Eddie Oropesa’s story: Living every day like it’s his last

This feature on Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Eddie Oropesa appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in April 2002.

Living every day like it’s his last

By Ed Odeven

PHOENIX (April 20, 2002) — Veteran pitcher Eddie Oropesa treasures every day. For him, every day is a blessing, another day to do what he loves.

“Every day when I wake up I thank God, come to the ballpark and give 100 percent,” he said.

With Oropesa’s optimistic outlook and pitching talents, he’s been a positive addition to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A free-agent pickup by the D-backs during the off-season, Oropesa arrived at the D-backs’ spring training camp in Tucson as a non-roster invitee. A slight hamstring strain limited his availability during Cactus League action — he made six appearances. And with injuries causing veteran pitchers Armando Reynoso (neck), Todd Stottlemyre (shoulder), Matt Mantei (elbow) and Greg Swindell (shoulder) to begin the season on the disabled list, Oropesa was given an opportunity to make Arizona’s Opening Day roster.

It was not an opportunity Oropesa would waste.

“He got the ball and little by little he was breaking in,” D-backs pitcher Miguel Batista said.

“He was really excited the day they told him he made the team.”

Through Friday, Oropesa, a submarine-style lefty, has been the busiest reliever out of the D-backs’ bullpen, making 11 appearances. He’s tied with four others for the most appearances in the National League. Oropesa’s ERA sky-rocketed to 5.23 after a shaky outing Friday.

PURSUING A DREAM

Oropesa, 30, was born and raised in Cuba. He attended the University of Matanzas. On the baseball-crazed island where talent is abundant, Oropesa made the Cuban National Team.

However, he yearned for more. He wanted a better life for his family. He wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues. And he wanted freedom from dictator Fidel Castro’s communist regime.

“When I had my first opportunity, I said I wanted to defect,” Oropesa said.

While in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1993 for an exhibition game between a Cuban traveling team and a team from South Korea, Oropesa defected. He climbed over a fence at the ballpark and never looked back. Oropesa’s wife Rita was pregnant at the time with the couple’s first-born child, Edilberto, back in Cuba.

It was not an easy road to take. Oropesa toiled for eight years in the minors, starting with the St. Paul Saints of the Independent Northern League in 1993. He pitched in four games that year for the Saints, posting a 3-1 record with a 1.93 ERA.

The Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 14th round of the amateur draft the following year. The well-traveled Oropesa pitched for Vero Beach in 1994, San Antonio, Vero Beach and San Bernardino in ’95, San Bernardino in ’96, Shreveport in ’97, The President Lions in Taiwan (Chinese Professional Baseball League) in ’98, Fresno, Bakersfield and Reynosa (Mexican League) in ’99 and Shreveport again in 2000.

Many ballplayers would have given up and changed professions. Oropesa did not. He kept with it, kept striving to get a shot at “The Show.”

Oropesa, a non-roster invitee to the Philadelphia Phillies camp last spring, made a good impression, pitching in 13 exhibition games without giving up an earned run.

Finally, he made his major-league debut last season with the Philadelphia Phillies and pitched on Opening Day

“I’ve gone through so much, fighting and struggling,” Oropesa was quoted as saying at the time in the Miami Herald. “There were times in the past eight years I felt my head was going to explode from all the pressure inside it. I came here to be free, to have a future, to give my son a life different from the one I had, and to see him in the crowd.”

“It’s hard to play so many years in the minor leagues, especially those first few years when my family was back in Cuba,” he said earlier this week.

Oropesa’s wife and three kids and his parents now live in the United States. He said they are grateful to enjoy the freedom and opportunities that exist in America.

Pitching in Cuba helped prepare Oropesa for the high-pressure situations of being a major leaguer. He said that no ballplayers influenced his pitching style. Instead, he credits his father, Eddie, for passing on to him his love for the game.

“I thank my father every day for taking me to the park in Centrales Espana, Cuba,” he said.

MAKING HIS MARK

Oropesa feels grateful for the opportunity to pitch for the D-backs.

