"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

From Ali to Xena: 3

By John Schulian


I loved playing baseball beyond reason and certainly beyond my talent level. I was never a natural athlete and I was never the best player on any team I was on, but I was a dogged son of a bitch. I got my teeth on that bone and I wouldn’t let go until I was able to do it on my terms. To be honest, if we had stayed in L.A., I’m not sure I would have been able to play as long as I did. Most likely I would have been bowled over by the competition and either been a benchwarmer or just some dreamer sitting in the stands. But Salt Lake was a different story. There were some wonderful ballplayers there, guys who played pro ball and even one from my era-–the Mets’ George Theodore-–who played in the majors, but there weren’t so many of them that I couldn’t compete.

The question was finding a position to play. All through Little League and Cops League, I’d been a third baseman and an outfielder and, just once, a shortstop who almost killed his amigo the second baseman when we were turning a double play in infield practice. (Did I tell you I had a hell of a throwing arm? If you don’t believe me, ask my amigo about the time I almost threw a ball through him.) When it was time to try out for Babe Ruth League, however, there were lots of third basemen and outfielders who were just as good as I was. Our coach was the first truly hard man I ever met, an ex-minor league catcher who could be irascible, profane, quick to throw a punch even if it cost him a job. But when he sensed how desperately I needed baseball and the identity it gavee me, his better self emerged. He asked if I wanted to try my hand at catching. I said yes, and he proceeded to give me the kind of education at the position that kids today take for granted and kids of my generation almost never got. He taught me how to shift behind the plate, how to block low pitches, how to throw properly, how to flash signs to the pitcher without having them stolen, how to catch pop-ups-–and it was a rare kid catcher in those days who could catch one. He spun me round in circles as he hit me pop-ups that first day and I dropped a bunch of the. After that, I never dropped another.

The coach’s name was Pete Radulovich. He was the first of many people who would give me a break that somehow changed my life for the better. I put him right there with Pat Ryan, who gave me my first assignment at Sports Illustrated, and Steven Bochco, who gave me a shot at Hollywood even though I’d never written a script. Pete’s eldest son, Steve, was the second baseman I almost decapitated in Cops League. We played ball together from the time we were 14 until we were 22, and we still stay in touch. I had dinner with him in Las Vegas, where he lives, a year or so ago, and he said that when his dad was in his final years and they were talking about baseball, his dad said that one of the things that made him proudest was that I’d become such a good catcher. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve had a decent share of success, but that really made me proud. Pete didn’t throw around a lot of compliments.

I did better than all right in high school and American Legion ball and got a baseball scholarship to the University of Utah. The biggest thrill I had was in the state Legion tournament in 1962. We were the Cinderella team and we were playing the juggernaut that had won the high school championship. It was a bad night to run out of pitching, but we did, and we got clobbered. But I had a couple of hits, threw out a couple of runners, and picked another off second base. Afterwards, this guy with a big cigar comes out of the stands and says, “I’m John McGurk of the Boston Red Sox. You caught a big league game tonight. I’m going to keep my eye on you.” Swear to god, this really happened. I didn’t need a ride home after that. I could have floated.

Pete Radulovich

Click here for Part I and here for Part II.

[Painting by Roger Patrick]


1 Alex Belth   ~  May 18, 2011 1:23 pm

Man, you were lucky to have a coach like that. I remember playing pee wee league and I was pitching. Through a pitch right down the middle to strike this kid out but the kid's brother was the ump and called it a ball. I had already walked off the mound. My coach, who was a warm and friendly guy, put his arm around me and told me that if I did it once I could do it again. I was short on confidence and didn't believe in myself but the coach gave me some life. I went back to the mound and threw the same pitch in the same place. The kid didn't swing but his brother couldn't call it a ball this time.

