Who pushes you to get better?

Pete Rose & Joe Morgan in the clubhouse.

I recently read “The Machine” by Joe Posnanski. His book “The Soul of Baseball” which is about time he spent with the great Buck O’Neil and the many wonderful lessons he learned about the attitude and mindset of one of Baseball’s most cherished personalities and spokesmen. It was one of my favourite books of all time.

“The Machine” is about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, one of the greatest teams in history. I’ll admit now that although I’d known for a long time that the ’75 Reds were special, I had never really delved into their story. Going and studying and understanding the ’75 Reds was on my backlog of “things I should do one day”, filed under “Baseball”. When I finished “The Soul of Baseball” and found out that Posnanski had also written a book about the ’75 Reds (referred to as “The Big Red Machine”), I decided this was the best way to get to know this team.

The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping ...
Cover artwork for “The Machine” by Joe Posnanski.

Joe’s voice as an author is exactly how I like Baseball stories to be told. Reading something he’s written is as close as I’ve ever come to the feeling I got when Vin Scully used to tell stories between pitches during an important game in the late 80s early 90s.

Right in the midst of intense competition, there’s this ease to his style that slows everything down and makes you feel like you’re there. Posnanski puts you in the clubhouse with them experiencing every joke, every argument, every strikeout, every hit. I wanted to hear about this team from someone who could tell the story in this manner.

By the end of the book, I felt like I knew the ’75 Reds so much that I wanted to watch the ’75 World Series, which I’m currently doing (thanks COVID-19).

I wanted to see these guys I’d been in the (imaginary) clubhouse with.

I wanted to witness some of Sparky Anderson’s magic and watch how he used his bullpen. I wanted to see Pete Rose play ball again.

I wanted to finally be able to appreciate Johnny Bench & Tony Perez (who I suddenly realized hadn’t seen enough of).

I was also interested in seeing guys like George Foster & Ken Griffey Sr, whose stories are brought to life in the book.

I wanted to see that famous Game 6 (against the Boston Red Sox) from start to finish, now with a full appreciation of what one of those teams was going through in that game.

But out of all of the people involved, there was one guy I really wanted to see. That was Joe Morgan. I knew Joe Morgan was good, we all know that. (Hint: If you don’t know much about Joe Morgan, you should be looking him up now. This piece by Joe Posnanski, in The Athletic (paid site that offers a free 90-day trial) is a great place to start).

The Baseball 100: No. 21, Joe Morgan – The Athletic
Joe Morgan is in the Baseball 100, a series on The Athletic about the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, written by Joe Posnanski.

What I didn’t know was how much he grew as a player when he got to Cincinnati. All because he became friends with Pete Rose, who was one of the hardest working guys to ever play Baseball.

Note: Rose may have really screwed up his legacy with all of the gambling stuff (especially lying about it for years afterward) but despite what anyone ever says about Pete Rose, nobody will ever be able to deny how committed and competitive he was. And if anyone ever did try to deny that, Joe Morgan would have to be amongst the first to defend his teammate.


Imrem: Pete Rose deserves second chance -- with conditions

Because Pete Rose made Joe Morgan better. In fact, Joe Morgan is known for saying that “Pete Rose made everyone around him better.”

Pete Rose attacked the game. All the time. This rubbed off on Joe Morgan, who began to push himself harder and play with more intensity himself and who, in turn, became the Joe Morgan that won multiple MVP awards and earned a place in the Hall of Fame.

To me, this was powerful. And true to my own playing experience.

Every team has someone like Pete Rose. (No, we don’t all have a guy in our lineup that’s arguably the best hitter ever). But we all can relate to that one teammate that just attacks the game all the time. They play the game at full tilt and seem to get good results often because they do. They don’t just want to win every game, they want to win every inning. They want to win every at-bat. They bring that energy all the time.

What’s interesting about this to me is that while many ballplayers have had a teammate like that, they don’t always respond to that situation like Joe Morgan did. We don’t always see competition from within as a good thing. Some of us would rather step away from a challenge than to use it to motivate us to work harder and be better.

When you do that, I believe you miss out on one of the best parts about having teammates. Competition.

My first year in college, after it became clear that my pitching career was over, I had to compete to earn a spot in the outfield. There were several upper-classmen on the team, but it seemed to me that there was no obvious candidate for Center Field.

I wanted that job.

