Growing up, baseball was always my favorite sport. In fact, baseball took precedence over everything for me. I lived an hour’s drive away from Oakland and was a die hard A’s fan. If there was a game on, I wanted to watch it. If it was bed time, I would find a way to listen to the game on the radio in my room. I lived and breathed baseball so much, that my father told me more than once “if you just put in half the effort to your school work, you would be doing much better in school.”
Don’t look now pops, but baseball is paying off for me!
I have wanted to be a baseball writer since the 8th grade. I knew if I worked hard enough, I would someday get an opportunity, but I never imagined it would come so quick.
A year ago next month I took a new job. After four years in Jacksonville, Illinois, I took over sports here at the Hannibal Courier-Post. Its a one man job. I write the stories as well as layout and design the pages. It keeps me busy, but I love it. At the time I accepted the job I had no grand illusions of covering Major League Baseball, but shortly after I started, my editor helped me to get approved to cover the St. Louis Cardinals on the weekends and select weekday games.
When opening day came around and I was in an MLB press box for the first time, it was a great feeling. I didn’t think anything could ever top it. Then, in June the Cardinals had a road trip scheduled to Oakland. I took some “vacation” days and flew home to visit my family, but at the same time, I scheduled myself to cover the Cardinals in Oakland at the Athletics.
What a thrill it was to go up into the press box at the Oakland Coliseum. I have many memories of that stadium. I grew up in it. I used to cut school to catch afternoon games. I asked my wife to marry me there (and yes, of course I did it on the scoreboard). My oldest boy’s first MLB game came there (at 5 days old). My youngest son, who was born here in Hannibal, also attended his first game there (at 5 months and 10 days). Walking up into that press box immediately became one of my greatest memories at the Oakland Coliseum.
For as long as I have followed baseball, I have watched Mark McGwire play. I saw his career begin as the Rookie of the Year in 1987 in the green and gold of Oakland as a youth. I then followed him to the midwest where he broke the single season home run record while wearing the birds on the bat of the Cardinals in my late teens. However, by my early 20’s, McGwire was gone from the game. In 2010, he came back to St. Louis after a eight-year hiatus to teach hitting and as he told me Monday, he hopes to do it until the day he dies.
I am not afraid to admit that growing up McGwire was my favorite player. I still have hundreds of baseball cards and newspaper clippings of him. I was even lucky enough to catch a McGwire home run ball. McGwire hit two bombs that night and it happened on the same night his teammate, Geronimo Berroa, hit three out. After the game, McGwire signed that ball for me.
Then, Monday night, August 5, something happened and I got a new memory. I saw McGwire wearing a different number and a different color.
Instead of his traditional uniform no. 25 that he had worn since 1987, McGwire is now wearing no. 12. He had long given up the green and gold but now seeing him in a color other than Cardinal Red, just looks strange. His new color is Dodger Blue.
The shaggy mullet from his days in the bay is gone and his red goatee has turned white, but there is no mistaking him. He looks the same to me. Even with the PEDs admittance, he still is and will always be my favorite baseball player.
So, knowing he was returning to St. Louis for the first time with his new team, I did what any reporter would do, I got clearance to cover the game with the goal of talking baseball with a St. Louis icon.
At first my attempts were unsuccessful. The Dodgers clubhouse PR guy said McGwire would not talk in the clubhouse, but if we (reporters) caught him on the field, he said he would talk. With that, I made my way down to the field for batting practice. As I saw McGwire come out of the dugout, I asked if he had time for an interview about returning to St. Louis. His response was not what I hoped for.
“I am sure I will talk to you guys as a group later,” McGwire said.
So, I waited, with all the other reporters down on the field. Some gave up and left, but a majority stayed. And it paid off. When batting practice for the Dodgers ended, McGwire walked off the field and told the herd of reporters to head to the dugout. But before he made it to the dugout, McGwire grabbed a pen out of his pocket, signed two baseballs and randomly tossed them into the stands at Busch Stadium.
In my opinion, that was way cool.
The Dodgers’ hitting coach perched himself on the dugout bench as the media, print, television, and radio all formed a half circle around him. I was lucky. I was in the front of the herd, so I was right in front of McGwire to his right side. If I had chosen to, I could have sat on the dugout bench next to him like the reporter to his left did, but I stood.
For 15 minutes McGwire spoke. He answered questions from all the reporters, including myself. McGwire didn’t seam fond of talking about steroids, but with what happened earlier in the day, it was a hot topic in baseball. However, my questions were different. I asked him about how tough it was to leave St. Louis and how hard it is to be a hitting coach. I wanted to know if he ever thought about the Hall of Fame and what he thought about working with Don Mattingly. McGwire gave me great answers to everything I asked.
And then it was done. The press thanked McGwire for his time and he shook hands with several of the reporters, myself included, before heading back into the Dodgers clubhouse.
What a day. I not only got to actually meet my youth baseball hero, but I got the chance to be a part of an interview with him and ask several questions. When I told my wife and parents and then shared the story with them, they were all excited for me and knew what it meant to me to be able to do that.
I tell everyone I have the greatest job there is. I get paid to watch sports and write about them. What could be better than that for a sports junkie? And with all the new and exciting memories I have created this year, it just keeps getting better.
Oh, and Pops, I think baseball is paying off for me, don’t you?