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Tuesday, May 4, 2004
Updated: May 11, 5:12 PM ET
Swinging for the fences

By Rob Ryder
Page 3

Chances are if you're not a father already, you're gonna be, so listen up.

(Apologies to my six women readers. You too, Mom).

Parenthood
Anyone who is thinking about coaching their kid should see "Parenthood."
Guys, never coach your own kid.

Not in games, not in practice, not in the back yard.

If your kid's out there, gripping the baseball bat bass-ackwards, don't try to correct him. He'll argue that this is the way the real pros do it and what do you know anyway.

Just pitch him the damn ball and see what happens.

Or better yet, sign him up for soccer.

Because baseball is a cruel, cruel game.

Ask Derek Jeter who just went 0 for 32. Ask Bill Buckner -- unfairly blamed for losing the 1986 World Series. Ask me -- still haunted by a dropped fly ball in Little League. Still resentful after working with Tommy Lee Jones on "Cobb."

In baseball, you're all alone out there. Unlike other team sports, you can't get lost in the crowd. (That's why soccer is so popular among P.C. parents. "Isn't it beautiful? They're all out there being mediocre together!")

But baseball, jeez.

My 12-year-old, Cole, approached me about playing hardball this spring for the first time ever.

"Aw, man, you don't know what you're asking for," I said.

"I want to play."

Cole's developed that winner quality as an athlete, mostly because I've stayed out of his way. He can take a hit. He's shocked when he drops a pass. He wants the basketball in his hands as the clock winds down.

What's baseball gonna do to that?

"Only if I can find you the right coach," I told him.

Vic Morrow
Forget about Matthau, imagine Vic Morrow coaching your kid?
In youth sports, that's "THE BIG IF". (Is there a movie here?) Because these guys can be real knuckle-scrapers. Bullies, alcoholics, pill-poppers, frustrated ex-jocks with axes to grind. Men under the thumbs of their bosses and/or ex-wives.

So you sign your kid up thinking, okay, he can handle a Walter Matthau type. It'll toughen him up. But what if he ends up with Tommy Lee Jones on a bad day? What then?

I've got a buddy whose kid, James, pitches in Pony League. They were late to a practice because James had cello practice.

Next thing the coach is yelling, "Cello!? You play cello!? What kind of wuss are you!?"

This is a grown man talking to a 12-year-old boy. My friend isn't happy about it, but his son doesn't want him interfering.

Cole was playing club basketball for a coach who was a real screamer. I went up to the guy.

"Why are you yelling so much?"

"How else are they gonna know it matters?" he answered. "I'm yelling to show the kids how much I care."

And this guy wonders why he can't keep a girlfriend. ("Jimmy, was that foreplay or a suicide drill?")

I tell the guy, "I don't mind you barking at my kid, but don't scream at him."

One of the great sprinters (Michael Johnson, I think) was once asked why didn't he ever go out for football, you know, make like Herschel Walker.

His answer: "I watched a practice. Too much yelling goin' on. All these coaches yelling and screaming. That's not my scene."

So there's that and then of course, there's the issue no one wants to discuss.

My sister-in-law, Sandy, is a producer for NBC's "Dateline." She and Maria Shriver did a piece about a Little League coach who molested dozens and dozens of boys over two decades. He would take months, even years, to ingratiate himself with the parents. They had no clue. He ate at their dinner tables and molested their sons.

Sandy says, "The scariest thing? -- this was the nicest guy on the earth."

What kind of crappy-ass world is this?

Sorry about this bummer tangent, but let me finish.

Look, for all you wonderful youth coaches out there -- the ones doing it right -- keep on keeping on. And please don't take it personally when a parent doesn't want their kid to be alone in the car with you.

Cobb
The credit cards don't lie ... pleasure to meet you Mr. Jones.
For all you parents of young athletes. Be vigilant.

Okay, enough. We were talking baseball.

It was 1993. My friend and mentor, Ron Shelton asked me to help out on "Cobb," a movie he was directing for Warner Bros. about baseball Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb

I didn't particularly want the job. I'm not an ultra-savvy baseball guy. I didn't want to have to fake things. But Ron assured me that he'd cover the technical stuff (having played double-A baseball for years) and my job would be more logistical -- hire players, arrange practices, like that.

I still had doubts. I'd heard that Tommy Lee Jones could be a real handful. And the guy he was playing, Ty Cobb, had been just plain cruel.

The notion of spending the next 12 weeks with these two personalities rolled into one sent me on a search through my 14 credit cards. Sorry.

I had to take the job.

We started prepping out of Ron's office on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Tommy Lee Jones was in town but I hadn't met him yet.

I'd been scrambling all day, breaking down the script to see how many players we'd need, searching for a double for Tommy, finding a local practice field to go over some stuff.

I'd gotten back to the production office and sprawled out on the couch. Next thing you know, Mr. Jones is storming into the office yelling at me.

"Wake up, boy! Be somebody!"

"Okay," I said, sitting up.

But before I could introduce myself, he was in Shelton's office, doing the hearty hello thing.

So that's how it was gonna be. Above the line, below the line. That was okay. There's no sense in trying to be these guys' friend.

We ended up in Poinsettia Park that afternoon. Ron, Tommy, Manny (an excellent double for Tommy except for his hat size) me and a couple other guys.

Ron was demonstrating how Ty Cobb held a bat with a split grip. He was a lefty, besides. The right-handed Tommy grabbed the bat and in short order had a credible left-handed swing going.

The guy was a solid athlete, no question.

Then we moved over to the third base line. Sliding practice. We asked Manny (the double) to demonstrate several types of slides. Hook, headfirst, cleats up.

The dirt was hard. Manny was getting pretty beat up, but he was game. Tommy watched intently.

