There is something magical about baseball, a game that is often said to be “greatest game that ever was“.
Perfect in every dimension and filled with bigger than life personalities.
It has given me so much, and I am going to share my number one baseball experience of all time with you – something that still brings chills to me today
As a youngster growing up in Southern Cal, I rooted for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Getting to pitch there as a big leaguer was special, but I could had never done it without my man Darryl Strawberry.
“Strawman” came over in a marquee trade by the Dodgers. It was a baseball transaction that had all of baseball churning with excitement, and I was no different. I was 12 years old, in love with Strawman (as a Met) and truly was his number one fan.
The year was 1990 and I was selected to play in a marching band that would perform at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day. As a 12 year old baseball player, to be on the hallowed grounds of Dodger Stadium was a dream come true.
We were practicing the day before Opening Day and went on band break. Yes….band break people and more jokes will soon arise from my band days.
I was the lead trumpeter, went to band camp…..and no, those things do not happen there (as American Pie, the movie says).
Anyways, we were on break and I told my Dad to come with me to the left field fence to see if Darryl was around. At Dodger Stadium, the left field fence has a gate the grounds crew would enter and exit the stadium, and you could peer into the field through a slit in the gate.
My Dad obliged and we walked over. Now, mind you, I was wearing a full marching band uniform – complete with a Roman Centurion helmet and oversized feather.
We arrived at the gate and no players were around. Disappointed, I started to leave. Just as I started walking back to our band’s practice area (in the parking lot), I heard the “click, clack” of cleats. They grew closer, the gate swings open, and out comes Darryl Strawberry.
1992: LOS ANGELES OUTFIELDER DARRYL STRAWBERRY IS CONGRATULATED BY MANAGER TOMMY LASORDA AND THE DODGER DUGOUT DURING THE DOGERS GAME AGAINST THE SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule/ALLSPORT
He was everything you would think of a Big Leaguer. The sheen of his pants, the oversized “Dodgers” across his chest, the LA logo on his hat – they embodied the aura of a “bigger than life” professional athlete.
Strawman was 6’6″ and built like Mt. Rushmore. Every flexor muscle on his bulging forearms seemed to emphasize his biceps that tore the elastic off his jersey sleeves.
His ever recognizable wrist bands and batting gloves were tucked into his back pocket, with the iconic “fingers out” positioning that us Strawberry fans knew him for.
If you ever rooted for the Strawman, you know EXACTLY what I am talking about – stirrups high, batting gloves out, and wrist bands stretched over his massive forearms. I was in love with the guy…..he was my hero.
“Mr. Strawberry, Mr. Strawberry“, I yelled, trying to get his attention away from the entourage of media and cameras…..nothing.
He kept walking by. I turned to my Dad, slumped in rejection, and watched the gate closed back up as Strawman disappeared.
Darryl was filming a commercial for the new Metro Link train system in LA. I figured that if I waited, I might be able to get one more shot at my “man”. I got my dad to get a baseball (still do not know how he got one), and waited for Strawman. Ball in one hand and pen in the other – DETERMINED to get an autograph.
After a few minutes that seemed to last a lifetime, the gate swings open and here comes Strawman.
“Darryl, Darryl, can you please sign my baseball? I am your biggest fan and I LOVE YOU….I LOVE YOU MAN!!”
To my disbelief, Strawberry turned around and looks at me….
“Mr. Strawberry, I have watched you with the Mets and am so proud that you chose the Dodgers. You are everything I love about baseball and I am going to be just like you. Can you sign my baseball?”
“No autographs kid, Mr. Strawberry is very busy.” said this gruff voice coming from a body guard whom looked like he ate people for lunch.
“JJ, I got this. What’s your name kid?” Said Strawberry.
“Jim Parque, sir. I play baseball and am going to be a major leaguer just like you.”
(Laughing), “Good for you little man. You got a ball I can sign or are you going to just sit there and stare at me with that feather on your head.” Said Strawberry.
“Oh, sorry, I am in the band that is going to play the National Anthem on your first Opening Day as a Dodger.”
I reached out as high as I could. You have to understand that I was about 4’8″, 80 pounds, and Darryl was 6’6″. I felt like I needed a ladder to just reach his chest.
He grabbed the baseball, signed it like he had done thousands of times before, and walked off.
