My Son-in-Law the Ballplayer
The list actually started back when I arranged for Derek Jeter to take my then-4-year-old daughter to her senior prom.
List? What list?
Okay, I guess a bit of backtracking is probably in order here, yes?
I first met Jeter when he was a Yankees minor league prospect. Over the course of his breakthrough 1994 season, when he fast-tracked from Class A Tampa to Double-A Albany to Triple-A Columbus, and his 1995 campaign at Columbus before he made it to the big leagues, I got to know not only Jeter but his family as well, his parents and sister and grandmother and aunt.
There was no doubt in my mind he was going to be a mega-superstar. He had all the tools but beyond that he had poise, he was smart, he was sweet and to top it all off he looked like one of those statues of a Greek or Roman god you see in the first chapters of the Art History 101 books.
I was the minor league editor at USA Today's Baseball Weekly at the time and at the end of 1994, we (okay I) named him our Minor League Player of the Year.
We'd never had a minor league player on the cover of the paper, and though I left prior to the 2006 season I don't believe that with the exception of Michael Jordan there has ever been a minor leaguer on the cover of the publication to this day, in its 17 years of its existence. But it looked for awhile like that might change.
We had a portrait of him in Yankee pinstripes (though he had yet to make his major league debut), with those sea-green eyes and that half smile which, as I wrote to open the feature, "makes the Mona Lisa look like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown." And as luck would have it, we didn't have any other major player features running that week so until the last minute, it appeared that Derek Jeter would become the first minor leaguer to grace the cover of Baseball Weekly.
Until, that is, about a day before we went to press, when a power-that-be decided that we couldn't possibly put a no-name minor leaguer on the cover because no one would know who "that Jeter guy" was. So instead it was hastily replaced by a stock action picture of Frank Thomas which had absolutely no connection whatsoever to anything in the paper. (Oh and just for the record, in case you're wondering, no, that power that be was NOT Paul White, who has always been as big a proponent of getting minor leaguers their due as I was).
Imagine what a collector's item that paper would be now had it been the first national cover of Derek Jeter, two years before he took New York by storm and won the American League Rookie of the Year award.
So anyway, before I digress too much (oops, too late!) … fast-forward to the end of 1995. Jeter has been called up to the big leagues but is obviously nowhere near the superstar status that he will reach in a year or so.
I get a phone call from a former colleague who now worked for a luxury car dealership in the New York area, a company that apparently worked with the Yankees when it came to leasing cars for their players. They were looking for a personal reference for the new kid and remembered that I knew him. Could I tell them a little bit about him?
I am not kidding. They were asking ME for a personal reference for Derek Jeter. And this is what I told them:
"The best way I can describe Derek Jeter is that this is the guy you want to show up at your front door the night of your daughter's senior prom."
And that became the genesis for my "Players You'd Want to Take Your Daughter To The Prom" list. Which eventually morphed into the "Players You'd Want Your Daughter To Marry" list, which was more elite.
It's something I've bandied about with co-workers, with front office executives, even with other players (about half of whom say "I'd NEVER let my daughter marry a baseball player").
Maybe it's a girl thing, but my husband totally doesn't get it. He is convinced that my "Players I'd Want My Daughter To Marry" list is really just a euphemism for a "Players I'd Want to Date If I Were 25 Years Younger And Single And Didn't Work in Baseball Where It Would Be Totally Unprofessional Not To Mention A Conflict Of Interest" list.
Totally not true. This list is totally about character. In short, it's all about heart (cue the chorus of "Damn Yankees" or the 1969 New York Mets on the Ed Sullivan Show).
And yes, you skeptics, there are players who fit the bill. And for the sake of brevity (obviously not my strong point) I am going to narrow this down to my top three on my "Current Major Leaguers I'd Want My Daughter To Marry If She Were Older And They Weren't Already Happily Married" list.
Disclaimer: I have been covering baseball for almost 20 years now. And despite the sometimes prevailing thought by the general public that most professional baseball players are complete asses, the truth is my list of Complete Asses That I Would Rather Chew On Tinfoil Than Ever Let Breathe The Same Air As My Daughter list is much shorter than the other one (maybe I'll do that for next year's DH).
With that in mind, I worry about hurting the feelings of some great guys I've gotten to know over the years. But I don't think any of them would argue the three I'm writing about: Dave Roberts, Sean Casey and Kevin Millar.
The trio may corner the Major League market on niceness, kindness and heart. All three go above and beyond when it comes to being active in their communities and charitable foundations, and not just for show and not just when the cameras are clicking.
Dave Roberts, outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, is not only one of the nicest guys in baseball, he is quite simply one of the nicest people I've ever met, period.
