Sunday, August 27, 2006

Wooden Pays A House Call On Angels, Yankees

By Mike Waldner
Daily Breeze

Even the All-Stars on two of baseballs top franchises drop what they're doing to spend time with the Wizard of Westwood.

An old Indiana high school baseball coach spent the afternoon at the baseball park in Anaheim. The gentleman, John Wooden, is better known for his unparalleled success as UCLA's basketball coach.

But he did coach baseball when he was a high school English teacher as well as a coach. He played the sport, and played it well, in his youth. All these year later, he remains a fan who enjoys the game. He got a wild one Saturday when the Angels made it two in a row over the Yankees, this time winning, 12-7.

In New York, the self-styled center of the universe, the assumption no doubt is the draw for Wooden was Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the rest of their fabled Yankees.

Actually, Wooden first visited one of his favorites, Angels manager Mike Scioscia. He and members of his family watched the game in owner Arte Moreno's suite.

Scioscia, pumped up and ready to play after their meeting, said, "He's so sharp.

Wooden returned the compliment.

"I enjoy Mike very much," he said.

Wooden likes Scioscia's calm demeanor.

"He and Joe are a lot alike," he said. "Mike plays more little ball. That's because of the talent he has on his team."

Wooden knows and understands his baseball.

Non-partisan that he is at the age of 95, he also visited with the Yankees before the game.

A group of New York reporters cornered him at the elevator outside the visiting team clubhouse. Naturally, they wanted to grill him about the Yankees. Uncharacteristically, the grilling was gentle. You do not fire questions at Wooden. You ask his thoughts. You are polite when you do so.

They had spotted the coach talking to Jeter. What does he think of the Yankee shortstop?

"He's the consummate professional," Wooden said. "He accepts things."

As all his old players, from George Stanich to Curtis Rowe, will tell you, this is high praise.

Wooden, always the teacher, talked about the importance of accepting success and failure.

A Los Angeles correspondent tossed out the name of Brad Penny, the Dodgers pitcher who has displayed a temper this season.

"Everybody is different," Wooden said patiently. "I did not approve of General Patton's style. I sure wanted him on my side in a war."

If Penny has given Manager Grady Little trouble it is minor compared to the grief Bill Walton generated when he was a stubborn young undergrad. Others, ranging from Keith Erickson to Jack Hirsch to Sidney Wicks, tested Wooden's patience. His ability to deal with them had a lot to do with his success.

It was noted the old image of the Yankees as arrogant and egotistical has softened with Torre as manager and Jeter as star.

"They may be thought of as arrogant and egotistical by people who do not win as often," Wooden said.

He spoke from experience, knowing some linked UCLA basketball and his name with arrogance and ego back in the day.

Wooden has long been a critic of excessive showmanship from athletes, which he believes has a negative impact on the goals of the team.

"There is too much flamboyance in sports today," he said.

Reggie Jackson joined the circle around Wooden. He was Mr. Flamboyance as well as Mr. October, during his playing days.

Wooden, gracious as always, asked about his "little lady." Jackson told him his daughter is fine and that she's almost 16.

The New York reporters also asked about Alex Rodriguez, who has been skewered in print, on the air and by fans this season.

"The criticism is unjustified," Wooden said.

He had not talked to Rodriguez. But he asked another player to pass on some thoughts.

"Forget the past," he said. "Just concentrate on today. We all have peaks and valleys. You should not let them affect you."

Wooden excused himself from the New York reporters to return to the clubhouse.

Johnny Damon wanted an autograph and a scouting report on UCLA's basketball team.

"They have the talent to be good," Wooden said in a typically understated scouting report.

Wide-eyed youngsters, as well as adults, waited outside the stadium in the hope of catching a glimpse of Damon or perhaps, just perhaps, getting his autograph. They were no more wide-eyed than Damon was with Wooden.

Rodriguez and Mike Mussina came over to visit. They hung on his every word like young coaches at a clinic soaking up his wisdom.

Someone produced a copy of Wooden's famous Pyramid of Success. Rodriguez and Mussina peppered him with questions about team spirit and enthusiasm and the like. Rodriguez continually checked the blocks of his autographed Pyramid for reference as Wooden spoke.

Hot-shot Yankees?

Not in the presence of John Wooden.



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