“I was very happy when they called to my against to come to spring training to try out for the World Champs,” he said.

“Every day when I come into the ballpark, I’m ready to play. They gave me the opportunity, so I want to give 100 percent.

“They gave me the opportunity. I need to say thank you to the organization for giving me the opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that doesn’t rattle him. He has proven he has the nerves and the inner strength for this profession.

“(Playing) in the major leagues is like (playing in) Cuba,” Oropesa said. “It’s hard to play for your country, especially when it’s a communist country.”

It may be hard for Oropesa to remain one of the league’s best-kept secrets.

“He’s a guy who has come a long way,” Batista said. “He knows how to pitch. He just needed an opportunity and so far they are giving him the opportunity.

“He’s opening people’s eyes…They can think he can do the job as well as anybody else.”

Here’s where Oropesa figures to be a top commodity:

“There are going to possibly be situations in the fifth or sixth inning of games where you have to get a tough left-hander out and then that same situation may occur in the eighth or the ninth,” D-backs manager Bob Brenly said.

Like fellow southpaw submariner Mike Myers, Oropesa has had his fair share of success against righties, too.

“I think he’s fine against righties,” Brenly said. “Him and Myers are fine against right-handers. They both have such an unorthodox delivery that hitters, right-handed or left-handed, aren’t used to seeing. They both have tremendous movement on their pitches.”

Movement is a word that perfectly sums up Oropesa’s adult life. After all, he’s pitched for 14 teams in three countries on two continents in the past nine years. It’s been a journey well worth it.

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“To be successful in life you have to give up something” — Billy Hatcher

This featured appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun (June 19, 2004).

2015 update: Billy Hatcher is in his 10th season as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds.

LIVING A DREAM

By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX — He had seven consecutive hits in the 1990 World Series, helping the Cincinnati Reds sweep the heavily favored Oakland A’s. He hit a game-tying 14th-inning home run in the action-packed Game 6 of the 1986 National League Championship Series.

Those were, of course, memorable moments. But Billy Hatcher’s point of view is this: His biggest thrill as a big league ballplayer occurred the first moment he donned a Chicago Cubs uniform in 1984, his first day in the majors.

“My first time getting called up to the big leagues was just amazing,” said Hatcher, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first base coach, before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Bank One Ballpark. “It was something that I had worked for, for my entire life, and then getting that opportunity (was indescribable).

“I don’t think winning the World Series or doing the job I did in the World Series (hitting .750, 9-for-12) would ever (compare) with that moment, the feeling I had. … It’s a feeling that I can never, ever cherish again. I would cherish winning another World Series, because I would win one as a coach.”

Hatcher, a 1979 graduate of Williams High School, has been a mainstay of the Devil Rays’ organization since beginning his coaching career on Dec. 1, 1995, two-plus years before the franchise would play its inaugural season.

He spent the 1996 season as Tampa Bay’s roving minor league instructor and then worked as a coach for St. Petersburg, the 1997 Florida State League champion. He has served on the D-Rays’ coaching staff since ’98, spending time as the third base coach (2000), bench coach (2001-02) and first base coach (1998-99 and 2003-present).

Hatcher has taken a natural liking to this occupation.

“I probably get more enjoyment out of teaching than I did playing,” said Hatcher, who retired as a player in 1995 after playing a dozen seasons for seven ballclubs: the Cubs, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and, lastly, Texas.

“I love playing the game,” he continued, while sitting in the dugout and champing on a mouthful of Bazooka bubble gum. “When you were playing, you only had to worry about yourself. As a coach, you teach and worry about so many other players. To see these guys get better every single day just makes you feel good.”

Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford, one of the team’s talented, young players, said Hatcher has the natural disposition to be a coach.

“He’s real patient, laid-back, trying to keep everybody loose,” Crawford added. “He’s not up there in your face; he just lets you know what you need to do.”

According to Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, Crawford and center fielder Rocco Baldelli, a rising star, have especially benefited from Hatcher’s coaching.