Originally drafted out of UCLA by the Tigers back in 1994, he's been the proverbial journeyman, with the Giants being his seventh organization. But it was in his very brief tenure with the Boston Red Sox that "Doc" reached that nirvana of baseball immortality.
It's the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees, the Sox trailing 4-3 and an inning away from elimination. Roberts, who was in to pinch run, ironically, for Millar, steals second against Mariano Rivera. The Sox rally, Roberts scores the tying run and, well, you know the rest. And as I watched the game from a hotel room in Arizona, on the road for Arizona Fall League, I knew that Roberts had just ensured himself fame forever and a head full of cheap champagne.
And all I could think was "this couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
Born in Okinawa, Japan, Roberts enjoys dual citizenship as the son of an American-born Marine dad and a Japanese mom, and has always been a proud ambassador for all of his cultural roots. As a member of the 1999 Team USA squad that earned the United States the berth in the 2000 Summer Olympics where they won their last gold medal, he was both a team leader and its leadoff-hitting sparkplug.
It's funny that there is this "connect" among the three guys on my list. On the one hand, Roberts and Millar were teammates on that historic world champion 2004 Boston Red Sox team.
But one of my favorite Roberts stories is one that Sean Casey himself told me. When Roberts was traded by Detroit to the Cleveland Indians in June 1998 for outfielder Geronimo Berroa, he joined the Double-A Akron Aeros. The guy who lost the most playing time with the acquisition of Roberts was outfielder Mark Budzinski, a teammate of Casey's at the University of Richmond and one of his best friends.
Casey, himself originally an Indians prospect, had been traded the previous off-season to Cincinnati but stayed in close touch with Budzinski. When he commiserated with his friend on his decreased playing time, he told me later, Budzinski's response was something along the lines of: "The thing is, Dave Roberts is such a great guy I can't even get upset about losing time to him."
It is the newly inked Boston Red Sox first baseman Casey himself, though, who is most widely acknowledged to be, officially, the Friendliest Guy In Baseball. A recent poll in Sports Illustrated, conducted among Major Leaguers themselves, saw a whopping 46 percent of the respondents name Casey (let the record show that Roberts ranked fourth and Millar sixth so I am not alone in my opinion here).
I had the great good fortune of first getting to know him well before he made it to the big leagues, back when I covered the Indians' first winter development program in Cleveland in January 1996, just a few months after he was drafted. From the "small world" department, one of his best friends from college happened to live in my town, just down the block from my own daughter's best friend.
It says something about how friendly he was that this fact would even come up, no less the tidbit I learned about his having worked making bagels at the local Stop N Shop when he was playing Cape Cod League baseball.
It was easy to see how Casey had earned the nickname "The Mayor" for his incredible natural chatty ease with everyone he meets, not just the players who pass through his first base watch over the course of a game. And it certainly didn't surprise me to learn that then-farm director Mark Shapiro literally cried two years later when his team dealt Casey to Cincinnati for pitcher Dave Burba.
Now, I realize that Millar may seem to be the "one of these things is not like the others" name on this list to the uninitiated. I mean, this is Rally Karaoke Guy whose 18-year-old self got down and dirty to "Born In The U.S.A." on a nightly basis on the Fenway Park scoreboard. The guy who made taking ceremonial shots of Jack Daniels before a big game a team tradition. A guy known for his bizarre facial hair, his passion for Harley Davidson motorcycles and tattoos.
Is this really the kind of guy I'd want my daughter to marry?
Bet your ass it is.
If Dave Roberts is the nicest guy in baseball and Sean Casey is the friendliest, then it is Kevin Millar who has the game's biggest heart.
A non-drafted free agent who made his way to the big leagues through the independent Northern League and by all accounts Against All Odds (which he has tattooed on his arm), he brings his unbridled passion and enthusiasm and love for the game to every aspect of his life. And to other people's lives as well.
Back in 1997, when he was earning Eastern League MVP honors with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, Millar got to know a young fan named Morgan Grant and her family who hailed from nearby Pownal, Maine.
Morgan was terminally ill with brain cancer, but she and her family rarely missed a Sea Dogs game and not surprisingly it wasn't long before the scrappy Millar was her favorite player. The two forged a friendship over that summer that resulted in his helping to grant one of her last wishes – to come with her family to visit him that winter in southern California.
When Morgan was too weak to change out of her pajamas, Millar simply got into his own jammies and the families had a pajama party. It was there in California that Morgan took a turn for the worse and passed away, having spent her final days with the people she loved the most.
How can you not love a guy like this?
So Derek, you're off the hook. But in case you were wondering, Dana's senior prom is May 2. Time flies, doesn't it? I realize you probably can't make it, but if you feel like sending a corsage, you know where to find her.
Lisa Winston writes for MiLB.com, where you can read about any Minor League player she would ever consider getting for her roto team.