Who pushes you to get better?

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.

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