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Mentoring an important part of baseball

6/19/2011 - MLB

When you leave the game of baseball, a lot of thoughts cross you mind. Most likely, your exit didn't resemble the one you dreamed up. It wasn't Joe Carter circling the bases after hitting a walk-off home run in Game 6 to win the 1992 World Series, like you have done hundreds of times in your backyard. It often is the end point of your slowing down in the game, maybe on the heels of being riddled by injury or plagued by a flat slider, or even worse having the dreaded "lost a step" label stuck to you.

With aging in the game, you begin to hope that human memory is everlasting or that someone put your career in a place that can never be erased. Somehow that is the way you can find that lost step, bridging over the space that was left in its absence. We reluctantly accept that the step you find will not show up on anyone's stopwatch anymore, but it may just make you feel better that you are not going to be forgotten.

This is the weekend of fathers. A time to share and celebrate what fathers and father figures alike have contributed to our lives. Fittingly, baseball depends on mentorship. A culture that persists because players (or anyone around the game) pass down their gifts to the next generation. Something that is every bit as important to the game's survival as the next television contract or its attendance figures.

Coming up with the Chicago Cubs, my journey was sprinkled with encounters with coaches, players, legends and fans who had expectations of how I needed to continue the game. We all talk about the "unwritten rules" in baseball. It is one thing to discuss what can and cannot be done during the game, but it is another thing to discuss how you are supposed to carry the game on.

Players see each other as extensions of one another. Sure, that has a lot to do with the need to be in sync to turn a double play, but it also is critical to the lifeline of the game. There is something compelling you as a player to seek out a player who reminds you of yourself and participate in his journey. That is not to say it is always picking him up when he is knocked down, it may be to knock him down yourself, but all for reasons based on how we think the game should be respected and framed.

It may appear in team rituals like the hazing of rookies as their rite of passage to big league life or in individual powwows like when Shawon Dunston pulled me and Marlon Anderson aside to share the challenges of race and culture in a slow-to-change environment. You can't just walk into baseball and leave on your own accord, you have to pass through a filter, one that is both alive and demanding.

That filter may smack you across the face like when Brooks Kieschnick explained his approach to the press after hitting two home runs off of Jim Bullinger at Wrigley Field. Mark Grace immediately pulled him aside to tell him "never tell them your secrets!" It wasn't necessarily because Grace was Kieschnick's best friend or that he even liked him, he just had that sixth sense of how you need to behave within the culture of baseball. Grace mentored for reasons that were bigger than self.

Players see each other as extensions of one another. Sure, that has a lot to do with the need to be in sync to turn a double play, but it also is critical to the lifeline of the game.

One mentor of mine was Dunston. He did a lot for how I approached the day-to-day trials in becoming a starting center fielder in the major leagues. He managed my approach to the game, he screened my social life, he talked about personal issues, he discussed plans for post-career. He was also the player who I was constantly thought to resemble. He acted as a translator to everything I was experiencing until I knew how to see and hear things in my own language.

I remember when he popped up a ball to short center field and by the time it came down, he was flying into second base. It was an easy out and here was an established player practically blowing out a hamstring on a routine play. That was the day when I realized that I thought I was playing hard, but not as hard as I could. That day changed everything I did on the field.

Then there are coaches who have done it long before you picked up a wooden bat. John Vukovich was my coach in Philadelphia who constantly reminded us of the ills of complacency. I still carry his funeral card around with me because he became my father figure before and after my father passed away. He put a human face on the image of the baseball guy who rubbed dirt on his injuries. The same guy who had to battle and use every move in the book to just get a window of opportunity. Yet with my first-round pick pedigree and modern signing bonuses, there never seemed to be tension between him and I. He taught me as if he was a parent and because I was open to it, I learned about family.

My family included Tom Gamboa, who was made famous for getting attacked by rogue fans in the first-base coach's box at a Royals-White Sox game. But he was also the coach who believed in my ability beyond my own comprehension. He brought me to Puerto Rico to give me an opportunity after I had a horrible experience in Triple-A. He was positive without a blink of doubt in his eyes, so while being around him, I started to develop the "why not me?" attitude, then it became "it should be me out there." A winter league MVP trophy and a league championship later, I gained an irreversible confidence in my ability to perform at the highest level.

As my career evolved, I eventually reached the point when I had to give back. I was no longer the pupil, I had to grow up and teach. Along came Jimmy Rollins who used to talk in one continuous run-on sentence to the point where Scott Rolen kicked him out of our batting practice group for "overtalking." I felt like Crash Davis from the movie "Bull Durham" showing Ebby Calvin how to do an interview. Rollins was Rookie 2.0. He had the floor, he was marketable, he had his own theme music, literally. But working with him became reciprocal. I learned a lot from watching him navigate a new day. But along the way, we talked about life, love, business, stealing bases, image management, even how to sign an autograph.

When I left Philly for a year in 2003 to play in Texas, Jimmy took my old number, then I came back in 2004 and he reluctantly gave it back, but I explained it by saying, "this is how you are supposed to honor those that came before you." Lance Johnson did the same to me. I didn't like it, either, but I respected it.

Then Marlon Byrd came on the scene as a ball of fire. He was the up-and-coming minor league prospect who had limitless energy. He also had some bouts with that energy running him in a wild direction, by his own admission, so all I could think about was how I could help harness it for his own benefit. I suppose that isn't the best thing when he was the guy slated to replace me in center field, but this was what I wanted to do. If I played well, I still had the chance to get a job in some other team's outfield.

So I used to tell Byrd to "step into my office," which was in center field during down time in batting practice. My office was really a community office, opinions flying from every player on the team. At one point I told him "if you are going to date in this difficult social world of major league baseball, you have to be with someone who can grow with you, or else you both will be destroyed." No one has to listen to the veteran's rants, but if you don't you are probably taking the hard road.

By the time my career was wrapping up, I realized I was a product of a full education. One that began with my family, but was handed to the aura of a great history. And that history takes over, the second you put on a big league hat.

In reflecting, I had to thank the fungoes of Sandy Alomar Sr. and Jimmy Piersall, the ire of Ron Clark, the base-stealing of Jay Loviglio, the patience of Tony Scott, the calm of Gary Varsho, the mind of Buck Showalter, the psychology of Dave Trembley, the happy of Ernie Banks, the business mind of Garry Maddox, the pat on the back from Mike Morgan, the loyalty of Steve Melendez, the criticism of my locker hygiene of Mark Parent, the friendship of Marlon Anderson, the cool of Mike Lieberthal, the passion of Ron Santo, the listening of Laynce Nix, the music of Jose Valentin. These fathers and sons and many more helped me see that I had a place in the landscape of the endless possibility of major league baseball.

Players eventually wonder: Where is this place? What will I be remembered for? And they probably will never fully know because the game never stops evolving, even with its great memory and love for its past. All you can do is take the torch and pass it with everything you have; and know deep down that this special group that you were a part of, which comes together for season after season as surrogate fathers and sons, will always create something worth remembering.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: