Of Books and Big League Dreams: The Education of Greg Brady

Don Drysdale gave Greg Brady a couple pointers about pitching.

Don Drysdale gave Greg Brady a couple pointers about pitching.

The scene: Greg Brady, eldest of the Brady siblings and, until today, a top pitcher for the Tigers of the local youth league, is slumped on his bunk bed, shoulders drooped and eyes glazed. His green-and-white jersey, once a herald of the big league jerseys in his future — jerseys with “Brady” emblazoned across the back! — is smudged with dirt, suggestive of the possibility that a blistered line drive compelled him to dive for cover, while his face, until recently the portrait of unquestioned self-belief, is freighted with funereal despair.

His dad, Mike Brady, leans against the bunk and says gently, “About the game today…”

In anguish, the boy mutters, “Who cares about a stupid old game?”

“C’mon,” his dad replies, “next time you’ll mow ’em down!”

Breaking into tears, Greg shakes his head and snarls, “There won’t be any next time.”

This is the moment, familiar to anyone who has watched this cautionary episode of The Brady Bunch, when the weighty load of reality comes crashing into the dream space of a young kid’s life. This is the moment — look back, reader, and you might remember yours — when Greg confronts the bleak probability that, contrary to his plan of quitting school in favor of the fabulous life of the bonus baby, he will not become a big league ballplayer.

Today, friends, we are all Greg Brady.

Indeed, at one time or another, be it in the cartoon stages of development or in the masculine phases of organized ball, we are confronted with the utterly convincing likelihood that major league baseball is in our future only insofar as we can afford to attend a game, or, if we can’t, only insofar as we are prepared to write about it. In the spirit of that grim realization, I asked nine baseball writers to expound upon their own epiphanies: When, and how, did you realize that you weren’t going to cash checks from a major league team?

A pioneer of the experience, Greg Brady rode the high of a pep talk from Dodgers great Don Drysdale — ”I’m gonna start right at the top,” the boy later proclaimed, “none of that minor league stuff for me!” — to the low of 12 runs allowed in the first inning of his afternoon start, a performance that prompted his brother, a wickedly grinning Peter, to joyfully announce to his mom and Alice in the family kitchen, “They clobbered him.”

The clobbering served as a sobering omen, of course, but also as a helpful summons — long before it became a multigenerational meme — to stay in school. Greg Brady would go on to graduate, we have to assume, and so, in our time, would we. Today, like anyone who mans the landscape of crumbled boyhood dreams, we as fans and writers are obliged to a secondary presence in the game we once played — a presence supported, at least in part, by the scholastic effort that replaced our on-field washout. In search of math to explain performance, we mine the player pages from whose spaces we are factually absent. In a quest for narrative amid the mysteries of pitches and swings, we attach scholarly words and deep-thought meaning to feats we weren’t made to perform. This is our game today.

Craig Calcaterra

“I remember that Greg Brady/Don Drysdale episode well. I even wrote way too many words about it once, focusing on the fact that Greg was really a moron prone to suggestion and flights of fancy and that his failure to appreciate the consequences of his actions probably meant that things were going to turn out badly for him. One part I forgot: Greg thought he’d be a bonus baby! Even though those really didn’t exist anymore by 1970 or whenever that episode was filmed, as the draft had already been established for a few years, rendering the concept defunct. Dumb old Greg.

“Anyway, I was never under any illusions that I could make the majors. I was shocked I was still playing sort of regularly in Babe Ruth ball when I was 14 or whatever. I was slow. I was not agile. My baseball IQ was really high but my physical ‘gifts’ and instincts just couldn’t come close to keeping up. If I had stuck it out past sophomore year I would’ve been the guy who holds the clipboard and helps the coach. I probably should’ve been that already instead of part-time catcher, part-time left fielder and full-time offensive liability.

“Worth noting, however, is that my inability to excel in baseball never caused me much consternation. I had fun when I played. I didn’t regret quitting when I did. It was just a game I liked and, if anything, not playing it gave me more time to pay attention to the majors and computer baseball games and all of that nerdy stuff the people who became baseball writers later in life did in the late 1980s.”

Author’s comment: Greg Brady, a moron?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Yeah, probably. Following Drysdale’s curiously opaque pitching tutorial — “get your arm out and try to go right out there in front of it” — and suggestion that Greg could advance from suburban yard to big league mound on the wings of a lucrative signing bonus, the self-styled boy wonder quickly informed his father, “I’m gonna be loaded!” And even after his dad cautioned, “Listen, bub, before you start spending all that money, you’d better realize that out of a thousand young hopefuls, only one makes it,” the boy remained resolute

“I’m not worried,” he crowed. “I’ll be the one!”

But if Greg Brady was moronic, then so were a lot of us. The odds had to favor somebody, we reasoned, so why not the kid who ignored them? Why not the kid who, in envisioning himself on a Topps card, rejected the possibility that any of the 999 other kids might someday pose for the lens? Today, one could reasonably argue that dumb old Greg was dumb in the best way possible, blithely ignorant of the probability functions working against him, boyishly exempt from any indication that he would never measure up.

Of this we can be sure: The boys who once blew snot on the odds and, like Greg, boasted, “I’ll be the one!” are today’s attorneys, electricians and writers. They are also today’s major league baseball players, the men who, as boys, likely ignored the reality that major league dreams are moronic only after you’ve become an attorney, an electrician, a writer.

Quitting the game is a personal thing, privately timed. Sometimes you tell baseball when the day is right; sometimes baseball gives you clues. Only if the timing is later deemed reckless, if the decision was such that you wish you had played a while longer, might the regrets come creeping into your coffee break. Perhaps the luckiest people are those who leave the game precisely when their feelings align with the facts, however cruel and unfair the facts may be. The rest of us? We are left to dream, first, and then to wonder.

Ben Lindbergh

“Honestly, I never dreamed of being a big league player. GM, yes. I realized that wasn’t in the cards when my internship in the Yankees’ baseball operations department ended. (I was 22 at the time.)”

Author’s comment: General manager?

Whoa. As far as we were concerned, general managers hadn’t been invented yet. They didn’t exist. If we had given it any thought, we’d have deduced that ballplayers were born into their uniforms, each a victim or beneficiary of the birthright he now belonged to.

Honestly, who knew where players came from? When we were kids, they were already there.

The larger and more important consideration was that, regardless of which team they played for, these guys were major leaguers, men who occupied the solid ground that our dream space had always floated on. Granted, many appeared to have tiptoed, tunneled, bribed or otherwise schemed their way onto the team. After all, how could a guy hitting .212 even make it to the major leagues, let alone start at second base two or three times a week? It didn’t make sense. Still, each had his own baseball card, his own place in the pack, and even if the bubblegum had done the guy a favor by obscuring his woeful stats, he got paid real American dollars to play the summertime game.

If we didn’t know a GM had signed the guy, we were none the worse for our ignorance. What wee-hour dream had ever included a tense negotiation, a dotted line, a press conference? Somebody would notice us. Look at this .450 average! Somebody, and it didn’t matter who, would see us play. I’m over here, at shortstop! Somebody would recognize what we had known all along: This isn’t a dream. This is flesh. It’s blood. Big leaguers are born into their uniforms, right? And we, almost certainly, were born into ours.

Frank Jackson

“I realized I was washed up at age 12. Oh, I had a decent Little League career. I was a pretty good catcher and hitter, and I even pitched a no-hitter in my first start as a pitcher. But when it came down to having to choose between playing postseason ball and spending the summer at the beach … well, I think that was when I realized that my future lay in being a student of the game, not a player. But I got pretty damn good at bodysurfing, if I do say so myself.”

Author’s comment: Bodysurfing?

Summertime had its temptations, sure, those wet cool whispers from the waves and streams, but for some of us the months of May through August called for just one kind of liquid: the sweat that drained from our bodies in the necessary heat of the ballfield. We knew those other kids, of course, the ones who went to some vacation place where water supplied the subsidies of sweet relief and fun, but with our quiet envy came the soothing knowledge that no kid could make a big league career of boogie boarding. No kid could ride a wave to the aquatic version of Fenway Park.

Big league baseball demanded a sacrifice of the sort the ascetics would have practiced if they could turn a double play in 100-degree heat. We never once saw a picture of Ty Cobb riding a gnarly shorebreak. We never once saw footage of Hank Aaron kicking back on an inner-tube and floating carefree on the Guadalupe River, ice-cold Cokes in a tethered chest. To suffer was to stake one’s claim to the graces of the baseball gods, always generous to any boy who denied himself the cheap satisfactions of summer: the plunges without statistical consequence, the dives that bore no proof that he was getting better at diving.

Pain, we were certain, had always been the price of a big league career, and it was a sum we were willing to pay. The water would always look refreshing, but anyone could go for a swim. The waves would always look inviting, but how far could a guy really ride on the power of “surf’s up?”

