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

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

april_jeter_299x449_0.jpg
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.”


Warning: array_map(): Argument #2 should be an array in /opt/app-root/src/wp-content/themes/golf2018/template-parts/content-page-segment-values.php on line 7

Warning: implode(): Invalid arguments passed in /opt/app-root/src/wp-content/themes/golf2018/template-parts/content-page-segment-values.php on line 7