"Okay, I'll work on that back at my ranch over the next couple weeks."

Cobb
Cobb was known for his equal hated of everyone.
Later, Manny pulled me aside. "You oughta warn him how dangerous sliding is. Lots of injuries."

I thought about it; he was right. So I found a moment and said, "Tommy, back on your ranch, be careful. Sliding can be dangerous."

"Dangerous? Sliding? Don't be stupid!" he yelled. "I'll tell you what's dangerous. Falling off a horse, that's dangerous!"

I shrugged.

So Tommy Lee Jones headed back to Texas and I went to Detroit where I'd spend the next two weeks hiring dozens of players, meeting with stadium personnel and local production crew, prepping for scenes that would never be shot.

This is not unusual. In the movie business, there's always something.

I got the call at my hotel. Tommy Lee Jones had broken his ankle practicing sliding on his ranch in Texas.

The whole production was turned topsy-turvy. They pushed back the start date and reworked the schedule. They wrote out all the scenes at Tiger Stadium.

We ended up in Birmingham, Alabama to shoot the baseball.

This wasn't an easy movie -- a difficult actor playing a difficult man. But Shelton had a firm hand on the reins. Director as coach. Ron doesn't tolerate any crap. He's got a great way of yelling without yelling:

"You know, I can yell! I can get really pissed off! Anybody want to see that? I didn't think so! So let's tighten it up around here!"

Tommy Lee Jones had just gotten his cast off. He and I quickly established a perfect working relationship. We didn't say a word to each other unless it was absolutely necessary.

I've found that passive-aggression is the most useful weapon in an ongoing battle with your superiors.

What're they gonna do, fire you for not saying hello?

So there we were, manly men shooting baseball.

Then Roger Clemens came down to give us a few days as a rival pitcher, and God, the testosterone really started flying.

Clemens was a pro's pro. Cordial but curt. All business. His warm-up was something to witness. He'd start by throwing from 20 feet behind the mound, then he'd slowly move up. He said by the time he got to the rubber, the strike zone looked as big as a house.

Players were scrambling to catch for him. The crew guys were in awe. Grips who wouldn't turn their heads at the sight of a topless starlet were standing there, mouths open.

Roger Clemens
If you think you wouldn't want to face the Rocket now, try 1993.
I strolled over and stood alongside the catcher. It was unbelievable. The ball coming in like a missile. Hitting the catcher's glove with a sharp POW.

Clemens stopped for a second and grinned at me. "Hey, why don't you step in? Come on, grab a bat."

"No way," I shouted back.

"Come on," he yelled.

"How about this?" I laughed back. "No way!"

Clemens smiled. Did he respect me less? I don't think so. He knew the power of his stuff.

You may have heard me trash basketball players who think they're so tough. And how football, hockey and boxing are the sports where you'll find the real tough guys.

I never mentioned baseball. But checking out Clemens close up and considering how sometimes pitchers purposely hit batters -- you've got to be damn brave to step into that box.

I'd rather face Warren Sapp. Or Tommy Lee Jones.

He stayed in character the whole shoot.

One day we were out by second base under the hot sun. The great Aussie director of photography, Russell Boyd, was setting the cameras. (He just won an Academy Award for "Master and Commander.")

He was a quiet, unassuming man. He did a brilliant job shooting "White Men Can't Jump" for a reason you'd never consider.

"Oh, my gawd!" he said when he first saw Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson together. "How am I going to light you two?!"

Remember, black absorbs light while white reflects it. And you can't get a greater contrast than Wesley and Woody. A D.P.'s worst nightmare, but Russell pulled it off.

Anyway, out there by second base on "Cobb" we were facing a delay. Camera problem. Shelton headed back to his trailer to review the schedule.

Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Jones had already been escorted out to the set. He sat there in his director's chair, fuming. Then the needle came out as he went after Russell Boyd.

"Hey, Russell, what the f--- is this? I'm sittin' here in the hot sun watching you muck around like some schoolboy?"

Russell said nothing. Kept right on working. There must have been about 25 of us, quietly standing, milling about. Holding our breaths.

Tommy continued. "It's a camera, Russell. You look through the viewfinder. You push a button. Hey, you got film in there, right? Russell, I'm talkin' to you."

White Men Can't Jump
You don't get more of a contrast than these two.
God, it got uncomfortable. The unflappable Russell Boyd continued ignoring the insults.

Sometimes it hurts worse than getting picked on yourself. When a real good guy, the kind of man this world needs more of, is subjected to this crap.

I felt like saying, "Hey, Russell, how many awards did you win for all that brilliant work you did with Peter Weir? You know, 'The Last Wave.' 'Picnic at Hanging Rock.' 'The Year of Living Dangerously.' All that other great work you've done?"

But did I? No. I stood there, fuming, until Mr. Jones had satisfied his urge to humiliate.

Ty Cobb was a great baseball player.

Tommy Lee Jones is an excellent actor.

Baseball is a cruel cruel game.

I snap back to Pony League. It's the bottom of the seventh. Cole is 0 for 3, but at least he made contact. He'll survive.

The lanky, quiet, cello-playing James is at the plate. He hasn't played well. His coach has been on him.

There's a kid on first. They're down a run. James smacks a towering fly ball straight over Cole's head in center field to win the game.

He crosses home plate triumphantly. His coach is right there to high-five him (undoubtedly convinced it was his needling which sparked the homer).

As they head for the bench, I shout out through the chain link fence.

"Hey, James, that's what you get for playing the cello!"

The coach shoots me a look. James smiles.

In a world full of big-time bullies, it's the small victories that mean the most.

Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works in Hollywood as a screenwriter and sports advisor. He can be reached at robryder@adelphia.net.