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Mudville: March 2, 2024 9:19 pm PDT

Backflips and All

BY KEVIN KERNAN

A number of years ago I was sitting in Buck Showalter’s office when the then Orioles manager grabbed an O’s press guide to make his point. Buck always has a point. He lives to make a point.

Looking at their bios, Buck started rattling off names of his players who had played multiple sports in high school.

As is often the case when it comes to baseball, Buck was ahead of the game.

This past week the BBWAA elected Scott Rolen to the Hall of Fame. The third baseman was an eight-time Gold Glove winner who was known for his agility and quickness. Although he stood 6’4”, Rolen was named Indiana’s Mr. Baseball his senior year at Jasper High School in Jasper, Indiana and was runner-up for Indiana’s prestigious Mr. Basketball award. He played tennis in high school, too; and was set to play basketball and baseball at the University of Georgia until he signed with the Phillies after being taken in the second round of the 1993 amateur draft – the 46th player chosen.

Another big man, a really big man who excelled in multiple sports, was 6’7” Aaron Judge; and Judge signed that $360 million deal with the Yankees this off-season. He played football, baseball, and basketball at Linden High School in Northern California and is a complete athlete who can run, throw, and hit with incredible power.

On and on, you can list players who played multiple sports, not just baseball, including the one and only Bo Jackson, who in 1989 crushed 32 home runs for the Royals and had 105 runs batted in and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in the NFL for the Raiders. In three of the four seasons Bo played in the NFL, he posted the longest run from scrimmage: 91 yards in 1987, 92 yards in 1989, and 88 yards in 1990.

This week, Jeff McNeil signed a four-year, $50 million extension with the Mets. A 12th round draft pick in the 2013 draft, the 356th player selected in that draft, McNeil is a tremendous golfer. McNeil had to make himself into a better defensive player in the infield and outfield, and he did just that. His bat is his meal ticket – but by becoming a better all-around player, a better athlete, he gave himself the opportunity to succeed as a hitter who has that rare skill set these days: he’s able to hit the ball to all fields.

This isn’t just about superstars. The lesson here is that the more sports you play, the better athlete and better baseball player you become.

On that day in Buck’s office, he was passionate about the importance of kids playing multiple sports. Athleticism is sometimes overlooked in baseball – but it should not be overlooked. Baseball is simply not as athletic a game as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The lesson today at The Story is let your children play multiple sports. But it is more than that; teams need to have their players working on multiple athletic tasks to make the players more well-rounded athletes.

Dude, get out of the batting cage once in a while in the off-season.

The past era of a player was multi-tasking every day of his athletic life from the time he was able to ride a bike.

“The message to kids is stop hitting in cages for 12 months a year,’’ one top scout told BallNine. “Go play different sports. It will make you more competitive. It makes you more athletic. It makes you tougher.’’

Let me make this clear. They don’t have to be stars in every sport – and you can still fit in hitting lessons in the winter if you’re playing multiple sports. It doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition either, making the leap to travel teams in every sport; just get out there and play and even if you’ve never played football, and I have seen this with my own eyes, the workouts will make you stronger, faster, and tougher once you decide to play football. And that all pays off on the baseball diamond.

This is about all athletes, of all colors, from all backgrounds. Get yourself in a training program, or create your own training program and make yourself a better all-around player.

Here’s how Cal Ripken Jr. did it.

Not too long ago many players would play pickup basketball games to stay in shape. Cal Ripken Jr. was one of those players and it sure worked for him (an unbreakable 2,632 consecutive games played); and his agent even negotiated a clause in his contract to allow the 6’4” Ripken to play in those pickup games. I’ve talked to others who were in those games and these were competitive games, you could even call them battles. That’s all part of the makeup of an athlete. Ripken eventually built his own basketball court in his house.

The Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, with a 12-year deal for $365 million, is known to excel in every sport he plays, including bowling a 300 game. What really comes through in all this is the competitive nature of the athlete. For fun, check out the Mookie multi-sport video. Playing in other sports also pushes the competition button of the athlete.

And here is something I did not know.

“Jim Thome was an unbelievable basketball player,’’ one scout who used to play basketball with the Hall of Famer told me.

Former Major League player Jim Thome conducts an interview after receiving a phone call from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, informing him that he has been elected to the Hall of Fame. Jim accepted the call while surrounded by his family, wife Andrea and children Lila Grace and Landon. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

In a recent discussion with other scouts and former players who now work in player development, one said, “It was all about hand-eye coordination for us. We went out and played pickup basketball. We would go to the local Y and play.”

“It was about competing.’’

Competing is a tool as much as hitting or throwing.

The baseball men remembered one day when one of their early season minor league games was snowed out and the players went to the nearby YMCA to play hoops.

Imagine that happening in 2023?

First of all there would have to be a group text.

