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Mudville: June 23, 2024 6:45 pm PDT

Grateful Life

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Bill Walton was basketball, but he once perfectly defined baseball, when it was still baseball.

And this was only back in 2019, a short five years ago.

One of the many joys of my writing career was getting to spend time with Bill Walton in his NBA days with the Celtics and then later as a basketball analyst. By then I had spent 10 years in San Diego and Walton loved to talk about his hometown and his home near Balboa Park. He was San Diego’s greatest ambassador.

Just as Walton shared the basketball, he loved to share his stories and thoughts, always with that huge smile. I will tell you one such story later that he told me about a “lucky penny’’ and how he loved to tell that story.

It is really not fair to pigeon-hole Bill Walton as a basketball analyst.

Bill Walton was much more than that. Bill Walton was a life analyst, sun and shower and even sometimes a box of rain.

He was someone who lived life to the fullest, witness his obsession with the Grateful Dead, and with his passing on Monday at the age of 71 on Memorial Day, the tributes have been pouring in for Walton. So have the videos. And since BallNine is a baseball website let’s cut right to the chase, the night in Anaheim in 2019 when Big Bill joined the great Jason Benetti, two broadcasters just having fun and enjoying the moment.

Bill Walton attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)

Isn’t that what broadcasting baseball should be all about? Bill was doing his first baseball game and the enthusiasm poured forth.

“This is your first ever baseball game, doing this job, right,’’ Benetti asked.

“This is a job,’’ Walton countered before saying this about the game of baseball.

“I understand that it starts and then you play but that the offense can’t touch the ball and that the defense goes first. And that there are no time limits. And you just go until somebody says, ‘It’s over!’ Sounds very much like a Dead Show.’’

I would put those Walton spur of the moment words up there with the Field of Dreams speech by James Earl Jones. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball … This field, this game is a part of our past, Ray, it reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.’’

Bill Walton in his first try nailed the essence of baseball.

Again, this was 2019. The game has changed so much since then and not for the better.

This was a year before Rob Manfred instituted the fake runner, changing the game. For the first time ever in the history of baseball a player was awarded second base in extra innings for doing nothing, for actually making the last out in the previous inning.

Now there are multiple time limits too.

The pitcher and the batter are on the clock. The game that never had a clock has clocks all over the ballparks thanks to the speed-up rules instituted by Manfred and his minions. Manfred snuck in the fake runner using Covid as an excuse. The fake runner remains a part of the game in 2024.

That day, Bill Walton was bubbly in his enthusiasm for life and baseball.

And isn’t it more interesting when an “analyst’’ talks about life and not just the percentage of sweepers a pitcher throws? That has always been the job of baseball broadcasting, weaving life stories among the fastballs.

Another great thing about Bill & Benetti, both don’t mind talking about breaking balls, and I’m not talking about what the pitcher is throwing. The ability to laugh at yourself is a skill and on this August 16th, 2019 in Anaheim as they opened the broadcast of the White Sox and Angels, the two were in perfect form.

Walton described the game of baseball perfectly. It was beautiful. Yes, he was a basketball guy but he grew up in La Mesa, nine miles east from downtown San Diego.

“Baseball was big in La Mesa, so much so that the Coat of Arms back then had baseball bats in it because they won the Little League World Series,’’ former major league pitching coach Mark Wiley told BallNine on Tuesday.

La Mesa was in the 1957 Little League World Series championship game, losing to Monterrey. Mexico but in 1961 the El Cajon-La Mesa Northern Little League All-Star team won the LL World Series. Brian Sipe, who went on to star as an NFL quarterback, was the only 11-year-old on that team. San Diego’s own Ted Williams made a guest appearance at that World Series and gave the players baseball gloves. What a special time.

Baseball was a hot commodity in La Mesa back in the day of Bill Walton attending Helix High School. Wiley grew up near the Waltons. He was four years older than Bill. “When we were over his house, and we used to play basketball, we used to call him Stick,’’ Wiley said of Walton, who grew to be 6-11. “Because he was so skinny.’’

Wiley went on to pitch at Cal Poly.

UCLA coach John Wooden talks to Bill Walton #32 during game vs Florida State, Los Angeles, CA 3/25/1972 (Photo by Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

“I’ll never forget, we were going up to play Santa Clara in baseball and they had a good basketball team at the time,’’ Wiley said. “It was the year before Bill was going to have to make a decision on what college he was going to go to and a friend of mine took me in to see the basketball coach (Dick Garibaldi) at Santa Clara and said, ‘Hey Mark is from Helix High School.’ ‘’

“The coach asked, ‘Have you ever seen Bill Walton play?’’

“You mean Stick,’’ Wiley answered.

“The coach laughed,’’ Wiley recalled, “and then he said something I will never forget. ‘You know, he might be the greatest basketball player to ever play high school basketball. We recruited him but he is going to go to UCLA. He is unbelievable.’ ’’

Walton led Helix High to a perfect 33-0 season his senior year, averaging 29 points and 25 rebounds. Helix went 5-0 as well in the prestigious Covina Tournament. The coach nailed it. Denny Crum was an assistant coach with the Bruins and told John Wooden the same thing after watching Walton play.

In his freshman year at UCLA, when freshmen were not allowed to play varsity, Walton led the UCLA freshman team to a 20-0 record. The next two years he led the Bruins to 30-0 seasons. Four years of never losing a game. He passed the basketball like a point guard and made blocks, keeping the ball in play and starting the fast break.

Walton found so much success at UCLA – and here is where the lucky penny story comes into play. I really got to know Bill when I covered the 1986 Celtics run to the championship. That was Walton’s second NBA title. He was the centerpiece of the Portland championship team in 1977.

