The Dodgers' Paul Lo Duca had a mother who was a great influence on him while he was growing up. He's not sure how it started, but his late mother, Luci, used to toss pinto beans at him from a lawnchair a short distance away, and wear the old Blue Block wraparound sunglasses to protect herself from Paul's rippling batted beans. Lo Duca still credits that unorthodox training method, into his days at Arizona State, with helping him become the high contact hitter he remains today. He said it's amazing the break that can occur on a tossed lima bean.
His father, Paul Sr., plays a role in his other sports love ... horses. The first thoroughbred Lo Duca bought is named "Weej" for Luigi. That's what the family used to call his dad because of his uncanny resemblance to that character from Super Mario Brothers. A two-year-old, "Weej" has a first-place and a third-place finish in a handful of races. Last week, Lo Duca added to his stable with 8-year-old "Wacky American."
Lo Duca is also competing for a batting title and leading the Dodgers in hitting in his first season without caffeine. This offseason he gave up the stimulant, and although initially the catcher suffered severe withdrawal symptoms and even greater sleep disorders, he's adjusting better all the time and hopes that this will help resolve his tendency to chronically wear down by August and September.
Lost in the immersion of Randy Johnson's perfect game was the fact that it came in the midst of the Diamondbacks' longest road trip since the '90s. While the Big Unit was avalanched with attention at each of his next stops in Florida, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, he still wasn't home to be honored until this week. A father of four, Johnson was able to share the moment with his wife, Lisa, by cell phone while his historic shoulder was being iced in Atlanta the night he was perfect.
When his oldest daughter, Samantha, got on the phone to share the big moment with her father, she wondered, "How come everyone else is jumping up and down and Mommy's crying?" To this day, Johnson still honors his late father, Bud, with all of his significant achievements in the game. When he reaches closer to the sky than any pitcher in baseball history with his index finger, he's remembering his father, and the fact that he owes everything he's accomplished in baseball to him.
An intimidating 6-foot-6 himself, Johnson's father was a law officer who instilled in Randy an attitude of "get it right the first time." It wasn't until he passed away suddenly on Christmas Day 1992 that Johnson went from an odd-looking, gangly creature with a wild fastball -- a self-described Nuke Laloosh -- to the Hall of Fame-caliber pitcher he's become.
Johnson pitched in his first All-Star Game in 1993, the game that included the unforgettable strikeout of ESPN'S own John Kruk, and has only grown more dominant with age. He described 2003 as his toughest season because of all the speculation about his performance and whether he was washed up. It only fueled Johnson's considerable fire because no one knew how much his knee was bothering him, and that he simply wasn't healthy. This year, he's emphatically answering all the speculators and doubters.
He has a collection of all his significant game balls, from his first strikeout through 1,500, 2,000, 3,500 and his previous no-hitter and both 20-strikeout games, which the May 18th ball (the outing he tossed the perfect game) will join. His jersey from that night will go in the rotunda at Bank One Ballpark, and the shoes he wore are headed to Cooperstown ... as soon as he has a bad game in them; he's won four straight games since tossing the perfect game.
No player in baseball hit the ball with more authority in April than Richard Hidalgo. He batted .341 for the month with four homers and 22 RBI. But few hit more feebly in May than the Astros' slugger; he had no homers and batted .202. And by Memorial Day, he had -- at least temporarily -- lost his starting job in right field, and been dropped to seventh in the batting order when he does play.
Hidalgo has been trying to get out of his batting slump by working with the Astros' hitting coach, Harry Spilman, to rediscover what made the ball jump off his bat in the season's opening month. Spilman has been working with Hidalgo to get him to wait longer on pitches, and not open up on pitches so much. But every time Hidalgo feels he's making progress, he might be on the bench the next game, with Orlando Palmeiro in the starting lineup in place of him.
Hidalgo isn't pleased with his present circumstance, and Astros manager Jimy Williams says no one wants Hidalgo to be in the starting lineup every day more than he does, but he has a responsibility to the other 24 players on the squad to win games in a very tough division.
It's something all players go through sooner or later, and ironically, last May was one of Hidalgo's best months. Historically, Hidalgo has been strong in June, and hit .356 in the month in 2003. The native Venezuelan remains concerned he won't be able to correct his hitting flaws while not playing regularly.
Kaz Ishii is still struggling with his control, even though he's winning (6-3 through Thursday). Ishii's wife is a television personality in Japan who speaks fluent English. But Kaz still isn't completely comfortable with his second language, so some of the Dodgers have picked up a bit of Japanese to communicate with him better. That's easy to do with Jim Colborn as the Dodgers' pitching coach. The former head of Pacific Rim scouting for the Mariners knows the language well, and helped Lo Duca with "Koi", which means "bring it to me," and "Ukuri", which roughly translated means "slow down and concentrate." Last Sunday, the word "Musheen" was added to the Ishii conversation in order to encourage "effortless effort."
Although the Dodgers have one of the most impressive displays of retired numbers, including being the original franchise to immortalize Jackie Robinson, many baseball followers are puzzled that Maury Wills hasn't been given the same honor, and that he hasn't yet been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Wills, however, will always be in Dave Roberts' Hall of Fame. L.A.'s fleet-footed center fielder wears the No. 30 in honor of his mentor, whom he still works with every day at Dodger Stadium and talks to frequently from the road.
Wills says Roberts possesses the most essential element of a successful basestealer ... no fear. Roberts doesn't think anyone can throw him out. But his chronic hamstring problems have limited his playing time again this season, and Wills is trying to get Roberts to adopt his training method. Wills' secret to staying injury free? Ice. After every game in which he had a particularly eventful day on the bases, Wills would ice down his hamstrings in the Dodgers' clubhouse, next to Sandy Koufax, who after pitching would ice his painfully arthritic left elbow. The difficulty is that the modern player often won't take the time to stick around for up to an hour after the game for medical treatment. With Roberts being a bit "old school," Wills may yet be able to convince him to try the ice treatment.
Early in the season when the Dodgers were off to their unexpectedly torrid start, an even more unexpected music selection became their rallying cry ... William Hung's version of "She Bangs." It threatened to join "We are Family" in Pirates lore if L.A. kept up it's winning ways. But fortunately, they went on an eight-game losing streak and the disc was suspended, and perhaps shattered into several pieces, not likely to resurface in the clubhouse.
At one point, the team was so caught up in the song, they invited Hung to tape some jumbotron messages, ala the "Rally Monkey" down the coast in Anaheim. But Hung and his father wanted unreasonable compensation in return, and the idea and eventually the theme song itself were scrapped. The Cubs, meanwhile, saw fit to promise this week that Hung will never be invited to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field.
Both the Dodgers and Cubs remain nearly unique in not employing team mascots to "enliven" things at the park, although you could make a case for self-employed Wrigley fixture Ronnie Woo Woo. L.A. admitted it considered adding a mascot recently, but while they chose wisely not to, many traditionalists, including myself, are chagrined that they've eliminated the charming, unobtrusive organ music which used to characterize the Dodger Stadium experience -- from everything but the pre-game.
The Dodgers now have the same ear-pounding, heavy-metal chorus punctuating every at-bat and potential rallying moment. That leaves Wrigley as the only park with the majority of it's unnatural sounds provided by an organ.
Gary Miller is a reporter and play-by-play announcer for ESPN's major league baseball coverage.