“Play ball,” we said instead. The sea would be there when we retired.

Dayn Perry

“I don’t know that I had any delusions about that beyond childhood. I recall being about 14 or 15 and making All-Stars for my local Babe Ruth league, only to find later that I made it only because another kid got an ear infection. That was humbling. To my enduring discredit, I was more into football in those days when it came to the participatory aspect.”

Author’s comment: All-Stars?

If recognition came early, if All-Star status claimed us on the strength of our .450 average and five home runs in 27 games, it merely served as an apprenticeship for our inevitable place in the Midsummer Classic. And if some kid’s ear infection or chickenpox had helped clear the way for our All-Star appointment, well … so what?

Competition drew its drivers not just from the Little League field but also from the space around it, and if some kid named Trevor couldn’t overcome the external otitis he’d picked up at the public pool, then maybe he had already proved his unfitness for the rigors of the 162-game seasons to come.

Trevor was a boy, yeah, but he needed to be a man about it.

Eno Sarris

“My junior year I was excited to make varsity. I didn’t. I was on junior varsity another year, and I didn’t even get to start. I was a backup second baseman and right fielder — places coaches stick guys with no range and no arm. I went 3-for-10 in 10 games, all drag bunts. One time at first base I spit a loogie right on the first baseman’s jersey and almost started a fight. I mostly scored the games and hit on the equipment manager because I thought she was cute. She mostly just rolled her eyes. The dream was dead.”

Author’s comment: Scored the games?

Every team had one, it seems, the kid who, aside from needing a symbol for “struck out with the cute girl,” had memorized all the strange little glyphs that described in useful shorthand the results on the field of play. An early adopter of the character type, Alfred Ogilvie of the Bad News Bears had provided a helpful model for later generations of baseball nerds — the awkward stats guy whose lone contribution was the knowledge that so-and-so owned a .359 average against lefties — and the nerd in our midst had become a faithful disciple. “Sheesh,” we future big leaguers surmised, “he’s got no future at all.”

Our secret pity never descended to cruelty or abuse. Life, we reckoned, had been cruel enough, punishing the stats nerd with the early burdens of “four eyes,” as the era defined the bespectacled look, and a pair of left feet. Meanwhile, we carried on with the performances that the dweeb would duly register, supplying empirical proof that a .450 batting average against a series of coaches’ sons should translate pretty easily — “let’s be sensible about it,” we’d argue — to a .410 average in the bigs.

As the seasons came and went, we knew we’d eventually leave the stats nerd behind, in his second-hand world, there to perform his strange calculations while the rest of us went first-hand to the batter’s box and then around the bases, closer to the meeting with our one true fate. What were the odds we’d ever see that guy again? He could do the math.

Bradley Woodrum

“I didn’t realize I had baseball dreams until midway through high school. I played football most of my life, and — as a 185-pound. offensive lineman — I knew football was never a career for me. I very much liked playing it, but my bad knees and slow foot speed guaranteed I would be better served in college with a book tucked under my arm than a football. But my junior year, I started watching baseball and really getting into the sport. At that time, there were chunky guys like Giambi and Berkman and — most of all — Neifi Perez who suddenly gave me hope that baseball could be a sport I might be better at than football. So I went to one of the baseball coaches — who happened to be a football coach also, as well as my weightlifting coach — and asked him about joining the baseball team next year, my junior year.

“‘Son,’ he said in his most empathetic you-must-be-a-dumb-ass drawl, ‘you gotta start playing baseball real young. There’s no way you can learn the sport this late.’

“And that was pretty much the end of my baseball career.

“In grad school, I had joined a club baseball team, and in true turd fashion, got no hits, and had one put-out in right field (it was a shallow fly ball I dropped and then hurled to second for a fielder’s choice). After the university added a real baseball team, the club team folded, and I began to play in a summer league on the south side of Chicago. The league featured a few teams composed of high school players and a few like ours — mostly former high school players, one of whom received ‘a letter’ from the Mets in the mid-2000s.

“In two years in that league (maybe 50 plate appearances or so), I had zero hits, two balls put into play (a dribbler to first and a liner directly at the left fielder), about a .300 OBP, and something like 10 steals. If I had any doubts about my choice to play only football my junior year, my time flailing at high school and 30-something beer-belly pitchers in Chicago evaporated those doubts.”

