January 30, 2010 2 Comments
Grant Desme, an outfielder in the Oakland Athletics organization, retired from baseball. And this is despite being named MVP of the Arizona Fall League, and hitting 31 regular season home runs in Class A ball. Why is he retiring? Well, actually, the 23-year old has decided to pass up an almost certain chance of making it to the Majors to become a Catholic priest. So, for years to come, Father Grant will tell his stories about how he shined in the minor leagues and was a top prospect who had a shot at making it…and people will probably think he’s just making up the whole thing.
While Desme’s story is certainly an amazing story of sacrifice and conviction, it got me thinking about other former baseball players who went on to do other things. And, sometimes, they might actually be better known for what they did after leaving the game.
Chuck Connors made a name for himself as the star of the TV series The Rifleman in the late ’50s/early ’60s. He also appeared in a number of other shows and feature films, such as Old Yeller, Soylent Green, Flipper, Roots and The Yellow Rose. But, prior to Connors’ acting career, he had a short baseball career. The first baseman totaled 67 games in Majors for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs in 1949 and 1951. In 1952, he was sent to the minor leagues, playing for the Cubs’ farm team Los Angeles Angels. It was his close proximity to Hollywood that lead to his discovery by an MGM casting director, and ended up with a part in Pat & Mike — starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn — that same year. Connors also played for the Boston Celtics, and was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but never played.
Another Celtic, Danny Ainge, also had a short Major League career. Ainge played for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1979 to 1981, but didn’t see much success. He had a career batting average of only .220, in 211 games, and the 6’4″ third baseman/second baseman/center fielder only hit two home runs — both in his rookie year. But where he gained notoriety was on the Celtics’ teams of the 1980s. Ainge was instrumental in their championships in 1984 and 1986, and currently serves as President of Basketball Operations for them. The 14-year NBA guard averaged 11.5 points for his career, while playing for the Celtics, Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns. And he also garnered All-America honors while at Brigham Young University.
Jim Bunning was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1955 to 1971. He had 224 wins, a 3.27 career ERA, led the league in strikeouts three times and was a seven-time All-Star. And he is one of six pitchers to throw, both, a perfect game and no-hitter (the others being Mark Buehrle, Randy Johnson, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax and Cy Young). But, after his playing career was over, Bunning took an interest in politics. In 1977, he was elected to the city council of Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Two years later, the Republican went on to serve in the Kentucky Senate, then the House of Representatives (1987 to 1999), and is a current Senator from Kentucky (since 1999, but does not plan to run for re-election in 2010). In addition to intimidating batters during his days on the mound, he also was good at intimidating the Commander-in-Chief. Former President Bill Clinton felt Bunning to be mean-spirited, saying, “I tried to work with him a couple times, and he just sent shivers up my spine…this guy is beyond the pale.” (Taylor Branch. The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. Simon & Schuster, 2009.)
But probably the one who resonates with those of us who grew up in the ’80s is Bob Uecker. Most of us just knew him as the dad in Mr. Belvedere. Or, as the guy who thought he was sitting “in the front row” in the Miller Lite commercials. Or as the wise-cracking broadcaster in the Major League trilogy (yes, I did say trilogy). But this Hall of Fame broadcaster, who has spent many years as the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers, also had a six-year career as a catcher with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Saint Louis Cardinals and Phillies. However, even back then, “Mr. Baseball” was better known for his clever quotes rather than his .200 batting average. When asked how to catch a knuckleball, he responded, “Wait until it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.”
I guess the point of all this is that sometimes we think we’re on one path, then life takes us somewhere we probably didn’t imagine it could. One day, you find yourself chasing, or living, a Major League dream. Then things change, and you find yourself the star on a Hollywood set, winning an NBA championship with Larry Bird, going toe-to-toe with Democrats in the U.S. Senate, or dealing with a snooty TV butler. But wherever Grant Desme goes from here, he’ll be following a higher calling, assume a much more anonymous profile, and impact lives in a way baseball never could.