TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our guest, Doug Glanville, is a former Major League Baseball player but hardly a typical pro athlete. Before getting into the game, he got an engineering degree from an Ivy League school, and he now writes columns about the world of sports for the New York Times.
His new book, "The Game From Where I Stand," is an inside look at the culture of pro baseball with subjects as trivial as how to pack your bag when you've been cut from a team and as serious as managing romantic relationships and facing the end of a promising career.
Glanville spent 15 years in professional baseball, nine seasons in the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers. Besides writing columns for the Times, he's a baseball analyst for ESPN. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Well, Doug Glanville, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, because FRESH AIR is produced in Philadelphia, which is you where you played the most of your major league career, I was certainly aware of you as a ballplayer for many years and was aware that you were a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. And I wanted to begin by asking you whether you felt a little different from a lot of the guys around you? You know, there's this image of ballplayers, maybe it's exaggerated and outdated, but you know, guys who chew tobacco, spit, scratch themselves, don't read books without pictures, and you're this Ivy League guy with an engineering degree. Did you feel you were different from your teammates?
Mr. DOUG GLANVILLE (Former Baseball Player; Author, "The Game From Where I Stand"): No, the interesting thing about that is it started more when I first got drafted. I think it converged to much more of a common space of if you look from the minor league experience versus the major league experience.
And I think of the movie "Bull Durham," where Crash Davis is talking to the main character, who's played by Tim Robbins, and he says, you know, you have fungus in your shower shoes. And he said in the minor leagues, you're a slob, but in the big leagues, they can consider you colorful.
So I think the fact that I was different, with this sort of academic background that's maybe not associated with professional athletes, that became something that was very much of a unique interest level for Major League Baseball. In the minor leagues, it was sort of, you know, you were kind of the alien in the room, more so. But it was interesting how it changed over the years and became more and more something positive.
DAVIES: Your degree was in engineering. Did those skills translate at all, give you an edge in the game, you know, which obviously involves angles and dimensions and fast calculations?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, I thought it would be more of an advantage than it ended up, actually. You know, I used to get teased as being called the rocket scientist when I was with the Cubs. And you realize fairly quickly, at the professional level, you have to have moments where you're sort of blank. You're not thinking. You're not calculating. You're just in a space to perform and react and trust your instincts. Yes, you can use the engineering to prepare. That was very important. I had a system. I had to figure out why does this guy throw pitches in a pattern, so I can be prepared.
Those things mattered, and it certainly helped that I had an academic approach to preparing for my opponent and also to figure out what I'm doing wrong to make corrections. But in the end, a lot of it is instinct, and your preparation can be well-crafted and sort of engineered, but when it comes down to it, you have to react to that ball because you have a split second to make a decision.
DAVIES: Now, baseball's different from other sports in that there's typically this long apprenticeship in the minor leagues. I mean, in a lot of sports, you'll see a player drafted and will become a pro that year or the next year and have a big impact. In baseball, folks spend years in the minors. You were a first-round pick in 1991, and I guess your first big league year was what, '96?
Mr. GLANVILLE: 1996, yes.
DAVIES: Yeah, so give us an example of something you learned in the minors that, you know, that tells us how you weren't ready. I mean, why do you need to spend all those years in the minors?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, absolutely I was not ready. If I was drafted and went to Major League Baseball, I would've been very quickly an engineer right away. I feel like there's a lot of components to baseball particularly. You have - you can master one aspect, and then there's other aspects you have to conquer. So you have to be a solid base runner. You have to play defense. You also have to hit. You have to hit the curve ball.
So there's so many elements of it. So you can excel and maybe be major-league caliber when you get drafted, but fairly soon, as you climb the ladder and up the ranks, you will find that you'll get exploited for the other things you don't do. And that's the beauty of baseball. It's a day-to-day exchange, and you're constantly updating your information on your opponent, on yourself.
So, to sort of be able to conquer all these things right out of college was just not possible, certainly where I was. There are very, very rare exceptions. There's a guy with the Cincinnati Reds who's pitching now who didn't play in the minor leagues, but that is extremely rare.
But outside of the experience on the field, it's off the field. It's the emotional development. You're 20 years old. You're thrust in an environment, you have to learn how to be on the road, away, manage your money, deal with your social environment. That's another learning experience. How do you talk to the press?
So all these things are part of your development, and because baseball is so specialized and it takes a lot of time to develop, then you really do need some minor league time. And I think that's a tremendous asset for baseball because it does create a lot more humility, I believe, in the sport than versus other sports where you're able to sort of get drafted and go right to the top.
