"I hate to use the word “retire,” because sometimes they just retire you."
We’ve all heard the saying that baseball is a game of failure. You can fail seventy percent of the time at bat and still be a Hall of Famer.
Anyone can play baseball and fail though. It’s those who embrace the struggle and overcome the obstacles in their path who can reach the height of their physical potential.
Turner Ward had to overcome plenty on his path in the game and he joins us to discuss that and more in this week’s Spitballin’.
Ward wasn’t a blue-chip prospect as a youngster. In fact, he was cut from his freshman baseball team. That just motivated him to work harder, which has been a common theme in Ward’s baseball life.
After not being drafted out of high school or Faulkner State Junior College, both places where he had fantastic careers, Ward simply took the next step and excelled at South Alabama.
Ward was eventually drafted in the 18th round by the Yankees, was traded to the Indians, worked his way through the minors and bounced back from a lower leg and ankle injury that left people telling him his career was over before it started.
Ward’s tale is a story of perseverance, faith and hard work.
He played 12 years in the Majors and has enjoyed a lengthy, successful career in managing and coaching. He will be going into the 2023 season as the new hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Let’s get ready to embrace the struggle as we go Spitballin’ with Turner Ward.
Thanks for joining us Mr. Ward and congrats on the promotion as the new hitting coach of the Cardinals! I’d definitely like to ask you about your coaching in addition to your playing career, but let’s first go back to when you were a kid. How did you get your start playing baseball as a youngster?
My brother was a year older so I was always on his team every other year from Little League to high school and even college. I was always trying to follow in his footsteps. Being from Mobile, Alabama, most people were Atlanta Braves fans. They had Bob Horner and Dale Murphy and I tried to emulate them a little bit playing wiffle ball. Mickey Mantle was an influence for me too. I didn’t get to watch him, but that came from my uncle.
Was there a time you decided you wanted to be a Major League Baseball player?
I was about 14 years old when I decided that I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player. I was about nine or ten years old when my dad took me to my first and only professional baseball game. Hank Aaron was closing in on the home run record and he had me and my two brothers out in left field. I forget exactly what number it was he hit that night, maybe about 709, and I remember sitting there and every swing he took, the whole stadium would be flashing lights from all the cameras. That moment, I was like, man, this is what I want to do. Hammer hit one out in left field and my dad had us all scattered out there and it was something to watch that ball fly out. I’m not gonna sit here and tell you one of us caught it, but what I did catch was a dream that I wanted to pursue.
The night after my pinch homer, I pinch hit against Al Leiter and when I was on deck, they announced my name and the whole stadium booed. It was great getting booed in New York; it felt like I made it!
That’s an unbelievable story and experience! Did you ever get to meet Hank Aaron and tell him about it?
Oh yeah. Hank is from Mobile like me. I coached and managed the BayBears in Mobile for five years. One of those years, they put in the Hank Aaron Museum at the stadium and Hank came and talked to the team. I got to tell that story in front of the group with Hank Aaron sitting there with them. I said he was an influence to me in that moment. It was pretty cool to share that moment with him and tell him how he influenced me. I loved being able to express what he meant to me and my career.
What was your experience like as a high school and college player?
I didn’t make my high school team my freshman year, so that was a devastating point in my life. But I kept going and worked harder. My senior year, we were all signing yearbooks like high school students always do. I would sign everybody’s yearbook, “Turner Ward, #16, see you when I’m in the Big Leagues.” It was an affirmation to me when I eventually got drafted.
I didn’t get drafted out of high school, so I went to Faulkner State Junior College and my coach was Wayne Larker. His dad Norm Larker had been a Major Leaguer for a while. Coach Larker implemented a lot of professionalism at that time as far as the discipline and structure that went along with it. I made All-American, but I still didn’t get drafted. I had been working on becoming a switch hitter too. My uncle suggested I become a switch hitter like Mickey Mantle so they wouldn’t platoon me. I took it to heart and worked the whole winter hitting left handed until my hands bled. I took so many swings.
I was the three-hole hitter that year and had batted right handed my entire sophomore year. When it came to the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, I told Coach I was going to bat left handed in the tournament. He told me I couldn’t. I said that I wasn’t helping us batting right handed because I was in a slump. He still said if I hit left handed, I wasn’t gonna play. I said, “Well then don’t play me because I’m not helping the team.” Eventually he let me do it and I went like 8-for-9 with six or seven doubles. The Yankees drafted me as a switch hitter and I stuck with it.
ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 28: Los Angeles Dodgers Right field Yasiel Puig (66) talks with hitting coach Turner Ward during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 28, 2017 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
That was the 18th round when the Yankees picked you. Can you take us through your draft experience?
I had a really good sophomore year, but when I didn’t get drafted, South Alabama among a lot of other schools, offered me a scholarship. That was where my girlfriend at the time was going and she’s now my wife, so I went there. I thought I needed more power, so I trained to hit the ball farther, but I went into a bad slump at the end. Jack Gillis, a scout for the Yankees, came up and asked what it would take to sign me. I was thinking it wasn’t gonna take nothing. Just put a paper in front of my face and I would have signed it. I told him I wanted a car and my college to be paid for.
You got your first taste of the Bigs in 1990 with the Indians as a September call up and hit .348 in 46 at bats. What was your first experience in the Majors like?
It was really cool because the year before I had fractured and dislocated my ankle and missed just about the whole year. I shattered the bones in my lower right leg. At that point, I was told that I wasn’t gonna be able to run long distances anymore and I’d be lucky to play again. I was really determined to get back to playing that year and I did. I had a rod and screws in my ankle and it killed me every single game. They let me play in AA the last month of the season. I also got traded from the Yankees to Cleveland. I got called up in September of 1990. I was thrilled because people didn’t think I was ever gonna play again, but here I was making my dream debut.
I couldn’t believe how nervous I was. I felt like everyone in the stadium could see me shaking when I got up to the plate. I was feeling every emotion that you can think of. I was facing Eric King, who I had faced in the minors. I knew he was a really hard thrower. He threw me three changeups and I swung at all three. I struck out my first at bat. If he would have thrown the pitches at me, I would have swung at them. But I put that behind me and ended up having a really good September.
Turner Ward #12, Outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates blows a bubble at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
You were traded to the Blue Jays in 1991. Did that come as a surprise to you? Take us through that trade.
This was a pretty big trade at the time with Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill going to Cleveland and I went to Toronto with Tom Candiotti. It felt like going from the outhouse to the penthouse. Cleveland was rebuilding and had a bunch of young guys who were struggling and Toronto had a lot of veterans. We went on to win back-to-back World Series in Toronto which was so huge for me personally. Me and my wife were young parents; we just had our first child, Tucker, in 1992 and were able to buy our first home that year.
I love going back and looking at that Blue Jays roster. It’s just filled with Hall of Famers and superstars. Did any of those guys stand out to you?
Being around them taught me a different perspective about the game. Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and really that whole group studied pitchers. I learned how to study pitchers like that and what they do to tip pitches. I was always taught to be a team player and those Blue Jays teams took that to the next level. When you win back-to-back World Series you learn so much. The skillset and work ethic of all the guys was off the charts. Me and John Olerud hung out a lot. He had that unbelievable year where he hit .363. He, Alomar and Molitor finished top three in the batting race that year. So many guys had great years and they just fed off each other. I was mostly on the bench and played in some spot games here and there, but it was invaluable for me. Frustrating at times, but we won two World Series, so I can’t complain about that.
For sure! Where were you when Joe Carter hit his home run?
I was right there at home plate celebrating it with everyone else! That series had a lot of offense from both sides. As a young player, you’re struggling to get by, so I remember being at home plate thinking, “cha-ching!” It was gonna be a good payday for all of us young guys. What an awesome moment. How about that pitch he hit? Joe was good down there on those low pitches though. It was something that was meant to be.
PHOENIX, AZ: Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward (12) watches from the dugout during the MLB game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 2, 2018 at Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ(Photo by Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
You didn’t get any at bats that postseason, but later you did with the Diamondbacks in 1999. Can you talk about your experience playing in the postseason for the first time?
Ever since that ankle injury, I just seemed to have a string of other injuries, from my shoulder to my knee and my whole right side of my body basically. The Pirates weren’t going to activate me that year, so they released me. Buck Showalter had been my manager my first year when I was drafted with the Yankees and the next year in A Ball when we won the Florida State League. I was still talking to Buck at that time and told him I was healthy and ready if they needed me and they ended up signing me. I went from someone who was hurt and not playing much to getting propelled to playing in the playoffs.
