Who did you look up to in the early days of your career?
Early on in my career I was lucky to rub shoulders with a number of great players, but there were two guys, in particular, that really had a lasting impact on me: Phil Niekro and Gary Matthews, or “Knucksie” and “Sweet,” as we called them, respectively. In Phil’s case, one thing I admired was how he managed his career, namely, his contract negotiations, which were always done professionally, avoiding any conflict. On the field, he was a great example to us young guys (me, Bob Horner, Glen Hubbard, etc.) of how to play hard and endure to the end. For instance, I saw him pitch a bunch of times when he wasn’t feeling 100%. He may have had a sore back or arm, but he’d get out there anyway and give it his all. He also hated getting pulled from games. Contrary to many pitchers in the game today (which fact is partly due to the rise of the middle-reliever), Knucksie expected to pitch all nine innings every time he got on the mound. A couple of years ago, in fact, he told me that he genuinely felt like he had failed the team every time he didn’t pitch a complete game. Another thing about Knucksie was that he could hit. He took his hitting very seriously, and he was always on the lookout for ways to help the team win. In short, Knucksie was a true gamer. And, watching his example, I decided that’s how I wanted to be known, too—-as someone who’d put the game and their team ahead of himself.
A few posts ago I mentioned going to a Giants/Phillies game the night before my pre-draft workout in Philadelphia back in 1974. If I remember right, Gary Matthews was a young player on the Giants at the time. And like Knuckise, Gary was a true player’s player. His effort and enthusiasm on the field really set him apart, in my eyes, from so many other guys. Every time Gary would put the ball in play, you just knew he wasn’t going to be satisfied with a single. He’d often knock his helmet off running to first so he could at least try for second base (in fact, he’d hit with his baseball cap folded up in his back pocket, a habit I think came from his early career when it was typical to run without a helmet). Gary was aggressive, always talking and motivating everyone, and he’d push us young guys to be better. We all really looked up to him. I can remember, for instance, when I heard we’d traded Gary to the Phillies in the spring of 1979. I was taking batting practice in spring training, and I hurried in to John Mullen’s (the general manager) office and asked him if it was true that we traded Gary. I remember first stopping in the clubhouse, to grab a Gatorade or something, all the while debating in my mind whether it was appropriate for me to go express my disappointment to the GM! It was the first time I’d ever gone in to management to voice my opinion on one of their decisions. That’s how much I admired Gary. In a way, trading Gary was a compliment to the younger players—the Braves obviously felt we’d be strong enough offensively that we could trade him to get some pitching. Still, we missed his energy on the Braves, and he went on to great things with the Phillies and Cubs, where he was given the nickname “Sarge” for saluting the bleacher bums out in left field before every game. I was very fortunate to have had him and Knucksie showing me the way during the critical early stages of my career. I’ll never forget their examples.