From Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter, big leaguers have long had an affinity for the game

Derek Jeter at his charity golf tournament in Tampa, Fla., earlier this year.
Ben Van Hook

Derek Jeter stands alone in the spotlight, as he so often does, except that now, as he brandishes a 7-iron on the 17th tee of Avila Golf and Country Club in suburban Tampa, a swarm of butterflies flutters in his gut.

"It's not like we're at Yankee Stadium," he will say later. "I'm not that nervous then. This is different."

Jeter swings and his tee ball whistles along the ground, possibly a hard base hit up the middle in another milieu but now just an embarrassing worm-burner, the kind that most of us have hit when a gallery, uninterested or otherwise, is in observance...and this one is most definitely interested.

"Ooooh!" he says, grimacing.

Sports Illustrated's 2009 Sportsman of the Year gamely tees up another ball, and this time his shot rises majestically, bound for the dance floor, neither faded nor drawn. It plops down softly about 15 feet from the pin, 175 yards away.

"Did you get that?" he says to a crowd of photographers, flashing the famous grin that has liquidated a thousand female hearts.

The New York Yankees captain says he doesn't play much golf. In fact, the Yankees aren't known for having many golfer-players since management, as is the case with a few other major league teams, bars players from bringing their clubs on the road.

But that hasn't stopped Jeter from using golf as the cornerstone rainmaker for his Turn 2 Foundation. The seventh annual Derek Jeter Celebrity Golf Classic took place several weeks ago, attracting not only the world's Alpha Golfing Guest — Michael Jordan, fresh from hosting the eighth annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational in the Bahamas — but also several baseball-playing compatriots past and present, including teammate Jorge Posada, ex-teammate Tino Martinez, Yankee legends Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage, Phillies stud Ryan Howard, and retired players Andres "Big Cat" Galarraga, Ron Gant, Carl Everett and Fred McGriff.

"Golf is the best way to get people together for your cause," Jeter says. "Even if you're not very good, everybody likes golf, right?"

It's also, of course, the easiest way to separate corporate sponsors from their money. That fact aside, there has long been an organic connection between golf and baseball, both being pastoral activities best pursued in warm, dry weather. Those old harbinger-of-spring newspaper photographs that showed the bats and balls being loaded for spring training? They should've included golf bags. Take a few swings in the ol' cage, make a couple of indolent jogs in the outfield and go play 18 or even 36 — that has long constituted the dirty-little-secret daily workout for many veterans.

And though Jeter's clubs are packed away now, that doesn't mean the golf season has ended for all big leaguers. Particularly for a certain genus of the baseball subspecies, as Jeter notes with humorous sarcasm.

"Pitchers show up to play ball once every five days," he says, "and play golf the other four."

There is some truth to that, as we will see later. But the genesis of the golf/baseball nexus can be traced to two baseball players known for hitting (Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb) and one player not known much at all.

The latter is Samuel Dewey Byrd, the only man to have played in a World Series (the Yankees reserve outfielder appeared in the 1932 Fall Classic) and the Masters (he finished third in 1941 and fourth a year later). Byrd won six Tour events between 1942 and '46 and advanced to the final of the '45 PGA Championship, where he lost 4 and 3 to Byron Nelson.

Byrd the baseball player was known primarily as "Babe Ruth's legs" because he pinch-ran for the great man toward the end of Babe's career. It has also been written that the Bambino helped Byrd's anemic hitting by instructing him to hold a towel under his left elbow in batting practice to make his elbow stay down, thus promoting a flat swing; decades later, that drill became a David Leadbetter teaching tool. Ruth's golf game may not have been anywhere near the level of Byrd's, but it predictably commanded far more attention.

The May 15, 1920 edition of The New York Times — Babe was then in the seventh year of his career and his first with the Yankees — carries an account of Ruth playing a round at Englewood Country Club in suburban New Jersey with Yankees teammate Bob Shawkey (yes, a pitcher) and legendary sports writer Grantland Rice. Ruth shot 51-47 — 98. But he improved as he pursued golf with vigor, which is not surprising since he, like John Daly, was as fond of the extracurriculars as he was of the game that brought him fame.

In one of those absurdly silly set-up newsreels from the 1920s, Babe can be seen instructing a group of "sorority girls" on the similarities between the golf swing and its baseball counterpart. "The follow-through in both is exactly alike," says the Babe as the girls ooh and aah at his expertise.

With less fanfare, Cobb, eight years older than the Babe, had also picked up the game and played it avidly after he retired from baseball in 1928. That wasn't surprising; he lived in Augusta, Ga., from 1904 to '32. Though Cobb had earned a measure of respectability by making millions in Coca- Cola and befriending Bobby Jones, he was never invited to join Augusta National despite having played there frequently as a guest, perhaps because the membership was apprehensive that the fiery Cobb would come into the clubhouse spikes-high should he end up on the losing end of a $10 Nassau.