Author’s comment: High school coach?

Smelling of black coffee and afternoon sweat, he had assumed his place in our lives to fulfill a dual purpose informed by a single key theme: to redeem his failure to reach the big leagues by guaranteeing no such defeat for us. With whatever tutelage he might deem necessary, be it in the finer points of bunting or in the larger space of speed and strength, he would guide us through the rigors of district play and straight to the lights of The Show.

High school was dinky enough. Why stop at Pawtucket?

It came as a surprise, then, when Coach walked up after practice one day and asked, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

What do I want to be?

That .450 batting average, while admittedly down to .405, should have indicated what we would be, without question: the starting shortstop for the Red Sox or Dodgers or, yeah, whatever, Twins. So why was he asking that question? Did the guidebook suggest he ask it?

How else could a guy in a teaching position — a guy who had already grown up — be so naive?

Christopher Fittz

“I guess I always knew I’d never be a baseball player. I wanted to be one, sure. I wanted to be Nolan Ryan and suit up for the Rangers, but I knew well before getting cut from any team, or facing a devastating injury I’d tell folks robbed me of my shot, that professional baseball wasn’t in the cards for me. And yet, one instance stands out in particular as the moment I realized my dream had actually, tangibly died.

“As a young fan on the Internet who saw the rise of The Newberg Report and prospect-appreciating, I was obsessed with the 2001 MLB Draft. After the Rangers followed up consecutive American League West titles with the fifth-worst record in baseball in 2000, they were the owners of the No. 5 pick in the draft. This particular draft was supposed to be stacked at the top.

Joe Mauer was the rare high school catcher who deserved a top grade. Mark Prior was earning ‘best college arm since Roger Clemens’ quotes. Mark Teixeira was considered one of the best college hitting prospects in years. Dewon Brazelton and Gavin Floyd were two names with helium before the draft.

“Of course, the Rangers drafted Teixeira after he slid to them at No. 5 due to signability concerns. That draft pick altered the future of the franchise and set the team on a course that would eventually land them in the World Series almost a decade later.

“Me? I was sitting in my room listening to the draft on MLB.com. Not watching it. The MLB Draft in those days was nothing more than 56k band radio stream of a teleconference with scouts sounding bored while calling out the Draft ID numbers of kids they hoped would someday earn them a pay raise.

“What struck me about this moment, while listening to the Rangers land Teixeira, was hearing the the names of kids in high school getting selected. A couple of days later, I graduated from high school. I hadn’t played baseball in almost five years but, listening to that feed where my former dream was coming true for people who weren’t me, I felt this pang of regret that it wasn’t me getting called.

“This was the graduation that I had always secretly hoped to attend, but I had already flunked out of baseball and summer school had long passed me by.”

Author’s comment: The draft?

The draft ignored a few of us, sure, we graduating seniors whose tools and statistical exploits had eluded the notice of area scouts, but whatever our level of indignation, we quickly relieved the lingering pain with a cogent rationale: that many of the greats had likewise gone unnoticed, most notably in the cornfields and factories of the fin de siecle Midwest. We had read all about it. And if we first had to play college ball to attract the scout’s attention, stopping occasionally at a kegger after an arduous round of BP, so be it.

After all, Lou Gehrig had attended Columbia.

We realized, even during our first collegiate practice, that a few of our high school rivals had already suited up for Rookie League teams, earning the aid of a seasoned coach with a direct line to the big club, but we told ourselves a soothing truth: players develop at different times, at different rates and in different places. We had time enough, and hunger. We had Lou Gehrig on our side! Anyway, who cared if they were getting paid to play baseball? Who cared if they to didn’t need freshman geology with the Tuesday afternoon lab? They had to labor in Walla Walla while we chased the women of Division 1.

Professional baseball could wait. The big leagues weren’t going anywhere.

A while later in college, intent on seeing the players whose uniforms we still sort of thought we could fill, we journeyed to the upper-case Ballpark to watch a major league game. There we paid witness to a scene that supplied a hard reminder of the draft that had passed us by. We saw, for the first time ever, a big league player who was younger than us.

We still had hunger enough, but maybe not quite as much time.

