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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Interviews: Among the Coolest Things

Rick Lancellotti next to a row of bats at his baseball academy. Several of the bats mark milestones from his 17-season career. (G21D Photo)
The timing was going to be tight,  but I hoped we could connect.

My wife and I were in the Buffalo area in February 2011, for a wedding. While the wedding was great, I had another goal for the trip: Meet up with and interview veteran of three brief major league stints Rick Lancellotti.

The timing worked out, and the interview more than worked out. We ended up talking for more than an hour as Lancellotti shared fascinating story after fascinating story about his long career,  all while my very patient wife hung out near by.

That interview ended up being the fourth published to my site. And, after 35 others, it's still one of my favorites, as Lancellotti described the thrill of making the big leagues, trying to make it back, and all the interesting stories that you could only get from a ballplayer who loves the game.

"It's like the biggest thrill you can imagine," Lancellotti said, telling his reaction to getting called up to the major leagues for the first time. "It's like being 5 years old, coming down the stairs for Christmas, you're head's coming off your body."

The interview happened to come with perfect timing. Just four months later, Lancellotti was invited to play in the Hall of Fame Classic in Cooperstown. Also there was Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who played a central role in Lancellotti's stories, and who passed away just two weeks after that game.

The 39 interviews I've done have to be among the coolest things I've done with this project. They've also been a sometimes difficult aspect.

The difficult part basically comes at the start, trying to to get across exactly why some guy from a small Internet blog would even care who they were or what they did, much less interview them.

With that first hurdle, I had varying degrees of success. For those that I was able to break through with, the stories flowed.
Tom Gilles at Avanti's Ristorante in Peoria, Ill, in April 2012. (G21D Photo)
One of those players long out of the limelight was Tom Gilles, who now serves as a representative for Xyngular, a health and wellness weight loss company. He also does baseball instruction.

In April 2012, as I passed through Illinois on a trip home from seeing my father, Gilles sat down with me in a Peoria restaurant.

Gilles made the majors in 1990, with the Blue Jays. The reliever got into two games for Toronto, games that marked the extent of a tantalizingly short career. He talked about that moment, but also the moment when he realized he wasn't getting back, that his playing career was over.

His last moment, the one where he came to terms that his career was over, came in independent ball, in Saskatchewan.

"Just holding on," Gilles said then of why he went to Saskatchewan, "you're just holding on to that thread. And, until you can have a defining moment yourself that it's over, you can't let it go."

More than half of my interviews, though, were easier to set up. The players were still in the game, as coaches or managers in the minor leagues.
Stockton Ports manager Webster Garrison at Sam Lynn Ballpark in Bakersfield, Ca. in July 2012. (G21D Photo)
A couple of my favorites in that category came on my July 2012 trip through California, an epic four-day journey where I picked up a full 10 interviews.

The trip came about because my wife was attending a convention in Las Vegas. We used that as a spring board to a road-trip vacation after the convention was over. During the convention, though, I went on a road trip of my own.

The final interview of the 10 was with Webster Garrison, manager at single-A Stockton in the California League. I caught up with him as his Ports visited Bakersfield and historic Sam Lynn Ballpark.

It was Garrison's story that seemed to chrystalize the main theme that I've tried to run through this blog, that of working toward a goal, making the major leagues, and how that dream can keep players going with no guarantees that it will ever be realized

Garrison's first year as a pro was in 1984. He made the majors, but not until 12 long years later. And then, for all that work, he got just nine at bats.

But he still got there.

"It freaked me out, man. It was unbelievable," Garrison recalled then of when he learned  he was actually going to the majors. "I had to pinch myself a couple times. A great, great, great feeling. Unbelievable. Playing that many years, putting in all that time.

"In your mind, you say, 'aw, man, I'm tired of this, I'm going home,'" Garrison added, referring to the times thought he would never make it, "then you catch yourself going back to the ballpark every day, because you love the game of baseball."

The full list of interviews:
Reed Olmstead, 9/10/12; Tim Scott, 9/6/12; Joe Xavier, 9/3/12; Webster Garrison, 8/30/12; Dan Henley, 8/27/12; Pat Rice, 8/23/12; Russ Morman, 8/20/12; Bronswell Patrick, 8/16/12; Paul Sorrento, 8/13/12; Bill Haselman, 8/8/12; Todd Haney, 7/16/12; Rich Tunison, 7/9/12; Bruce Crabbe, 7/2/12; John Leister, 5/14/12; Tracy Woodson, 5/7/12; Tom Gilles, 4/30/12; Mike Birkbeck, 4/24/12-Brian McRae, 2/28/12; Vickie Biagini, 2/7/12; Tony Blasucci, 1/30/12; Paul Noce, 12/12/11; Mike DeButch, 12/5/11; Steve McInerney, 11/29/11; Tony Ariola, 11/23/11; John Toale, 10/10/11; Vic Rodriguez, 9/12/11; Ed Nottle, 8/24/11; Paul Abbott, 8/15/11; Mark Bailey, 8/8/11; Leo Gomez, 8/5/11; Dave Machemer, 7/15/11; Lancellotti Postscript, 6/22/11; Terry McGriff, 5/5/11; Jim Neidlinger, 4/12/11; Dale Plummer, 4/5/11; Hugh Kemp, 3/28/11; Rick Lancellotti, 2/24/11; Jim Pankovits, 7/19/10; Roger LaFrancois, 7/5/10; Dann Bilardello, 7/2/10

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