May 2009

L.A. to Arkansas to Anaheim . . . all good

I went home to Arkansas on a private plane after the game yesterday at Dodger Stadium to be with family attend services for my grandmother. That’s why I wasn’t able to hang around and talk to reporters, which I enjoy doing as part of my job.

I know everyone was curious about how I felt after crashing into the wall to make that catch on Matt Kemp’s ball, and I was pretty sore. But a massage helped me out, and I actually feel pretty good today. So I called Mike Scioscia, our manager, and Ron Roenicke, our bench coach, and told them I’d better be in the lineup against the White Sox.

My grandmother — Zelma Louise Hunter — passed last Saturday. This is my dad’s mom, and he’s taking it pretty hard. She was 94 years old and lived a good, long life. She went to the hospital 10 days ago and they told her she had a week to live.

I got back to Pine Bluff last night, going solo. I hung out with my family. I haven’t seen some of them for 10, 20 years. I’m glad I was able to get back there and be there for her services. She was a wonderful person, and she’ll be missed.

OK, so here I am, back on the job. I’m going to take batting practice and get ready to play. I didn’t think I’d feel like this after it happened. I was trying to catch my breath after the catch. My body spasmed up. I was trying to ball up before I hit the wall, turn and hit it with my back, but my elbow hit me in the ribs and took my breath away.

The whole game after that I had short breath. But that’s what I do. I was asked, very respectfully, if I’m a little crazy to make plays like that, but I’ve got to catch that ball. It’s irritating to let a ball fall. I’ve been running into walls my whole career. If I was gun-shy, it would have happened my first year. Only in Boston will I let it go off the wall — you don’t want to run into that thing. Everywhere else it’s padded out there, and it’s like Ray Lewis hitting you. You know how much I love football.

I came out of the game yesterday a little early, in the seventh inning. My quad tightened up a little, but the massage I got after the game straightened that out. I’m fine.

I’m excited to be back. The great Vladimir Guerrero comes back tonight, and that’s another big weapon in our lineup. We’ve been playing pretty well lately, showing our toughness, I think. The guys have come together and played some good baseball. It’s a long season, and I love this team.

It’s great to be back, and my family’s all right. It’s all good. I’m ready to get back out there and get after it.      

Dodgers, Angels project proud heritage

For a couple of years now, people have been talking about the decline of the African-American player in Major League Baseball. The sport has made it a priority to get inner-city kids interested and involved in the game again, and the players have also done their part. I have the Torii Hunter Project, CC Sabathia has his, Jimmy Rollins has his thing going, Derrek Lee. Guys are doing what they can to get inner-city kids back into the game.

This is important to us, because it’s our heritage. Back in the days of the Negro Leagues, baseball was huge for African-Americans. They played in front of 20,000, 30,000 fans. Everybody was all dressed up, men in suits, women in dresses, everybody looking fine and having a great time.

The last 10 years we’ve seen a decline in African-Americans in the Majors, but there are signs it’s coming back around. Two years ago it was on its way to 7 percent African-American representation in the Major Leagues, but now it’s up to 10, 11 percent. That’s encouraging. It tells me these programs and projects are starting to work.

This series with the Dodgers is especially exciting for me. I’m always into the game — I don’t hide my love of playing baseball — but this Interleague series is definitely special. I look over at the other side of the field and see Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Orlando Hudson, James Loney, Juan Pierre, Cory Wade. And Xavier Paul just went on the disabled list. That’s a lot of African-Americans on one team.

Over in our clubhouse, we’ve got Chone Figgins, Howard Kendrick, Darren Oliver, Gary Matthews Jr. and myself. It really feels good to see African-Americans playing the game and showing kids how they can have long, productive careers — and make a lot of money in this sport.

Like anything worthwhile, it’s never easy. It takes a lot of mental toughness. It’s a humbling game with a lot of failure involved. But it’s worth all the time and effort, believe me. I signed when I was 17, and I’m signed through 37 years old. That means I’ll have 20 years in the game, at least. How many guys do that in the NFL and NBA?

Last year it was the Angels, Rays and Brewers who had the highest percentage of African-Americans, but it looks to me like it’s the Dodgers and Angels now. Two L.A. teams, playing an exciting brand of baseball — old-school style. We go first to third, run the bases hard, play great defense. We compete..

I will have a big smile on my face tonight. I feel a lot of pride in what I’m seeing. I want inner-city kids to understand how great this game is, how you don’t have to have a 40-inch vertical leap or be able to run through a building to play baseball. You need desire, a strong work ethic, and you have to know how to handle failure and adversity.

