Vets pass along wisdom, work ethic
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
SARASOTA, Fla. - This is the way wisdom and work habits are passed along in the national pastime. I don't know whom Carl Yastrzemski admired as a kid, but he grew up in New England, which gives Ted Williams the inside track. George Brett's model was Yastrzemski. And Jeff Conine came up with the Kansas City Royals just in time to see Brett ride off in a whirl of dust.
"Talk about a guy who was an absolute star who played the game like a utility guy," Conine said Thursday. "He played as hard as he could all the time, and I noticed and respected that a lot. When he got his 3,000th hit, they asked him, 'George, how would you like to walk away from the game? Would you like to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth?' And he said, 'Nah, I'd rather hit a ground ball to second and bust my butt going down to first base and have people realize that that's the way I play the game.'''
Conine, for one, realized it, and picked up on it, and has played that way for what is now a 20-year professional career. He has, in fact, played that way to such a conspicuous extent that Jerry Narron, when he was managing the Texas Rangers and Conine was a member of the Baltimore Orioles, once went out of his way to track down the conscientious veteran and tell him what a pleasure it was to watch him compete.
The link there is that, to Narron, the epitome of such a player was Brett himself. "There are a lot of guys in this game who like to consider themselves pros, but there are very few of them who really are," said the Reds' manager. "I'll never forget, when I was a coach with the Orioles and we played against Brett in the last year he played, he hit a fly ball to right field, and at that time George had a pair of pants that zipped up the inside so he could have a knee brace on. It was a day game and about 95 degrees in Baltimore, and he hits a routine fly ball to right field and he was standing almost on second base when the ball was caught. He didn't have to do that. He's going to the Hall of Fame and the whole bit. That's the kind of thing that makes you proud to be part of the game."
Narron is not the only guy in the Cincinnati clubhouse who has appreciated Conine from a distance. Scott Hatteberg was playing in Oakland when Conine came to his attention as a guy who did things the way they ought to be done. "I've always been a big fan of his," said Hatteberg, who this year will surrender first base to the newly acquired journeyman (who also plays a respectable outfield) when the opponent pitches a left-hander. "Just the professionalism, the knowledge of the game, the things that don't show up on a baseball card. He's just a self-made, blue-collar guy, and it's refreshing to see."
Hatteberg could be described along similar lines, and it is he and Conine whom the Reds' future first baseman, dark and handsome Joey Votto, is learning from this spring. At 23, Votto admits to having much to learn, even though he led the Southern League in batting last year and was named its Most Valuable Player.
He's a native Canadian, and that's not to imply that Canadians are slow on the uptake. It's just that, when he was growing up in Toronto (such a Blue Jays fan that "when Joe Carter hit that home run to win the '93 World Series, I was running up and down the stairs and going crazy") and decided at age 15 to give up basketball and quarterbacking to concentrate on baseball, "It was really, really easy. Guys were throwing 75 miles an hour," Votto said. "It wasn't very hard at all."
Then he signed with the Reds out of high school, and suddenly it was very hard. "I'd never seen anybody break 85 miles an hour, and I had guys throwing 95," recalled the left-handed slugger, who at Chattanooga last year matched 22 home runs with 24 stolen bases. "I think I was 1 for my first, I want to say 30.
"I didn't worry too much. There was the occasional down, but that's being 18. Then I hit a game-winning home run - it might have been my second hit - and I hit it pretty good and it was off a pretty good pitcher, and from there I thought I had a good shot."
And he does. At 6-feet-3, 200 pounds, his swing is possibly the purest in the Reds' farm system. His learning curve points straight at Cincinnati.
But it's not there yet, and he understands it. There's Hatteberg. There's Conine. And who knows where Junior Griffey will be playing this or next year?
"You have to be realistic about the situation," said the fast-learning Ontarian, "and I think I'm doing a pretty good job with that. It's tough to be patient, especially being in the clubhouse around these guys. I know I don't have a place, but it makes me wish I did."
In the meantime, Votto enjoys the advantage of observing Hatteberg, a former catcher whose career took off when he adapted to first base at the age of 32. And Conine, a former national racquetball champion whose body, at 40, looks 30.
It wasn't planned that way, necessarily. That's just how baseball renews itself.
"I think it rubs off when guys play the game the right way," said Narron. "And I think it rubs off when guys don't play the game the right way. Any ballclub that has their best players playing it the right way, running balls out, everybody else falls in line. Guys can rub off positive and they can rub off negative."
In this case - if Votto makes sure to get the full effect from Conine and Hatteberg - the exemplary veterans might, perhaps sooner than they wish, find themselves passing along the position they share. So goes the game.