“Hatcher is an excellent coach,” the manager said. “He’s outgoing. He communicates well. He’s got a lot of baseball knowledge. He works primarily with the baserunners, with the outfielders and him and (third base coach Tom) Foley sometimes do a little bit of the bunting (instruction).

“Billy is a good baseball man, he really is. He’s got some passion for the game. He’s enthusiastic and he’s a hard worker.”

In his own words, what sums up Hatcher’s coaching style?

“They understand how to play the game,” he said. “I give them a few tips on how I used to do things. But basically, I tell those guys to never get down on themselves. You are going to make mistakes. … The best baseball players forget real quick.”

THE LONG ROAD

Hatcher, who turned 43 in October, credits his father for giving him the proper perspective in regards to reaching his lifelong goal: to be a major leaguer.

He says he recalled hearing time and time again his father’s words of wisdom: “To be successful in life you have to give up something.”

For Hatcher, that initially meant playing for the Vikings’ varsity baseball team (from 1976-79) and running on the track and field team during the spring months. In those days, he’d step off the baseball diamond and run sprints just minutes after taking off his batting helmet and unlacing his baseball spikes.

It was time to work on becoming a well-conditioned athlete, which, he said, meant sacrificing time that could’ve been spent hanging out with his friends.

After he became a pro player, it meant spending five consecutive years (1981-85) playing winter ball in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But the extra months on foreign soil paid off, giving Hatcher the opportunity to work on his skills — and get better.

By 1986, he was in the big leagues to stay. And he didn’t leave “The Show” until hanging up his hat at the end of the 1995 season, when he played for the Rangers. The speedy outfielder with an excellent glove wound up playing in 1,233 games and collecting 1,146 hits.

And forever, Hatcher’s name is one future generations of ballplayers will know about in the tiny town of Williams: The WHS baseball field is named after its famous alum.

“I’m very blessed and I’m very thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be in the game of baseball as long as I’ve been,” said Hatcher, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., with his wife, Karen, and their two children: Derek (18) and Chelsea (14).

RETURNING TO ARIZONA

Believe it or not, Friday’s trip to Bank One Ballpark marked the first time Hatcher stepped foot in the Diamondbacks’ home facility.

Is this a special building for you? he was asked.

“Yes, it is,” he said.

Growing up during a time when the Phoenix Giants (later known as the Firebirds) of the Pacific Coast League were the closest thing the Grand Canyon State team had to a big league ballclub, Hatcher said he was thrilled when Arizona was awarded an expansion franchise. And even though the 2004 Diamondbacks do not resemble the team that won the 2001 World Series, Hatcher said it’s important for the fans to continue to support their team wholeheartedly.

“You never know what you really have until you don’t have it anymore,” he said.

The same could be said for the opportunity Hatcher has had getting to play and coach for one of the game’s all-great skippers, Piniella.

“Lou was my manager in Cincinnati. I won a world championship with Lou,” said Hatcher, whose mom, Gracie, and sister, Nell, reside in Williams while his two brothers, Johnny and Jesse, call Flagstaff home.

“Lou was not only my manager, Lou is also a good friend of mine. Lou has helped me in so many other ways besides baseball. He’s just been a friend to talk with … So, to me, he ranks No. 1 in my book.”

Even so, he’s eager to put his stamp on the Devil Rays, always ready to make things happen from the first-base coaching box. In essence, his position there is a direct extension of his playing days.

“At first base, we have some guys with some speed that can steal some bases,” he said. “In fact, I’m stealing bases with ’em, because I’ve picked up a move, (noticing) what a guy is doing, the first move. I tell guys a lot of times when to go. … That’s how I learned how to play the game.”

Having been raised in a small town, Hatcher never forgot his roots, never forgot the people that were his emotional backbone in his formative years.

“I want to thank all the people in northern Arizona for supporting me during my playing days,” Hatcher said. “I really appreciate it, and I still love them.”

Too much exercise?

Are Major League Baseball players doing more harm than good by embracing year-round conditioning programs?

Is there too much emphasis on weights and body-building exercises within pro sports today, especially baseball?

