Life was good. I had a big league contract all but locked up to play for my childhood favorite and hometown team in the Los Angeles Dodgers. All I had to do was sign the contract that was on its way via Fed Ex. Danny Evans was the new Dodgers GM, and since he was the White Sox assistant GM when I was there, I would be politically protected....something I thought I might need due to recovering from shoulder surgery. Was in the prime of MLB prime, wife was happy, and I was slinging steel at ducks.
My phone rings and the ducks flare. "Damn, turn that thing off bro. How hard is it?" Yelled my brother.
"Sorry dude, don't be pissed just because no one calls you and you got no friends. Besides, I'm the only one hitting anything today." I said, jaw jacking back as brothers do.
The phone rings again and it is a number I do not recognize, but since I could not resist, I answered, "Hello"?
"Who is this?" the voice on the other line said.
"What do you mean, who is this....you called me. WHO is this?" I said quickly.
"Lefty, this is Lou Piniella and...." I hung up. My brother asked who it was and I said that it was some joker with jokes. Phone rings again and I pick up. Before I could tell the "voice" off......
"Listen lefty, this is Lou and if you hang up on me one more time, I am going to shove this cigar I am puffing on up your Asian Ass!! You believe me now?"
"Oh crap, Lou, what is going on? Last time I saw you, you were pouting on the home side when I beat your squad up in Safeco." I said razzing Piniella. Mind you, Lou is one of the greatest MLB coaches of all time.
"Yeah, yeah. Anyways, I am headed to Tampa and I need your left shoulder. You carved up my line ups for years and I am embarking on a new gig. We are going to bring a World Series to Tampa and you are going to be one of the keys to that puzzle. You in?"
I still do not know why or how Lou convinced me with his sales pitch, but he did. I was leaving a lucrative Dodgers contract (that my agent labored over) for a lot less (actually about $150K less), moving my family to Tampa, and going to be playing for one of the biggest hard asses in the game.
"Yep, I am in. When do we start..."
I arrived at the Rays Spring Training Complex and walked in. They had signed a few other veteran arms and littered the line up with young guys (and some vets).
We had Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff, Rocco Baldelli, and others. Potent line up of young studs whom did not give a crap whom they were facing - just tear em' up. Defense was solid, but we were the Rays.....
Anyways, I roll in.......
"Parque, whad up bro? You finally decided it was time to stop watching that nonstop highlight reel I put on for you every time face each other?" said Huffie jokingly.
"Whatever, the only reason you came over was because you were tired of buying new helmets from breaking your old ones after I punched you out looking." I said....then we hugged and started laughing. CC (Crawford), Hambone (Hamilton), Baldelli, Steve Parrish, and others came over. Immediately, it was a unity and bond.
I could see this gruff man limping down towards me that looked like Chris Bosio, our pitching coach. He walked with a limp and sure enough, it was him.
"What up cuz....what up. Glad you could make it. Come with me. Are they serving Chinese food in the clubhouse today?" (he quipped jokingly)?
"Yep...Moo Goo Gai Pan and General Chow's Chicken. My cousins made it....." I ribbed right back.
"Good, tell them family of yours this fat old White man wants some fortune cookies that read, "Tampa Wins"". said Bosio.
Now all you PC people whom get offended quicker than the wind changes direction. There is no place in a big league clubhouse for the weak. It is an environment where only the strong survive and your skin better be like grizzled Croc leather, cause nothing is off limits - includes wives, children, physical defects, and race.
We razz to exploit mental weakness and if we find a chink in the armor....ah, yeah baby!! It's on like donkey kong and that weak spot is relentlessly pounded until the teammate stops worrying about it or cracks. If he cracks, good.....cause we have it out and grow closer. Every human being knows when things are being said to degrade or out of entertainment.
