DEE FONDY: REMEMBERED BY BUD SELIG AND WILLIE MAYS

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

In memory of the 1973 World Series.

Dee Fondy, an ex-major league baseball player who lived in Redlands for years, never seemed to show up in the spotlight. He was completely without fanfare. His son, Jon, said his late father never sought the publicity of local newspapers, preferring a low-key existence. A war hero and a local product (though he was born in Texas) from San Bernardino, Fondy was a golf-playing member at Redlands Country Club during his retirement years.

It wasn’t all that well-known, however, that Fondy was a premiere advance scout for the New York Mets — a spot that is most likely among baseball’s under-appreciated roles. A year after nearly producing a scouting report that nearly helped win the 1973 World Series, Fondy landed a spot with the Milwaukee Brewers.

It was Fondy who scouted the defending champion Oakland A’s for the Mets in its 1973 showdown against a Hall of Fame-led team, namely Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, “Catfish” Hunter and manager Dick Williams.

The Mets, injured and suffering throughout the season, managed to package an 83-79 season together. It was good enough to win the National League Eastern Division.

In the National League playoffs, New York outlasted a 99-win Reds’ teams loaded with Hall of Famers — Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Sparky Anderson, plus the likely Cooperstown inductee Pete Rose — in five games.

The A’s were baseball’s defending champions, having beaten the Reds one season earlier. This time, it was Oakland taking on the Mets, whose Hall of Fame talent included Tom Seaver and Willie Mays, playing his final season.

The Mets had a 3-2 lead in the Series, based off 10-7, 6-1 and 2-0 wins over the A’s in Games 2, 4 and 5. Hunter outdueled Seaver in Game 6, 3-1, before Kenny Holtzman beat Jon Matlack in Game 7, 5-2.

Fingers, the loser in Game 3, saved three of those games. It took Oakland’s best efforts.

“Dad’s scouting report was in Yogi Berra’s back pocket,” said Jon Fondy, Dee’s son, who had produced the report. “They almost pulled it off and beat the A’s.”

Berra, a Hall of Famer, was New York’s manager. Part of Fondy’s scouting report had to be data that led to Mets’ pitchers holding A’s hitters to a .212 Series average with just two HRs.

The comparative rosters of both teams should have left Oakland in position to sweep the Mets, or at least take them in five games. Fondy’s notes on the A’s, however, gave New York’s pitchers a strong advantage.

One season later, Fondy was off to Milwaukee.

Dee_Fondy_1953
Virgil Dee Fondy spent four decades in major league baseball, notably as a first baseman over eight seasons, later as an advance scout (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Fondy, a lefty during his playing days, wound up with the young, expansionist Brewers – eventually heading a scouting department that signed Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. In the Brewers’ only World Series appearance, 1982, those future Hall of Famers were paramount in the teams’ success.

CONSTRUCTING AN OBITUARY

Upon Fondy’s death – Commissioner Bud Selig responded to a call from a local newspaper – to laud the career and life of the onetime Pirates, Cubs and Reds first baseman. Fondy had once been traded with Chuck Connors, who went on to fame as television’s “The Rifleman,” a CBS production.

Selig, of course, knew Fondy from his days as Brewers’ owner. Fondy had worked for Selig.

In August of 1999, Dee Fondy died at a retirement home in Redlands.

In his obituary, I wrote: “He had played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds and was the last player to bat in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, died of cancer. He was 74.

“Fondy, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year earlier, died at Plymouth Village.”

His death reverberated through baseball.

While working on Fondy’s obituary, I’d placed a call to the MLB offices in New York City, seeking comment — a standard procedure. Baseball usually responded quickly. In this case, it was the commissioner, Bud Selig, who had placed the return call.

Bud_Selig_on_October_31,_2010
Alan “Bud” Selig, a Hall of Famer as onetime Commissioner of Baseball, weighed in personally on Dee Fondy’s 1999 death (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

I was out of the office when Selig called. Mike Brown, the news editor, took the call, jotted down Selig’s comments, and forwarded them to me. I must’ve missed the commissioner’s call by just minutes in August 1999.