The numbers in an AP report from early this morning are alarming. Especially for the start of another big league season, when players are supposed to be in tip-top shape.

The article states that a record 115 MLB players are on the disabled list to start the season. There were 101 players on the DL to open the 2014 season, 110 in 2008 and 104 in 2001, AP reported, citing data from MLB’s commissioner’s office. In 1995, when the commissioner’s office began keeping these records, 46 players were on the DL on Opening Day.

Do these players have enough muscle flexibility? Are they doing the wrong exercises to prevent injuries?

MLB’s mission to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease (column flashback)

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 6, 2002.

Baseball’s support of ALS research an homage to Gehrig

By Ed Odeven

It’s easy to criticize Major League Baseball. The owners’ greed, the players’ ridiculous salaries, recent revelations of a troublesome epidemic plaguing the game (rampant steroid use) and the outrageous price of tickets are too much for the average fan to afford: All are clear-cut reasons why many fans have been turned off by the grand ol’ game.

Today, however, let’s discuss something baseball is doing right. Baseball is doing its part to help raise awareness and find a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It’s been just over 61 years since legendary Lou Gehrig died (June 2, 1941) from ALS, but he is not forgotten, nor are his on-the-field accomplishments.

The New York Yankees first baseman batted cleanup, for years hitting behind Babe Ruth — talk about job security, y’all — in the famed Murderers’ Row lineup that dominated baseball like few teams ever have — or ever will.

Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games, an amazing streak later topped by Cal Ripken Jr., before taking himself out of the Yanks’ lineup in 1939. He would never play again. But Gehrig touched the hearts of ballplayers and fans when he gave his now-famous speech.

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” Gehrig said on July 4, 1939.

Gehrig is remembered for both his brilliant career and the progressive neurodegenerative disease that bears his name.

Perhaps more than anyone associated with the game today, Curt Schilling has made sure that Gehrig is not forgotten.

The Diamondbacks’ Mr. Good Guy, Schilling, is more than just a dominant figure on the mound. He’s a guy with a keen sense of history and respect for the game’s legends. And he’s a guy with a heart as big as the Great Wall of China.

Since 1992, he has helped raise more than $3 million for ALS research. Since joining the D-backs, Schilling has become an active supporter of the ALS Association’s Arizona chapter. At the same time, Schilling, who first made a name for himself with the Philadelphia Phillies a decade ago, continues to provide financial contributions to the City of Brotherly Love’s ALS Association’s chapter.

Schilling realizes the influence he has as a public figure, raising awareness for a worthwhile cause.

“Over the past eight years I’ve met many ALS patients and their families,” Schilling said. “I’ve learned that ALS can strike anyone. The emotional and physical toll is devastating to the whole family.”

Last Saturday, MLB gave a heartfelt tribute to Gehrig at ballparks around the country on a special day dubbed “Project ALS Day.” Before each game, celebrities read his speech and urged fans to help support ALS research.

It’s a great start. But there’s so much more that society and athletes can do. Too many players worry about getting a shoe contract, getting lucrative endorsements and getting “respect.”

As noted humanitarian and late baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente once said, “If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.”

If only more athletes, especially those with the means to improve the lives of countless others, would realize that.

Profile of then-Hiroshima Carp (and former MLB) player Chad Tracy a few weeks after 3/11/2011

This feature appeared in the Kinston (North Carolina) Free Press on April 17, 2011

Chad-O
Former Pirate Tracy making an impact in Japan on and off field

By Ed Odeven
Special to The Free Press

TOKYO — While pro baseball is under way in Japan after the catastrophic natural disasters on March 11 forcefully and unexpectedly created a number of unique challenges for an entire nation, former East Carolina baseball standout Chad Tracy is eager to make an impact for the Hiroshima Carp this season.

The red-and-white clad Carp hope to improve on their 58-84-2 record and climb into playoff contention in Japan’s Central League. On the other hand, Tracy won’t set targets for home runs, RBIs, batting average, etc. To him, that’s not the proper approach.