I can still remember seeing the batting glove fingers bouncing to the click clack of his cleats. He truly was bigger than life to me.
That baseball that Darryl signed meant everything to this 12 year old SoCal native. I handled it like gold and kept it next to my bed throughout my entire young life.
Whenever I would pitch, before my Dad would take me to the game, I would talk to the baseball:
“Darryl, you da’ man. I am going to be a big leaguer just like you one day. You da’ man!”
As I gained skills and finally earned a full ride scholarship to UCLA, the first thing I packed before I left for college was this baseball. The first thing that I put on the top shelf of my UCLA locker was the ball and the first thing I packed when I left for the Olympics was….again, the ball.
It went everywhere, has been in every clubhouse I called home, and was the target of every teammate’s prank every performed on me….and there have been some good ones.
It represented athletic excellence, being the best at what one does, competition, courage, and the heart of a champion.
It bled opportunity – something that is earned. It embodied how Strawberry used his talent to get himself out of the depressed socio-economic situation he was born into.
I was no different. My father made a whopping $19K a year, and after taxes, it probably was like $15K.
We were on food stamps when my Dad got laid off. We had one car that my father drove to work every day (over an hour commute each way), no AC, and the weather was easily over 100 degrees during the SoCal summers.
But he did it every day for his entire working life. Never missed work, and if he did, he probably was dead.
For my Mom, brother, and I….we took the bus. We would walk a mile to the bus stop, wait forever, ride the bus to Ralph’s Grocery Store, get groceries and walk back to the bus stop with our bags.
My mom sewed for a living in a sweatshop in China Town. My brother and I would work there too. Gang infested, rats running rampant, and whatever you can imagine going bad….it did.
To say we were not blessed is incorrect. We had a family, two parents, and a roof over our heads. Our frig was not stocked, but there was enough to keep our bellies from hunger.
Granted, we could not eat the way others did, but we were taken care of.
I saw two movies as a kid (Top Gun and Star Wars), and a family night out for dinner was either In-N-Out or the local Mexican restaurant El Rancho….no appetizers, water only, and a meal under $8 was what we ordered.
When my Carnitas came (what I ordered every time), it looked like filet mignon and tasted better than Kobe beef.
Growing up like this was a blessing because it taught my brother and I that anything could be a toy. We used our imagination and built forts, hunted stray cats with our bamboo bows and arrows we built, and played at the local pool all summer long.
Video games? My mother would give us each a quarter to run a mile to the local 7 Eleven to play Dig Dug. We learned the value of life, hard work, and what family was.
My “back to school shopping” was conducted in the one drawer that housed all my brother’s clothes. Anything that did not fit him…..it now fits me.
I watch kids all across the country come to training with $400 bats – complaining their bat no longer works, talking back to their parents, and acting only in the best interest of themselves.
I see kids leave their equipment everywhere, forgetting it, and showing up the next week with a brand new one.
My staff and I have parents telling us we are too hard on their sons, and are blamed for their son’s issues. Try making an athlete run for lack of effort, and you will be called every name in the book, blasted in the community, and more.
Times truly have changed for the worst, and it has eroded the next generation into become a soft and entitled group of individuals looking out for one thing – themselves.
But every once in a while, you run across parents and kids whom get it.
They work hard for everything, may change their approach, but never their ethics.
They confront failure by using their “thumb”, rather than their “finger”. They know that the only thing that matters in life is Faith (if one is religious), Family, and Work. Accountability, integrity, and giving it your all play a major factor in their amazing lives.
If their son is sent home from school, they don’t say, “What did the teacher do to you”. They hold their son accountable and ask, “What did YOU do to cause this to occur?”
I take kids down to the Dominican Republic every year for a monster international tournament. We show up with $10,000 worth of equipment, and the Latin team shows up with 3 bats, 9 gloves, and 4 helmets. And they whoop our butts!
Not knowing where your next meal is going to come from creates a thirst for a better life. In the USA, we have every opportunity to assist and be assisted – government programs, opportunity for work, activities, and more. This is the greatest nation on earth and I take pride in calling myself an American because of this.
There are people whom see the bigger picture, and those whom think they ARE the bigger picture. But to make it in baseball and life, you have to see the bigger picture and figure out how to BECOME that picture.