“Dee Fondy was one of my favorite people,” Selig told Brown. “He had a great sense of humor. He and I used to kid each other a lot.”

FONDY’S MAJOR LEAGUE CAREER 1951-58

Fondy hit .286 with exactly 1,000 hits (69 HRs) over eight seasons in the majors, having batted .300 over four full seasons. His debut, in April 1951, came just a month before Willie Mays’ legendary MLB entry.

Signed originally by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, Fondy came to spring training in 1949 and competed with Gil Hodges and Connors for the starting job at first base. Dodger lore shows, of course, that the spot was won by Hodges.

Fondy played in the Dodgers’ farm system until being traded, along with Connors, to the Cubs for outfielder Hank Edwards. It was a golden era of Dodger baseball that included Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, plus Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and a host of highly popular Dodger players.

He won a spot on Chicago’s roster. His first major-league hit was a bases-loaded triple off St. Louis pitcher Ken Raffsenberger. It was opening day, April 17, 1951, at Wrigley Field.

By 1957, Fondy was traded to Pittsburgh. In that deal, the Cubs sent Gene Baker and Fondy for the Pirates’ Dale Long and Lee Walls. Midway through that ’57 season, Fondy was leading the National League with a .365 average, finishing at .313.

Traded to Cincinnati for Ted Kluszewski, a transaction mentioned by Tom Cruise’s character in the 1988 movie “Rainman,” his career concluding in that 1958 season.

Fondy grounded out for the last out at Ebbets Field in Pittsburgh’s 2-0 loss to the Dodgers on Sept. 24, 1957. That grounder went to Don Zimmer, whose throw to first baseman Jim Gentile ended an era.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles the following year.

Jon Fondy had some fun memories.

“I ran into Willie Mays once and he said, ‘I’ve still got the bruises from the tags your dad used to give me. He was a hard-nosed player,’ ” said Jon, a freelance cameraman who has covered major league games.

Willie Mays
Willie Mays once told Dee Fondy’s son, Jon, that he laid some pretty hard tags on him. “I’ve still got bruises,” said the inimitable Mays (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

It was off to work, eventually, as a scout for the Mets and in Milwaukee, where he signed Molitor, who went on to collect over 3,000 hits.

Fondy retired from baseball in 1995 after serving as a special assistant to the Milwaukee general manager.

“He was as good a judge of talent as I’ve ever known,” Selig said. “He played a great role in the development of the Brewers. I had as much faith in his baseball knowledge as anyone I know.’”

FONDY’S FUNERAL: ONE FINAL HURRAH

It was at Fondy’s funeral that several ex-players – Ray Boone and Sal Bando included – had shown up to pay final respects. Another funeral-goer was a man named Fred Long. For years, Long coached local baseball, eventually rising to becoming a major league baseball scout.

Fondy’s influence had been felt in Long’s scouting life.

Long, who was nearing 80 at the time of Fondy’s funeral, had plenty of stories to share, sporting World Series ring — Florida Marlins, 1997.

Fondy, said Long, was one of the best guys he’d ever known. “And the guy knew baseball, too. You should’ve heard him.”

His minor league career included stops at Santa Barbara (California League), Fort Worth (Texas League) and Mobile (Southern League), each a Brooklyn Dodger farm club.

Before his climb into the major leagues, Fondy racked up 863 minor league hits, whacking out 130 doubles and 52 triples.

His career as a minor leaguer, major leaguer, scout and scouting director covered exactly 40 years — 1946-1995.

Isn’t it interesting that Fondy worked as a scout for the same organization in which Hodges — who edged him for Brooklyn’s first base job — was the manager?

Born on Halloween in 1924, Dee Virgil Fondy’s death took place on Aug. 19, 1999 in Redlands. Fondy, a native of Slaton, Texas, served in the Army during World War II and was part of the forces that landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in 1944, three months after D-Day. He received the Purple Heart.

Fondy had also been survived by twins, Jon Fondy and Jan Cornell of Las Vegas. His wife, Jacquelyn, had died a year earlier. Fondy’s funeral was in nearby San Bernardino, almost directly next door to Perris Hill Park’s Fiscalini Field.

