Friday, April 25, 2014

"3 Baseball GMs from 1 Tiny College" by Dad


     There were a handful of articles this spring about how three MLB general managers all went to Amherst College, a small school in Massachusetts that is not known as a baseball powerhouse, except for the few years when it makes a run at the D3 title. That’s D3, as in, “No, we don’t play UT.”
     Nevertheless, tiny Amherst, as it keeps getting called in these articles, is where Dan Duquette of the Orioles, Ben Cherington of the Red Sox, and Neal Huntington of the Pirates all played their college ball.
     Odd coincidence? Something in the drinking water up there? 
     No. It was who was in the coach’s chair.
     All three future GMs played for an amazing guy named Bill Thurston.
     For the record, I went to Amherst, too. I didn’t play baseball, but I was sports 
editor of the student newspaper, unimaginatively named The Student, and occasional baseball radio announcer. I won’t claim to have known Coach Thurston at all well, but I do want to make known a few things I admire most about him.
     First, simply that he stayed at Amherst as long as he did. Bill was and is, as I will hope to make clear, a distinguished baseball guy -- highly respected and well connected. But he came to Amherst to coach baseball in 1966 and stayed until his retirement in 2009, winning 811 games. 
     But simple longevity isn’t what makes Bill unique, not even to the Amherst baseball program. The guy he succeeded, Paul Eckley, coached the team from 1923 until his own retirement in 1965. This means that from 1923 to 2009, while the country ran through 15 presidents, Amherst had two baseball coaches. And for the record regarding Amherst and baseball longevity, and whatever this little piece of baseball trivia is worth, the first collegiate baseball game ever played pitted Amherst against Williams in 1859. Amherst won.
     What is actually most admirable about Bill has been his lifelong commitment to the health and safety of young baseball players, a commitment that has proved important on two fronts.
     He has been a leading proponent of returning to wood bats, arguing that baseballs come off aluminum bats with too much force and velocity, putting fielders, especially pitchers and third basemen, at risk. He has spoken to anyone who would listen, even testifying before Congress.  Two promising results have been that now wood bats are once again being used in many high schools throughout the country, including the State, er, Commonwealth, of Massachusetts and the City of New York.
     And he has been a prime developer and promoter of safer, less arm damaging pitching practices, including advances in the wind up and pitching motion itself. He has done much of this work in tandem with James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who has probably performed more Tommy John operations on major league pitchers than anyone but the late Frank Jobe, the inventor of the procedure.
     But the last word on Coach Thurston should probably be about the keen perspective he’s always shown regarding baseball, a game he clearly loves, but still just as clearly a game. It’s no doubt what enabled him to stay all those years at Amherst, a school better known for SATs than RBIs. 
     And so here’s my one personal Thurston story. 
     Some years ago, I shot back up to Amherst with a buddy who actually did play there to watch him pitch in the annual alumni game. 
     Once there, seeming to revert back to my chipper, sports editor self, I way too brightly asked Thurston, “So Coach, what do you think you have this year?”
     He shot me a look and answered, “What I always have, 20 guys who can read and three who can hit.”
     This is the guy who is the true link between those three MLB GMs.