“I usually don’t set number goals,” Tracy said by phone from Hiroshima as he geared up for the Carp’s season-opening series against the Hanshin Tigers. “For me it’s about trying to help the team win baseball games. If I drive in runs and I’m out there getting on base and scoring runs, it gives us a better chance to win every night. It’s about getting hits with runners in scoring position and being out there scoring runs.”

The Carp had expected to begin their regular season on March 25 against the CL rival Chunichi Dragons in Nagoya, but plans changed after the events of March 11. Players had spent months preparing for the coming season and then everything came to a crashing halt.

“I think we’ll quickly fall back in a routine,” said Tracy, whose team lost two of three games against the Tigers at Koshen Stadium, Japan’s most beloved ballpark, in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

As for the team’s offense, the West Mecklenberg High graduate believes the Carp will need to utilize their speed (119 steals in 2010) to put runs on the board. The numbers support that perspective; the Carp hit the fewest home runs (104) in the six-team CL last season.

“We don’t have big power guys,” said Tracy, a career .278 hitter in the majors, “so we’ll need to manufacture runs and (utilize) small ball. We do have some pretty good players.”

At the plate, the left-handed-batting Tracy, who broke into the big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 and played for the club until becoming a free agent after the 2009 season, expects to be served a healthy dose of curveballs, perhaps more than he’d usually see in the majors. But he considers preparation will be the key to hitting successfully in Japan.

“They tend to throw more breaking balls in fastball counts, kind of keep you guessing,” Tracy observed, speaking about the prototypical Japanese pitcher. “I’m just trying to be patient and get something to hit,” he added.

“I had a good spring training, swung the bat very well, so as long as I can stay healthy it should be a good season.”

Meanwhile, Tracy is still adjusting to Japanese cuisine and blending his own workouts and on-field competition to keep a comfortable playing weight. He noted that large helpings of noodles and rice have made it “tougher to keep (weight) off than on around here.”

But after a season of uncertainty, when he bounced around the Cubs, Yankees and Marlins organizations, including 69 combined games in the bigs for Chicago and Florida, Tracy is keeping an open mind about his new team and playing baseball in the Far East.

“I’ll have to wait and see,” he said. “I’m not going to commit to anything longer than this year. I’ll see how it goes. You don’t know where your mind will be at end of year.”

He added: “I could end up playing five years here or one, you just never know.”

A pleasant relationships with second-year Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura can help make Tracy’s adjustment to Japanese baseball a smooth transition. Since arriving in Japan on Jan. 25, the Charlotte native has felt comfortable with the team’s management.

“He’s made it easy on all the foreigners here,” Tracy said of Nomura. “He’s very personable, easy to talk to and he understands where we are coming from and some of the things we are not accustomed to doing.

“He’s made himself very available.”

Asked to give an example, Tracy mentioned this: “He’s taken us out to dinner; we went to Outback. We’ve done that a couple times. He’s tried to make us feel comfortable here.”

“For him to do that, it says a lot for him,” Tracy continued. “We all respect him as a person, as a manager and as a former player. He likes to work hard, which is always fun. We are all used to working hard and he made sure we are all on the same page and understand what’s going on.”

To avoid having his words and expressions, simple or complex, lost in translation, Tracy and the team’s fellow foreigners will rely on interpreters throughout the season.

That two-way communication won’t simply be “yes” or “no” questions and answers. Instead, Nomura has clearly made a point of requesting feedback from Tracy and other ballplayers.

“When the tsunami hit, he made sure our families were OK,” Tracy recalled. “We had meetings and he asked us our opinions.”

This included the uncertainty over the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis, as there were — and still are — natural fears in the immediate aftermath of the environmental disaster.

“With the nuclear reactor and stuff, he wanted to know our concerns about how we felt going to Tokyo,” Tracy said of Nomura. “We all agree we felt safe, but didn’t go up there for spring games.”

***

Every sector of Japanese society is pitching in to help Japan’s recovery from last month’s catastrophic events. All-time home run king Sadaharu Oh, for example, greeted fans at a public event in March, held out a jar to collect donations and asked for their support in raising funds. Emperor Akihito has also appeared on television and at refugee shelters to speak about the situation and give comfort to those who have been affected the most.

