organization.

Sherrill was pitching out of the bullpen for Sioux Falls.  He was the match-up lefty who came in in late-game situations and faced a tough left-handed batter or two.  It was hardly glamorous work.  When the announcers around the NL gave each other scouting reports for new guys in the league … Sherrill was a J.A.G. … or Just Another Guy.

Boy, were we ever wrong.  During the course of that summer of 2001 I never saw Sherrill give up a run.  I checked my old scorebook …. no runs allowed in 5 games against the Flyers.  (A 37-year old Matt Nokes making a comeback with the Flyers had no chance against Sherrill.)

You’ve got to love baseball to play in the Northern League.  In 2001 meal money was $15 a day and usually two of your three daily meals were PB&J at the ballpark.  Often times an 1-for-24 week at the plate and you’re released.  Blow two saves in a row and you’re demoted to mop-up relief.  Have another bad outing and you’re gone.  In the Northern League the lighting is poor, the bats are second-rate and you have to buy your own cleats.

But Sherrill played on.  And on and on.  In fact Sherrill eventually played 5 years of independent unaffiliated baseball before the Seattle Mariners offered him a contract in 2003 to join their Double-A in San Antonio.  He would make it to the Mariners in 2004 and earned a big league spot for good in 2005.

When George and I caught up in the air-conditioned Turner Field visiting team clubhouse I asked him why he spent nearly a half-dozen years Indy ball in Sioux Falls, Evansville, Quebec City, Lincoln and Winnipeg.  I asked him if he felt angry that he hadn’t been noticed earlier.  He said, “Nope, it just took me a while to figure out how to pitch.”.

With apologies to Jerome Holtzman … that’s the type of guy that I cheer for.

— Eric Collins