Two of my favorite programs on Fox Prime Ticket over the past several years have been their extremely popular “Before the Bigs” and “In My Own Words” series that highlight current and former Dodger players before they made it to the Big show. To see and learn about guys like Andre Ethier, James Loney, Rafael Furcal, Brad Penny, Juan Pierre, Randy Wolfe, Luis Gonzalez, Jeff Kent and others when they were kids is simply incredible and very entertaining.
When watching and enjoying these programs I noticed that every one of these guys had something in common – they all started playing baseball at a very young age and each of them had at least one person (usually more) encouraging them and even pushing them along the way. In other words, baseball was pretty much the entire focus of their young lives as early as five years old and in some cases even earlier.
I vividly recall the show featuring young Andre Ethier who, in spite of coming from a divorced family, received the love and support from both parents. When Andre was four years old, his mother Penny became his Little League coach with his father Byron being his biggest fan and the home video cameraman. The rest, as they say, is history.
Another show that was among my favorites in the series was that of young Rafael Furcal living in extreme poverty in the Dominican Republic and his struggles to be accepted by other kids because of his small size. Furcal did not let what others perceived as a handicap deter his passion for the game or his desire to “get off the island,” as thousands of young Dominican kids with dreams of becoming future major leaguers describe it. With Raffy, it was his grandfather and uncle who helped motivate him, along with the love and support from his mother and brother.
As a youngster, I too was involved in Little League, but unlike the kids who went on to become major leaguers, I was deficient in one small area – talent. As my good friend and Dodgers team historian Mark Langill once put it, “I knew everything about baseball except how to hit one.”
I also have a son who participated in Little League when he was a youngster, but unfortunately my work schedule would not allow for me to give him the support and dedication that is essential for kids to be successful through the various stages of youth baseball and through high school and college baseball. I do recall, however, trying to get my son to throw with his left hand with dreams of him becoming the next Sandy Koufax, but he would simply put the ball in his right hand and throw it back to me. Oh well.
Being realistic, the odds of a kid making it from T-ball, through Little League, through high school baseball, through college baseball, through the minor leagues and into Major League Baseball are, at the very least, insanely astronomical – literally millions to one. When you consider how many millions of kids around the world play organized baseball and even millions more playing unorganized baseball (such as over the line, three flies out, stick ball sandlot baseball, etc.), and then you realize that there are exactly 750 major league baseball players, it is absolutely mind boggling. (Perhaps this is something to consider the next time you want to argue or complain about how much money these guys make, or why the MLB minimum salary will soon be $500,000).
Yet in spite of seemingly impossible odds, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that warms the heart more than seeing youngsters playing the game of baseball of any type; because you just never know which once of them may become one of those 750 major leaguers or the next Matt Kemp or Clayton Kershaw… or even the next Babe Ruth.