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Asking the questions

Years worth of columns have provided some interesting answers

By Jerry Crasnick

PHILADELPHIA–You know you’ve been writing a Baseball America column for a while when you dig through a stack in your basement to find the first one, and the issue includes a list of baseball power brokers with General Spike Eckert on the list.

OK, it hasn’t been that long, but a decade is plenty of time for the Braves to make a habit of division title celebrations, the Twins to regress from champion to contraction candidate, and the Yankees to leave a homespun Stump Merrill behind for a polished Joe Torre.

It’s enough time for Jim Bowden and Dan Duquette to graduate from boy wonders to beleaguered, for Steve Avery’s promising career to fade, for Pedro Martinez to come and Tony Gwynn to go, and for Billy the Marlin’s missing head to sit on the side of a Florida highway and magically reappear.

Hang around enough clubhouses and chat up enough folks, and you’re bound to find some compelling stories. From the 250,000 or so words that I’ve written for this publication, here are some favorites that spring to mind:

Regular guys. Jeff Huson, Jeff Manto, Rex Hudler, Rod Beck, Bryan Harvey and Mitch Williams made a lasting impression as blue-collar types who never abandoned their roots or stopped appreciating how fortunate they were to play in the big leagues. But for sheer regular guy-ness, no one topped former Braves reliever Mark Wohlers.

During the 1994 strike, Wohlers took a job checking in parts and spray-painting fenders at Kerry Collision, an Atlanta auto body shop. He arrived at 7:30 each morning, swept up the place and brewed a pot of coffee for the mechanics. He even worked the day Donald Fehr came to town to hold a union meeting.

"At first the guys were a little wary," Wohlers said. "I think they figured, ‘Here comes this baseball player. He’s going to be like a walking advertisement for the company.’ Then my second day here, they saw me jump in the dumpster and crunch down some garbage to make more room. They knew I was here to work."

Take a hike, Felix and Oscar. We can’t recall a more intriguing baseball roommate combination than former Reds Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble.

Charlton, the cerebral triple major from Rice, liked to hunt alligators at home in Texas in the offseason, then bring in the videotape so his teammates could watch. Compared to Dibble, his old minor league sidekick, he was the stable one.

"I’m from Texas and he’s from Connecticut, and we were playing in Vermont," Charlton said. "I’d say to him, Dibs, everything is screwed up here. You’ve got the wrong war heroes hanging on the wall. Sam Houston is supposed to be hanging up there."

Quotable players.

• Greg Maddux on the art of control pitching: "Let’s put it this way. If you do everything mechanically correct, it’s pretty much impossible not to throw strikes."

• John Wetteland on his affinity for the Weather Channel: "I find it a lot of fun to watch weather patterns. That, to me, is exciting. It’s interesting and educational."

• Walt Weiss on his role as the Rockies’ assistant player representative: "When I was a kid dreaming about the major leagues, I never pictured myself carrying a briefcase and learning about antitrust law."

• Kevin Mitchell on the boredom of spring training at the Reds’ old site in Plant City, Fla.: "I’ve rented so many movies down here, Blockbuster is ready to give me a gold card."

• Lee Smith, in spring training with St. Louis, discussing his offseason throwing regimen: "One day a stray dog walked through my yard, and I threw a rock at him."

• Jeff Kent, reflecting on his problems with the Mets, once referred to the New York media as "grudgemental."

Quotable managers.

• Jim Fregosi on Jim Fregosi: "A lot of managers need to be fulfilled by people saying they’re smart. I had my day in the sun as a player. The only thing I want people to say about me when I’m gone is that I was a baseball guy."

• Buck Rodgers on his knack for handling Pascual Perez, Oil Can Boyd and other reputed problem children in Montreal: "My philosophy is, you have to be a man first before you’re a ballplayer. You’re going to be a ballplayer for a short time, but you’re going to be a man the rest of your life."

Poignant tales. Avery and David Nied, former Braves whose careers unraveled too soon; Bobby Ojeda, putting the horror of Little Lake Nellie behind him and resurfacing this year as pitching coach of the Brooklyn Cyclones; Harry Wendelstedt and three fellow umpires in a somber dressing room in Montreal, trying to put John McSherry’s life in perspective just a few days after the big man died of a heart attack in Cincinnati in 1996.

Money talks. In a column in June 1998 I wrote, "Baseball’s first $100 million player will stand for a lot of things—-from fiscal insanity to the widening gap between affluent and poor clubs to the manner in which the game markets itself in the new millennium. The more bulletproof he is, the better."

I mentioned Ken Griffey 16 times while failing to make even a passing reference to Kevin Brown, who broke the nine-digit salary barrier by signing for $105 million with the Dodgers a few months later.

I also failed to characterize precisely what baseball’s first $252 million player would signify. Maybe the point is simply this: It pays to have Scott Boras as an agent.

Whether the topic is money, pennant races or prospects, life’s surprises keep all of us going. As a Baseball America cover story on Christmas Day of 1994 so pointedly asked: "The Yankees’ Ruben Rivera: The next Mickey Mantle?"

It seems kind of foolish in hindsight. But you’ll never know the answer unless you ask the question.

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