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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

John Wooden could hold court about baseball too

The legendary coach loved to talk about the game, particularly the kind played by the teams of Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia.

June 12, 2010|By Bill Shaikin

Joe Torre looked up from his desk, in shock and awe. Into the visiting manager's office had come a visitor, an elderly gentleman hoping to talk a little baseball if it wouldn't be too much of a bother.

Guy by the name of John Wooden.

"Unannounced," Torre said. "I jumped to attention."

In the last decade of his amazing century, Wooden enjoyed few things more than stopping by Angel Stadium when the Angels played the New York Yankees. The greatest coach of our lifetime would go out of his way to compliment Torre on how he ran his team, to commend Angels Manager Mike Scioscia on how he ran his team.

What started as conversations in a ballpark blossomed into friendships that endured to Wooden's dying day. Torre was one of the last visitors to Wooden's hospital room, two days before the coach passed away.

Comfort is found in memories, in smiles, and in baseball. In one of his last outings, Wooden talked baseball for hours, at a January brunch at the home of UCLA booster Angelo Mazzone.

Torre was there. Scioscia was there. So were Jeff Moorad, the San Diego Padres' owner and a UCLA alum, and Dan Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director and onetime Bruins second baseman.

And so was another Bruin, Zev Yaroslavsky, the Los Angeles County supervisor. He marveled at how all these distinguished men leaned forward around a picnic table, hanging on Wooden's every word.

"Arguably, Torre and Scioscia are going to the Hall of Fame," Yaroslavsky said. "To watch these two great athletes and great managers reduced to goggle-eyed kids, getting a chance to break bread with a man they revered and respected, was a picture worth a zillion dollars. I was in awe at that moment."

Wooden had that effect on people, not that he would have intended such a thing. He had accomplished so much, and yet he spoke so softly, with such humility and wisdom. Torre saw this firsthand, when he would invite some of the most famous players on the most famous team in American sports into his office to meet Wooden.

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, pull up a chair.

"They would just go gaga over him," Torre said.

Wooden was cut from the same civilized cloth as Ernie Harwell, and not just because both men loved baseball. Given the chance to meet either one, you might trip over your words, or your feet. Yet, within a minute or two, the famous man could make you feel as if you were the most important person in the room.

"The real beauty of the guy," Scioscia said, "was that he didn't stand on ceremony with anyone."

So, after the food was served at that January brunch, Wooden wanted to talk, and not just about himself. The men adjourned to the patio, with Wooden in his wheelchair, and the stories flowed.

"It was like when you go into a room and smoke cigars and drink brandy," Torre said.

Scioscia and Torre peppered Wooden with questions about the baseball legends he might have seen play. Did you see Babe Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Dizzy Dean?

Wooden regaled the men with one of his favorite stories, about how the Pittsburgh Pirates once had asked him to be their manager. He had the proof.

"Every time he told that story, he would take his wallet out," Yaroslavsky said. "Somewhere, buried beneath his driver's license and Social Security card, he'd pull out this little three-line blurb, this copy of a newspaper article he'd been carrying around for 40 years about how he had been offered the job."

He knew his fundamentals, and not just in basketball. When he told Scioscia he liked the way the Angels played, he was not simply being polite.

"He understood the importance of a secondary lead," Scioscia said. "He understood the importance of hitting behind the runner, and the importance of taking the extra base. He definitely understood what would help a team win a game."

He had such high praise for Torre and Scioscia that the Angels manager whimsically decided to put Wooden's loyalties to the test. With Torre sitting next to him, Scioscia looked across the table at Wooden.

"Coach, right now, if there's a Dodger game on and an Angel game on, what game are you watching?" Scioscia said.

Wooden did not miss a beat.

"I'm channel surfing," he said.

Scioscia thought Wooden might stay at the brunch for an hour or two. When Scioscia checked his watch on the way out, he smiled. The coach had talked ball for five hours.

Wooden went home smiling too, like a kid who had caught a foul ball.

"That was the best day I've had in a long time," he told Mazzone, according to Yaroslavsky.

By then, the days were hard for Wooden. He was as sharp as ever, but he was increasingly frail. Scioscia never did see him again.

"He's the most unique man I ever talked to," Scioscia said. "His morals are incredibly strong, and he walked the walk.

"One of the greatest gifts we have are his books. They'll stand the test of time."

Scioscia took home one of Wooden's books that day, a farewell gift from the coach. The last thing Wooden wanted was for Scioscia to put the book on display, to showcase it above the fireplace or in a trophy case, but the coach never would have been so blunt.

So, with his everlasting grace and subtle wit, Wooden offered Scioscia six parting words of wisdom.

"Books," Wooden said, "are meant to be read."

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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