Everything I Needed to Know About People I Learned at Wally Moon's Baseball Camp
Back in the early Sixties, my parents needed to ship me off for a couple of summers so they could marinate in married life and the excessive drama of their lives. Each had been born into small families unwilling to put up with the likes of me (overly talkative, overly active, overly curious -- who can blame them?), so the alternative was to park me at summer camp. And there I quickly learned more lessons about life than David Carradine got on 62 episodes of Kung Fu, and I didn't even need to shave my head.
At that time we were living in West L.A., and I was a baseball fanatic, so when they discovered Wally Moon's Baseball Camp in West Covina, they decided it was perfect. It had baseball, it was far enough away that they wouldn't be expected to show up for games or regular visits, and the food was bad enough that I might shed a bit of my excess blubbericiousness.
Wally Moon didn't teach me any important life lessons himself, but he was an interesting player. If you don't know about him, read the next two paragraphs.
Wally Moon was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, normally batted third in the line-up. Walked more often than he struck out. I would like to tell you he was "like" someone playing today, but no one came to mind and when I checked out his comparable players on Baseball-Reference, none of them really seem to channel, as Plato said when he saw him play, The Wallyness of Wally. Moon was an outlier, an exception in every way you could analyze him. First, he looked really unusual in a "good looking" way, and he sported a unibrow. His stance was odd, too...not Craig Counsell weird, but just weird enough that 10-year olds might imitate it -- except there was nothing cool about it to a 10-year old and I didn't know anyone who did. He was a college man, making him an exception. He went to a school, Texas A&M, that hadn't produced a major leaguer with at least a medium career since Beau Bell 13 years earlier and wouldn't produce another one until Davey Johnson 11 years later. And Moon reportedly earned a Masters degree, making him an incredible exception for a baseball player. He was a power hitter who hit to the opposite field. He was from a place in Arkansas that not only produced no other major leaguers, but a part of Arkansas that developed not a single major leaguer within 55 miles of his home town. He had been the N.L.'s rookie of the year in 1954. His range numbers were never good after his rookie campaign, but he won a Gold Glove in 1960 that may have been deserved -- his home park's ultra-short left field fence behind him would trim the number of balls he could get to, so even with low range numbers, he may have played the field that well.
And his best stretch, 1959-61, saw him put up a .310/.405/.485 batting line. That this was his best stretch is both a reason for acclaim and a factor that makes some revisionists undervalue his performance. The Dodgers during those years played in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, an Olympic track facility that worked for football but was beyond funkadelic for baseball. Look. The right field fence was near Tijuana, so it killed most lefties. The left field fence had to be squashed into the rectangle so it was only 251 feet from home plate. To try to balance that zaniness, the team put up a 40 to 42 foot screen, about 10% taller than Fenway's Green Monster. Wally Moon was able to launch occasional homers by looping to the opposite field with an inside-out swing, and people in L.A. took to calling those kinds of lazy high-arcing big flies "Moon Shots". To look at Moon historically, should we diminish our appreciation because it was such a ridiculous park configuration, or should we grant him a bit of reverence for figuring out how to overcome an equally ridiculous punishment for left-handed batters?
I had never gotten to play on a formal team. Little League was too far away and my parents too unwilling or unable to ferry me back and forth. So all my previous experience was of the two- or three-a-side variety Wiffle Ball, three flies up, and a myriad of invented games, played in backyards or nearby parks not intended for such activities, usually with weird-o Washington Park dimensions and grounds rules and neighboring yards that ate balls including my Warren Spahn-autographed Wiffle Ball, ordered for a dollar and two box tops.
Beyond my lack of formal experience, I was at some other disadvantages. I was short for my age. And I was overweight. And slow. Edgar Martinez-slow...Walter Young-slow. Special effect slow, like The Six Million Dollar Man...but much slower. And fatter. I came equipped with only two aptitudes: when I made contact with the ball, I hit flat beautiful ropes you could hang the wash on (and to all fields), and I had a rocket launcher for an arm. The hitting to the opposite field knack was environmentally-etched...if you couldn't hit to right in The Park I played in, you'd lose the ball in the underbrush.
The baseball camp routine went like this. At the start of the week, camp counselors chose teams aimed at balancing skill. I ended up on Bill's Braves, managed by Bill Tucker, a total gem of a fellow. He was a really fine athlete (a back-up quarterback at La Verne J.C.) and extremely tolerant of limitations, even extreme ones like mine. Extremely positive. Mornings were drills, and after the third day or so, games in the afternoons. My first couple of weeks I would end up like 3-for-18 in games with 12 strikeouts, and at least a couple of my outs were beautiful frozen rope singles that would be turned into humiliation when the outfielder's throw beat me to first. There's the first lesson...
Epiphany #1 -- What you value personally may not have any value in the environment you're in.
To me, lashing a rope was, in and of itself, a magnificent piece of art. In the schoolyards of my youth, I would frequently hit for my own personal version of the cycle -- a line drive hit to left, center and right in the same game -- and my peers would appreciate the artistry involved. At camp, this meant zero. Any hit to right that went into the gap was merely a single for my brick-footed amble, and anything near the right-fielder was a potential 9-3 putout. Bill worked with me on my hitting, and he taught me valuable lessons I would apply with good use for the next 20 years, but nothing that broke me out of my slump.