Some of the funniest people in the world are behind closed clubhouse doors. The pranks, kangaroo court, talking trash to one another, every bit of what Hollywood portrays and then some. Some people may think that there is NO place for such. That is your opinion and I have mine. It is what makes the world go round and round, round and round, round and round....get it? Good and let's move on. We got more fish to fry.....and do not read into that one now.
I do not condone whatsoever talking down to people........you know the difference. Anyways,
We walked over to the manager's office and Lou was in there. He was in all his glory - trashed hairdo that looked like he combed it with a firecracker, unshaven, looking like a battle hardened manager should look.
"Welcome Parque." is basically all he said.
That was it? Friggin' welcome? I leave LA for the perennial loser of the AL, drop $150K in salary, and decide it was in my best interest to pitch in the dump they call Tropicana Field? Really?
You see, the greatest manager I ever had was much smarter than I. I thought I would just roll in and conquer the world. Granted, he knew the value my left arm and fiercely competitive nature brought to his club, but he had bigger things planned.
Spring training commenced and we had our first meeting. If you ever get the opportunity to be a part of the first meeting of the year, it is something special, filled with everything dreams are made of, and has the seriousness that mimics the moments before a heavyweight prize fight.
The Tampa Bay line up of front office brass was present. Ownership in their Armani suits standing at attention. Coaching staff, the team, clubhouse managers, and more. To think you can take one of these for granted is to be dumber than the dude whom cannot spell his own name. Notice I stated "dude" because no woman is THAT dumb. They are a lot smarter than us men and if they ever figured it out, they could easily rule the world....wait, they do.
After the formalities, everyone leaves and it is just on field personnel. Lou is the only one that speaks.
"You guys were all hand picked. The Rays are going to change and we are going to change. This team is not about Lou Piniella, but about you. It is about bleeding, working, and living together. Look around men, this is your family for the next eight months and you'd better figure out a way to like each other. Otherwise, you ain't going to like what I will do to you."
He went on to say one of the greatest lines I have ever heard and utilize it with everything I instill into my athletes,
"Give me a team full of talent and I am going to win, but you give me a team of heart and we will win a championship."
2003, my seventh big league camp started with a bang and I felt on top of the world.
As we moved through camp, I was seeing that my role was being positioned as the #2 or #3 starter. Lou never said a word to me, just was cordial. He rarely made eye contact and when I threw my pens, he was always watching someone else.
First off, do not be mistaken what it feels like to throw a bullpen in big league camp. You know the scene - 7 million dollar arms, media everywhere like ants, explosions of the catchers' gloves, and coaching staff running around everywhere looking important. The heart and soul of any big league club is its pitching staff. You hitters may think otherwise, but you cannot score enough runs if us pitchers do not show up.
The adrenaline rush you get from throwing to a big league catcher, in all his color coded and logo decked out gear, the pop of his glove, and the frame job he provides.....oh that framing. It looks like everything you throw is a work of art. You can bounce a breaking pitch off his chin and it still looks like a strike.
One day during bullies, I grew tired of Lou watching others. I wanted his attention and to give me something.....anything. Towards the end of the 25 pitch pen, I decided it was time. I got into my leg kick, reached back and touched the other field, and blew the baseball as hard as I could. Perfection and the pop of the glove echoed loudly.
Lou turned around, paused, and walked away.
When games started, I was given the pill early on. Was having a tremendous spring training carving up everybody I faced. Off speeds were there, arm recovery was rising, and I was in great shape. Every time I finished my outing, Lou would come out and get the ball. He would just look at me with that thousand yard stare and say, "Good job lefty."
After one game after shutting out the Reds for six innings, I had had enough. I came into his office and expressed myself.
"Lou, can I talk to you?"
"Yeah, just let me get comfortable, cause I am sure you got a lot to say Lefty...."
"Lou, I have pitching good for you this Spring. I have done everything you asked and I got no clue if I am on this team or not. We are breaking camp in one week and you have announced every starter except your #3. Am I that guy? Give it to me straight cause I am looking around and feel like I am the dude for the job."