There was another freshman on our team that year, Patrick Linden. Linden was a Wide-Receiver on the Football team. He was strong, fast and could hit pretty well. We lined up together at every practice. Every rep he took made me realize that he was a good player and that there was a good chance I’d be on the bench when the season started. That feeling drove me to work harder and to prove to the coaches that I was as good as Linden was at everything.

Although I ended up getting the job in Center Field, Linden (a great teammate, by the way) was always lining up there. During batting practice, he’d come to CF to get reads on balls off the bat. If he wasn’t starting in Right Field or Left Field, he would often take infield/outfield in Center Field.

He pushed me. I could never relax because I knew there was another guy capable of taking my job away at any moment. When he didn’t get the job, he didn’t give up. He came out there every practice and every game trying to prove something. We encouraged each other. We liked each other. But he wanted my job and I knew the only way I could keep it was to keep working harder than he was and to hope that the coaches continued to think I was better than he was in Center Field.

I can’t think about my college playing days without thinking about that. My game would have been very different if Patrick Linden wasn’t pushing me like he was.

I’ll always be grateful to him and to the game for that lesson.

Baseball history repeats itself

A handshake between the captains of the Great Britain and USA teams before a game in a series that earned Great Britain (who won the series 4 games to 1) the title as the first World Amateur Champions

So, as a Baseball coach, I seek out an insane (if you ask my better half) amount of content on the game. Especially on coaching it. I’m fascinated by how much sharing is happening.

The fact that a guy like Jerry Weinstein or Tim Corbin would break down the details behind their success (and the players they’ve coached, who sometimes also share) over a channel that I can access FOR FREE on my phone is something I try to take advantage of a little bit every day (get 1% better every day).

And there are so many sources.

You want to understand Elite Baseball Development concepts? Check out Eric Cressey’s (who heads the training and strength/conditioning department of the NY Yankees) podcast called… wait for it… “Elite Baseball Development Podcast“? You want to hear some of the most fascinating stories about MLB players? Full Account by MLB breaks down why Mike Trout was the 25th pick overall in his draft class (and if you just read that line and don’t get why that would be an issue, you definitely need to invest 49 minutes into that story).

Of course, diving deep into Baseball content can sometimes be as dry as it sounds. (Note: I’ve only heard from other people that it sounds dry. I call it heaven… not to be confused with Iowa). Unless you’re listening to our guy Sheets.

Jeremy Sheetinger, aka “Coach Sheets” knows how to tell a story. He knows how to get others to tell their stories. Most importantly, he knows how to make those stories not only relevant – but useful and helpful to coaches all over the world.

It’s because of his podcast that I became an ABCA member for the first time this year. It’s because of his podcast that the spark for becoming the best coach I can be has gone from a little flame to a raging blaze. And it’s because of his podcast that I am constantly reminded that no matter how different all of our circumstances may be in this great game of ours, that the keys to unlocking success are the same whether you’re teaching thirty 7-year olds how to hold a Baseball or if you’re 9-innings away from a spot on the biggest stage in the world.

What’s awesome about Sheets is he gets guys to open up and share universal human insights about coaching. What’s incredible about the podcast (which he did on the ABCA’s channels before Stick&Ball TV) is that highly successful, high profile people are sharing what they do in detail… because they believe that it will help everyone.

When I can get the guy whose team lead the NCAA in stolen bases to tell me exactly how he built that mentality, what drills he uses and how it has changed over the years I’m growing as a coach. If I can get that same guy to tell that story to the whole world, I’m growing the whole game. That’s what Sheets does. He’s a legend.

10 episodes into “Dugout Chatter” (on Stick & Ball TV) and the featured interview is our Liam Carroll (Field Manager of Great Britain Baseball and the face of the National Teams programme for years).

So first of all, worlds colliding. Halfway through my coaching career in Great Britain, I bought a fungo from Liam. We had a chat at a merchandise booth they had going at the UK Little League Championship and I found someone I could really talk to. He’s come to one of my youth practices and taught timing to 9 and 10 year-olds (using a drill I stole and bring out every time I talk hitting with youngsters). He sent me a text after my club team (The London Mets) lost to RusStar in Moscow last year, ending our hopes of making it to the final of the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier that lifted me up (when I was really down) and reminded me what the game’s all about. We’ve spent many afternoons and evenings sipping on a nice cool soda (or two) in a pub talking about how to grow the game in the UK. He’s also shared a dugout with guys like Trevor Hoffman and counts people like Brad Marcelino as family.