Coach observed my struggles and taught me a simple thing. I wasn't very good at hitting the inside pitch. Most of my strikeouts were on inside pitches. Yes, I needed to learn to hit them, but Coach realized it would be faster in terms of yield if I could get pitches over the fat part of the plate. So he taught me to lean into inside pitches and get hit. The umps were generous with the strike zone, but found it impossible to call a hit batsman a strike. So I started overcoming my fear of being hit by doing it accidentally-on-purpose and becoming almost an asset to my team. Moreover, once I'd been hit in a game, all the pitchers at camp except one (he liked hitting people) would try to keep the ball away from me and that meant I could get my arms extended and make good contact. This leads to the next lesson...
Epiphany #2 -- We all have weaknesses and sometimes the best way to attack one is to try to turn it into a strength.
By the fourth week, even Bill's patience was stretched. I had improved a little bit, but I wasn't good enough to be average. I got shifted to a new counselor's team. Casey didn't know one-fifth what Bill did, but he knew a few things, and some of them were things Bill didn't. He noticed that when I swung and missed, my front shoulder was coming up, so he taught me to lock it down hard while in my stance. It wasn't much, but it just happened to work. That week, I was 13 for 16, and two of my outs were 9-3 putouts. One of my hits went so far, I got a triple out of it (imagine a David Wells triple). Lesson time...
Epiphany #3 -- Coaching, teaching and managing are not either/or, good or bad, they are additive.
No matter how much you know, everybody knows something useful you don't. Go to the greatest expert in the world, find me a replacement-level actor in that same field, and that inconsequential nobody will know something valuable Ms. Nobel Prize doesn't. A corollary I believe but haven't yet proven is that coaching/managing is additive. You work for a great manager, and she teaches you a bunch of useful things. You go to work next for a total dinwiddie, nowhere near as good, but that total dinwiddie has some small thing to teach you and it just happens to break a logjam for you or make what you learned earlier ten times as valuable. You never dismiss totally even the most incapable coach because he has something somewhere you can gain from. And opening yourself up to learning doesn't mean throwing away what you already know; presume you're adding, not replacing, knowledge.
I have to share a caveat on that insane .812 batting average week, but there's another life lesson in there. By a fluke of scheduling, 9 of my hits were against the same pitcher. I was only 4-for-6 against the rest of the league. But a rainout and something else meant we faced this one team over and over, and that team had this stud fastball pitcher with an almost perfectly-overhand delivery (think Rick Sutcliffe), a delivery that terrified most batters. Maybe it was because I was so short, or just some sort of dumb luck, but whatever he threw, it looked like batting practice to me. I could see the ball from release and it was just easy to see all the way, bigger than the moon. Everyone else in the league struggled against him but me. And the life lesson is...
Epiphany #4 -- Rock, paper, scissors. Everything good can be beaten by something better. Everything not good can beat something great. Match-ups can be unpredictable. Don't assume.
Everybody's stud pitcher is someone else's cup of meat. Mark Belanger hit .221 lifetime against right-handed pitchers. Nolan Ryan yielded only .203 lifetime to batters. But Belanger hit over .300 lifetime against Ryan. Whatever magic Ryan had over hitters, it just didn't happen to work on The Blade. And it's true at work and in school and in dating and everywhere.
I had dozens of other lessons, but I'm going to leave you with one last one, because it may be the single most important thing I have to teach you, Grasshopper.
Epiphany #5 -- Never staple your lips together with a heavy-duty Bostitch stapler. Or do it twice.
I'm not making this up. One morning I was skipping breakfast, reading a Sporting News and this terrible scream came from down the hall. I ran towards it and there in the office was Gene, screaming as though someone had stapled his lips together with a heavy-duty Bostitch. The sound was so unnerving it took me a second to realize he was bleeding and that his lips were, actually, snapped together with a metal strip.
Gene was the (apparently) well-adjusted kid on my team. Normal in every way, except perhaps a little more self-assured and much more popular. But he'd walked into the office, picked up the front desk's stapler, said "Excuse me", and when the staff looked up, stapled his lips together. He was gone five days. He came back to get his belongings and go home. And the story the office women told was that on the way out with his mother, Gene and parent stopped in the office, and Gene took the stapler and did it again.
My life has changed in almost every way since that summer. I am easily the fastest 50-year old on the field. My opposite field stroke is no longer my best one. I'm not so rotund as to make bending over for a ground ball a challenge. Some things are the same. I still have a deadly arm, and I still use the hit-batsman technique to make umpires call a ball that's more than a foot inside a "ball" instead of that automatic strike they love to use to move the game along.
You may think I'm a wuss, but I have never been tempted to staple my lips together with a Bostitch or Swingline or any other stapler twice. Or even once.
And I learned that lesson, among everything else I needed to know about people, at Wally Moon's Baseball Camp.
Jeff Angus' new book is Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field (Harper Collins, May 2). Jeff is a management consultant and baseball writer (stats columns for The Seattle Times) who speaks on Management by Baseball topics.