Growing up in San Bernardino, Fiscalini Park was where Fondy had played plenty of baseball.

 

 

 

A CHANCE TO ASK FERGUSON JENKINS ABOUT DUROCHER — IN REDLANDS!

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: Former Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Ferguson Jenkins.

Here’s where being a media member has its advantages:

Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins had appeared in Redlands to conduct a youth clinic at Community Field and, perhaps, sign a few autographs.

Chicago Cubs’ fans were plentiful throughout the country.

One venerable veterinarian, who lived in Redlands, could recite all the Cubs’ doctrine from those Jenkins years.

Here are the guys that fans instantly thought about when recalling those Cubs’ teams from the 1960s: Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks were the headliners. Jenkins, of course, was the ace pitcher.

Leo Durocher was Cubs’ manager, a fact that wasn’t enthusiastically accepted by the local vet.

“Durocher ruined Jenkins’ career,” said the vet. “He used him too much. Ruined his arm.”

He was adamant. Mind couldn’t be changed on that.

ferguson Jenkins
Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins spent a few hours in Redlands, teaching baseball to youths and answering questions about former manager Leo Durocher (photo by Wikipedia).

This, of course, was years later — after baseball had starting dedicating a full core of relief pitchers to win games. In Jenkins’ days, legendary pitchers like Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Mickey Lolich, Don Drysdale, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, you name it, would pitch 300-plus innings each year.

Bullpens weren’t quite as deep.

So here was Jenkins in my sight line: “Tell me about Leo Durocher.”

Jenkins took it from there.

“Leo helped make my career. If it weren’t for him … I’ll tell you, he taught me a lot. I owe him a lot. I owe a lot of my career to him.”

Under Durocher, Jenkins became one of baseball’s top hurlers.

“When I got traded to the Cubs,” he said, referring to the 1966 deal in which Philadelphia traded away a future Hall of Famer to the Cubs, “we were the worst team in baseball.”

Durocher had just been named Cubs’ manager. Jenkins, under Durocher, won 20 games in six straight seasons — all seasons that Durocher had managed him, incidentally.

“He worked you, no question about that,” said Jenkins.

The Cubs never won a pennant, a division championship, or made it to the World Series.

“Some of those years we came to spring training,” said Jenkins, “and we knew we’d have a chance to win … because of Leo. He turned that team around in Chicago.”

Where was that vet, that so-called Cubs’ fan? He needed to be listening to all this.

The guy who’d been teammates with Ruth & Gehrig, turned the Brooklyn Dodgers into pennant winners, managed Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, among others, he was, perhaps, baseball’s greatest connection to multiple generations.

“I never had any trouble with Leo,” said Jenkins. “I know what people say about him, what they try to insinuate.”

If there was a criticism of Durocher from that 1969 season, said Jenkins, “it’s probably that he never gave our regular guys a break.”

It was Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Jim Hickman, Randy Hundley and Don Young. The Cubs took second to the Miracle Mets.

Jenkins finished 21-15 with a 3.21 ERA over 311 1/3 innings that season.

I still have no idea how someone from Redlands had lured the fabulous Jenkins (284-226 over 19 seasons) to Community Field in the early 1990s.

It was almost an afterthought that Julio Cruz, a onetime Redlands High player, and Rudy Law, a former Dodger and White Sox player, had also showed up. Infield play, outfield play, a little hitting.

Later, I was told that ex-Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis had shown up — too late to be noticed. Ellis, it’s likely remembered, is the pitcher who surrendered the tape measure home run hit by Reggie Jackson out of Tiger Stadium at the 1971 All-Star game.

Jenkins, incidentally, was one of just four N.L. pitchers in that 6-4 loss to the A.L. Giants’ pitcher Juan Marichal pitched in his final mid-summer classic and so did Houston’s Don Wilson.

Imagine, two of the N.L.’s four all-star pitchers had shown up in Redlands a couple decades later.

Jenkins had arrived at Community Field in a white limousine. Dressed in his Cubs’ uniform. Showed kids his style of pitching.

“Show ’em your wallet,” he said, demonstrating his high-leg kick, twisting his torso with his left buttock toward the hitter, “and let it fly.”