It was one of the best feelings I ever had on the field.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  May 18, 2011 1:48 pm

When I was 12, my Little League summer team went undefeated. It was a stacked team, and I was grateful as the 4th pitcher that I never had to pitch. Then our 1st and 3rd pitcher's went to wrestling camp, and the 2nd pitcher had pitched the game before, and all of a sudden I had to pitch against the second best team in our league. At the last second, 10 minutes before the first pitch, the wrestlers came back. I was off the hook.

But the coach said, "Screw that" and gave me the ball. Pitched the best game of my life, 1 hit, 1 HBP, complete game shutout, and I doubt I could have done it if events did not unfold precisely as they did, with the coach pushing me forward when I wanted to go backwards.

3 Larry Koestler   ~  May 18, 2011 2:17 pm

I wish I had a good mentor/coach story. Believe it or not, despite my all-consuming obsession with baseball, I more or less dreaded playing it as a kid. I was in the local little league from age six until I was 13, and during that time I recall having maybe one solid year at the plate. Unfortunately, my time spent in little league immediately preceded my high school growth spurt -- on both a physical and self-confidence level -- and as such I spent the entirety of my baseball-playing career absolutely terrified of getting hit by the pitch. As you might imagine, this mentality does not exactly beget quality batsmanship, and my fear of the hit-by-pitch affected both my play at the plate and, as a result of dwelling on ineffective at-bat after ineffective at-bat, my play in the field as well.

That being said, I was probably always a better fielder than hitter, playing anywhere from any of the outfield positions to first base, but I'll never forget the most traumatic moment of my little league existence. We were in the playoffs, and I was playing left field. There were runners on, and a hit would break the game open for the opposition. A ball was hit at me, and I either muffed the catch or the ball somehow got past me -- this was nearly 20 years ago, so my memory of the event isn't perfect -- and after the play my coach ran out onto the field and was absolutely livid, tearing into me for what felt like an eternity in front of everybody -- my teammates, our opponents and all of the parents watching in the stands. To say this was devastating as a 12-year-old would be an understatement

Looking back as an adult, I imagine the man had some anger issues, and I don't think I made his life any easier with my timid play and the fact that I probably wasn't terribly great at hiding the desire that I'd rather be anywhere but on that baseball field, but that was still a pretty traumatic experience.

I mostly feel bad for my dad, though, as I could tell how important to him it was that I play. He knew I wasn't crazy about it, and he wasn't forceful or overbearing about it, but I knew how much it meant to him, which is why I still suited up every Saturday. I only wish I actually had had some baseball talent back then to back up his enthusiasm.

My wife and I recently had our first child, and I'm already looking forward to getting a glove on my son as soon as possible so I can share my passion for the game with him. Obviously I hope he falls in love with baseball as much as I have, and ideally enjoys playing more than I did (I'm already salivating over the idea that I might be able to make him a lefthanded pitcher one day), but I'll also have to keep in mind the lessons I learned from when my dad made me play.

4 Eric   ~  May 18, 2011 2:51 pm

I'm with Larry here, I had some bad luck in that department. At least as far as baseball coaches I remember my high school coach once gathering the team in center field toward the end of practice one day and began a speech. We were struggling at the time. He told us "You're not losers. Just because your record is 4-11, and if you looked up loser in the dictionary what we're doing would be the definition, I don't think your losers. Not to me, you aren't."

Oh boy. He had good intentions though, I think.

5 Steve Radulovich   ~  May 18, 2011 3:01 pm

My dad loved helping John to become a better ballplayer, because he knew how much John wanted it. Yes, my dad was a tough guy, but he loved all of us and loved working with us to make us all better ballplayers. I'm not sure that I really expressed to him how much I appreciated that when he was alive, and for that I am forever sorry. God rest your soul, Dad.

6 Alex Belth   ~  May 18, 2011 4:39 pm

4) Yeah, I had a couple of mean coaches too. But also a couple of good ones, especially in high school. Not good in that they were great coaches but they were encouraging. My junior year I played on the Varsity team and my coach was quoted in the paper that I was the best fielder on the team. It wasn't the truth. I had mixed feelings about it. Happy that he was trying to pump me up but also even more distrustful because I knew it wasn't true. I might have been one of the better fielders, which still wasn't saying much cause our team was awful, but our shortstop was far and away the best fielder on the team.