And now, alongside Britain’s biggest Baseball fan, Joey Mellows (aka BaseballBrit on Twitter) he is talking to Sheets about what it’s like to “grow the game in an entire country”. Mind blown. I never thought of it in that way. Like wow. There are even lessons to be learned from our little corner of the Baseball world. (Note to Sheets: it’s actually 4 countries… sorry Scotland, Ireland and Wales… there’ll be a bunch of Scottish Baseball players who will appreciate that you know this, pal).

You should listen to the whole episode because what I’m about to say is about 1/10th of the audio gold streaming into your earbuds.

But the one thing that Liam said that I kept coming back to was about history repeating itself in British Baseball.

We’re currently in a world where so many people are ‘breaking away’ and doing their own thing. People in different regions all over the country have found things that they want to have done differently where they live and, in order to achieve that, they have broken away and created their own leagues.

Trust me. Everyone has their reasons. I know that. I’ve had conversations, at length with many of the very people who have been the leaders of these new leagues. I’ve talked at length with players about it. There are some very good reasons why people have chosen to break away. If I look at what the guys in Hull, Birmingham, Northampton, Manchester or Nottingham need, they can be very different to what the London Mets or Herts Falcons need. And in many ways, it seems easier to be in a situation where the league I manage in is separate to the league that coaches in Edinburgh or Dublin are managing in. Until you consider it from a historical perspective.

When you look at it over a longer period of time, you see something different. We’ve been here before. Britain has had Baseball for a lot of years and over those years, more than once, there has been a movement to break it up into a bunch of smaller, regional communities who feel it’s best to build something that’s best for them – which has then ultimately not worked out. And then that period of breaking everything up is followed by all the work it takes to build it back up into a unified thing, only to be split apart again.

I want us to learn from that.

And if you stretch back even further on this issue, you’ll see that it’s not even unique to Great Britain. One of the defining moments in Baseball in the US was the realization that there were too many different professional leagues springing up all over the country. Each with its own different variations on the rules, its own culture and ultimately its own style of play.

This was caused by a “schism that developed between professional and amateur Baseball players”… and (spoiler alert) ended with the realization that it was hurting the game when everyone had their own version of it.

That story (which began in the 1870s) is what led to the formation of Major League Baseball. Among the issues that caused the split were:

  • Some clubs were forfeiting scheduled games once they were out of the running for the Championship.
  • One league featured clubs from major cities, which everyone felt gave them an advantage because they could attract better players and had more resources for them.
  • Some leagues were considered “Minor”, which they didn’t like.

Sound familiar?

If you don’t know this story, watch “Baseball” by Ken Burns. Or Google it. The point is that Baseball’s been down this road before.

The lesson is that it’s not that having different ideas isn’t important. It is.

Or that we don’t need to find ways to account for the different challenges that people might face, based on where they live or how much money their club has. We do.

The lesson is that we should be trying to do that together, not through 10 different leagues and 3 different people trying to prove their way was the best way.

Liam mentioned (in episode #10 of the biggest baseball podcast in the world) that there has never been a better opportunity for British Baseball. We have MLB coming to the UK again this year. We have our National Team playing in the World Baseball Classic, one of the biggest Baseball stages in the world. The UK is part of Major League Baseball’s calendar again this year. We have a new programme sponsored by MLB going into schools. We have a chance to compete for a European U-15 Championship and European U-12 Championship.

There will never again be another opportunity to grow the game and to inspire the next generation of players that will be bigger than the one we face now.

We all play, coach, watch and love the best team sport there is. You literally can’t win a Baseball game without people with different perspectives and skillsets working together. (The game will teach you everything you need to know).

What can we do to be more of a team and make more of the chances we have in front of us?

That’s the lesson I took from Liam, and Joey, and Sheets.

What’s next, British Baseball?

The Lesson I Learned in Moscow

a.k.a. the story of Roy the umpire

Post from Drew Spencer about Roy van de Wateringen, an umpire who changed my approach to the game of Baseball.

This is a piece that I wrote in June of 2019 after returning from Moscow where the London Mets were competing in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier. When I wrote it, I did so knowing that I was going to start a blog on mindset one day. So now this story finally has a place to live.

Sports competitions bring up emotion in all of us. This week I have had the privilege of coaching a team of young men as they competed in the CEB Federations Cup Qualifier, an important European club baseball tournament in Moscow, Russia.

