The time I met Don Gordon
Don Gordon - he was a Major League Baseball Player, dontcha know..
Since Baseball Ireland began in 1996, we have had the pleasure of hosting dozens of coaches who have all increased our baseball know how 110%. The list is pretty impressive. None more so than former Major League pitcher Don Gordon, who came to our shores in 1996 through 'Score International'.
Score International is a religious 'charity' organisation that sends former athletes around the world to 'spread the good word' while showing them how to play whatever sport they specialise in. This from the 'SCORE' website: ''hundreds of athletes have traveled with SCORE International to 15 countries and have preached the Gospel to thousands of spectators at halftime. The purpose of SCORE is evangelism, encouraging missionaries, and equipping participants to do the work of foreign missions.''
I remember at the time asking Mick Manning in a pub one night before he came if we should be worried about this guy going over the top preaching to us, and Mick said we would probably have to sit through a few minutes of religious salesmanship in between what would hopefully be some solid baseball tuition.
So Don Gordon kindly came to Ireland and hosted a weekend, Saturday and Sunday, of baseball drills at the Aer Lingus sports grounds out near the airport. The Saturday morning a motley crew of baseball players, young and old, from North and South, gathered together, around 20 players in all.
Don spent a few minutes telling us he was a 'Major League Ball Player', and telling us about his career. That Saturday session began with Don leading us through drills, pretty basic in level, but the kind of fundamentals we did not have a good grasp on in those days. Don was a pitcher with The Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians, but he obviously had a good grounding in the basic fundamentals of baseball, not just pitching. We would split into small groups and he would go round each one telling us how it was done.
It's important you can picture the scene before I go on. Imagine a gloomy Dublin afternoon, a huge, expansive sports grounds with no one around bar some fools on a makeshift baseball field made with softball drop down bases, huge jets roaring over head every 30 seconds as they flew into Dublin airport. Picture the participants. About ten of 'Ireland's best' were present, players like Darran O'Connor, Brian Connolly, Sean Mitchell and Brian Nolan. On top of that there were about ten people who hadn't played before but wanted to learn. Players were using kids mitts, soccer cleats and we had about twelve baseballs, maybe four or five that were dry. Think about that for a second, we had a dozen baseballs to use. If someone threw one into the bushes, they had to go get it.
So Don Gordon was giving us various drills to try, and as the afternoon wore on his patience wore down. 'You know son, I was a Major League Ball Player and that's not how we fielded a ball'. Or, 'When I was a Major League Ball Player we took our throwing sessions seriously!'. I was in a relatively inexperienced group, flipping the ball to each other in a way to learn how to 'turn the right way; when throwing ('Follow your glove!'). One young player who shall remain anonymous was having a hard time grasping the concept. He would turn the wrong way every time, and obviously didn't get the idea at all, just needed it explained a little.
Enter Don. The young player did it wrong yet again, and Don walked up behind him, grabbed his left and right arms and moved him in the right motion and direction. The young played blushed as he was walked through the drill. 'Now you do it.' Don said, and yet again, the young player turned the wrong way. A couple of people giggled. Don just lowered his voice and said 'See, you are really not doing it right at all' and tried to show the young player again. After one more incorrect walkthrough Don stood back and said 'Well, I guess the lord just doesn't want you playing the game of baseball!' and laughed. A couple of us giggled nervously.
The Sunday session was attended by pretty much the same group, and our low level of quality as a group was really working Don's patience hard. During a throwing drill Don implored us to have a 'mission' on each throw, and not to throw like 'slackers and losers'. I'll always remember that one in particular. For years following that, we would tease each other 'You throw like a slacker'. Then we scrimmaged. We split into two groups and Don pitched against us. In those days we were pretty raw and the hits were few and far between against Don. He was throwing probably 3/4 strength and no one could catch up with his 80+ mph fastball.