I ended up hitting a pinch hit home run in New York and what was cool was that their catcher, Todd Pratt, said to me, “Hey Turner that was pretty cool you hitting that pinch hit home run.” We talked about it a little bit and then later that night, he hit that walkoff home run for the Mets. It was a cool experience though. My wife was pregnant with our daughter at that time. The night after my pinch homer, I pinch hit against Al Leiter and when I was on deck, they announced my name and the whole stadium booed. It was great getting booed in New York; it felt like I made it!
You’ve been a longtime successful manager and hitting coach on the minor and Major League levels. How did you make that transition from playing to coaching?
I took a year off after playing. My oldest son was in middle school at the time and the church asked me if I would lead the church youth group. I figured I would stay there until they found somebody and that lasted about three and a half years. During that time, I had got my builders license and had built some spec homes. Eventually, Doug Strange called me from the Pirates and asked if I wanted to manage their Rookie Ball team. I said I hadn’t thought about it, but I would get back to him. I said to my wife, “I got the funniest phone call. Doug Strange called me and asked if I wanted to manage.” I told her that I really couldn’t, but I would think about it. She was like, “Well why did you tell him that?!” Then my son was like, “Come on dad, you know you’d love it!” So that’s how I got into it; my family talked me into it.
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 10: Coach Turner Ward (L) takes a necklace off Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers during a workout prior to game one of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, October 10, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/Digital First Media/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
You played for some unbelievable managers in your career. Do you see their influence in the way you manage and coach?
I think I use things from all of them, even going back to my college coaches. Buck Showalter was a huge influence on me. He was a very disciplined manager who really kept me in check. I was a little bit of a wild horse at the time. Steve Kittrell at South Alabama had an impact too. I never heard that man use profanity when he coached. Now, people can say that about me. There’s not one player who can say I’ve used profanity to them. Cito Gaston was great with players and then Phil Garner, scrap iron, demanded a certain style of play. Gene LaMont was so relaxed and laid back. It’s like how do you balance that intensity with being able to relax? That’s where these different personalities helped shape me. There’s a John Wooden quote that says, “A player doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The coaches who really cared about me are the ones who influenced me. There’s a scripture in The Bible, Luke 6:40 where Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but when he is fully trained, he will become like his teacher.” I put that in baseball terms. A player is not above his coach, but when fully trained, he’ll become like his coach. I try to make the very best parts of me be the influence on the guys I coach.
Milwaukee Brewers Turner Ward #27 in action. (Photo by Tom G. Lynn//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
That’s a really awesome perspective! Now you’ve been in professional baseball since the 1980s and have seen the game change, especially in the past five to ten years. How do you adapt and develop with the game as a coach?
This is a game of adjustments. That’s how life is too. You have your first child, your second child, your third child and they’re all different. It’s the same for baseball. There’s all this new technology, data and analysis. There’s a real part of the game, a feel part of the game, a mental part of it, a technology part of it and a physical movement part of it. As a coach, I need to know and understand the different players and how they receive information. If I only gave information the way I thought I needed it myself, then I wouldn’t be doing my job. It’s important to me to see how the players learn and adapt and what adjustments they need to make and walk alongside them as they do. The game is gonna keep changing. Take a look at the shift. Now the shift is gone so the game will change again. Maybe it’ll be a little more old school. It’s always about adapting and adjusting.
Absolutely true! This has been awesome and I thank you for sharing your baseball stories with us. Last question for you is open-ended and just asking what your thoughts are as you look back and reflect on your baseball career.
I hate to use the word “retire,” because sometimes they just retire you. I was in Mobile, Alabama and they put together some kind of retirement thing for the media and I said to my wife, “Man, I feel like I am going to a funeral.” It felt like part of me was dying because that part of me as a player was ending. But now, as I reflect on my career I think about how hard I trained and how hard the game is and how much I struggled. No matter how good or bad the season was, it was always a struggle. I look back now at how much I enjoyed the struggle.
I played for about 15 years and I don’t think I enjoyed it until the last eight. That’s when I appreciated the effort I put into the season no matter if it was good or bad. Some things are just out of your control. Once you hit the ball or once you throw and release the ball, it was then out of your control. I learned to control the things that I could control. That helped me through the last eight years of my career. I could control my attitude, my concentration and my effort. I put an emphasis on those and combined that with my faith. If I had to sum up my career, I’d say it was really hard, but I really enjoyed how hard it was.