The hosts (RusStar) put on an amazing tournament at RusStar Arena, the best Baseball facility I’ve been to in a very long time. We brought a very good team. We left London with a lot of confidence. We spent the last year preparing for this week. You could feel the determination in each and every player from the minute we got on the plane.

The first 2 games didn’t go our way. We didn’t make some plays we’d normally make back home. We didn’t hit like we’re used to hitting. The scores were much closer than we were used to. All great things to learn from.

But the lesson of this tournament was something else.

RusStar Arena, the beautiful new home of the Russian National Baseball team, has a big screen in left-center field. They had replays going all tournament. So when a couple of calls didn’t go our way, we got to see it again on the big screen. Being able to see it again up on the screen was new for us, and quickly became more of a reason to chirp at the umpires about calls we were unhappy with.

Photo of RusStar Arena taken by Drew Spencer
RusStar Arena, June 2019. Photo by Drew Spencer

One umpire, in particular, had an issue with it. His name is Roy. Roy was part of the umpiring crew when we played in this same tournament last year in Bulgaria. He was friendly to everyone but also took his job very seriously. Because my team was a bit mouthy last year too, Roy and I got to know each other a little bit. He remembered me and said hello at the Technical Meeting in Moscow. We shook hands at the start of the tournament, remembering last year and exchanged the usual pleasantries between coaches and umpires before the games get played.

Those pleasantries came to an abrupt end when, during the second game, I yelled at an umpire after a call didn’t go our way. As I walked back to our dugout, the replay went up. And I felt it showed something different from what he had called on the field. I let him know how I felt about that. 

When I walked back to the 3rd base box the next inning, Roy said something like “We aren’t going to play this game up on a replay screen. we are going to play it on the field.” He said it in that way that any Baseball person knows actually meant, “say it again and you’ll be watching the rest of this game from someplace else”.

As a coach, that can be a tricky moment. Sometimes you have to speak up on your players’ behalf. I’ve seen first-hand how players can get when they think their Manager won’t defend them. That can cause a dugout to break down, sometimes not just for that game. It can impact a team for weeks, if not an entire season. So, as I have been developing as a Manager, I’ve become more and more vocal with umpires. Trying my best to balance that fine line between keeping them honest and keeping my team from getting out of control.

Roy and I talked after that game. I had also made a comment about another replay. When we talked, I thanked him for allowing me a bit of leeway. He said, “Baseball is an emotional game.” He showed me that he understood that, but also warned me against letting emotion get the better of me in those moments.

I thought I knew what he meant.

See, in British Baseball players (and coaches) constantly complain about the umpires. It’s always their fault. I hear people moan about “how bad they are” all the time. I’ve definitely been guilty of it myself.

When we travel abroad, I often hear people say “the umpires hate British teams”. We all say it, we all think it. And when we don’t get the close calls, it confirms what we believe… which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I voiced my opinion about the replay on the call in game 2, Roy gave me the silent treatment for the rest of the game. We lost that game. And as if on cue, when we didn’t get a close call, we all told ourselves it was because they were against us. I didn’t take that loss very well. I spent the whole night tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to change in game 3.

I shaved (we’d gone with team mustaches, which now didn’t make sense when you’re 0-2). We changed our lineup around a bit. We tried to loosen the team up with different warmup music. All the things competitors do to change the energy in the clubhouse.

I also decided to just keep my mouth shut all-game. Sure, a couple of times I winced when a ball got called a strike, or vice-versa. I’m only human. But when close calls didn’t go our way, I kept quiet. 

Maybe too quiet.

We were behind all game. The team from Poland jumped ahead early and our energy seemed flat for a lot of the game. In the 8th inning, we mounted a comeback. To try to give my team some energy, I got really animated in the coaching box. I was shouting, but making sure to only be shouting to my own players. I was giving them everything I could. So was our dugout, we were really focussed on us and what we could do to compete in that moment.

And, hey guess what? We came from behind, scoring 6 runs in the top of the 9th inning, got 3 outs in the bottom and notched our first win of the tournament.

After the game, Roy said to me. “You finally stopped focussing on the umpires and started coaching.” He was right.

