Taking legendary Wooden out to the old ball game

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

Commentary

August 28, 2006|By T. J. SIMERS | T. J. SIMERS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANAHEIM, Calif. — ANAHEIM, Calif.

--We're at Angel Stadium, and former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is eating a hot dog - "relish only, please," and talking about the sport he loves the most.

"Baseball," he says. "The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers could be playing for the championship, and I'd rather be here watching the Angels and Yankees."

Then Wooden pulls out his wallet, removing a newspaper clipping he must treasure - carefully packaged along with a picture of his wife, Nellie, who was 15 at the time.

"Now it can be told," the old clipping begins, Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Joe Brown confirming that while at a dinner in Los Angeles years ago, Brown asked Wooden whether he would like to manage the Pirates.

Wooden said no, but according to the newspaper story, when Brown was asked what if Wooden had said, yes, Brown replied: "I would have hired him. He could handle any job."

Wooden shakes his head and laughs. "I keep it in my wallet because it's so ridiculous. It would be flattering if it made sense. But it's like I told Brown, `Who do you think would be fired first if I was hired? You - for hiring me.'"

It's been a busy couple of hours at the ballpark for Wooden, who will be 96 in October.

He looks great for himself, and says, "It's amazing, isn't it?" I tease him about the cane he's packing and why it's necessary, and he replies with a grin, "in case some [sportswriter] annoys me."

He's already been to the Los Angeles Angels' clubhouse to visit manager Mike Scioscia, sign a basketball for Garret Anderson, and talk baseball with the guys.

"He's telling us how much he loves the back end of our bullpen and says to Scot Shields, `I love when you come into the game,'" Scioscia says. "And then he tells Shields, `I like when you leave, too, because that means the guy who pitches behind you is coming into the game.'"

Everywhere Wooden goes he's asked for his signature, and he complies with precision, his penmanship nearly flawless despite a hand left crippled by some disease that can't be repeated here without serious spelling help from a physician.

"I've got his autograph on one of his books," Scioscia says. "It's a keeper."

It's the New York Yankees' turn after he leaves the Angels, but first the media grab him, Wooden surprising them with an unsolicited defense of Alex Rodriguez.

"It's unjustified criticism because of the money he's making," he tells reporters - many of them from New York.

Reggie Jackson interrupts the confab to let everyone know he's Reggie Jackson, while referring to Wooden as the "Wizard," a name Wooden detests.

Inside the Yankees' clubhouse, Derek Jeter grabs Wooden's hand and wants to know, "Have you been staying out of trouble?"

"He is my favorite player," Wooden says, "because of his demeanor and because I played shortstop as a youngster."

Demeanor is very important to Wooden, he says, so someone wants to know what he thinks of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brad Penny's demeanor recently.

"I didn't approve of General Patton's style, but would want him on my side during time of war," he says. "Someone asked Joe McCarthy what it would be like to manage a [cantankerous] Ted Williams. He said, `Anyone who can't get along with a .400 hitter shouldn't be managing.'"

Johnny Damon corners Wooden, and Wooden concedes later that he thought "this was one guy I wouldn't like because of his beard and long hair. It only took me a year," he says, and the Yankees' clean-cut rules, "to change my mind."

Mike Mussina says he read something Bill Walton had to say and wants to know what Wooden thinks of it.

Wooden chuckles. "Bill likes to talk," he says. "His mother tells the story that Bill had a speech impediment and learned to talk by watching different newscasters. But it's like she says, the newscasters forgot to teach him how to stop."

A-Rod takes a seat before Wooden on a piece of Yankees luggage like a youngster at his desk, and listens intently as Wooden begins reciting poetry. When he gets the chance, A-Rod asks for Wooden's autograph and Wooden signs a "Pyramid of Success" placard, "To Alex Rodriguez."

The look on A-Rod's face suggests that he's never seen the Pyramid before, but he wants to know more, and so it goes for the next 10 minutes or so because there's nothing that gets Wooden going these days like the chance to teach once again.

It's the first inning, and we're arguing. I like showmanship, and Wooden says if a player steals the ball at midcourt and goes in for a 360-degree dunk, "I'd have him on the bench before his feet hit the ground."

Vladimir Guerrero steps to the plate and it's another chance to tweak the old coach.

"No way this guy could play for you because of his undisciplined swing."

Wooden interrupts, lifting his arms above his head as if trying to shoot a basketball in some crazy way. "Keith Wilkes didn't shoot like everyone else, but as long as he made a good percentage, I was all right with it."

Eight innings to go, and some games should just never end.

T.J. Simers writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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