Darryl Strawberry carved out a life from nothing. He is the true American success story, and this is the reason his signed baseball meant so much to me. It was not him (per say), but his story, his life, and what he represented.
He became that “inspiration” because he owned IT, grew stronger from IT, and believed in IT.
“IT” is opportunity and you only earn opportunity by working for “it”…..
Fast forward ten years and I am a rookie in the American League, pitching for the Chicago White Sox at the tender age of 22. I made it to the big leagues in just 4 months (wherein most take 5 years).
I was the first to make it to the big leagues in my draft class and was having a tremendous rookie year (finished 6th overall in American League Rookie of the Year voting).
We were at Yankee stadium and guess whom is still hanging on – Darryl Strawberry.
He was a fraction of what he was in his prime, but he was still in the big leagues. I can remember getting on our White Sox plane that was headed for New York, and was actually shaking with excitement.
I was scheduled to pitch against the Yankees in 2 days. When I arrived at the ballpark in New York, I got my workout clothes on and headed over to the weight room (on the Yankees side).
The Yankees were at batting practice, so the weight room was empty….just me and my trainer Steve Odgers. I started my workout with bench press.
While I was “benching”, the weight room door swung open and I heard someone walk in.
I became numb, was buried in angst, and felt my face go pale.
Darryl was looking old now. He was grey on his goat T and had the look of a wounded warrior, but he was still in great shape.
I came over and waited until he finished his crunches. He looked up at me with his shaved head and I introduced myself.
“Mr. Strawberry. I’m Jim Parque.”
I stuck my hand out and he shook it.
“Oh, you are that new rookie. Got here quicker than a 50 cent bus ride. I heard about you. Welcome to the big leagues rookie.”
We talked a little bit and it was a dream come true. Darryl was talking to me like a peer, like a teammate…..like a fellow big leaguer.
We talked about his trade to LA and how I was a true Dodger Blue fan. We laughed about how he is older than the game itself and he made fun of himself for growing old.
Before I went back to working out, I asked him something.
“Strawman, you remember ever filming a Metro Link commercial before Opening Day in Dodger Stadium?”
“Yeah, yeah….those camera people made me run into that outfield wall like 25 times. Yeah, I remember, why?”
“Do you remember a little kid in a band uniform? You signed a baseball for him before you went back underneath.”
“Yeah, he had a hat with a feather on it. Was a little Asian looking kid. Was that you?”
“Yep, that was me…..that was me. You know that baseball you signed for me? It was the reason I am here. Got it my locker on the visiting side. Really appreciated it and want to thank you after all these years for being the man and giving me hope to dream. Thanks Darryl….really…..you have no idea, but thanks.”
“Yeah, yeah (he said nodding and looking into the distance thinking). I remember you. Dont know why, but I remember you. Funny how old I am (laughing out loud).”
We shook hands and continued working out together….two major leaguers – one whom had accomplished so much and one whom wanted to accomplish as much.
We shared a moment in time that inspires fathers and sons, coaches and athletes, and teammate to play the game we all so love.
Every human being should live life for that one moment when everything makes sense…..
The moment that hears the roar of 50,000 fans cheering your name. The moment you see the glow of the stadium lights echoing the thrill of competition.
And for the moment I stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium, hearing the famed announcer Bob Sheppard say, “Now batting, #39, Darryl Strawberry”.
He came up to the plate with that long cylindrical thirty five inch bat he was known for, tapped his cleats (like he did all those years in Dodger Stadium), and stepped in.
I was looking at his eyes when he finished getting dug in, and he looked right back at me and winked….as if to say:
“Welcome little man, welcome.”
My catcher, Charlie O’Brian, put down four fingers (calling change up) and I shook him off.
He threw down his index finger and I nodded. As I went into my leg kick I can remember saying to myself:
“Strawman, been waiting a long time for this.”
I threw a 95MPH fastball outside and low and saw the dust pop of the glove.
“Strike one”, yelled the umpire.
I got the ball back and looked at Strawman. He looked back and smiled and I knew at that point in time, in front of 50,000 crazy Yankees fans (and the world watching on TV) that only he and I understood the meaning of this match up.
We shared a moment together that I will never forget and as I watched him trot down first base while my second baseman Ray Durham fielded his ground ball, I knew I could finally call myself a big leaguer.
“Thank you Strawman. You will never know how much you inspired me throughout thick and thin.”