In Game 4, we played the hosts. For us, it was win or go home. We were naturally pumped up. And in the first couple of innings, a couple of close calls didn’t go our way. The team started chirping. Roy called over to me at one point and said: “make them stop, Andrew” (he used my full name like my Grandma used to do when I was in trouble). I had noticed them chirping too, so when I went into the dugout after the inning, I made it clear to the team that we needed to stop.

The best part of this, and where the lesson comes from is that once we stopped focussing on the calls we weren’t getting, we became the team I’m used to. We made great pitches. We made great plays on defense. We got timely hits. We picked each other up. Everyone was focussed on competing and we played in one of the most exciting games we’ve all been part of, which sadly we lost.

After that game, Roy’s words really stood in my head. In an effort to show my guys that I had their back, I had stopped coaching them.

This story isn’t really about Roy. He is just the messenger here. The message is that it’s time that we focus on competing. It’s time to be all about controlling the things we can control, not the things we can’t. We have to put all of our energy into the next pitch, not the last call.

I wonder how our tournament would have gone if we had that mentality starting in game 1, not the 3rd inning of game 4? I wonder how many other British Baseball teams and individuals might have benefitted from this mindset?

It’s not rocket science, it’s not even new.

But if you watched the London Mets play against RusStar and enjoyed that valiant pitching performance by Lucas Friss, the clutch at-bats by Jonathon Cramman, Jordan Edmonds and Zach Stroman, the great defensive effort from Brendan Power and most importantly the energy coming from our whole dugout, which kept us in that game until the final pitch, I’m telling you that the difference was that we were focussed on attacking the next pitch instead of complaining about the last call.

I will forever be a different manager because of this tournament.

Roy also defended his team (the umpires) but didn’t stop there. He also used this tournament to try to make the game better, by helping me get better.

I’m passing on this story in hopes that it helps more than just the 18 guys in our dugout that night.

We all need to be better at this.

This is a big part of how we get better and get to the next level.

See it and feel it!

Pitching for the Jewel City All-Stars in Glendale, 1987

I grew up in Glendale, California and played Little League in the Jewel City League and then in the city’s Babe Ruth league.

Like many Little Leaguers, my mom was in the stands cheering for me. And, like many Little Leaguers, I sometimes felt embarrassed by it. Don’t get me wrong, it meant a lot to me that my parents showed up and took an interest in my interests. It’s just that when you’re standing on the mound at 12 years old (and imagining that you’re the left-handed Dwight Gooden), you don’t want your mom to draw attention to the fact that you’re just a kid and you’re playing against the Knights of Columbus, not against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

You also don’t want anyone thinking you need your mom there shouting stuff at you in order for you to be good.

I was a good pitcher in those days. I wanted all the credit for it. I once struck out 16 batters in a 6 inning Little League game. After the game, the home plate umpire told my coach to make sure we submitted the box score to the Little League office – as he was sure I had just tied (or possibly broken) a record.

It definitely didn’t have anything to do with my Mom.

Thing is, it did.

As I’ve gotten more and more into coaching, my Mom’s words keep coming back to haunt me.

First, it happened when my son was on the mound in a game of his own, and suddenly I had that moment that so many parents have where I opened my mouth to say something only to realize (before the words left my mouth) that “oh my god, I’m becoming my parents”.

Thankfully by now, I realized the power of what my Mom used to shout out to me:

“See it and feel it.”

My mom used to talk to me about visualizing the pitch I was going to make before I made it. She would tell me to imagine what it felt like to throw that strike. We would talk about this at home. We’d talk about it in the car. As long as she wasn’t shouting those words out loud when I was on the mound, I loved it. It was my secret weapon.

So when my son started pitching, I would talk to him about “seeing and feeling it”.

And as he developed as a player, my coaching career evolved and my love of the game was reignited. I started seeking out coaching advice, drills, philosophies, strategies and just about anything else I could find to give my players an advantage.

Of course, once you start looking around, you find all kinds of talk about the “Mental Game” of Baseball.

I saw Brian Cain speak. He talks about “everything happens twice (first in your mind and then on the field)”.

I read content by Alan Jaeger.

I listened to ABCA podcasts by Jeremy Sheetinger (aka “Sheets”).

I’ve even started using a meditation that I learned on a Stick&Ball TV podcast at practices.

Turns out that my mom isn’t the only one that gets that the mind is a powerful part of the game.

Now I feel bad for all the times that I wished my mom would shut up when I was striking people out in the 80s.

And I smile inside thinking that every one of them is probably thinking “shut up!” when I shout it from the dugout.