DAVIES: You played center field, and the name of your book is "The Game From Where I Stand." What's special about being in center field?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, center field was very personal to me. It was a marriage made in heaven, so to speak, because I always was an observer, and I always enjoyed being able to get this panoramic view of everything. And center field affords you that opportunity. You're in the middle of the outfield. You're in the grass. You can roam free. You are the captain of the outfield, but also, you see everything going on in front of you, from where the catcher is setting up, where the shortstop's moving, where my dad is sitting in the stands. You really have this perspective and see everything that the game affords.
DAVIES: You know, there's also, anybody who's been to ballparks and has sat at various places in stadiums know that there's a special relationship sometimes between fans who sit in the outfield and the outfielder they're nearest.
I mean, if you're in the infield, there's a lot of people and there's a lot of noise, but in the outfield, it's kind of a little quieter out there. And I wondered if outfielders can hear individual hecklers.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, it's all about timing, and the hecklers that are really good know when to yell at you. So you hear them loud and clear. You know, it's a little down time, the pitching coach is out visiting the guy who's struggling with his curve ball, and all of a sudden, you're out there, and you hear the guy yelling.
So of course, my favorite comment was a guy who had done a lot of research on my history and realized I was an engineer who did a paper about building a new stadium at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. So I was really struggling when I first came over to Philly in 1998, struggling and hitting like .190. So the guy yelled out: Hey Glanville, why don't you design a stadium you can hit in?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GLANVILLE: So I thought that was very witty, and of course, he said it when it was - you could hear mosquitoes and crickets out there. So, you know, that - I had to tip my cap to that guy, but I've heard worse, certainly. But, you know, you just, you learn to kind of tune it out, but you will hear it. There's no way around it.
DAVIES: Now, an outfielder who can roam the field like an antelope and snag any ball hit there is not going to be in the big leagues unless they can hit. And you became a lead-off hitter, which is a special, you know, species in the game. What was your job as a lead-off hitter that was different from just swinging a bat?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, my job actually was debatable, and I think that's the beauty of the discussion that baseball affords. I think most people would say that a lead-off hitter's job is to get on base, and that's the simplest version of it, to say get on base any way, any shape and anyhow.
DAVIES: Which means you take a walk, get hit, what?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Talk a walk, get hit, lay down a bunt. The one that's quantifiable, which is walking, getting a hit, getting hit by a pitch, which goes into your stat column as on-base percentage, is one way. Now, you could get on base in other ways, like reaching on an error or something along those lines.
So the on-base percentage is something that haunts a lead-off hitter. You're always measured up against this number .400, 40 percent of the time, you get on base safely. I was nowhere near that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GLANVILLE: So that was a little bit of my problem because I was below that, probably .325 - I'm guessing a little bit about what my career average was. So I was much more aggressive for a prototypical lead-off hitter. So when I wasn't hitting, that was the problem because I wasn't going to take a walk, and therefore, I wasn't getting on base that often.
But I would contend that there's other ways to be an effective lead-off hitter, one of which is if you have the speed, you put pressure on the other team. The defense has to rush throws. If you do get on base, however way, they have to pay attention to you because you might steal the next base.
I think there's factors in being aggressive. Getting a hit is different than getting, you know, working a walk because now you've probably moved the runner an extra base instead of one base. So there's ways that you can offset not being a great on-base percentage by being a spark and putting pressure on the defense.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that you mention in the book was that there was a period, whenever you led off a game - you were the number one in the batting order - but whenever you led off a game, you would enter the batting box with your head down. Why?
Mr. GLANVILLE: You know, it was a ritual. You know, when you lead off a game, one of my teammates used to say: You go, we go. You are the spark. You start the engine. And you need to sort of get into sort of almost like a spiritual space to start off, you know, a great game.
So I used to do that as a sort of tone-setter to figure out: Okay, where am I? Let me get my mind clear and then get started. So I would look down and, of course, Greg Maddux learned how to exploit that at some point, as smart as he is because he would study the films and realize I'd walk in the, you know, get in the batter's box with my head down. And he started quick-pitching the first pitch of the game, so every time I looked up, it was no balls and one strike within two seconds.
So I started to put one eye on him and, you know, he took me out of my game. So I had to figure out ways to take him out of his.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Maddux, of course, the terrific pitcher for many years for the Atlanta Braves, right.
