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Brett, Ryan and Yount Form an Impressive Group Heading to Cooperstown

Triple Crown | BILL PLASCHKE

These three not only make baseball proud, they make Southern California proud too.

January 06, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

The little boy has rubber footballs, roller-blades and a neat Cub Scout cap and kerchief.

Yet all he wants to do is play catch.

Nobody in his immediate family has played it in 25 years, or has season tickets, or watches it regularly on TV, or talks about it at home.

Yet on Christmas the little boy scrambled outside to pitch in church clothes and mud.

At which point his bewildered mother asked:

"What exactly is it about him and baseball?"

What exactly is it about any Southern Californians and baseball?

Nobody knows. But, goodness, there's something.

Just as every person has a favorite sport, so does every community.

With apologies to soccer moms and football pops and basketball junkies, ours is still baseball.

We play it more than anybody. We play it better than anybody.

And lately, how we have grown hoarse from the cheering.

When George Brett and Robin Yount were elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday along with adopted son Nolan Ryan, they took a whole bunch of Southern California with them.

Just like the USC baseball team when it won the national championship last spring.

Just like San Diego's David Wells when he threw a perfect game while leading the New York Yankees to a near-perfect season.

Just like Claremont's Mark McGwire when he did you-know-what.

Tuesday's announcement was just another long ball for Southern California in a year filled with them.

"Baseball permeates the area," said Clement Cohen, Yount's former Little League coach at Woodland Hills. "It's just something we do."

While growing up in the Valley, it was just something Yount did.

Some nights after winter Little League practice at Taft High, the coach would pull up his car to the field. He would turn on his headlights. He would stay long after dark throwing Yount baseballs in the dirt.

"The other kids would leave, but Robby wanted to stay," he said.

That is the perfect Southern California baseball story, a kid benefiting from the weather, a good field, a parent.

Here is another one.

There was the time Yount was furious about being asked to bunt. He walked into the dugout afterward and, even though his bunt was perfect, he banged down his helmet in anger.

Cohen loudly confronted him and said, "Robin, this is a team sport, not an individual sport. You will never do that again."

After the game, Yount's father, Phil, walked in from beyond the outfield foul lines, where he often watched the game without being a distraction.

"Thank you," he told the coach. "If you didn't do it, I would have."

And one more story.

One day in the mid-1960s, the junior varsity baseball coach at El Segundo High walked into Coach John Stevenson's offices with a report.

"I'm going to have to cut two kids, they're too small," he said.

He mentioned that one of them was freshman George Brett.

Stevenson winced.

He had coached Brett's three older brothers. He had seen them each grow enormously between their freshman and sophomore years.

Also, while coaching the boys, he had always noticed tiny "Louie"--George's nickname--swinging a Wiffle Ball bat and shagging fly balls in the outfield.

"He had a sweet swing, even as a little kid," Stevenson said.

The head coach pulled rank.

"I told the junior varsity coach, 'Not only will you not cut George Brett, but tomorrow he's your starting shortstop,' " Stevenson remembered.

The rest is, well, you know the rest.

History for George Brett, and more history for Southern California.

Nolan Ryan didn't grow up here. But he helped us grow as fans, helped us appreciate fortitude as well as flash, each pitch containing Showtime and Crunch Time.

For eight seasons with the Angels, Ryan averaged 36 starts per season.

In Kevin Brown's 10-year career, baseball's new tough guy has not made 36 starts once.

Another Southern Californian could join these guys next summer, as Dick Williams, who spent his formative years in Altadena, is expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee.

But enough about all that. I've got to run. A little boy is calling me. Something about getting him ready for this weekend's big day.

Second Saturday in January.

Tryouts.

Baseball.

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