The first several batters all struck out. We would walk up, maybe swing, maybe not, but everyone eventually turned around and headed back to watch Don strike out the next batter with his major league stuff. Don would add to each individual batters misery by 'coaching' them after each strike out. 'Hey choke up on the bat a little more' or 'Hey maybe start your swing earlier'. Not sure what we were learning at that stage, was Don just tired of us and had he decided to have a little fun? Whatever was going on no one could get a piece of him.
No one except Sean Mitchell that is.
Sean stepped into the box and blasted a huge power alley double to deep left centre, players on both sides cheered as Sean rounded first. It was a really nice piece of hitting. Everyones spirits lifted. Instead of striking out Sean had ripped a blast into the outfield so maybe we could all do it. I was actually next to bat and stepped in, still grinning from Sean's blast, took a few dry swings and waited for the pitch. As he wound up I could see Sean on second base hands on his hips grinning like a crazy man.
The pitch came in, and rammed hard into my left side, at the back, near my kidney. I crumpled over in pain and found it hard to breathe. It had to have been around 85mph and had caught me right in the back. A couple of people came up to me to check on me. I glanced over at Don, still on the mound, his hands on his hips, he said 'Hey so make sure you don't dig in too close to the plate!' and then 'Who's up next?'
I guess I was paying for Sean's hit.
The session wore down, and I actually joked to Mick Manning, as we gathered our old, battered equipment, 'Hey I guess we got away without a lecture!'. Just as I said it Don told us all to form a circle and take a knee. People wandered over, not really sure what to expect. Someone sat down and Don chastised them, 'Hey son, in baseball we take a knee, so, are you a ball player?!' The embarrassed novice took a knee.
Don summarised the two day session as a challenge adding 'You will eventually get better if you apply what I have shown you and work closely with the Lord'. Apply what we learned eh? So, as a pitcher, every time I give up a hit I should nail the next guy in the chops with a fastball? Nice!
Don started to wind the weekend session down. 'You know, I was a Major League Ball Player' he said (Wow, really?), while I glanced to my left seeing the heart and soul of Irish Baseball Brian Nolan, examining his palm, bored. Don continued 'I was a Major League Ball Player and I loved the lifestyle, I loved it'. I noticed Brian look up, his interest piqued. Were we about to learn how cool it was to be a major league player? Brian glanced back at me grinning. Don went on 'I loved the lifestyle, and I threw myself into the lifestyle. I'll tell you, I loved the women', Brian nodded like a man nodding in approval at a good sermon in a Church on a Sunday. 'Yes, I loved the women, and ill tell you, they loved me too!' Don said, as Brian nodded more vehemently.
'I loved the women, and you know what? I loved the booze. Oh yeah' Don continued, starting to come across as Tom Cruise in Magnolia.
Brian was ready to testify at this stage, and ready to play baseball until his knees fell off if it meant he would make the majors. 'I loved the booze, the women, the adulation..' You could tell he would have loved to have added '...the fornication.' but he stopped himself. He might deny that but we knew.
Brian resembled a bobble head doll at this stage. Don wound us (mostly Brian) up into a furious frenzy, 'On the road, one night, I had been enjoying all those perks, and I sat in my hotel room and I looked at myself in the mirror..' I glanced at Brian, he was ready, ready to jump up and give praise, but Don dropped a bombshell.
'..I looked at myself in the mirror, and I cried!'
I turned to Brian, who looked like most people when they talk to a crazy person, confused. Say what now? Brian turned to me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say 'What's he on about, what was the problem?'
Don finally knuckled down and delivered the 'Good word', about how Jesus stopped him and his fast living, and put him on the path to redemption. We knelt listening for a while as he told us we could all choose this path and avoid things like booze, women and adulation, presumably so we could get into heaven in the next life, he didn't really clarify that one.
So that was the weekend Baseball Ireland met Don Gordon. We learnt allot, got a few bruises in the process, and figured out some cool ways to strike out on against Major League pitching.
I wonder what he would have made of the time we drank a bar dry in Stockerau, Austria? But hey, that's another story!
Coming soon: The weekend Baseball Ireland corrupted Ron Wotus!
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