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June 18, 2014

The Lineup Card

Seven Small-World Baseball Stories

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Jed Hoyer did my undergrad admissions interview
I guess Jed Hoyer needed a job. After graduating from Wesleyan College, the soon-to-be general manager of the San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs got his first big-person job as an admissions worker at a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. It was around that time that a 17-year-old high school senior named Russell A. Carleton from Cleveland was looking for a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere to attend, and Kenyon College sure looked nice. On one of my first visits to the school, I stopped by the admissions department and met a fresh-faced college kid named Jed who worked in the admissions department. I remember two things about that conversation. First, he was (and still is) the nicest Jed I'd ever met. He was (and still is) also only the second Jed I'd ever met. Second, he mentioned something about how his dream job when he grew up was to work in baseball. I remember chuckling and saying something similar. Apparently the conversation went well. I got in, had a wonderful four years, met my wife, majored in psych, and picked up a bunch of knowledge around stats and research methods.

Fast forward a decade or so when Jed Hoyer was the newly minted GM of the Cubs. I happened to be reading a profile piece on the new guy in town written by one of the Chicago papers. In a throwaway line, the story mentioned that Hoyer had started out his professional career doing admissions work at a small college in Ohio before moving on to other work and then into baseball. Wait a minute... I did a little digging and found that the "small college in Ohio" was my alma mater and that the dates that he was there matched when I was a high school senior. Then I had that moment of realization. Oh, the Jed from Kenyon was... Jed Hoyer. Apparently, things went well for him in getting his dream job. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Johnnie LeMaster's wife stopped by my mom's antiques-show booth
We think this was Sept. 4, 1982: My mom was working her booth at an antiques show in San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, when Johnnie LeMaster’s wife came by. She wanted to buy the two brass and iron beds with gallery footboards that my mom was selling for $850 as a pair, but she had to see if her husband—Johnnie LeMaster—liked them. My parents asked what sort of job he had that he had to work on a Saturday. He played shortstop for the Giants, she said. He was Johnnie LeMaster.

A few things about the people involved in this story. My parents were hippies, no interest in sports, if anything antagonism toward sports. It would never occur to them to fall in love with something like a baseball team. And LeMaster was, at that point, one of the least popular, worst Giants of all time. He’s the guy who came out with “Boo” on the back of his jersey one night. “He’s in a good mood,” his wife told my mom, “because he just got a hit.” A hit. Singular. A hit made him happy. That’s how down Johnnie LeMaster was.

He came to the show after his game and approved the purchase. “I had to help him load when he came to pick it up,” my dad says, “and I was shocked. He was smaller than you, smaller than me. He looked like a 17-year-old kid. So I started following him.”

That’s when my dad became a Giants fan, and a baseball fan. He’d listen to every game on the radio while he was out working, or while he and my mom were on antique-buying road trips up in Gold Country. He started out just wanting to know how LeMaster did-- “I thought, that’s so cool that he’s excited just because he got a hit” -- but eventually he became the most diehard Giants fan I knew. Eventually, I turned six and he taught me the game, and while I might have fallen for it anyway, my relationship with the sport was always pretty explicitly an extension of my relationship with him.

He doubts I’d be a baseball fan today if not for LeMaster’s wife stopping and noticing those beds. He thinks I’d be a tree surgeon. I think maybe a traffic engineer. —Sam Miller

3. Jason Kipnis' uncle is on my curling team
There's no juicy story here, I'm just going for the most esoteric connection. Also his uncle is a Tigers fan. —Matt Sussman

4. Jeff Torborg taught me how to throw a changeup
Jeff Torborg showed up at my team’s practice on a frigid Saturday morning, the kind where sliding into second base was an absolute no-no unless you had titanium-plated sliding shorts. (Dick’s was fresh out.) No 11-year-old wanted to be outside, let alone do baseball things, but we were in the presence of a former major-league manager. We didn’t have much choice.

After running through the standard warm-up drills—which for my team meant booting ground balls until the errors became second-nature—Mr. Torborg took his place on an upturned bucket of baseballs and lectured us on the nuances of the game. “Know your strike zone. Throw something in the dirt on an 0-2 count. Never ask Jack McKeon for coaching advice.” He even offered to teach the pitchers how to throw a changeup, something we desperately needed to fill the strategic gaps between “fastball” and “another fastball.” Since I was destined to win 10 Cy Youngs with the Yankees, I figured this could be my big break. As the old adage goes, impress Jeff Torborg and your Cooperstown plaque is already on its way.

I stepped on the rubber and memorized his instructions: “Hold the ball so that your thumb and index finger make a circle.” (I think he meant “pointer finger,” but it was early, so I gave him a pass.) “Now, place your other fingers on top of the ball with a little space between each one. Make sure your grip is nice and loose.” I could barely stretch my fingers enough to get them around the ball, but I managed to fight off the cold and did what he said. “Go through your wind-up and throw it like you would throw a fastball.”

I took a deep, icy breath, went through my motion, and let the ball fly… except it didn’t so much fly as it did bounce four times to the plate. The freezing air had locked my arm up so tightly that I spiked the ball straight into the ground. My teammates chuckled, and I looked at my hand as if to say, “He might be scouting me, what the hell is wrong with you?!” My plaque was being taken down, and the mayor was changing the locks so my key to the city wouldn’t work anymore. I had blown it.

“That’s alright, it’s a little chilly out and the first one’s always the hardest. Try it again.”

I went from pre-teen crisis to brimming with confidence in about three seconds, and was ready to throw the greatest changeup of all time. I picked up another ball, showed it the Torborg Way, and promptly threw what must have been the greatest three-bounce changeup of all time.

I would’ve been mortified, but I didn’t have time to process the destruction of my career before Torborg spoke: “Hey, if you keep it up, you’ll have a pretty good changeup in about two more pitches.”

Jeff Torborg told me a joke. I had finally arrived. —Nick Bacarella

5. I played softball and became friends with Johnny Bench's son
This is a weird story, but bear with me for a moment. When I moved into my college dorm at Boston University, I didn't know much about my roommate other than we both liked baseball. Now, lots of people "like baseball," but not everyone lets baseball consume his or her every thought. Fortunately, my roommate did, and we're fast friends to this day.

But that's beside the point. One day, we learned that the Barnes and Noble just a few blocks away from our dorm was hosting Johnny Bench, and that he'd be signing autographs for people for a few hours. We were ecstatic, and we made plans to go. Unfortunately, trusting two college freshmen to plan anything is like trusting Bret Sayre to work Google Docs, and so we showed up late. Bench was gone, but we were able to walk around the area where he had been signing books. We grabbed a pen, decided that was definitely the pen Bench was using, and made a fake shrine to it in our room. We were exactly as cool as we sound.

Fast-forward a few months, and my roommate and I are at a party when this giant handsome dude walks in. A mutual friend introduces him as Bobby and we all hit it off. A few days later we notice that we're tagged in pictures on Facebook with this Bobby. And this Bobby's last name is Bench. Not a coincidence.

That's where my small world baseball story begins, but it's ended with me considering Bobby one of my closest friends. We lived together for two years, and while we both obviously love baseball, that's not the basis of our friendship. I've missed out on a few chances to miss his father, but that stopped mattering to me a while ago. He's no longer "Johnny Bench's son" to anyone in our group of friends—he's just amicable, goofy Bobby.

But for these purposes, well, I get to say that I formed half of a corner infield softball duo with a member of baseball royalty. No big deal, but kind of big deal. And Bobby, if you're reading this, never forget that time I took you deep with J.D. Drew when you were throwing Aroldis Chapman in MLB 2K10. —Ben Carsley

6. Jeff Luhnow came to speak to my high school's Economics 101 class
Way back in 2010, I was a wide-eyed high school senior who dreamed of working in baseball. So you'd imagine that I was ecstatic to hear that an alumnus of my high school was coming back to speak to an Economics 101 class to talk about "the economics of baseball." This alumnus worked in a real MLB Baseball Operations Department.

As the event drew closer, I began to find out more about who this mystery alum was. The first thing I found out was that he was a hig- ranking employee in scouting and player development for the St. Louis Cardinals. At this point, I couldn't have been more excited. I was determined to make an impression on this mystery alum who would immediately launch into a predictable discussion about salary arbitration and free agency.

That mystery alumnus turned out to be Jeff Luhnow. He was in town for his 25th high school reunion, and his short spiel about his background convinced me that, with some luck and a lot of hard work, my dream was quite possible.

When I finally was able to speak with Mr. Luhnow one on one, I was nervous and don't remember what either of us said. To be honest, I set the bar for this first baseball networking conversation pretty low. I got a Twitter handle instead of his personal email address, but that was fine with me. My journey had begun. —Noah Woodward

7. I monitored a market-research phone survey with Marge Schott
My first job out of college back in the early 1990s was at a market research firm, which is a fancy way of saying I did phone surveys. I wouldn’t have lasted long on the phones, so I eventually got a job as a “monitor” listening to other people’s phone calls and evaluating their performance. The job was as exciting as it sounded.

Once in a while, something interesting happened. We were doing a survey for a bank in Ohio where we had the names of the bank customers. This was a survey the bank had specifically commissioned for high end (as in rich) clientele with a significant portfolio at the bank.

As a monitor, I could not only hear the conversation on the phone but I could see what was on the caller’s screen. There was a place on the screen that was “fixed”: It gave certain information about the call, which usually just included the phone number and region of the country where the respondent was from. Since this was a survey where we knew who the respondents were, their names were also on the fixed part of the screen.

It was a night shift, so I was half asleep and half paying attention. It wasn’t until the guy next to me pointed at the screen and said:

“Dude, is Joe talking to Marge Schott?”

He was. And while there was no way of knowing for sure if it was the Marge Schott, how many affluent Marge Schotts were there in the state of Ohio?

I don’t have a photographic memory of what happened 20-plus years ago. I remember the survey was long and we had to bring Joe (not his real name) some water because he was nervous when he figured out who he was talking to. I remember that Schott sounded a little gruff but was very nice and congenial about what was a long 40-45 minute phone survey. Nice was important when you did market research; a lot of people were rude or dismissive on these types of phone calls even after they agreed to do the survey.

The thing I remember the most is that there was a demographic section at the end of the survey asking questions about income, ethnicity, education, and similar things that were typical at the end of surveys. Joe sounded uncomfortable asking Ms. Schott about her income bracket. She said something like “Honey, I don’t care about that. I’m going to be at the top of whatever your money range is.” We had a good laugh about that. —Mike Gianella

9 comments have been left for this article.

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