One might assume that my arrogance and over egotistical idea of my own athleticism lead to me becoming a switch hitter but, it was not. It was a hard headed, old school head coach who saw something in me that I didn’t. The truth is that I did not learn how to switch it until I was 18 years old. I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley and I was looking to make an impact on a D1 team as a freshman. In my heart I knew I had the ability as a shortstop/right-handed hitter to make an impact at the D1 level. My, much smarter, head coach, Bob Milano, felt that there was more inside me and had to find a way to get it out. So at the beginning of fall ball my freshman year, 7 (Bob Milano’s number & nickname), approached me and hitting coach Oscar Miller with the idea of turning me into a switch hitter. That meant that I would have to learn at the age of 18 in my first season of D1 baseball to learn how to hit from the other side of the plate. It was a tall task not only for me but for my hitting coach Oscar Miller. It’s not easy to teach a stubborn, hardheaded and arrogant young ballplayer a new skill at such a tough level of competition. In the coming months I spent countless hours in the cage and taking batting practice under the tutelage of Oscar Miller and Scott Murray. Thousands of swings and thousands of instructions got me ready for that fall ball season to try out my new left-handed swing. Needless to say it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. All that hard work did pay off if you’re only thinking about making contact. I made plenty of contact. At times it was feeble mix of lazy ground balls or pop ups that were easy outs. My arrogance, hopefulness soon turned to anger and bitterness. I felt that my work wasn’t paying off and I wanted to stop switch-hitting. I approached Bob Milano with my idea of ending the switch-hitting experiment. My initial excuse was that I was hurting the team. Seven saw right through that excuse and understood that I was being humbled by the game I loved. Bob Milano in all of his wisdom said, “You want to stop switch-hitting, huh? Then you have a choice to make. Switch it or I pull your scholarship and you can go home.” At the time I thought he had lost his mind. The stats backed up my defense! I think (felt like), I went one for 55 during that fall ball season against junior-college pitching. (No offense to JuCo pitchers, I was an arrogant prick back then) Between wanting to play D1 baseball in the six Pac and left with no other financial option other than my scholarship to attend Berkeley, I got right back in the cage the next day understanding I was going to hit left-handed no matter how I felt about it. Things got a little better at the end of fall ball but I didn’t win the starting SS job. I continued to work on my left-handed swing in order to make an impression not only on the coaching staff but on my teammates. I think it was right around the beginning of conference play that I eventually broke into the starting lineup as the California Golden Bears shortstop. My numbers weren’t great offensively, hitting around 275, no power to speak of, my only homerun was right-handed that season. The positives were, that I was on base frequently for the bashers behind me and I was playing a solid defense of shortstop. When I played in the six pack my freshman year of 1992 five of the six teams in the Pac 10 conference made it to postseason play. The Golden Bears were one of them. We had good, consistent pitching; played great defense; but, we could tear the cover off to baseball. I believe we had about four guys with 15 to 20+ homeruns in that line up. From that team Jon Zuber, Chris Clapinski, Matt Luke, Mike Cather and myself all made to the big leagues. Yeah, we were good and we knew it. Out of those five teams in conference to go to postseason play we were the only team to make it to the College World Series in 1992. We lost the first two games by a total of two runs to Miami and Florida State. To this day I always credit that 1992 team for making me who I am both on the field and off the field. I learned how to play the game from Bob Milano and his heart headedness, and from my teammates that year.
Looking back, I am eternally grateful for what Bob Milano not only brought to my game but I will always appreciate what he brought to me as a man. For whatever reason, he felt that I was mentally and physically capable of overcoming this hurdle of switch-hitting. If it wasn’t for his foresight I wouldn’t have become the ballplayer I became and I definitely would not have had the career I had. His ability to understand me as an athlete and a person is something I will never forget. He knew how to push my buttons, when to push my buttons and that is why I am who I am today. I don’t fear failure because of what he taught me by letting me fail. Understanding hard work and making adjustments will always pay off. You may question it at the time like I did, but in time you will figure out that it will all be worth it. I can only hope that I can use that knowledge and experience to find that in other athletes I work with today. Learning how to work hard is the key to separating yourself from other athletes. Talent levels may be even or there may even be guys that are more talented, but they may not know how to work. That is something that can be learned and ingrained in your psyche. There were plenty of players more talented than I was coming up through the ranks of college and minor leagues and even throughout my big league career. But I believe my attitude and ability to work hard and make adjustments continually is what separated me from most and allowed me to stay in the major leagues for almost 14 years. Hard work, determination and courage. It’s one thing to learn how to work hard, it’s another thing to learn how to work hard the right way.
Who knows, if you work hard enough, you may find yourself with an opportunity to hit a game winning homerun in the World Series?