"Sit down Lefty. You are on this club. Do not ever doubt that. You are a part of what we are trying to build here. I need you to respect this club, me, and what you bring to the table. And in doing so, you are going to want it more than you have ever wanted it. I love what you do, but you do not need me jumping up and down like some half drunk cheerleader....do you?"
"Guess not Lou. Thanks, really appreciate the things you are teaching me." I said and walked out.
As I was walking out, Lou quipped, "Hey Lefty, want me to show up in a skirt tomorrow so I can make you feel good about yourself? I am done here at 8PM tonight and we can cuddle at your place (if you want). Want me to bring some warm milk over? How bout I dress you tomorrow before camp?" And he went on and on as I walked out of his office laughing.
"Whatever, just learn what a comb is and I will start taking you seriously." I said in the most respectful way I could. He laughed and told me to get "lost".
You go from hating the man to being in love with him and his jokes. So I obliged.
Ol' Lou smoked like a chimney stack and I stole his pack one day and emptied out half the tobacco of each cigarette. I filled the cigarette up with match ends and repacked the rest of the tobacco so that the cigarette still looked normal. Game was getting close and Lou had to have his smag. He grabbed on and took a hit on it. The entire cigarette lit up and almost blew his eyebrows off. He threw it down and started mumbling. I am not sure he knows to this day whom did it.
We started off the season and I was doing well, but the injury bug was nearby. I pulled my side and went on the DL. When I returned, I took a no hitter versus Detroit into the eight. Things were rolling again, but my arm was just not recovering and health became an issue. My velocity dropped and so did my numbers.......
Instead of Bosio coming out to say something to calm me down, Lou is coming my way. It was like Darth Vador ready to light saber an Ewok.
"Lefty, if you do not throw the ball down the middle and let these hitters run the score up, I am going to take you over my head and break your little body into six pieces that I will donate for research. Now throw strikes and stop screwing around."
So I did what I was supposed to do. I threw the ball down the middle and Toronto responded with a fireworks show. Scared? Naw....more like hopeless. My arm was re-injured, my numbers were not good, and I was no longer a big league pitcher.
I was a shell of my former self, a lonely soul searching for the past. It was over and the sun was setting on a stage in my life that I will look upon as simply amazing.
I can remember Piniella taking his first step onto the field to come get me. I remember the umpire slowly taking his mask off and calling time. I remember turning into the outfield and taking it all in. I knew this would be the last time I would ever pitch on a big league field for the rest of my life, and with my hat off and that bright Canadian sun shining upon my face, I knew....for that moment in time that it was time to go.
For the first time in seven seasons, I stepped off the mound and looked up to take it all in. This was my office, my world, my life. The crowd was on its feet and clapping in slow motion. I looked at the press box in all its glory and saw the reporters up there. I had never looked up in seven seasons and can remember being amazed at the grandeur of this place.
In my dreams, every night, I see that stadium and am swimming in a sea of that Toronto blue. I see the runners trotting around the field as if they were floating in an eternal dance towards home, and I see myself, small as can be, alone on a mound in the middle of darkness.
But the dream does not end in strife, as the light has shined once again upon my soul and I owe it all to these kids. They have shown me what baseball means again. They have provided a new purpose in life and have given me hope that I can achieve once again.
You see, as in the relationship that Lou and I shared, relationships are about building one another and giving each other hope. They are about giving back, making each be the best that each other can be, and are one of the best creations God has given us.
Lou taught me so much, and taught it to me without me even knowing. He taught me to live in today, so that you can fight for tomorrow. He made me believe in the game, in myself, and to trust the process. He reaffirmed that it is only I that will create opportunity, for it is me alone, the one standing on that mound, in a sea of endless opportunity........whom can create or break.
I want all my players to make it. Even if they do not, I never want them to dream the "dream of regret", be haunted by the "what if", or have to re-examine their career. I continue to forge on and help the ones whom need help and try to open the eyes of the others whom do not know that they do not know.