That’s how a Hall of Famer did it.

Fans might not remember this, Jenkins said, “but Leo converted me into a starting pitcher. I’d been a reliever. He turned my career around. I became a Hall of Famer.”

Jenkins left Redlands like he’d arrived — in that white limo.

 

PART 3: WILLIE … ALMOST MICKEY … AND THE DUKE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

That was Jordan Snider out in center field, wearing jersey No. 44. The site was The Yard, which is the home field for the University of Redlands. Snider was a senior Bulldog.

Temecula Chaparral High, located about an hour’s drive from the University of Redlands, was where this right-handed ballplayer had come from only a few years earlier.

Batted .295 in 2008, .361 as a sophomore in 2007, .252 in his frosh season right out of the Pumas’ Varsity program, where he’d hit .305 with two HRs in Temecula.

Starting all 36 games as a Bulldog senior in 2009, he’d played four straight seasons with winning teams, hitting .321 with 4 HRs.

His grandfather watched him play a plus number of games.

I’d shown up to chat with University of Redlands baseball coach Scott Laverty. Game still taking place. I’d have to wait. Sitting on the first base side of the bleachers, I took a seat near an older gentleman, wearing a hat to keep the sun off his head.

Seemed to be a nice guy. You run into that occasionally at ball games. Nice guys. Friendly. Talkative. It’s always fun to talk a little baseball, right?

After the game, I approached Laverty for a little post-game chat.

We talked a little about the game. At one point, he said, “I saw you out there talking to Duke.”

Duke?

There was no need to explain. The second he said that, I knew he’d meant Duke Snider. Something told me. I was a little tongue-tied, though. I’d been talking to a baseball Hall of Famer and didn’t even know it. I was a little ashamed.

Duke Snider (Photo by Wikipidia Commons)
Duke Snider, from his Brooklyn Dodgers days, wound up in Fallbrook, where he drove from to watch his grandson play at the University of Redlands.

“That’s his grandson out there in center field,” said Laverty.

Well, that adds up, doesn’t it?

It was a Snider from Temecula.

Edwin “Duke” Snider, the Duke of Flatbush, lived a little south of there. The kid was all-conference one year. A good fly-chaser out in center – just like his grandpa.

There might’ve been something symbolic about Jordan wearing No. 44, especially since his grandfather wore No. 4 in Brooklyn for the Dodgers. A tribute, most likely.

DUKE OF FLATBUSH ORIGINALLY FROM COMPTON

The Duke of Flatbush really came from Compton, Calif. At the end of his life, he lived near Temecula in the San Diego County city of Fallbrook – a nice retirement area.

A couple games later, I showed up … looking for Duke. Sure enough, he was there.

“Do you have a minute?” I asked him.

You always hesitate when asking someone – a Hall of Famer, celebrity, well-known, you know – if they’d mind an interview. He was there to watch his grandson who, at that moment, was playing in the same part of the field he’d played in 45 years earlier.

“For crying out loud,” I could just hear anyone say, “I’m here to watch my grandson play. Maybe later.”

But he didn’t say that.

Brooklyn, L.A., New York Mets and, finally, the Giants in San Francisco.

I’ve got to say it. There was nothing all that special about the interview. My questions would’ve been stale and useless. What do you ask a guy like that? Nothing that hasn’t been asked a hundred times before, right?

I settled on an angle about how he finished his career in a Giants’ uniform, 1964. Sold to San Francisco by the Mets. I tried to have a conversation rather than an interview.

“I can’t say I was all that upset at the trade,” he said at Redlands’ The Yard with a few people listening to the chat. “I was friends with a lot of those guys, anyway, Willie (Mays), Al Dark (Giants’ manager), Don Larsen …”

Besides, he said, “I lived out here on the West Coast.”

Oh, man – Don Larsen! The guy who’d pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series?

How many times must he’d have been asked about Larsen?

I skipped the topic.

Did he remember his last home run?

“I do,” he said. “Candlestick Park. San Francisco. Jim Bunning, a very good pitcher. Yeah, that was my last one. Only hit four that year. Fourth of July game, I think, pretty sure. I never hit another one.”