DAVIES: You know, the other thing you see in baseball is if you get a hit and you go to first base, you'll sometimes see a little casual chat with the opposing team's first baseman. And in the warm-ups, you know, you guys are sharing the field. There might be a little chatter here. And I always wondered whether there's any unwritten rules about how friendly you can be with the competition, whether managers, coaches, other players felt like you shouldn't be talking to those guys.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, I think that parallels sort of maybe how our country is run. You have sort of federal mandates and you have state mandates. State mandates are something like talking at first base, which is basically team by team.
So the teams - some teams are like, okay, you can talk a little bit. Other teams are not that friendly with it. I know the Cubs, when I first came up, were not into fraternization. They didn't like it. So when you had to run in the outfield when you were warming up, you had to run at an angle or bow out towards the fence because they didn't want you to connect with the other team that was running from the other foul line. So that was one way the Cubs handled it.
Now, when it came to conversation, what did we talk about at first? It was mostly idle chatter. I mean, if you got a hit, you were feeling pretty good, so you'd look for some sort of acknowledgment from the first baseman. Or you'd say, oh, yeah, way to swing it, man. That's all right, or you know...
But you don't have a lot of time over there at first base because especially if you're a base stealer, like myself, you got to get ready to take that bag. You got to steal that base. So you don't have time for too many pleasantries.
There was guys like J.T. Snow(ph), for example, that didn't speak to me until maybe my last year. So it was about eight years before he actually said something. I don't know what that was about, but I guess he finally warmed up eventually.
DAVIES: You know, I looked at your stats before I came to the interview, and you really had some terrific years. I mean, you had years where you hit, had 200 hits, where you were in the, you know, top 10 or 20 in the league in stolen bases and batting average. But eventually, of course, you reach your 30s, and things change. And I wonder, as you got towards the end of your playing career, could you feel your skills degrading?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, I definitely felt differently, certainly. I mean, one of the biggest and clearest examples is that I got hurt. And I had never been on the disabled list my entire career, and then all of a sudden in Texas, I signed as a free agent. I'm excited about the future. I'm getting - I'm starting again, and I wasn't the year before in Philadelphia, in '02, and then I tear a hamstring tendon, just something basic as running down the baseline.
So I knew then that I was getting older in this game, and it wasn't just roll out of bed and hit anymore. It was stretch, prepare, weight-train, lift, and even though I'd been doing some of those to get ready for a game before, now I had to do it on an exponentially more intense level.
So, you know, this was part of the rite of passage of a player, and you know that you're going to get older and slow down. Now, I don't think my speed necessarily changed, but it was the ability to explode or how -the preparation it took to actually get that speed.
So when you're more time getting ready for the game than actually playing the game, you know you're getting older. So - and so it was pretty clear that it was changing for me.
DAVIES: You know, for you and a lot of players, you, toward the end of your career, you would play, you know, platoon roles where you would only play some games or you'd be on the bench and pinch-hit or come in late in the game as a defensive replacement for another outfielder. Talk a little bit about what it's like mentally to be in that role after spending many years as a starter.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, it's a very difficult transition, especially not only many years professionally as a starter, I started since I was five, you know what I mean. I was a kid, and I was used to being the guy, being the starter. So it was very shocking to change and try to adapt to the new culture of being a role-player or a fourth outfielder, as they say in my case.
But, you know, you do learn, and you do watch other guys go through it earlier, and you recognize it could be your time. But it doesn't necessarily make it easier to transition into being this guy that has to all of a sudden start stretching in the sixth inning in the locker room because he may pinch hit or pinch run late in the game, and it's April, and it's 40 degrees, and you can't get loose. I mean, this is not a very easy transition.
So I went through that primarily in 2004, and quite frankly, it was a very frustrating year. I didn't perform well, for sure, but I also was just miserable in trying to figure out how to be ready every day, and the times that I did start, it seemed like I was facing a Cy Young winner every day. So it just made it worse for me, but you know, players all come to that fork in the road, and you have to make that decision, if you want to go out on top as a starter or, you know, hang on in the game a long time as a role-player and accept that this is going to be your dynamic.
DAVIES: You know, one thing I don't think I realized until I read your book was that a lot of times when people are in those fill-in positions, they will be plopped in by the manager on a day when the best opposing pitcher is on the mound so that not only do you not get to play very often, but you get to come off cold and face the toughest guys in the league. Why do they put you in that role?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Yeah, that is no fun at all, no fun at all. Well, you know, in some cases, in my case in particular, Marlon Byrd was emerging, and he was - the Byrd era was beginning, and Glanville era was kind of moving out.
DAVIES: You mean, he was the up-and-coming center fielder for the Phillies, right?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Yeah. So he was about to replace me as this next guy, and I did go to Texas and came back, and Marlon shined that year. So, in 2004, that was his job, basically. So I took a reduced role. So I was a mentor to Marlon and helped him learn the position, but on the flip side, when Marlon started struggling early on, they didn't want him to play against the toughest pitchers. So what they would do is they'd say, okay, Glanville would play on these guys to give Marlon a break and make sure he keeps his confidence so that he can get going against the not as - the weaker pitchers, I'll say.
As a result, my schedule looked like this: two weeks, you know, not play, and then when I did play, it was Tom Glavine, it was Al Leiter, it was Randy Johnson, it was Brad Radke, it was, you know...
DAVIES: The best pitchers out there.
Mr. GLANVILLE: I mean, these guys were Cy Young winners, I mean most of them. And so, to try to get your A-game going after you've kind of sat and you have no rhythm is very tough. And the guys that do it, I tip my cap, but it was a really difficult thing for me to try to figure out how to be ready.
In that Radke case, they didn't even tell me that I was playing that day. I got to the stadium. It was a day game. It was like 9:00, and they're like, oh, by the way, you're in the lineup. There was a day in San Diego where Pat Burrell(ph) got hurt. I didn't find out until it was - you know, right before the game.
So that's what happens when you're the role-player. You don't have the cushy life of, oh, well, you know what, you're the starter. You're the guy. You know, don't worry about it, just get ready. Now you have to just be ready on call, and that is not very easy when you're accustomed to being the guy and starting every day.
DAVIES: I think you finished your career as - doing a spring training with the New York Yankees, hoping to earn a spot on their club. And then I guess a week before the season, they gave you your release. Was it hard to let go of the game then?
Mr. GLANVILLE: Well, it was a tough moment because, despite having what I considered good options - you know, I had this wonderful Ivy League engineering degree, I could do a lot of different things - I certainly knew how to make a living only through baseball. That was my life. That was my livelihood. And so there's no really preparing for that moment where someone gives you the pink slip and says, oh, you know what, you know, we don't need your services.
So even though I knew I was getting older, I still had to deal with that transition. And the Yankees called me in the office a week to go in spring training in 2005 and said, you know, sorry, but, you know, we just don't feel like this is, you know, going to work, and we have to let you go.
And it was a moment where I - it was a week, I think I spent a week in my apartment in Tampa, Florida, waiting to see if there was another team that would call. And most of the calls I got were front-office jobs. Oh, you want to be a GM or something? I was like, you know, I'm still looking for a job here. What are you guys doing? You know, I can still play.
But then eventually, the San Diego Padres called and they offered me a triple-A contract, which I was not interested in doing. I was really thinking Yankees or bust, or major leagues or bust. And I really thought about it and I had met my wife, and I was sort of like, you know, I've kind of done it.
DAVIES: Do you ever play ball, sandlot, softball, anything?
Mr. GLANVILLE: No, I really - I haven't really picked up a bat. I picked up a bat at my wedding. We had a very creative rehearsal dinner. Instead of the traditional dinner, we had a barbecue at a minor league stadium, and we took batting practice and had a home run derby. So that was -that's the last time I picked up a bat and really tried to hit a ball hard.
DAVIES: How long ago were you married?
Mr. GLANVILLE: 2005, yeah, so about five years.
DAVIES: You know, I have all these memories of you hitting high fastballs, and you haven't picked up a bat in five years? That makes me want to cry.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Yeah, in some ways I want to cry, too, but it's just sort of a new day. I will get back to the game on the field. I'm confident. My son is not quite old enough yet, but soon I'm sure he's going to get into it. I mean, I'm going to have my daughter out there. I think she's, you know, already showing to be, like, a good athlete at eight months. You know, so... I'll get back to it. I'll probably go to fantasy camp maybe, you know, one of these days, but I don't want to do it before I'm 40. You know, I'm still under 40, and I don't want to go out there and realize I could've still played. That's frustrating. So I need to go until I've, like, lost even more of a step, and them I'm, like, okay, I should be in this fantasy camp.
DAVIES: Well, Doug Glanville, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. GLANVILLE: Thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Doug Glanville is a sports columnist for the New York Times and a baseball analyst for ESPN. His new book is called "The Game From Where I Stand." You can read the first chapter and find links to all of Glanville's columns on baseball on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.