Everywhere you went in that Celtics locker room you ran into basketball genius, Walton, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Rick Carlisle, Danny Ainge; and Walton loved every minute of it being named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year winner, and as a writer, I loved every minute too because you were getting such great and fearless comments from a championship team. After a career of foot injuries, Bill managed to stay healthy that season.

After that, through the years, our paths would cross at different basketball arenas, and one day Walton and I were just talking in an empty arena when he told me about Coach Wooden’s superstition. At the age of 28 Walton had overcome a speech impediment and as a result, he made up for lost time, telling wonderful stories.

Perhaps that lesson of the “good luck penny’’ was the genesis of Bill Walton’s constant refrain, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’’

About that penny.

Coach Wooden was a master motivator and before the start of every season he would give a speech about what was expected of the team, the great heights that could be attained by the UCLA Bruins. He would end the speech by saying “What’s that over there,’’ and then finding a lucky penny under the bench and that would lead to a comment along the lines, “This is going to be our year.’’

It was the same speech year after year.

In his senior season, unbeknownst to Wooden, Bill Walton, a 6-11 ball-buster, went into action.

“I took the penny,’’ he told me with a mischievous laugh.

That was Bill Walton.

Turns out, too, after winning NCAA titles the two previous seasons, the Bruins were knocked out on the national semifinals by N.C. State and David Thompson.

Perhaps that lesson of the “good luck penny’’ was the genesis of Bill Walton’s constant refrain, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’’

About a week after broadcasting the Angels-White Sox game in August of 2019, Bill found himself at a Padres game at beautiful Petco Park and was bubbling over with excitement because before the game, a band he was associated with played at Petco. He was interviewed by Annie Heilbrunn and I maintain this is one of the greatest in-game baseball interviews of all time, with the Padres leading the Rockies, 3-1 in the third inning.

“I’m having the time of my life here Annie with the Electric Waste Band, a band of 27 years, a band that plays every Monday night at Winston’s in OB,’’ Walton shouted at the start of the interview. EWB celebrates the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

OB, by the way, is Ocean Beach – a classic SoCal beach community in San Diego. Back in the day I spent one of my first nights in San Diego in 1988 drinking with a not to be named Chargers offensive linemen.

Note to self, never try to out-drink NFL offensive linemen, but that is a story for another day.

Bill Walton showing off his percussion skills with The Electric Waste Band. (Photo by Dave Stotts via Facebook)

Bill continued on in his soliloquy with Annie.

“I’m very lucky. I started as a fan. Then I became a roadie and now I’ve elbowed my way in between the two drummers, Danny Campbell and Ed Fletcher and we put on a show of the triple millennium tonight. Today was the greatest day of my life: San Diego, Petco Park, look at this crowd here. The Padres are killing the Rockies. Not only did we play for over two hours straight, rocking Bob Harvey, Mark Fisher, Rob Rosencranz, the crazy savage DC on the keyboards here, we were just on fire, the crowd was still over the top incredible, we played beautiful music all afternoon and then we came and I got throw out the first pitch … I whiffed on the first one, I was never so embarrassed in my life. I was good in warmups but then I lost it and I was a little stiff waiting for the Anthem and everything, but then my second chance I got it over the plate and then I got to see Bud Black, the manager of the Rockies, a great friend for ages, then little Andy Green who is younger than our children are and it was just fantastic and now we are in Suite One here and we’re on Fox Television what more could you ask for, the Padres are playing fantastic, everybody is having the time of our lives and you should see all the food here, and I’m told, it hasn’t been verified yet, we have our crack research team on it, but I’m told the Padres have sold more beer today with our event than any event in the history of Petco Park. We are very proud. I got a new shirt, a little wet, a little sticky, we’ve been going, we’ve been jamming all day, just having so much fun today.’’

Annie then got a few words, asking, “Bill is there anything you don’t do, you play music is … anything you don’t do?’’

“I don’t do anything well,’’ Bill answered bluntly. “I don’t know anything about anything and I constantly mistake activity for achievement but I try and I’m super lucky. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be born in San Diego to have the parents I had. I have my wife, our children, our grandchildren and then all the teams that I’m on. I was on some of the greatest basketball teams ever, been part of the Grateful Dead for 52 years and now I am part of the Electric Waste Band and we are on an inner-galactic tour right now, and we’re just playing on fire … You keep elbowing me, man what’s the deal. In our sport you elbow like that I’m coming right back.’’

“You sing too?’’

“Actually today, they turned my mic on for the first time and I’m a really good singer. But mostly they just keep the mic off. Our sound crew today was over the top … Annie, today my dreams came true. I mean to come down here to Petco Park, Ron Fowler, Peter Seidler, the marketing team: Wayne, Rocky, Emma … the shirts, the crowd, the children playing baseball in the park out there. Running around, they had that one guy out there trying to keep it all organized. He had no chance, and then we looked around and all the balconies, the balconies were full of people dancing and we’re the kind of band that we feed off our crowd and our crowd brought it today. We have the greatest crowd in the world. We have the greatest musicians. We’re rocking. We are the Electric Waste Band. We are at Petco Park, the park in the park. And how about all the food here.’’

“You want to send it back,’’ Annie said, trying to get back to the game and the broadcasters.

“Don, Mud, Sweeney how are you guys doing?’’ Walton said, sending it back. “You missed it today. My gosh you should have seen it. Everybody dancing. Everybody rocking. We’re coming back next year. They’re in serious negotiations right now. The lawyers are fighting it all out. But we’re coming to play.’’

Bill Walton always came to play no matter the game, the concert, the joys of life.

Godspeed Bill.

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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