The game is getting back to speed, moving away from all the focus being on power. You see how important the stolen base is again, with guys like Carl Crawford and Figgy. Heck, I’ve even got eight bags. Bobby Abreu is stealing bases.

This is the game our grandparents and their parents grew up loving. Knowing everything the Dodgers have represented for bringing Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella into the game and breaking down that color barrier, I’m so happy to see the team they’re putting on the field now.

I’m always excited to play the game and never take for granted how fortunate I am. This is going to be a great weekend of baseball. 

That catch is for you, Mom

I called my mom today to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. I said, “I’m going to try to hit a home run for you, Mom.” I didn’t do that, but I took one away.

I’m pretty sure she’ll be happy with that.

Making a catch like that is a feeling that’s so good, so awesome, it’s hard to describe. I thought I had a chance when Miguel Olivo got into that ball, but I had a lot of ground to cover, because I was shading him over toward right center. He’s got some serious power.

There’s a lot that goes into making a play like that. You have to get to the wall, but not too close, and you have to time it just right. After the game, I went and watched the replay in the video room with Justin Speier, and he said I had some serious hang time on it.

I felt like I could have dunked, two hands, over Shaq. I felt like a wide receiver did a slant, and I took him out.

Man, that was awesome. It’s a very special win, coming back the way we did with three runs in the seventh, the bullpen doing a great job. Something like that can do a lot for a team.

When the game ended, Bobby Abreu and Gary Matthews Jr. came over and I was expecting the usual high-fives, but they both threw themselves into me and we had a three-way hug out there. It was just an expression of how great it felt, for all of us.

That’s the kind of moment you live for as an athlete, to challenge yourself and make a play like that, with so much on the line — and then to celebrate with your teammates.

I’ve made my share of catches like that, and this one ranks pretty high. But the best is the one on Barry Bonds in the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee, when I took one away from him. That was on the big stage, my first All-Star Game, and it was an incredible feeling.

I take great pride in playing center field at a high level. I’m aware of some of the stat guys who are saying I’ve lost something, I’m not as good as I once was. Well, I just wanted to let you know I’m still me. I still can play the game. I know how to play center field. I still feel like I’m one of the best.

That’s not being cocky. That’s confidence.

People ask me what it takes to make a play like that, and it’s hard to describe. It’s just something that’s in you. You have to have the athletic ability, first, and then instincts come into play. I try to teach my sons how to do it, and they get a little frustrated. Maybe they’ll catch on.

It’s like when Torii Jr. just missed a home run, the ball bouncing off the top of the fence. I told him to be patient, that he’ll be getting stronger as he gets older, and those balls will start flying over the fence. 

There were some great signs for us this weekend. We swept a really good club in the Royals. I like what they’re doing. They play the game hard, and they play it right. Coco Crisp was a great pickup for them in center field, and they’ve got a lot of talent there. Big Olivo, he’s something to watch. He’s got a cannon for an arm, he can run, and he can put a charge in a ball.

He just hit that one in the wrong place today — and I was able to get there.

There was another play I made earlier in the game that was unusual. They had a man on first, Mike Jacobs, and Alberto Callaspo hit a sinking line drive. I came up and played it on a hop and got rid of it as quickly as I could, and we got the force out at second.

There’s an art to that. It takes a lot of practice. I threw that one three-quarters, and sometimes, if necessary, I’ll come sidearm with a throw to get it there in a hurry.

I grew up playing shortstop, and that’s how I play center field — like a shortstop. I love making throws on the run, holding guys from taking an extra base. After the catch, they had a man on first and Coco hit a single to center, and I was able to keep the guy at second by getting to the ball and getting it back in as fast as I could.

There are so many elements to playing center field. It’s my position, and I love everything about it.

Today was a great day to be in center field — and to be an Angel. 

Scared straight

First of all, I feel bad for Manny Ramirez. We go way back to when we were young players, Manny in Cleveland and me in Minnesota. He was two years older, one of the young superstar guys. We always got along, had a good relationship. There was mutual respect.

He’s one of those guys I’ve always respected, because I know how much work he’s put into the game. He’s one of the hardest workers in baseball, which is why this is so hard for me to understand. He’s never been a guy to take the easy way.

