Old heads on young bodies

Posted: Mar 07, 2001 12:00 AM
With all the talk about character education in recent years, it's time for someone to write a best-selling book on how everything he needed to know about the subject he learned in kindergarten. But since I don't remember anything about kindergarten, I can only relate what I've learned on the subject from interviewing Major Leaguers in spring training. A lot of players have voiced what I'd call Theory No. 1 of character education, but the most distinguished was Sandy Koufax -- the Hall of Fame pitcher of the 1960s who did some occasional instruction during the 1990s. "You can't teach character," Koufax mentioned to me as he prepared to teach pitchers how to use their legs more to remove some of the burden from their shoulders: "It's something people develop in a thousand different ways, or they don't." Koufax, famous not only for his superb pitching but his refusal to pitch on the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur, was pessimistic: "Players with bad traits don't change much as adults. That's the way it is now and was when I was playing." Theory No. 2 allows for change, but only after disaster. Dave Winfield, the outfielder inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, said that players change by going through "some kind of harrowing physical experience, something that makes a player think: 'I'm not invincible. This talent can be taken away from me." Winfield emphasized that the shock "has to be sharp. ... You don't see those changes in an adult unless there's a sharp break. By then, it's usually too late." Theory No. 3 is somewhat more optimistic: Players, instead of undergoing physical disaster, can pick up good habits that will change at least their surface behavior. Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly went to St. Mary's High School in South Amboy, N.J., and learned there that "players can be trained to take responsible actions." He wanted players to "make a ritual out of doing it right" and explained that he could not teach virtue or character, but he could teach habits of responsibility. Theory No. 4 is the truly optimistic one. Mike Easler -- the St. Louis Cardinal batting coach who is also a Baptist minister licensed by his home church in San Antonio -- presented it while chewing on sunflower seeds before a spring-training workout: "A player doesn't have to wait for something desperately physical to knock him down. The apostle Paul didn't break a leg: God simply made him a new creature in Christ, with old things passed away. ... My job is to mold a guy, teach him to be humble, and I pray that God will work on him so he will change not just on the outside, but on the inside." Theory No. 4 goes with what I have seen: People who have been irresponsible often become responsible once they learn about God. But that learning often requires a teacher like Easler at the batting cage. After watching 10 teams in spring training, I most remember Easler showing his players how to make small adjustments in their hitting techniques, as he chewed sunflower seeds and offered punchy sermons: "Concentrate. Get your bearings. See, read, and explode. Concentrate. Get serious." Easler noted after practice: "You have to deal with failure in lots of areas, find your gift, be serious about it and be serious about God. ... One player may gain that understanding earlier, another later -- and whenever he does, his life changes." Character education is vital for ballplayers: Newly rich and recipients of adulation since childhood, many fall prey to numerous temptations. Most people in ordinarily life are not as vulnerable, but they need help, as well. The problem is that if theories 1 or 2 are true, not much can be done to help Major Leaguers or regular guys. That's why we should hope that theories 3 and 4 are true, and that managers and coaches in baseball -- or parents and teachers overall -- succeed in putting old heads on young bodies.