And most of the players would stay at the ballpark to hit in the indoor cage and look at their iPads before going out to dinner or they would head back to the hotel and play video games.

The scout also made an excellent point about baseball and the passing of it from generation to generation. “Our fathers loved the game so we grew up learning to love the game.’’

Baseball in America is simply not loved as a sport the way it once was by the fans – so how much of that love is being passed on these days? Also, the family unit is not as intact as it once was and maybe there is no father around to pass down that love. In general, baseball has always been a game of fathers and sons.

Baseball simply is not loved like it once was here. In the Dominican baseball is still the top sport and that love is passed along.

The ability to self-organize an event has been lost in this generation as well. Whereas we grew up with self-organizing events all summer long and after school, it’s different now.

Growing up in middle class Kenilworth, NJ, our parents knew where we were by our bikes being spread around on somebody’s lawn or lined up against the fence at the local park or basketball courts.

The past era of a player was multi-tasking every day of his athletic life from the time he was able to ride a bike.

Like Judge, another $300-million baseball man who owes a great deal of his success to work ethic (and this gets back to what I said earlier), a lot of this extra work does not have to be organized and it can come in everyday routines, as in the case of Trea Turner.

Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals runs the bases during an MLB game against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum during the 1988 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Just listen to what Turner said about how he became so fast.

“I just put emphasis whenever I was younger on running hard,’’ the shortstop explained. “Whenever we used to do sprints or anything stupid like that, doing conditioning, I would always try to win everything running-wise. I think that practice I put in, without necessarily knowing, it kind of helped me in the long run.’’

He perfected his running form and got stronger in off-season workouts throughout his career. It wasn’t just an off-season filled with cage work.

In 2021 Turner became only the fifth player in Major League history to lead in stolen bases and total bases. That year he posted 32 stolen bases and 319 total bases. He also led in hits with 195. In 2023 I expect Turner to lead baseball in stolen bases, especially with the bigger bases and the fact the pitcher can only disengage twice from the rubber per batter – and that’s why the Phillies made a perfect signing for the here and now.

Honus Wagner turned the Turner trick three times, and Ty Cobb did it five times, while Chuck Klein and Snuffy Stirnweiss each led in stolen bases and total bases once. So if Trea Turner does it one more time he will join baseball legends Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb in being the only players to have multiple seasons to lead in both stolen bases and total bases. It had not been done since Stirnweiss accomplished the feat in 1945.

Talk about an exclusive club.

Unfortunately baseball is its own worst enemy in the loss of athleticism in the game. There is too much time spent on honing specific skills like grooving the perfect swing and not enough time spent on working on fielding and base-running and other skills. It has been documented many times here that the mind-boggling disappearance of infield and outfield practice is a huge detriment to the game.

And believe me, the real baseball people in MLB organizations want their players to work on those skills – but hitting has become the overall baseball monster and front offices are blinded by the hitting light, and often don’t have a deep enough understanding of the game, despite all the numbers and phrases they spout.

That’s why at a grassroots level this has to change.

But this can’t be legislated. The athlete has to buy in on wanting to become a better all-around player and the organization has to buy in on wanting to build a better baseball player. It’s really that simple – and teams like the Texas Rangers under Ivy Leaguer Chris Young are trying to get back to basics in that department, and I suspect that is a big reason they hired Bruce Bochy as manager.

Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals flies through the air during a head first dive while attempting to steal second base during an MLB game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. Smith played for the Cardinals from 1982-1996. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

What a test this upcoming season will be for baseball with middle infielders now having to actually play middle infield. Shortstops are back to being shortstops, not a third baseman thrown into the shortstop position while the shortstop scoots over to the second base side of second.

Through the years, pitchers have been asked to do less and less because of the designated hitter; and what will the result be with the shortstops having been asked to cover a smaller amount of real estate with the heavy shifts in recent years?

Some teams have players radically changing positions, so how will that work out when the new shortstop and second base tandem has not yet played together?

These are no longer the days of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker as a “forever’’ shortstop-second base combo.

Will teams get back to that?

With McNeil signing his deal and Francisco Lindor ($341 million) having his massive deal, Buck Showalter has his shortstop-second base combo in order. The Phillies have their shortstop in Trea Turner and that is why that was such a huge signing.

As pitcher Warren Spahn said many years ago: “When I throw a ground ball, I expect it to be an out – maybe two.’’

Earl Weaver once noted: “The key step for an infielder is the first one – to the left or right, but before the ball is hit.’’

Which brings us to Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, the Wizard of Oz, who played basketball and baseball at Locke High School in East LA and for fun would push the envelope by practicing backflips into sawdust piles at a nearby lumberyard.

I always wondered how he learned to do that.

But the two-sport star turned to baseball at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo – and as we know, it worked out for the best – backflips and all.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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