Craig Robinson

“There are plenty of moments like this. I think when I was about 16 I finally realised I wasn’t going to be a professional soccer player. When I was about 25 I finally realised I wasn’t going to be a pop star. With baseball, when I visited a friend in North Carolina, we went to see the Durham Bulls, and there was a pitching thing that read the speed of your pitch. (I’m blanking on the name of that piece of equipment now, but it’s on the tip of my tongue, dammit.) And I threw as hard as possible. And with absolutely no technique, just raw throwing. And I couldn’t get higher than 45 mph. Belatedly, I realised that there was no made-for-TV movie to be made of the life of a grumpy Englishman’s stellar mid-30s entry into the world of major league baseball.”

Author’s comment:Mid-30s entry into major league baseball?

As the seasons turned, we saw those younger-than-us players as less a sobering novelty than as a familiar buzzkill. Players develop at different times and different rates, we had told ourselves, but it had begun to seem less and less likely that a guy in his mid-20s, his late-20s, his early 30s would suddenly develop the ability to hit a slider with a two-strike count and a division title on the line. Having forgotten for so long to use it, we couldn’t count muscle memory as a trusted support.

Now, when sitting behind the dugout, we had begun to see big league baseball as increasingly distant despite its proximity. It was right in front of us but so far away. It seemed almost foreign, as if we were visiting from a land where athletes kick balls instead of pitch them, but a land, like this one, where any attempt to imitate the players would end not only in wretched humiliation but also in a practical example of how amazingly talented those athletes were.

At the same time, we were increasingly glad to have heeded Mr. Brady’s advice — “You can go into baseball, if you’re good enough, but there’s nothing wrong with going to college first” — and stayed in school. A signing bonus would’ve been nice, true, and a bright red Porsche would have looked sweet in Walla Walla, but the truth was that talent is talent. At a certain point, no amount of coaching or want-to can lift it from the realm of boys who yield 12 runs in the first inning of an afternoon start.

“Listen,” Mike Brady had said to his disconsolate son. “Baseball is a great game. But it’s just one part of life. There are other things important, too. C’mon. Education’s important….”

We did learn something. We had to.

John Thorn

“I was a demon in the field and could hit pretty well … but I could not pull the ball with power. Pitchers with decent fastballs would overpower me. But in recalling and relating stories and stats I was, by the general assent of my fellow 12-year-olds, without peer. Hmmm, I thought.”

Author’s comment: Hmmm, indeed.

And here we are today, together in the telling of this story. Still, there are times when darkness beckons the boyhood dream and we see ourselves as ballplayers — with our names emblazoned across the back! — and not as men who write “author’s comment.”

John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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7 years ago

For me I’d say the realization came when I was 8, got plunked in the elbow with a pitch, and then cried in the dugout.

That said, even in my mid-30s I sometimes wonder if I just developed a knuckleball throwing it around in the yard, like the BEST knuckleball ever (somehow) if maybe it’d just end up being a Disney movie someday after I make it to the show.

Paul G.
7 years ago

The Greg Brady story is so unbelievable. After 15 minutes with Mr. Drysdale, he would know that after giving up the third run in the first inning, the next pitch goes in the batter’s ear. Next Scene: Greg Brady at his bail hearing. Just be glad Marsha was not around for the coaching given what happened with the football without any guest stars.

I knew I was not going to be a major league baseball player when my intense fear of being hit with a ball joined forces with the athleticism of an old woman.

7 years ago

I raked Little League pitching. My mother, in collusion with the local educators, forced glasses on me as I transitioned to next level; my hitting proficiency fell like a Bert Blyleven curveball. Fortunately, a coach put me on the bump and made a right-handed pitcher of me. I was All-Something through high school. In college, a few pings from the bats of Joe Carter and Russ Morman of Wichita State and Jim Lindeman of Bradley U. were very persuasive toward changing my view of realistic future goals not involving pro baseball.

Our home stadium had no public-address in the early ’80s so few opponents knew my name—the Bradley Braves called me “Kent Tekulve”–skinny, right-handed, bespecked.—-perhaps indulging their own MLB fantasies of wearing out someone that looked like Tekulve. I have a baseball card of Steve Hovley of the Seattle Pilots (’69 Topps)–my wife, my college love, says I looked like Hovley (sans my glasses) at a similar age.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Greg Brady can’t be a moron because Barry Williams has managed to make a career out of playing a character as a kid in one of the worst TV shows ever.

Julie Marcez
7 years ago

in junior high tried playing baseball..even joined the team..still being the only girl on the team didn’t make me any good – adolescent boys are nightmares..anyways sometimes do regret that because i gave up..well at least now i write about sports for http://hireessaywriter.org ..well that’s not the same as playing but at least my job is a little related to what i love doing

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