So it’s only natural for sports teams to lend a hand, too. Tracy and his Carp teammates use some of their off time before the regular season’s delayed opener to do their part. At Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima, which is often referred to as Mazda Stadium by the English mass media, Tracy participated in fundraising events, greeting fans and asking them to donate money to aid the earthquake and tsunami victims. (Many of Japans’s sports teams, leagues and individual athletes have pledged financial support for the Japanese Red Cross.)

Similar team-organized events took place at Hiroshima train stations, while other players have set aside funds for those in need affected by the March 11 disasters.

Tracy is eager to help in any way he can.

“It’s one of those things if you have something to give and they need it, they probably need a lot more than we can give, and hopefully anything they get will help,” he said, without needing to cite the heartbreaking statistics that tell only a small part of the story — thousands have died and several thousand remain missing.

Given the enormity of the suffering that Japan has experienced since mid-March, Tracy believes this baseball-crazed nation can find some semblance of normalcy in its daily routine by staging a baseball season now.

“At this point, given the delay, it was the right thing to do and people are now to the point where they are ready to watch baseball,” he said. “I think the delay was necessary just so the country could kind of get its bearing, but definitely baseball can help be a little bit of comfort to people who are looking for normalcy in their lives.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a mix-and-match this season, but as long as the players are willing to kind of go through a little bit of sacrifice to get some games in, it should be normal and give fans out here something to watch everyday and hopefully take their minds off some of the things that are going on in Japan right now.”

***

Showing up to work at Mazda Stadium, which opened in 2009, is exciting, Tracy said, noting the park has an “American-style” feel to it, with a grass infield, unlike other Japanese parks that have dirt infields. He already knows that the team’s fans are loud and described the atmosphere as “exciting.”

When he steps into the batter’s box in Hiroshima, the fans roar with delight, voicing support for the slugger they affectionately call “Chad-o.”

“It’s really fun listening to the fans and the drum beating and the horns going on, chanting your name when you go out on defense,” Tracy said.

“…It keeps you pumped up in the game and the adrenaline going. It’s nice to have fans like that. With the fans the way they are, it helps get you through the night.”

Preparing for a new season and life in a new country, Tracy has had a busy past few months, including long training camp stints in Okinawa and Kyushu, islands south of Japan’s biggest island, Honshu, which includes the Western port city of Hiroshima.

He hasn’t had a great deal of free time to explore many of Hiroshima’s well-known sites, based on the city’s cultural and historic significance. He did visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and famous Shukkei-en Garden (originally constructed in the 1620s) during the Edo Period and rebuilt in the 1950s after the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb by the U.S. military in 1945 near the end of World War II) with his parents, Thelma and Roger Wilson, who reside in Charlotte, during their recent trip to Japan.

As the months progress, Tracy plans to pick his spots to soak up the city’s culture and explore the region.

But, he admitted, that “after a long day at the park you are not feeling like going to a sightseeing event.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that he hasn’t already found time to enjoy life in Japan as a new Carp player.

“Everybody has been polite and nice, but at the same time (the language barrier) is a challenge,” Tracy said, but he realizes it’s easy to be embraced by the locals.

“I spend most of my time at the ballpark, but as soon as they know you play for the Carp, they roll out the red carpet,” he added.

“The fans are very passionate. You can tell just by looking around the city and seeing the billboards … you can tell the Carp mean a lot to them.”

Tracy’s wife, Katie, and two children are staying with him in Hiroshima this season. His daughters are enrolled at a YMCA school and will have opportunities to study Japanese.

Tracy, meanwhile, can point to useful lessons he learned growing up in North Carolina, recalling Mother Nature’s genuine danger as something to help keep things in perspective while he’s in Japan.

“I’ve been through similar situations like that,” he said, speaking of hurricanes on the East Coast but far different than what took place on March 11 in Japan’s Tohoku region.

“I’ve seen the devastation firsthand, nothing to the extend of the tsunami,but knowing how dangerous water can be and how much damage it can have on people and lives, I would definitely say that being in that region in the United States it helped a little.

“Being through hurricane season every year, you learn to cope with tragedy.”

As a pro ballplayer for a decade, including his time in the minors, Tracy has seen his fair share of wins and losses. Now he hopes to help the Carp make a dramatic turnaround, and as part of Japan’s national pastime, play a small part in the nation’s recovery as well.

***

TRACY HIGHLIGHTS (related sidebar)

*Asked to reflect on his top career highlights to date, Chad Tracy responded by saying, “There’s a lot of memories. A few big home runs I hit, there’s the perfect game from Randy Johnson my rookie year (May 18,2004). But there’s none that really stand out really more than the others. Winning is the most important thing, and going to the playoffs is really cool, even though I was hurt and had surgery when we went to the playoffs (in 2007, a four-game sweep against the Rockies in the NLCS) it was pretty cool. … But winning games that season to be able to help the team get to the playoffs (was memorable).”

Though he’s seen action in 773 major-league games — a dream for millions of young boys — Tracy is humble enough to not put his own success before the team’s ultimate goal.

Or as he put it: “There are individual moments that stand out, too. But those are all in basically losing seasons. They are not as important to you.”

*In the majors, Tracy hit 79 home runs — including a career-high 27 in 2005. He racked up 690 hits, 333 RBIs and 161 doubles.

*Japanese baseball teams each come up with a new slogan each season. The Carp’s 2011 slogan is “Strikin’ Back!”

*Tracy did say without hesitation that the Hiroshima ballclub has longer meetings, more frequent strategy sessions, than he experienced in the big leagues, noting team preparation meetings here can exceed one hour, whereas the same meeting might only last 15 minutes in the major leagues. But, to him, it’s all about rolling with the punches.

“When it Rome, do what the Romans do,” he said with a laugh. “You get used to it, though it’s not one of your favorite things to do.”

Perhaps there’s a silver lining, though, by having a seemingly never-ending commitment to meetings in Japan.

“You can never say you are not prepared,” Tracy said.

Snapshot of future Hall of Famer Big Unit’s career in 2002

This column on just-elected Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 23, 2002.

As Unit gets older and better, comparisons to Ryan inevitable

By Ed Odeven

I’ve seen the amazing Randy Johnson start four games this season at Bank One Ballpark. He’s won all four of those starts.

That’s what the Big Unit does: He dominates like few pitchers ever have in the history of baseball. Johnson, 38, is now 65-23 with 1,178 strikeouts in 843 innings since joining the Diamondbacks in 1999. (Take a moment to fathom those out-of-this world statistics; and while you’re at it, ponder what the Houston Astros — knowing what they now know — would give if they could get a “re-do” an ill-fated decision and go back in time to sign Johnson to a free-agent deal in December 1998.)

An intimidating 6-foot-10 left-hander, Johnson is a cool, composed performer on the mound. Coming at ’em with the trajectory and velocity of missiles, Johnson routinely fires 96-to-98 mph fastballs at hitters. Those fireballs are hard enough to hit.

Then, when trouble arises Johnson reaches back and adds a little more heat, a little more punishment to befuddle opposing batsmen. Johnson has a knack for showmanship, as he demonstrated on Opening Day, throwing a 101 mph pitch to San Diego’s Deivi Cruz on the game’s next-to-last pitch.

And let’s not forget his devastating, knee-buckling sliders. That’s what Johnson used to deliver the knockout blow to Cruz and give Arizona a season-opening win. Cruz whiffed on a slider, sending the frenzied crowd home with a smile. There have been plenty of smiles during Johnson’s tenure with the team and three straight Cy Young Awards to go with it.

Johnson is tied with teammate Curt Schilling for the major league lead in victories. At an age when most pitchers are showing signs of slowing down, Johnson appears to be getting stronger and better. He has lasted at least seven innings in each of his 10 starts this season.

