It's been 15 years since All-American catcher Eric Wedge led Wichita State's Shockers to a shocking College World Series championship (it had been 16 years since a cold-weather team won the event, with Dave Winfield leading the 1973 Minnesota Gophers). It remains the only national title of any kind in Shockers athletic history.
When Wedge and teammates, which included Mike Lansing and Pat Meares, were done celebrating in Rosenblatt Stadium, they jammed the bus the next day for the ride back to Wichita. That Sunday afternoon when they came over that last hill toward campus, they could see their home, Eck Stadium, was packed beyond capacity with local well-wishers waiting to greet their champs. It was just the next in a series of moments around that 1989 title that Wedge and his teammates will never forget. Not long after that, they visited the White House to meet with the first President Bush, the old Yale first baseman, who actually played in the second-ever CWS. Wedge played catch with the senior Bush in the Rose Garden -- George H. actually threw him a knuckler.
The youngest manager in the majors, Wedge says he dreads these two weeks in June in some ways, because the old footage of his heroics is going to come up again, and while many of his players may not put the video of the mustachioed Wedge together with their skipper, if pitching coach Carl Willis catches it, or bench coach Buddy Bell, the needle can go in pretty deeply.
Wedge says he doesn't have any particular keepsakes from that time -- his mom has all of it -- and the one thing he treasured, he gave away. His dad Tim, a former truck driver who's ailing back had taken him off the road and into marketing, often drove the 14 hours from their home in Fort Wayne, Ind. starting Friday night, and would be in Wichita in time for the noon doubleheaders on Saturdays, then drive back to Fort Wayne after the Sunday game until the next weekend homestand. Eric told me his dad knew this would be the last chance to see him play regularly, and that he never even knew his dad was coming until he'd show up just before first pitch. Because of that kind of dedication, and the values he instilled in Eric, a few years after being drafted out of Wichita by the Red Sox, Eric gave his championship ring to his father as a Christmas present.
Growing up in Venezuela, most young baseball players idolized major-league legend Ozzie Guillen, especially when he'd come back and play winterball there. Victor Martinez was no different, and especially so, because like Ozzie, Victor was a shortstop. But when the Indians signed the switch-hitter, they made him a catcher. One winter as a teenager, he was catching against Ozzie's team in Venezuela, but was still too nervous to talk to him, even as he watched the game-winning hit by Guillen on a pitch he called. In fact, it wasn't until Martinez got to the big leagues that he finally found the courage to introduce himself to his native countryman. Now Martinez is getting well known by every manager in the American League, including his first four-hit game against Guillen's White Sox on Monday. Victor's had many mentors as he's developed as a catcher, who was so unprepared for the position, he bailed out on the first ball in the dirt in his first game behind the plate. Chris Bando and Jose Stela have been among his influences, but also Sandy Alomar Jr., whom he was able to summon the strength to ask, if you ever see anything I'm doing you can help me with, please do. And he has.
Now the latest in the ongoing "Pronk" saga updated occasionally in this space. Check the archives for how Cleveland slugger Travis Hafner acquired the nickname, but now in addition to his Rawlings glove which has Pronk, where most players names go, and the Mizuno sliding pads with Pronk in pink, one of his several batmakers has come through with his moniker. In addition to Sam and Rawlings bats, Hafner uses Hoosier bats, depending on who's pitching and what length and weight he wants to go with. But Hoosier got wind of his colorful nickname and desire to have it adorn his equipment. A sample of Pronk signature bats arrived this week in the Indians clubhouse.
There are countless ways for players to prepare in the hours before a game ... some sleep, some lift weights, some spend most of it in the trainer's room getting treatment, there's always a card game or two, some read mail or choose from a magazine supply that would make a newsstand envious, there is always a tape playing of that night's opposing pitcher running non-stop in most of the clubhouse monitors, a current release may be blaring on the big-screen HDTV or like the White Sox this week, a group could be gathered on the couches watching ESPN Classic, and marveling at a skinny Barry Bonds in his first season as a Giant more than 10 years ago. One of Frank Thomas' ways to relax is get out EA sports "Tiger Woods Golf 2004", and be Tiger for a few rounds before BP. Even as Tiger, the Big Hurt says he's no match for teammates Willie Harris, and Mark Buehrle when it comes to the video links.
I've been sworn to secrecy, but no one prepares quite like the Oakland A's lately, and it's not the group gathered around "Bad Santa" outakes before pulling out a split with the Angels on Thursday afternoon. All I can say is there's a recording that can loosen even a clubhouse that needed a team meeting halfway through the series to get the bullpen and starting pitchers to start speaking to one another again, and they are now 2-0 when it plays.
Oakland's rookie of the year candidate Bobby Crosby is among the ever-growing legion of second- and third-generation major leaguers. His dad Ed, a former player and scout for the A's, was in the stands this week in Anaheim. Ed's out of baseball, working for an Orange County hospital, so he didn't have to check in with the former Long Beach State star by phone for a change. Heading into the weekend, Bobby not only led American League rookies in runs scored, hits, homers, average and RBI ... he also struck out a staggering 61 times. A fast learner, only a dozen of those strikeouts came in his last 70 at-bats. Working with manager Ken Macha and hitting coach Dave Hudgens, Crosby adjusted to a wider stance in two-strike counts to increase contact. All through a spectacular amateur, collegiate and even minor league career, Bobby had been able to just rare back and rip with two strikes and go for the long ball. It's one of the most significant adjustments he's made in his first year in the majors. Crosby says he doesn't watch what other rookies are doing, or even the man he replaced, Miguel Tejada, and doesn't set goals for himself coming into a season. What he will do a couple of weeks from now, at the All-Star break, as he's done at every level, will be to evaluate himself at the halfway mark and set his goals for the second half.
A day game after a night game makes our job a little tougher on ESPN ... teams seldom take batting practice, so you have to seek everyone out in the clubhouse. Increasingly though, with the rash of pitching injuries around the majors, there is some hitting. It's the simulated game, the latest of which took place Thursday morning at Anaheim. Troy Percival was out to show Mike Scioscia and Bud Black he's ready to come off the disabled list. Now, Percival's unpleasant enough to face as it is, but imagine 10:45 in the morning, when he's airing it out and throwing as hard as he can, with a grunt that would put Nolan Ryan and Monica Seles to shame. Alfredo Amezaga and Josh Paul were supposed to be joined by Jeff DaVanon in standing in for live at-bats against their teammate, but DaVanon left it to the other two, saying he didn't need any blows to his confidence before the game. As Paul said when the 31 pitches with sporadic contact was over, "That's enough of that."
Percival's return comes on the heels of Brendan Donnelly's reunion with the team last week in Pittsburgh. His storied battle with a shattered nose from a batting-practice ball in spring training, and subsequent elbow injury trying to compensate, has him feeling like he's just getting to camp. It took three surgeries to finally stem the chronic bleeding in Donnelly's 20-times fractured nose ... and he's not done yet. After the season, Brendan will have yet another surgery to close a sizeable hole remaining in the middle of his nasal cavity. After considering wearing a batting helmet or catcher's mask for BP, Donnelly's simply thinking of having it written into his contract, "no shagging." He's admittedly and understandably gun shy, but seems back to himself on the mound, not allowing much contact. With the bullpen back intact to join Francisco Rodriguez; the rejuvenation of Ramon Ortiz; and most of the offense (save Troy Glaus) healthy again; the Angels seem poised to finally fulfill the imposing promise they entered the season with.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.