That was his 407th.

You play much center field?

Duke laughed. “For the Giants? Not quite. Somebody named Willie Mays was already playing there.”

Though he was mostly a pinch-hitter, he said, “I played either left or right.

“I remember being in the lineup one day … can’t remember where we were playing, though. Dark had me leading off. Mays was second. McCovey was third and Cepeda was hitting clean-up. What’s that? A couple thousand home runs between us, or something like that?”

Mays at 660, McCovey’s 521, Duke’s 407 and Cepeda’s 379 equals 1,967 lifetime bombs. There may not have ever been another quartet in major league baseball hitting back-to-back like that with those kinds of impressive numbers.

Said Snider: “I can’t remember anything about the game, though – who won, nothing.”

Upon reflection, I should’ve asked him about Jackie Robinson.

Or Leo Durocher. Roy Campanella. Gil Hodges. Don Newcombe. Sandy Koufax, mystery man.

That would’ve been a nice tack. What was it like to have Koufax on the Dodgers for those six or seven years before he started blazing away?

Never got another chance, either.

A couple years later, the Duke died in Escondido.

We’d talked baseball in Redlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART 1: “WILLIE … ALMOST MICKEY … AND THE DUKE”

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Talkin’ baseball. Terry Cashman. His song, released in 1981, seemed to summarize a special part of baseball. A musical contribution to baseball history. It surrounded the great center fielders in three New York boroughs – the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Cashman wrote about … “Willlieeeeee … Mickey … and The Duke.”

Duke Snider came to Redlands.

Mickey Mantle came to … well, as far as anyone knows, he didn’t come to Redlands. But his longtime friend, Billy Martin, showed up here at least once.

Then there was Willie Mays. I can’t honestly say that the “Say Hey Kid” ever set foot on Redlands soil. But the sports editor from Redlands took part in a rare discussion that probably never came up in baseball circles.

It would’ve made a nice little change in Cashman’s song, “Willie … Almost Mickey … and the Duke …”

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Say, hey!

Willie_Mays_cropped
Willie Mays talked about a “trade” that could’ve happened regarding a Dodger pitcher named Koufax? (Wikipedia Commons photo)

It was in the early 1980s. Bob Hope Desert Classic. Coachella Valley. Willie Mays, a golf lover, was playing in the celebrity Pro-Am, along with plenty of others from music, film and sports.

There we were in the VIP tent. Food was being served. It was the middle of the day. Willie had played his round. I was talking a break. Other than the serving staff, no one else seemed to be around.

Sitting at a table near him, I could just feel the opportunity. I grew up in the Bay Area watching this guy play in the twilight of his career in the late 1960s.

What should I ask him?

“Willie,” I said, “tell me something about your career that didn’t get much attention.”

He responded crudely, which shouldn’t have come as a complete shock. In sports, you often run into replies like that. In the clubhouse. In a locker room. On a field or court. Willie had probably been approached by thousands of media guys looking for something – stories, opinions, recollections, you name it.

He wouldn’t be talking – at least to me. It’s okay. I tried. No big deal.

Suddenly, out of the blue, he blurted, “We almost got Koufax.”

Huh? What? Say that again!

Yeah, he said. A year, or two, before Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax really hit his Hall of Fame stride, the fireballing southpaw was stewing about how the Dodgers were using him.

Translation: Or not using him.

Apparently in Willie’s presence in San Francisco – likely at Seals Stadium – Koufax approached team general manager Buzzie Bavasi to request a trade.

Said Willie: “He told Bavasi, ‘you’re not using me. Why even keep me? It’s better to let me go. Trade me somewhere so I can pitch.’ ”

Willie said he jumped right into the discussion. “Trade him to the Giants,” he remembers telling Bavasi. “Trade him to us.”

There was some discussion. Wow! The Giants’ star player was discussing a trade with the GM of their chief rival, the Dodgers.

Willie was told by Bavasi to tell Horace Stoneham, the Giants’ owner who made all deals for the San Francisco-based team.

“Did you do it?” I asked him.

He nodded. “I talked to Mr. Stoneham. Didn’t hear much about it for awhile.”