The best parallel one can use to explain Johnson’s maturation as a pitcher is Nolan Ryan, the game’s all-time strikeout king with 5,714. As a youngster, Ryan tried to simply blow batters away with his fastball. He lacked pinpoint control, and essentially tried to win games by throwing, not pitching. Ryan settled down and became a great pitcher.

Similarly Johnson has learned to pitch. He has learned that his slider sets up his overpowering fastball. He has learned that even on an “off night,” he can deliver the goods and keep his team in the game.

After surrendering three runs and six hits, pegging two batters, walking three and fanning 10 against the Giants on Tuesday, the word in the Arizona clubhouse was that Johnson pitched well enough to win, even if it wasn’t a vintage Johnson performance

“Crafty is the perfect word for it,” D-backs catcher Damian Miller said to describe Johnson’s performance. “People get spoiled because of what he’s capable of doing. …Even a crafty Randy is still the best pitcher in baseball.”

It’s hard to find a convincing reason to argue with Miller’s point.

Opening Day 2002: World Series champs look ahead

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

SNAKES SAVOR PAST, BUT LOOK TO FUTURE

By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX (April 1, 2002) — The hardest feat in professional sports is to win back-to-back championships.

The easiest way to slip is to become complacent and let the feelings of invincibility seep into a team’s collective psyche.

Make no mistake about it: The defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks will not march from city to city in 2002 and pat themselves on the back.

Those feelings of championship euphoria lasted until left-hander Randy Johnson fired his first fastball of the game on Monday. (Officially, today’s pregame World Series ring presentation ceremony marks the end of the pandemonium that followed Luis Gonzalez’s game-winning, Game 7 hit in last year’s Fall Classic.)

The D-backs embrace a we-mean-business-now attitude, and it all starts with Bob Brenly. The second-year skipper’s professionalism and blue-collar persona guarantee the team will not rest on its laurels, especially considering that only three National League teams have successfully defended a World Series title, and none has done so since the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati in 1975 and ’76.

“After tomorrow’s ring ceremony all the hoopla will be over with and we can settle back in and continue playing,” first baseman Mark Grace said. “Today is Opening Day, tomorrow is a special day that we’ve been waiting for — a lot of us for a long time. And once that’s over we can get right back to our daily routine.”

Brenly called the day “special,” but said he’s ready to move on.

“It was on my mind to keep the players focused on the job at hand,” Brenly said after the D-backs’ 2-0 victory. “We all enjoyed the heck out of what happened last year. We hope to do something similar this year. The sooner we can forget last season, the better.”

As the 47,025 spectators who were at Bank One Ballpark fell asleep Monday night, they had plenty to remember:

*Visions of Johnson’s eight strikeouts dancing in their heads. Johnson saved his best for last, firing a 101 mph fastball past Deivi Cruz on the game’s next-to-last pitch and striking him out with a nasty 90 mph slider to end the game.

*Grace’s seventh-inning homer to right and stellar defense at first base, scooping up every ball thrown in his direction.

*Danny Bautista’s run-scoring double in the third that brought Tony Womack home for the only run the Big Unit needed.

Johnson, 38, is clearly the catalyst of this aging team, a team of clutch 30-something veterans like Grace, Tony Womack and Steve Finley and younger guys anxious to continue their rise to stardom like Byung-Hyun Kim, Junior Spivey and Bautista.

“Everybody is waiting for guys like that to falter,” Gonzalez said of Johnson. “The guy keeps getting better every year. Everyone in here believes in his abilities and all the other guys.

“We just pull in the same direction. That’s what helped us get through last year and that’s what will help us this year again.”

It won’t be an easy task, considering championship-contending teams need consistency, players having career years and, yes, a stroke of luck now and then.

Schill the Thrill takes the hill today. Baseball’s best 1-2 pitching punch began the season with a dramatic knockout blow. Now it’s Curt Schilling’s turn to do what he did so many times last season: Replicate Johnson’s mastery over batters with his right arm.

As Gonzalez, the consummate professional put it, “We don’t care who it is as long as somebody grabs the keys to the car and drives us to the next level.”

The D-backs are already there.

The hardest part is staying there.