Tryout Camp. In 1976, my dad and I were getting ready to go to work. It was on a Saturday, which meant it was double time. It was going to be a sixteen hour day of double time, so it was a lot of money. As I was sitting at the kitchen table, putting on my work boots, I happened to see a story in the newspaper saying the Dodgers were holding a try out camp that day in LaPorte, Indiana. My Dad sat down and I quickly covered the paper with my jacket. My Dad asked me if I saw the story about the camp, I said yes - but I didn't want to go because I didn't want to lose out on all the overtime. My dad loved baseball. He didn't want me to play basketball or football, he wanted me to play baseball. So, he told me if I went and did well, he'd pay me the money I would lose by not going to work. So I went to the tryout camp at Ken Schrieber Field. There were 264 guys that showed up to the tryout. Only I was asked to say for extra hitting. They kept turning up the speed on the pitching machine. On my last swing, I hit the ball so far it went out of the field and into a fresh bed of concrete they were pouring for a new sidewalk.
First Game. I was signed out of that camp for $5,000. I made my way to Vero Beach, Florida in 1977 for my first spring training. I made it out of spring training and went to the Midwest League with the Clinton Dodgers. In my first official game and my first at bat, I hit a double. I scored on a single by Mike Scioscia. As I was sliding across home plate, a late and high throw came in. The catcher jumped to catch the ball and landed on me. What I would later learn, he broke my neck.
Paralyzed. I was immediately partially paralyzed, I couldn't lift my arm - but thought it was more like a "stinger" or something. I sat out for a while, tried for two months to come back - but just wasn't feeling right. I was already pretty strong by this point from ironworking, so basically my muscle mass was holding my body together. Everything else but my neck hurt on me, so they never knew to look there as the cause.
Struggling. The Dodgers sent me to their team in Alberta, Canada in the Pioneer League, the Lethbridge Dodgers. I was trying to build myself back up, but remember - I still didn't know how bad I was hurt. After trying again the next year and being hurt all the time, I had a bad time - and the Dodgers released me. If I can take anything positive away from that experience, it was that it was the beginning of my love of the outdoors. While I was there, we went to Medicine Hat, Calgary - all of these other beautiful places. It was a whole new world for me.
Spinal Surgery. When I got back home, I was in terrible shape so I ended up going to some specialist in Chicago. They found I had three crushed vertebrae and a cracked spinal cord. I immediately had surgery, fusing the 3 vertebrae (5, 6 and 7) and started living with a halo on my head with screws to my skull. I was told I would be lucky to regain unassisted walking. They told me baseball - and all sports, even at recreational level, was out of the question.
My career started and ended - and I was still practically a teenager.
I Hated The World. But, because I was the son of a no-excuses ironworker, my dad told me I could either sit on my mommy's lap and cry the rest of my life or I could go back to work and be something in life (that's the cleaned up version). So, I went back to ironworking. Because I was so angry about losing a baseball career, I worked even harder. Looking back on it, it was like I was punishing myself for being hurt. But before I realized it, I got strong, real strong. So you know what I had to do... once again, I had to do what people said I couldn't do. I started playing for a local semipro baseball team.
I Needed To Try. I was already doing the impossible by just walking up to the plate. I should have been satisfied with that alone. I was hitting balls further than anyone had seen at all of the fields we played. On one particular day in Midlothian, Illinois, at the field off I-294, I hit a towering home run out of the park on to I-294. I'm told it took a shot hitting the ball about 550 feet to do that. As it turned out, the car that the ball hit got off at the next exit and came to the field looking for the guy who hit the ball. Of course, I wanted to hide, because I thought it was someone looking for me to pay for a new windshield or something. But who would have imagined, it was Billy Pierce and Bill Veeck on their way to some baseball banquet. Before I knew it, I was being invited to a tryout for the White Sox organization. That was on a Tuesday.
Tryout Camp, Again. That Friday in 1978, I was at my tryout at Comiskey Park. I showed up straight after work. It was the end of summer, I had been working outside - so I was tan, my hair was bleached blond by the sun - and I was ready. Minnie Minoso started hitting balls to me in the outfield. When I threw the balls in from deep right center to the stands behind home, they realized I had an arm.
Putting On A Show. It was time for me to hit, so I stepped in to the cage with a Wayne Nordhagen bat. Bruce DalCanton was pitching. I hadn't calmed down from the excitement of being there and totally missed the first pitch. Ron Blomberg yelled over to me to just take my time and relax. Out of 25 pitches, I hit 12 balls out, one that went thru the windows (the open arches in the outfield at Old Comiskey Park). I hit the last pitch on the roof. When I was finished, I noticed there were guys from both teams lined up watching my swings. I was told Bill Veeck said I wasn't to be allowed to leave the park until I was signed.
Being A Movie Star. That's what happened. I signed with the White Sox that day. Before I left, Minnie came up to me and said "You don't looka like no ballplayer - you looka lika movie stah" (again, because I was tanned, bleached blonde and muscles for days). Minnie called me his Movie Star to the day he died.
Back In The Saddle. In 1979, I went to White Sox minor league teams in Knoxville and Appleton. One of my first roommates was Harold Baines. That first meeting was brief, "B" went to the Big Leagues the day after I met him. Even though our first meeting was brief, our paths would cross again. I had a great time in Knoxville and Appleton. I played with many future MLB players - Richard Dotson, LaMarr Hoyt, Greg Walker. Many becoming life long friends.
Leading The Pack. The next couple years were in AA and AAA ball. I finished 1981 with the Glens Falls White Dox (AA Eastern League) with 40 home runs and was named the league's Most Valuable Player. In 1982, I was with the Edmonton Trappers in the AAA Pacific Coast League and hit 50 home runs. I was named Minor League Player of the Year by both The Sporting News and Baseball America . I remember the press dismissing the number of home runs in Edmonton because it was such a hitters part, they said it's a small park, thin air, etc. And when the media asked me for a response, I said "If it was so easy, how come nobody else has done it?" I was always a sarcastic SOB, but I always came from a place of humor. It's just been my way. As fun as this time was, I did feel like I was living with a catalytic converter on me - because at best, it felt like I never got past 75% to 80% from what I was before breaking my neck, and it was frustrating.
Appreciating Life. I really enjoyed Edmonton. Every day there was an off day, I'd get into my car and drive around Jasper. I don't think there's a prettier place on earth than Banff. There were also some perks while I played for Pocklington, the owner of the Trappers and the Oilers. I liked to get to the ballpark early and workout. There'd often be this other guy from the Oilers on the field. I'd throw him batting practice. We did this over the course of the season. He was a little blonde-haired skinny kid, but Wayne could hit the shit out of the ball.
The Great One. When I won Player of the Year in 1982, I was already in Chicago. To my surprise, Wayne was there and presented me with the award. Everyone there was amazed that I new "The Great One." I had no idea Wayne was Wayne Gretzky. I just knew him as Wayne, the skinny kid who hit the shit out of the ball.
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