Willie was chewing his food. Some guys were entering the VIP tent. Hoping that it wasn’t people looking for Willie – which would interrupt our chat – I prodded him a little.

“Any discussions take place about Koufax going to the Giants?”

Willie Mays nodded again. He was chewing. Swallowing. Didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to answer.

“They wanted Cepeda.”

Orlando Cepeda, one of baseball’s younger star sluggers, was a San Francisco favorite. He was an established star.

Koufax had yet to reach that portion of his career that would get everyone’s attention. At that time, Cepeda-for- Koufax might not have seemed logical for San Francisco.

(Funny thing, though, was in 1966, the Giants sent Cepeda to St. Louis for southpaw Ray Sadecki – not quite the same caliber of pitcher that Koufax had been. At least Sadecki had won 20 games a couple years earlier.)

Koufax had a little success in his early years, but had yet to really hit his consistently great stride. In his mind, apparently, the Dodgers weren’t treating him respectfully.

Between 1961 and his final season, 1966, Koufax was unhittable, unforgettable and, evidently, untradeable.

I summarized this for Willie Mays.

“Are you telling me that you guys almost had Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry on the same pitching staff?” It would have been a couple of years before Perry joined the Giants’ staff.

Wow!

Willie didn’t answer. Just kept chewing. I wasn’t all that much of an interest to him. At the moment, though, I was the only one sitting near him to chat about this remarkable trade possibility.

“How close do you think this came to happening?”

I should mention this: During this entire chat, Willie Mays never looked at me. Not once. Didn’t have to, though. This was more than I’d bargained for. I don’t even know if he had even heard that last question.

At that point, more people started entering the tent. Food was being served. Willie Mays acknowledged some of the people he’d played golf with that day. My time with him was apparently over.

It was exciting, to say the least. I was practically finished with my sandwich and potato salad. I was nursing my drink when Willie Mays got up to leave. My heart kind of sank. I’d have really liked to get more conversation with him.

I watched him shake hands with a few guys.

“Nice to see you again, Willie.”

“Thanks, Willie.”

“Let’s get together soon, Willie.”

You know, typical sendoff lines.

Willie Mays was leaving. He’d walk right behind where I was sitting. When he walked past me, he said into my good ear (I only hear out of one ear), “Stoneham would’ve never traded Cepeda.”

One-third of the Cashman song – done.

Part 2 of Willie … Almost Mickey … and The Duke next week.

IT WAS TOUGH FOR DAVIDSMEIER TRYING TO GET INTO MILWAUKEE

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Danny Davidsmeier joked about a pair of Redlands East Valley High School area products, Tyler Chatwood and Matt Andriese, who are current major league players.

Chatwood, who now pitches for the Chicago Cubs, had been drafted by the Angels and traded to Colorado.

Andriese was an original draft pick by the San Diego Padres, eventually traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I’m a hitting coach,” said Davidsmeier, “and they made it to the majors as pitchers.”

If he could list the entire roster of youth-level players that he’s instructed,  that entire collection might be able to fill a full high school league of all-star level talent.

Matt Davidson also comes to mind. A current major league slugger, who was a high school MVP as a freshman at Yucaipa, got drafted by Arizona and traded to the White Sox. Davidsmeier started coaching Davidson at age 11.

It’s Davidsmeier, perhaps, who bridges the gap with a growing number of ballplayers who have taken paid hitting instruction from him for nearly two decades. And why not?

His background is insanely interesting.

Imagine being an All-State player at San Bernardino Valley College in the mid-1970s. It came just before his days as an All-American shortstop at USC.

ddavidsmeier
Danny Davidsmeier, a highly popular batting instructor around Redlands, Yucaipa, Highland, San Bernardino, Colton and beyond, displays his USC medallion. Davidsmeier, a career baseball player for 22 years, was an All-American shortstop for legendary Trojans’ coach Rod Dedeaux (photo by USC).

The Yucaipa High product, who came out of the Thunderbirds’ program one year before Jeff Stout began an unprecedented 42-year run as their coach, was taken in the draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Mention names like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor to Davidsmeier. He laughs.