Like many superstar competitors, the Sultan of Swat and the Georgia Peach exchanged trash talk about their golf games and were inevitably drawn together on the course. In the summer of 1941, as the winds of war swept toward America, these two enemy combatants, arguably the two finest baseball players ever, engaged in three 18- hole matches organized by golf promoter Fred Corcoran. Published reports, including a Time magazine account, have the 54-year-old Cobb closing out the 46-year-old Ruth on the 16th hole of the first match, at the Commonwealth Country Club in Boston, and Ruth winning on the 19th hole in the next one (safe to say not the first time the Babe had won at the 19th), at Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island.

The rubber match was held at Grosse Ile Country Club near Detroit, with Cobb prevailing 3 and 2. The contest raised money for United Service Organizations, though it's highly probable that purveyors of distilled beverages made out better than anyone.

As 162-game schedules and cross-country travel took over the game, it became more difficult for everyday players to cart their clubs during the season. Some managers worried about the energy sap, others that a golf swing would corrupt the baseball swing. Still, two non-pitcher superstars of the post-Ruth generation, San Francisco Giants teammates Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, were golf nuts, and, later, so was Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt, who still tees it up as regularly as he can.

But gradually, pitchers started making most of the golf news. Los Angeles Dodgers immortal Sandy Koufax never liked crowds, particularly if someone in it had a tape recorder or notepad, but he loved playing at Pebble Beach in what used to be known as the Crosby Clambake, now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Koufax still gets out regularly with former Tour pro Ken Still, who recalls a round they played at Madison Greens, a course in Wellington, Fla.

"We get to the seventh hole, a par-5, and a sign at the tee says it's 304 yards to the water," says Still, who had three Tour victories and played on the 1969 Ryder Cup team. "Well, we found Sandy's tee ball in the water."

Koufax is now 74, and that round was last year. The pitcher was a member of a club near Bethlehem, Pa., for a while and was considered somewhat of a Zen Master. Awed members almost never saw him play because he preferred the range, where, for hours on end, Koufax might hit nothing but, say, 5-irons, striking all of them with deadly precision.

The topic of where to play on off-days has long been popular with pitchers, even if they weren't supposed to be playing. One day during the 1986 season, Giants pitcher Mike Krukow had the opportunity to play Cypress Point and decided it was worth the risk to defy the team ban on golf. Alas, he chose that day to register a hole-in-one, making the daily ace report in the Bay Area newspapers and incurring the wrath of general manager Al Rosen.

Lefthander Tommy John was an avid player, providing one theory as to why he needed Tommy John surgery, and so were pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. We can be thankful that blogging had not yet been invented or we would've surely read endless accounts of that competition from Schilling, who's never averse to celebrating himself.

The once and future king of pitchers who can pure it remains Rick Rhoden, the 6'3" righthander who hurled for 16 seasons for four major league teams before winning 52 times on the Celebrity Players Tour. He also played in a few dozen Senior Tour events, made two cuts in the four Senior Opens for which he qualified, and still carries a plus-3 handicap.

"I can only speculate as to whether I would've made it as a pro golfer," says Rhoden, who finished his career with a 151-125 record. "I'd like to think I would've. But it's not like I wish I didn't have a baseball career. I got a lot out of both."

For all of Rhoden's accomplishments, however, the most intriguing golf-pitching buzz over the years has probably come from three Atlanta Braves hurlers — John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. The three men pitched together in Atlanta for 10 years, collectively compiling 453 wins during that time — and probably playing as many rounds of golf. If they weren't so successful on the field, their golf addiction almost certainly would have drawn criticism, particularly since at various times fellow chuckers Steve Avery, Charlie Liebrandt and Pete Smith also played. This wasn't a staff as much as it was a golf league.

The most devoted golfer, and the best of them, is Smoltz, who hovers between a 3-handicap and scratch. Smoltz, who turns 43 on May 15, hasn't yet signed a contract for 2010, but when he does you can be sure it will be with a team that allows its players to pack their clubs during the season.

"I would not go to an organization that wouldn't let you take your sticks," says Smoltz, who on a recent day was on a golfing high, having teamed with Julius Erving (an average golfer) to win the Jordan two-man scramble for the second year in a row. "Some teams will let you play on off-days but won't let you bring your clubs. That's not golf. One of the most fortunate things about my career is that I ended up in Atlanta, where Bobby [Cox, the Braves manager] didn't care one way or the other and I had some great teammates to play with."

Given any opening, Smoltz is not averse to proselytizing about the benefits of golf to both the success and longevity of his baseball career.

"I am convinced I would not have played 24 years without golf," says Smoltz, a borderline Hall of Famer with a 213-155 record over 21 seasons. "First, it's an outlet. Secondly, there are so many similarities for what I like to do on the mound, even mechanically. You have to have balance and a solid lower-half foundation.

