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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Interview Todd Haney Part 3: Was Focused

Todd Haney and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith meet in the Doubleday Field infield. The two had met before, at second base in Busch Stadium. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: Long Odds | Part 2: Can Control | Part 3: Was Focused

The season was winding down and Todd Haney had yet to get that first major league hit.

In six previous games, amounting to seven plate appearances, all Haney had to show for it was a sacrifice bunt. Haney, though, wanted that baseball that said he'd gotten that first major league hit.

On Sept. 30, starting against the Cardinals, that hit finally game, with a run-scoring single to right.

"I didn't feel anything," Haney recalled of that first hit. "I was, I was floating as I was running. But, at the same time, I was focused. There was a runner on second and I got an RBI out of it."

He also got to second, on an errant throw.

Haney also got a vivid reminder of exactly where he was - the majors.

"I'm still playing the game, doing what's needed to help the team," Haney said. "But, at the same time, it was the realization of, OK, I finally got my first major league hit and I'm standing on second base and I see Ozzie Smith.

"That's when it really hit me, because, I'm like, 'OK, yup, I have baseball cards of him, and I'm standing next to Ozzie Smith now. This is pretty cool.'"

Todd Haney swings at the 2012 Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown. The game was the first time Haney's 12-year-old son got to see his dad play. (G21D Photo)
Haney spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently by phone from his home in Waco, Texas. about his trek to pro ball (Part 1), his path to the majors and his efforts to get back.

He also spoke about his time since, teaching young players the game as a founding instructor with Waco Storm Baseball and his appearance in the June 2012 Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown.

Also at the June 2012 Hall of Fame Classic was the player he'd marveled at after he got that first major league hit, Ozzie Smith. This time, though, they were on the same team, roaming the same infield.

Haney was there with the Expos that September after an unexpected call-up. The Expos regular second baseman Delino DeShields was injured.

He debuted going 0 for 4. He recalled being way too nervous. He then ended that brief, first major league stint 3 for 10. His other two hits came right after his first, in the same game.

"The weight was lifted off my shoulders after getting that first hit," Haney recalled. "Then I could just go in and concentrate and play the game."

Todd Haney and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven between innings of the 2012 Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown. (G21D Photo)
Then he concentrated on trying to get back.

Haney spent the next season entirely back at AAA with the Expos, at Ottawa. He hit well again, .291, but didn't get called back to Montreal.

Haney, though, was certain he would get back to the majors.

"For me, my whole career, I felt like all I need is one individual to believe in me, or one team, should I say, to believe in me," Haney said. "Once I got a taste of it, I knew that I could play at the major league level and I knew I was going to get another major league opportunity. I just had to find the right opportunity."

For Haney, that opportunity seemed to come with the Cubs.

He signed with them as a six-year free agent and then got into 17 games for Chicago that year. Haney got that time in in July and early August. Then the strike came, ending his and everyone's season.

Coming out of the strike, all of a sudden there was a chance at second base. Ryne Standberg retired. Haney also got more playing time, 25 games. He hit .411 in 73 at bats.

That put him in perfect position to compete for a starting job in 1996. Then Sandberg came back. The job was obviously Sandberg's.

Haney moved his sights from second base to being a utility player. He ended up getting into the most major league time of his career, 49 games. He played some at short, some at third and got time at second. He also pinch-hit.

Problem was, he just wasn't a very good utility player, Haney recalled. He wasn't good at hitting once a week.

"It's hard enough to play in the big leagues every day, but it's really hard to play once a week and be successful," Haney said.

He hit just .134.

After playing 1997 between the Astros and Mariners systems, both at AAA, Haney signed with the Mets. At AAA Norfolk that year, Haney found his stroke. He hit .345 and led the league. He also got his last call up, but not until September.

The reason for not getting called up earlier, was the same reason he'd encountered multiple times previously: He had a proven guy ahead of him. With the Mets, it was Edgardo Alfonso. "I played behind some really good second basemen," Haney recalled.

Haney then played in three final games for the Mets that September, getting three final at bats with no hits.

He played one more season in the minors. Finally, in spring 2000, he retired after 13 seasons as a pro. He no longer felt he had a chance to return to the majors, the thought that had kept him going until that point.

Todd Haney talks with Howard Johnson between innings of the 2012 Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown. (G21D Photo)
In those 15 seasons as a pro, he spent time in 10 of them at AAA. He amassed 1,504 career hits there. At the same time, he saw time in five major league seasons, picking up 50 hits there.

"At the end of the day," Haney said, "I'm very proud of my career and I'm glad that I played as long as I did. I'm glad that I continued to fight and I'm glad that I continued to work hard and did everything I could and left everything out on the field and I certainly have no regrets."

Shortly after retiring, he started the Waco Storm, working with fellow former major leaguer Billy Brewer giving baseball instruction to young players and fielding traveling teams to showcase their talent.

It was a natural extension of his baseball career, Haney recalled, part of who he is. The goal is to help the young players go on to play college baseball. The Storm has 22 teams now, with players age 8 to 19. There's about 180 players total.

"For the players who are willing to put in the time and effort that it takes, were going to make sure they have the proper instruction to help them reach their goals," Haney said.

Haney live in Waco with his wife of 21 years Kira, and their son, Tanner, now 12. Tanner, Haney said, was named after the character in Bad News Bears.

Haney participated in the 2012 Hall of Fame Classic after running into Geoff Hixson of the alumni association at a golf tournament. Hixson ended up inviting Haney. Haney recalled taking all of a half of a second to accept.

At the game, Haney was the starting second basement, opposite Ozzie Smith at short. When Ozzie came out, Haney moved to short. He fielded balls hit his way cleanly, even ranging far to his left on one to record the out. At the plate, Haney hit a towering single to left. Only the tall Doubleday Field fence kept it in the park.

Even though it was an exhibition, Haney knew he had to play hard - Tanner was there, watching his father play for the first time.

"It was really special weekend for us, he was able to see me play for the first time," Haney recalled. "Just to see the sparkle in his eye as I got a base hit or made a good play, is something that he and I and our famly will never forget."

Part 1: Long Odds | Part 2: Can Control | Part 3: Was Focused

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