I was so insecure that no amount of support would have made me much better. I did appreciate the efforts though. By the end of my junior year the games were more stressful than anything else. But then again, they had always been. The bus rides could be fun and once I went 3-3, and another time I made a nice fielding play, but mostly it was nerve-wracking. I did love practice though, fielding grounders until it got too dark to see. That was great.

I quit the team my senior year because I was cast in the lead of the school production of "Anything Goes." Pitching coach told me I'd regret it for the rest of my life. He was wrong.

7 glennstout   ~  May 18, 2011 7:03 pm

Hey, I was in Anything Goes after I troe my rotator cuff in the4 Fall of my senior year. I sang "Let's Misbehave" which was way more scary that pitching ever was.

8 Alex Belth   ~  May 18, 2011 8:25 pm

7) That's a classic! I had to sing four songs. I have a terrible voice and iIt was not pretty but I did get to feel the rush that comes with performing in front of an audience. Also decided that I would never want to be an actor because memorizing the lines, the songs and the dance moves made me more anxious than playing ball.

I will say this, though, speaking of tough mentors. The guy who directed the play was an English teacher and I wanted him to like me, for him to take me under his wing in the worst way. And he would have none of it. I never understood why but the more I wanted his attention--I read "Brideshead Revisted" and Faulkner's "Sanctuary" to impress him--the more he blew me off.

When I tried out for the play I wanted the sidekick role of Moonface Martin, the guy who got all the laughs. And the teacher/director cast me as the male romantic lead. I asked him why and he said, "Because Moonface is too easy for you, the lead will be a challenge." And while he never did warm up to me, and I was envious of my pal who played Moonface and got the big laughs, I respected what he did for me, pushing me beyond my comfort zone.

9 Will Weiss   ~  May 18, 2011 8:33 pm

[7] [8] ... Alex, it's so funny that you wanted Moonface Martin. I got that part by default in 10th grade after the Senior who had that part quit. It was one of my favorite moments of high school, and I don't have that many favorite moments, although I was on stage quite a bit, between drama, and all the select choirs and bands I was in. I can tell you that playing the comic relief is way easier than the lead. I got cast as Marcellus in The Music Man a year later and walked out of the play two weeks into rehearsals like Posada, mainly because I was chapped that I knew I was better than the two people rotating in the lead, and so did the director, but the part was given to the two seniors anyway. I played in the pit orchestra and had a blast.

As for baseball, the most fun I ever had was when I was 8 years old and my dad coached our team. We went 13-2 and tied for the championship. I'll never forget Dad having practices teaching fundamentals every practice: how to cut the bag at first base on a single to the outfield, run through the bag in foul territory on a hit to the infield, hit the cutoff man, and EVERY kid knew how to do a popup slide. I can't wait until Maddie is old enough, or interested enough, to play softball or anything she wants.

Those memories stay with you. Great story, Mr. Schulian. Thanks for sharing.

10 Will Weiss   ~  May 18, 2011 8:40 pm

[6] I can relate to that, too ... I tried out each of my first two years of HS, and the demands of drama and music, and the golf team gearing up for our Conference Tournament (our regular season was in the Fall; Suffolk County Section XI teams had split seasons Fall/Spring), I just couldn't do it. I regret it only from the standpoint that I know I could have been the starting center fielder if it was the only thing I focused on. But, just like now, there are too many things I enjoy doing. So, what do we do? We write about it.

11 Alex Belth   ~  May 18, 2011 9:01 pm

"Those who can't do, teach. Those you can't teach, teach gym." Annie Hall

12 Rich Lederer   ~  May 19, 2011 2:11 am

Thanks, John, for the terrific read. I was fortunate to play for a few coaches who meant so much to me that I would invite them to be a part of my "This is Your Life" show (should I ever pull off such an event). At a minimum, we should all learn to give our thanks once again while our mentors are still alive.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver