I have never seen so many new faces come and go throughout a season as
I did last year in Columbus. Between players, coaches, and Yankee personnel, there seemed to be a new face every week. We
went through a series of injuries and call-ups throughout the season, and so a number of different players were brought in
as replacements. Lockers were constantly cleaned out and refilled, and name tags became interchangeable. Roving coaches came
in to assist in the development of players, and Yankee personnel would come in to monitor the development of these players
and the respective teams.
Having come over to the Yankees at the end of Spring Training, I had to
quickly identify who was who in the organization. There seemed to be a revolving door to our clubhouse. It was only a matter
of time before a new face would come strolling in. And this of course, does not even begin to count the number of nameless
faces that ventured in and out of the clubhouse at any given time. I can not tell you how many times my locker mate and I
have looked at each other wondering who just walked by. I have been on major league teams before and not seen this much traffic
coming in and out of one clubhouse.
One of the few regulars in and out of town was long time player and coach,
Frank "Hondo" Howard. Howard's career began as a player in 1958 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1960, he won rookie of the
year honors, having established himself as one of the Dodgers legitimate power and RBI sources. In 1965, Hondo was traded
to the Washington Senators where he became known as the "Capital Punisher." As a Senator, he posted 36, 44 (twice), and 48
homerun seasons, and was an All Star from 1968-71. By the time his career ended in 1973 with the Detroit Tigers, he would
amass a total of 382 homeruns. Following his playing career, Hondo went on to coach with a number of different teams and also
had brief managerial stints with the San Diego Padres (1981) and New York Mets (1983). At age 67, Hondo is now a coach within
the Yankees' organization and offers years of both playing and coaching experience to the minor league players.
Anyone who has ever encountered Hondo would certainly agree that he is
a very physically imposing man. He stands at a statuesque, six foot seven inches and at least a good, solid 250 pounds, far
exceeding the average size of a baseball player from any era. If the physical presence of this man does not at least momentarily
divert your attention, then perhaps the magnitude of his voice will. Whether he is greeting people in the clubhouse, overheard
telling stories in the dugout, or yelling instructions like a drill sergeant to players from across the field, Hondo's presence
can be detected virtually instantaneously. I often found this amusing and would smile or laugh with each story I heard, or
for every funny one liner delivered that only the grace of life's experiences seem to perfect.
On the field and usually with a fungo (a bat specifically used for infield
and outfield practice) in hand, Hondo can be seen hitting thousands and thousands of groundballs to infielders. Infielders
knew with Hondo manning the post, there would be a countless number of groundballs awaiting them with their name on it. One
right after the other, Hondo would hit groundball after groundball working to refine and maintain the skills and work habits
of each infielder. His pace was disrupted only if a ball got by or away from an infielder. Then would he stop momentarily,
crack a smile, and allow his infielder to regroup before he is right back to work again.
"Thank you Hondo" was the call an infielder, drenched in sweat and with
a slight burn in his legs, would yell out to indicate the end of another work day. Having taken delight in finishing off another
infielder, Hondo would usually counter with "O.K. 500 more!" and begin to position himself to hit another groundball. "No,
I'm good!" the player would insist. Unable to milk another groundball out of him, Hondo would walk off, with a slight grin
on his face, in search of his next victim.
During the days that I was not in the line up, I would mix in with the
infielders and take groundballs during batting practice. I would look among the infield positions to see where I could filter
in without imposing or interfering with the regular routine of that infielder(s). You'll find that players are always trying
to prove that they can play another position besides the one they already play. Pitchers want to be hitters, hitters want
to be pitchers, catchers....well, catchers are just trying to show they can do something other than catch.
Taking groundballs was not only a good way to work on certain baseball
skills (even for a catcher), but it also was a good way of utilizing my time during batting practice. I would ask infielders
questions on footwork and proper positioning so that I would be more knowledgeable about that position. It would amuse me
and others when Hondo would yell from across the field for me to man a position in the infield and take groundballs. Sometimes,
I would find myself the only one at that position fielding. Although I knew there would never come a day where I would play
an infield position in a real game, other than possibly first base, or perhaps in some softball tournament somewhere, I'd
like to at least think I was athletic enough to fake it.
My objective in the infield was to handle myself adequately enough to feel
worthy of continuing to be out there. With Hondo, the challenge was not to have him break me or think that he could wear me
down. With sweat streaming down my face, I would pride myself on lasting however long Hondo intended, or at least until it
was time for me to go hit. The other challenge was to survive a batting practice session without getting hit by a line drive
from the hitter. Hondo had a tendency to hit his groundballs at the exact same time as hitters were making contact with their
pitch. One ill-timed lined drive or groundball could result in severe bumps and bruises or worse.
Another memorable figure was good, old Howard "Hop" Cassady. Cassady has
been a beloved member of the Columbus Clippers coaching staff for the past thirteen years. Throughout most of the season,
Hop sat at the front of the bench positioning himself for the clearest view of the game and kept the teams score card. When
he was not asking "what did the last hitter do?" he was yelling at the umpires for any call that went against the Clippers.
I do not recall Hop ever being loud enough that the umpires heard him on the field, but the players on our bench were certainly
entertained. This was when Hop was at his funniest. Even after the crowd and players settled from a questionable call made
by an umpire, Hop could still be heard on the bench complaining about that particular call. "Could've been, would've been,
should've been" was one of Hop's many infamous lines that would draw a few laughs from the bench. Seemingly amused, Clipper
players would urge Hop to continue badgering the umpires.
It was not until after the season began, that I became aware that we had
a Ohio State legend sitting among us on the bench. Hop Cassady is best known for his playing days as a former member of the
Ohio State Buckeyes football team. From 1952 to 1955, when Hop was not running past, through or "hopping along" over defenses
as a running back for the Buckeyes, he was sharing double duty as a defensive standout. In 1954, he helped his team to a perfect
10-0 season that concluded with a 20-7 victory over USC in the Rose Bowl.
The following year, Ohio State again finished undefeated and ranked number
five in the national poll, but due to a no repeat rule, the Buckeyes were excluded from reappearing in the Rose Bowl. However,
for his performance throughout the year, Hop was honored with the most prestigious and coveted college award, the Heisman
Trophy. Following his college career, Hop went on to play eight seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns,
and Philadelphia Eagles. Clippers players would respectfully ask "show us that pose Hop", and he would oblige by sticking
out one arm and lifting a leg, showing us that legendary Heisman trophy pose with a smile on his face.
I mention all of this only to say that there are certain people, characters,
and personalities that you tend to remember within the game. They have that quality about them that separates them from the
rest. Hondo is definitely one of those that will not only always be great for the game, but even greater for those that he
encounters along the way.