It wouldn’t be surprising to hear him say it. “Those guys,” he might say, “kept me out of the major leagues.”

Both Yount, a shortstop, and Molitor, a second baseman who later moved to third base, are Hall of Famers. In the early 1980s, the two — along with second baseman Jim Gantner — all but blocked Davidsmeier’s promising pathway to the major leagues.

In those days, they were known as Harvey’s Wall Bangers, a reference to Brewers’ manager Harvey Kuenn, who was quite a hitter in his day.

Imagine hitting .371 with 16 HRs as a USC senior in 1981. It was there Davidsmeier played for legendary coach Rod Dedeaux, a former shortstop in his own playing days.

USC? All-American? That got Milwaukee’s attention — third round selection in 1981, No. 72 overall. That’s the same draft, incidentally, in which first-rounders like Joe Carter, Matt Williams and Ron Darling were selected.

Tony Gwynn was taken in that same third round, too, just 14 picks before Davidsmeier.

As for Davidsmeier, he spent his best years playing minor league baseball, rising to Triple A Vancouver just two years after being drafted.

CRACKING THE BREWERS’ LINEUP

While Yount-Molitor-Gantner were thriving in Milwaukee, Davidsmeier’s hopes might’ve been curtailed by their all-star level play.

Davidsmeier’s most productive season might’ve been in 1982 when he hit .272 with 10 HR as a 22-year-old shortstop.

Led by the MVP season of Yount, the Brewers reached the 1982 World Series, losing in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Even playing behind such a talented crop of major leaguers might’ve inspired other organizations to seek out Milwaukee’s prized minor leaguers — like Davidsmeier.

Milwaukee, in those years, was loaded. Besides Molitor and Yount, there were players like first baseman Cecil Cooper (.298, 241 career HR), Gorman Thomas (268 HR), Ben Oglivie (.275, 235 HR), plus catcher Ted Simmons (.285, 245 HR) while Gantner (.274) was as sure-handed an infielder as anyone.

Throw in Hall of Fame numbers from Yount (3,142 hits, 583 doubles, 126 triples, 251 HR, .285) and Molitor (3,319 hits, 605 doubles, 234 HR, 504 stolen bases, .306).

That’s the lineup Davidsmeier was trying to crack.

Doug DeCinces had a hard time becoming Baltimore’s third baseman with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson playing ahead of him in the early 1970s.

In that same era, center fielder Garry Maddox would’ve rotted away in San Francisco if the Giants hadn’t traded Willie Mays to the Mets.

Thank goodness Wally Pipp had a headache one day in New York. Lou Gehrig might’ve never gotten a chance.

Yes, Davidsmeier spent plenty of Arizona-based spring training sessions with the Gantner-Young-Molitor trio ahead of him on the Brewers’ depth chart.

Gantner was considered good enough to drive Molitor from second base to third base.

Davidsmeier, too, had played all three spots.

In 1982, he was hitting .272 with 10 HR with Class AA El Paso.

By age 28, Davidsmeier was ready to head elsewhere — Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, Czechoslavakia, Korea, Japan and Columbia, to name a few stops.

ROAD TRIP COMES TO AN END

Twenty-two years on the international road led Davidsmeier back home — Yucaipa, Loma Linda, Redlands, Highland, the entire area. He became a growingly popular private hitting instructor.

Main base for Davidsmeier these days is Loma Linda. The batting cages there went from Hitter’s Choice Batting Cages to its new name, IE Performance Center & Batting Cages. The re-opening was scheduled for June 2-3.

Davidsmeier says he likes the new layout. The husband-wife ownership of Dr. Alan Herford and Kirilina Herford liked the atmosphere. They took over the place, signing a 14-month lease. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that Davidsmeier’s part of that atmosphere.

If you’re in the cage with Davidsmeier, it’ll be a productive moment.

Name a productive hitter from the area. Chances are decent that Davidsmeier has worked with them in the practice cages.

Current major leaguers Davidson, Chatwood and Andriese come quickly to mind.

Cracked Davidsmeier: “Matt and Tyler lived down the street from each other in Yucaipa. They got a lot of experience just working out with each other.”