People look at how he is on the field, carefree, having fun, a character, and they think, Manny, no way he works hard. What they don’t realize is he’s always been one of the hardest workers, hitting the weights before and after games, working out like crazy in the off-season. I remember when he was with the Red Sox and I was with the Twins, watching him in Spring Training in Fort Myers, Florida. He worked his butt off and studied the game. He’s not just amazingly talented — he’s smart. Players know that.

I hate that this happened to him. I can only imagine how much it’s hurting him right now. He cares about the game, cares about his legacy. He’s always been a great player, and now there’s this shadow, like with Alex Rodriguez.

At the same time, it lets everybody know that the drug policy is serious. That’s how strong it is. This is Manny Ramirez, one of the greats of the game. There’s no covering up. Whatever it was, it was a banned substance, and it tells every player in the game that if you’re doing something, you better be sure to clear it with your medical staff. Even if it’s vitamin C, fish oil, whatever. If it’s something new to your system, take it to them and have them clear it.

You’ve heard about being scared straight. Well, that’s what we have here. Every player in the game, whoever you are, you’ve got to be careful about what you’re putting in your body. That’s a good thing. Awareness is always a good thing.

I understand how a lot of people are going to react to this. If you’ve got big-time guys like A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemens . . . what are other guys trying to do? They probably think we’re cheating. There are more guys doing it the right way, respecting the game, than not. Some guys cheat — just like in the real world — but most of the guys in the game are playing clean. It’s like the business world. You’ve got cheaters, doing anything they can to make money and climb the ladder, and you’ve got good people trying to do it the right way and be fair and responsible.

This is the real world here. Baseball is the real world, with real people. You’re going to always have somebody trying to beat the system. People forget we’re human. We’re bound to make mistakes. But I want people, all of you, to understand that by far there are more guys doing it right than cheating. That’s the truth.    

Yankee Stadium, then and now

It’s an awesome place, no doubt about it. New Yankee Stadium has all the modern, state-of-the-art conveniences, and it still has that feel of the old stadium, where you always knew you were walking into history every time you played there. The field looks the same and plays basically the same, and that’s great. Why mess with a good thing?

It’s a funny thing about the old ballpark. I didn’t do very well there during the regular season, but I had some moments in October in the postseason. Even those came with a bad ending, though. The Yankees beat my Twins in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs, and that always stings. Still stings, to this day.

Lyle Spencer of did some research and reminded me that I had some big games in the old park when it really counted. He told me I should remember that I came up big on the big stage, the biggest one, and I appreciated that.

In 2003, we won the first game of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium, 3-1. I had a triple, an RBI and two walks that day. In Game 2, Andy Pettitte beat us, 4-1. Our only run was a home run I hit, and I had another hit that day.

They beat us in four games in that series, and I ended up hitting .429. In my first playoff series, in 2002 against the A’s, I’d batted .300 with four doubles and two RBIs in five games.

I’m not that big on numbers, but it’s nice to have those next to my name, I have to admit. October baseball is what it’s all about. It always takes me back to my high school football days in Arkansas, the adrenaline and excitement and energy you feel.

In 2004, back at Yankee Stadium, we won Game 1 again, 2-0, behind Johan Santana, and I went 1-for-4. The next game was a heartbreaker. We lost, 7-6, in 12 innings. I went 3-for-6 with a double and a homer. I had a single against Tom Gordon when we scored two runs in the eighth inning to tie the game.

The homer came against Tanyon Sturtze with two outs in the 12th inning and gave us the lead. But the Yankees came back with two in the bottom half to win it.

That was my last postseason game in the old park. I ended up going 7-for-16 in the Bronx in those four games for a .438 average, with two homers, a triple and a double.

We ended up losing that series too, in four games, and I batted .353. It’s strange. Even though I put up some good numbers in those two series, I was left feeling nothing but disappointment and frustration.

It’s not hard to figure out why. This is a team game, and it’s all about winning. You win as a team, lose as a team.

So there we were last October, playing Boston in the ALDS, full of high hopes in my first season with the Angels. I thought we were ready. I was confident we had the best team — and it was the same deal. Heartbreak.

The numbers say I had a good series, hitting .389 with five RBIs in four games, but we lost, and it hurt way down deep. Same ol’ same ol’, and that’s something we have to change this season.

I’ve played in 20 ALDS games with a .350 average and a .563 slugging percentage. But the only time we made it to the AL Championship Series, in 2002, the Angels knocked us off on their way to the World Series title.

It’s time for the Angels to do it again. And I want to be right in the middle of it when it happens.