"And then there's the mental part. When you're pitching, you can't think, 'I can't hang the slider,' just like, on the course you can't think, 'Don't hit it left.' Why? Because the brain recognizes only the last command. It hears, 'left.' It doesn't hear 'don't.' They are both risk-reward sports, and you have to think only about the reward. Under the gun I don't feel any different trying to make a great golf shot than I do a great pitch."

Rhoden points out other similarities.

"Sometimes you have to get through a game when you have only two pitches working instead of four," he says, "just like you have to figure out how to get through a round, successfully, when your whole game's not working. You have to come to the realization that a golf round is an accumulation of shots, just like a game is an accumulation of pitches. You will not be a success as a golfer or a pitcher unless you have a short memory."

But let us not leave the impression that crossover participation has become the exclusive domain of pitchers. Take slugging rightfielder Jeff Francoeur of the New York Mets, who is just as zealous as Smoltz about the salubrious benefits of golf.

"I can't imagine getting through the season without golf," says Francoeur, 26.

He felt that way even before he came up with — how fortunate — the Braves in 2005, which gave him four full seasons of golf with Smoltz, and, on occasion, with Maddux and Glavine, both of whom were by then playing elsewhere.

"John is the best teammate in the world," says Francoeur, a low-handicapper who gets a couple of shots a side from Smoltz. "When you hang with John, you get introduced to some pretty good people, golf-wise."

Indeed, when Francoeur was traded to the Mets for outfielder Ryan Church last July, a great deal of his sadness stemmed from losing Smoltz as a full-time playing partner. A guy who can get you on almost anywhere is indeed a treasure.

But Francoeur caught a break: The Mets have no prohibitions against playing golf, perhaps because manager Jerry Manuel likes to get out there himself, and he found willing foursome members in pitcher Livan Hernandez — probably the best active big league golfer — outfielder Jeremy Reed and pitching coach Dan Warthen.

It's probably a good thing that Francoeur wasn't traded to that other New York team, because he firmly believes that except on abnormally hot days, it's okay for position players to squeeze in 18, even on game days. (But not on off-days — off-days are for 36.)

"The last three seasons I was with the Braves we've gone into Pittsburgh in May," Francoeur says, "and I played Oakmont all three times on the day of a game. On those nights I got three hits, three hits and two hits."

He remembers with glee the day that he and Smoltz arrived at Merion (for a game-day round) only minutes before their tee time.

"I was sick as a dog, literally throwing up, and that's one place where you can't take a second ball off the tee," Francoeur says. "So, feeling terrible, I skull a 5-iron off the tee. This is going to be an awful day, I thought. But then I hit a hybrid to about two feet and made a birdie. Turned things right around. I've also played Pine Valley on the day of a night game against the Phillies. No problem."

Francoeur, a career .271 hitter, admits to once having concerns about the notion that playing golf would mess up his baseball swing, a theory that is still offered as an excuse to keep players off the course. But he got past it. Way past it.

"I'd be lying if I said that my golf swing is exactly my baseball swing," Francoeur says, "but there are similarities. "You want to stay back. You don't want to be out in front of the ball. You don't want to let your hips fly open."

But when it comes right down to it, Francoeur, like Smoltz, doesn't play the game to get better at his own sport; he plays it to forget about his own sport.

"Golf is an outlet, it's an escape and it helps loosen you up," Francoeur says. "I'm totally convinced that I'm a better baseball player because I play golf."

Back at the Jeter tournament, the host is loosening up as he waits for his guests to arrive at the 17th in the shotgun format. The routine is typical for a celebrity event: The host greets each member of every foursome with a chest bump. The corporate guests ask him to sign a jersey or a photo; their day is made, and, if they're a huge Jeter or Yankees fan, their year is made. Gentle ribbing, the lingua franca of golf, ensues.

"Let me guess," Jeter says to Galarraga, "you've played two holes and you're 15-under."

When the marquee foursome assembles for the group photo, Jordan points to the big poster of Jeter in mid-swing, at the apex of his takeaway, looking like a pro. Jordan smiles as if to say, "You're not that good."

But it's definitely not trick photography. Jeter is modest about his golf game — asked if his five World Series rings ever get in the way of his swing, he replies, "Everything gets in the way of my swing" — but as the day goes on the Yankees captain starts to look better and better, and he would almost certainly become a low-handicapper if he started taking the game a little more seriously. The best guess says that that will happen eventually.

"It can be frustrating for me, because I don't have a chance to work on my game all that much," says Jeter, relaxing between swings. "But still, it rarely upsets me."

He launches another practice tee ball. It's struck hard but pulled left, out of bounds behind the green, prompting him to provide an amendment to his previous statement.

"Unless the cameras are on, that is."

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